Different Moves in the Meeting Game?

Sometimes I use the idea of ‘religion-games’ to help me understand what is happening in complex religious situations – I’ve written before about how this might help to explain what is happening when people belong to more than one religious tradition, and how this might inspire new approaches to Quaker membership, and recently I gave a conference paper in which I talked about how this might apply to bringing a practice from one tradition (my example was Quaker worship) into interreligious settings such as joint worship services. After that paper, Rose Drew asked a really good question: what does this say about cases where someone uses practices from another tradition, like a Buddhist breathing mediation, in Quaker worship? Rose gives a real example like this in her excellent book, Buddhist and Christian?: someone who is both a Buddhist and a Quaker says (page 174) that she “uses Buddhist meditation techniques (focusing on the breath, for example) to assist her at the beginning of each Meeting in the process known as ‘centring down’, in which one quietens ones’ mind in preparation for the silence and openness of the Meeting.” In the religion-games picture, what is happening here?

One of the points about most games is that you can’t play more than one at once – you are either playing football or rugby, either cricket or tennis, either Scrabble or Monopoly, and putting a seven-letter word down on a chess board won’t get you a triple word score or two hundred pounds, just a lot of confused looks from other players! There are cases, perhaps, when you can be playing two games at once if they are of very different kinds or if you have changed your mind about the objectives. For example, when I was a child who was required to participate in PE lessons, I might officially be playing rugby – in the sense of being on a rugby field – but I would set myself other goals, like ‘how long can I go without moving my feet at all?’ In that case, actually, it’s not clear that I’m really playing rugby at all; I’m mostly playing with the boundary between apparent compliance (enough not to get punished) and actual disobedience (because I loathe PE and have no intention of trying to do the things I’m being told to do). If I went into meeting for worship and – even while sitting in silence – ignored the rules about listening and being open to spoken ministry, and instead determinedly did a visualisation throughout, perhaps it would be like this. Unlike my childhood PE lessons, though, meeting for worship is entirely optional in most circumstances, and people who don’t want to even try out Quaker rules usually quickly work out that they’re in the wrong place.

But I can imagine a case where someone was genuinely playing rugby, wants to play rugby, but also played another game at the same time, perhaps ‘count how often the PE teacher says ‘try harder!”. If your PE teacher has a distracting verbal habit like using the same phrase over and over, you could be playing rugby and phrase-counting games at the same time. This could be what’s happening when someone uses a Buddhist meditation technique in a Quaker meeting for worship – they are playing two religion-games at once. However, I don’t think this fits all the facts in this case. In particular, counting how often your PE teacher yells “try harder!” isn’t likely to make you play better rugby, and it might have the opposite effect. But when Quakers who find a breathing meditation technique useful in general bring it into meeting for worship with them, at least some of them find that it is actively helpful: that it helps them settle into the silence, focus on worship, and so on. In that case, they aren’t just playing two games at once – the two games are interacting in some way, despite having different rules.

There are also cases with ordinary games where you can cross-train – where being good at one games tends to help you with another game. Long ago comedian Tony Hawks challenged the members of a football team to games of tennis. As I remember it, one of his findings was that, even if they never usually play tennis, practice at playing football makes footballers into better tennis players than he had expected. I think this might be closer to what is happening with the meditating meeting attendees. Practising one game – mediation – outside meeting for worship helps them to develop skills which are relevant, even if not directly, to participating well in meeting for worship. 

When we look at things from this point of view, we can also see some other practices which are well-established as ‘things people sometimes do in Quaker meeting’ as also separable, capable of being played as games on their own. For example, reading a passage from the Bible is an acceptable move within the meeting for worship game, and reading Biblical passages is also something we can do outside meeting for worship – indeed, reading and studying the Bible in different ways probably makes up several different games (some more religious, like devotional reading; some more secular, like academic study). In this account, bringing into a particular practice skills and techniques – and knowledge and experience and feelings and lots of other aspects of life – from elsewhere doesn’t stop you playing by the rules relevant to the current practice: the footballers play tennis according to the rules of tennis. It might, done with sensitivity to the origins of the practice you are borrowing from and the ethics of transporting ideas and practices across cultural and religious boundaries, be actively helpful.

4 responses to “Different Moves in the Meeting Game?

  1. Love it…thanx Rhiannon…I play that game all the time, just didn’t realize what I was actually doing.

  2. L J Greenwood

    Dear Rhiannon,

    Thanks for this, but the metaphor of spiritual or religious activity as a game doesn’t resonate with me.  I realise that you’re not trivialising MfW or any of its meditative partial-parallels by using this notion, but all the game comparisons you bring into it are competitive; that doesn’t help to me to explore the territory.

    In his ground-breaking book /Games People Play/, the psychologist Eric Berne showed many common social situations in which the participants competitively seek to dominate the situation: he invented a process he called Transactional Analysis and coined vividly deascriptive names for the games, such as /Why Does This Always Happen to Me; See What You Made Me Do; Try And Collect; /and /Now I’ve Got You, Son of a Bitch/.  I can’t see how any form of worship or meditation could simultaneously sustain that — although in their secular activities the same people might play the same games with viciously self-righteous gusto.  He also postulatd some (sadly few) Good Games and a whole flock of Pastimes, such as /Ain’t It Awful, Why Don’t They/, and others that are mostly gatherings for gossip. Even these are not amenable to any chosen religious situation I can think of; in Quaker gatherings, they are the chat before meeting that needs to be silenced by sensitive Eldering, the chat that accompanies Coffee Time and the collective discussion of efforts to improve the situations of others.

    Now I describe myself as a Shamanic Quaker, and I have verified by experience that the two forms of opening up to the spirit world are mutually complimentary.  I have often improved my centring-down in Meeting For Worship by choosing some tried and trusted shamanic Journey opening , and been rewarded with helpful insights once I stop trying to control the development. Similarly, I have often (especially lately) found that, once I have formulated my intention for a Journey in a shamanic gathering, the insight I need comes to me before I have got fully into it, and the remaining 20 minutes or so is usefully witnessing its details and truth.  In neither situation do I feel it would be truthful to regard myself a competing with or rebelling against the processes of the group.

    I have been following these intertwined paths for over thirty years, stopping from time to time to see where I might be deceiving myself, and found only good coming out of it. It hasn’t put me off that some Weighty Friends have suggested that I am flirting with the Occult (and My Roman Catholic brother in the USA prays for my redempton), and quite a few shamanic and other pagan acquaintances have scoffed that I am muddlng my beliefs.  It isn’ t a question of belief, much more one of experience, and i do have a theory of how it works, both metaphysically and neurologically.

    Now is not he occasion for expounding that, however, for you haven’t asked for it.  And what is happening about my request to purchase /Quakers Do What?  Why/?

    In friendship,


    • Thanks for your take Luc.
      In my case, having only recently discovered the Quakers, I’m finding the lively game of silent prediction.
      That is in predicting how one Quaker or another may react to a completely off the wall question or idea.
      We all know that Quakers (generally) are most tolerant and willing to accept many things. With my background of following many paths, it’s easy to pull something out of the religious hat that will rattle the cage of at least one in our group meeting. My silent game is to see who becomes the rattled, and the why of their posture.
      This games tends to be a great learning experience for all.

      All the best,

      Jules, non theist Quaker

    • Dear Luc,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Whether the games comparison is inherently competitive is worth asking – I think not, but I acknowledge that the examples I chose for this post don’t demonstrate that as such. (Wittgenstein’s own examples of language-games very clearly include cooperative ones, like the builders who work together on a wall.)

      If you sent your request for the book to my work email address, @woodbrooke.org.uk, I haven’t seen it yet because I’m on leave this week. (I know it might not look like it, but blog posts of this kind are part of my academic vocation rather than my paid work.) I’ll respond as soon as I can when I am checking my work email again, from Monday 27th.

      In friendship,

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