Woolgathering: having no goal in mind

Ian Wright discusses the importance of centring down for our own peace of mind

Contemplation - Bits of wool to be gathered. | Photo: Photos: Ian Wright, chatirygirl/flickr CC:BY.

Stop what you’re doing, now. Put this magazine down, turn off the radio or television and just sit comfortably. You don’t have to sit in any particular way though the straighter your back the easier it is to breathe deeply. However, there is no particular way to breathe either. Just do what feels right for you. Just be in this moment. Come at last to this peaceful place. Feel the pull of your breath through your nose. The monk Thomas Keating wrote that silence is the closest we can ever get to God. How good is that then? Just in this moment, this peaceful moment.

Recently I was asked by my Meeting to talk about centring down and how I do it. I am no more qualified to talk about centring down or any other spiritual practice for that matter than you are, but my talk was the catalyst that allowed others to share their wonderful experiences. Why in our Meetings, in our spiritual community, are we so reluctant to do this? We have such treasure to share.

Friends use many different techniques; counting or following the breath, quietening the mind, becoming aware of the silence, just being peaceful. My own favourite approach, indicative of the monastic tradition that I’m kind of from, is to recite to myself a prayer over and over again. Centring to hear that ‘still small voice’; being still and opening to that which is eternal.

Distractions, thoughts and nonsense arise; it’s important to give them permission to arise, to be and then to subside. Some days my head feels full to bursting and yet too there is that space – if only I would notice it. Fidgeting or lack of focus happen all too readily and even the fidgeting of others can be distracting. My ego will constantly throw up the issues, doubts and arguments that I should not be here, not be quiet. It’s like trying to get down a very small corridor during rush hour! Can’t I just relax and stop fighting all those (commuters) distractions?

Centring down is not about getting anywhere; after all there is no place to go. However, this is not a meditation technique or relaxation method. It’s far more challenging than that: it is about allowing God space, about acknowledging that part of ourselves that can draw near to God in the here and now.

There is space here; there is time to be. This is not the time to fix, in my head, all that needs fixing at work or within the Meeting or wherever. This is not the time to rehearse all those conversations I could’ve had or should’ve had or will have – if only I can pluck up the courage. I can pick all this up again, if I choose to, once this centring down and communion has finished.

Breathing into this moment, becoming still, is the only job that needs doing. After awhile my prayer ‘speaks me’. I can stop having to ‘say it’ even in my head as it is just there.

On the In breath, ‘May the seed of your love… grow inside my heart, oh Lord’ on the Out breath. Or, another option is on the In breath, ‘Within you, oh Lord… I find the light of my being’, on the Out breath.

Different verses just seem to appear and feel right on different occasions. Some people find much shorter phrases, or even single words, helpful.
I know that this language won’t mean much to many of you but I think it important to find what suits you and experiment with different techniques or, indeed, no technique!

How to build this practice into everyday life? I readily have a quiet centring time before meals but I also feel the need to have this space more often. I need to build this centring down into my everyday life.

A few people I have spoken to seem to feel the same and I have begun to talk to them about what I call ‘Urban Contemplatives’. I realise that we’re not good with ‘rules’ but we might try to live by a rule that we put together for ourselves.

I try to practise this centring down three times a day; first thing in the morning, around lunchtime and at night but exactly when and for how long depends on me and my commitments. My working life is very busy but being single without child care responsibilities means I can usually practise for about thirty minutes in the morning and for up to an hour at night. I think five minutes three times a day is better than one hour a week.

For me, the same prayer line accompanies me throughout the day and I can often repeat it again and again to myself whilst on my way to work-related meetings as a way to ground myself. The ‘light’ I have experienced will often appear again if only briefly; I need only make room for it.
Other parts to the rule would be to have a spiritual director to talk with both about the rule itself and also other issues around my spiritual life. It would seem important to meet other Urban Contemplatives every six weeks or so to ‘compare notes’ and hear others’ experiences and ‘journeys’. There might be other parts to the rule that include working for peace and justice in some way, taking a retreat regularly, being veggie and/or giving to charity. These are ideas though and Friends interested in this idea and way of living might well have many of their own, so each rule would be individual and no two rules would be alike.

How like a Quaker Meeting! The rule should fit the person not the person the rule. It is meant to be lived where people are: there is no need of a monastic enclosure. I live my rule in the here and now where I live.

Why ‘woolgathering’? Thomas Keating explains that it is the term he gives to collecting all those thoughts we can have as we set out on this journey into silence together.

If you’re interested in finding out more and developing these ideas around centring down, journeying and being contemplative then do contact Ian at zebinhouse [AT] hotmail.com.

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