Tag Archives: spirituality

A place for nerds in the Society of Friends?

One of the questions asked in this year’s Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting is:

  • Do you consider yourself to be ‘spiritual’, or an activist? Do you find the distinction helpful in considering your own journey and experiences?

My answer to this is: neither, and therefore, no.

When I picture an activist, I think of people who do things for which I don’t have the time, energy, or social skills. I do little bits of activism – the kind of things which get mocked in internet articles – like signing petitions, discussing politics with friends, and donating a bit of money now and again. I very rarely go to demonstrations, I almost never hand out leaflets, I’ve never been arrested, and the ways in which I’ve changed my life to bring it into accordance with my principles are mainly invisible. I’m often practical, but I’m by no means an activist.

When I picture someone who is spiritual, I think of people whose spiritual life works in a way which mine doesn’t. I’ve been going to meeting for worship my whole life and I’ve never really been able to ‘centre down’. I don’t have a prayer life to speak of, I’m immune to whatever people get out of sacred music, I like to look at religious art but rarely get beyond looking, and when I read scripture I come away with more questions than answers. I do sometimes have experiences which I can only describe as ‘spiritual’, and I value being in an organised religion because some of our structures help me feel spiritually connected, but whatever ‘being spiritual’ involves, I feel outside the category.

So, what I am? I’m a nerd, a swot, a geek, an over-educated over-thinker. This is, as that link suggests, common among Quakers – but it also, often, unwelcome. In a time when rationality has been staked out as the realm of atheism, there seems to be a trend among the religious towards rejecting thought and rigour. I’ve considered it carefully, and concluded that this could be a terrible mistake. However, because I’ve ‘considered’ and ‘concluded’, I suspect my ideas are liable to be thrown out without being heard, on methodological grounds.

When I call myself a geek or a nerd, people sometimes tell me off for putting myself down. This tells me that these words still have a power which can be reclaimed. After years of bullying and social exclusion for being ‘weird’ and ‘clever’, for being articulate enough to give right answers in class and bothering to do so, for enjoying learning and working hard at it, I’m not going to start pretending not to think. I admit it: I think about things at home, I think at work, I even think in Meeting for Worship.

I’m not suggesting that you should do this too (unless you want to). For me, though, prayer and philosophy are closely connected. To think something through, to consider it from all angles, to ask questions like “what do I really know about this?” or “what assumptions underlie the way I am approaching this?” is a way of holding an issue in the Light. Sometimes this leads to activity: “if I hold this view, and this view, then I ought to…” Sometimes this lead to spiritual perspectives: if God loves me as I am, then She’ll love me even if I ask the hard questions.

I am neither spiritual, nor an activist, but approach the world through questioning, thought, and wondering. My Quaker journey is strongly shaped by that even – especially? – when it seems unpopular.

Personal spiritual practices

There’s been some discussion recently on the Quaker Renewal Facebook group about spiritual practices beyond Meeting for Worship. It’s focussed a bit on spiritual direction, of which I have no experience, but knowing that I find such accounts from other people interesting I thought I would share with you some of my spiritual practices – as they are at the moment; my experience is that these things can, do, and need to shift and change through time.

My core communal spiritual practice is Meeting for Worship, followed by Meeting for Worship for Business (which includes committee meetings, Meetings for Clearness, and other related Quaker processes). I’m also happy to participate in a variety of Neo-Pagan rituals, Buddhist and other meditation or chanting groups, Bible study, church services, other Quaker practices like Appleseed or Experiment with Light, and so forth, but these tend to come and go as the opportunity arises rather than being core to my practices – I enjoy them but I don’t particularly miss them if I don’t go.

Over the past year or so, my core solitary spiritual practice has been a short period of meditation in the morning – typically ten or fifteen minutes, using a handy timer on my phone. I use this for all sorts of things. Often, it will be a recognisably Pagan, often Druid, visualisation meditation – visiting my Sacred Grove in the inner world, for example, or exploring a landscape or symbolic image. At other times, I might use a set of words, such as a Pagan chant, song from Taize, or Buddhist mantra. Sometimes I hold a focus object which is significant to me at the time – a leaf, a stone, an ornament. Sometimes I do Experiment with Light, sometimes I focus on the breath or on listening, and sometimes I just lie there. This practice is core in the sense that I miss it if I don’t do it – it’s not always practical, but it does seem to be beneficial when I can manage it. It’s my practice, since it’s warm and comfortable, to do my meditation in the morning before I get out of bed. This doesn’t work if I’ve been woken by an alarm, as I’ll just go back to sleep, but if I’ve woken naturally because I’ve slept enough it’s in fact the time when my mind is most alert and I am least likely to drift off. This is clearly a quirk of biology and YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

I have, at other times, tried other practices. Sometimes I have found the need to have more tactile stuff going on in order to keep my mind on the practice – at the moment, a meditation bell set to ring every three minutes or so during the time is enough, but I have used music, poetry, incense, candles, lectio divina, various divination systems (such as runes, ogham, and oracle cards), and movement, at different times. I find Scott Cunningham’s book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, John Pritchard’s book How to Pray: A Practical Handbook and Ginny Wall’s book Deepening the Life of the Spirit: Resources for Spiritual Practice to be useful, and go back to them when I feel stuck, although as you may have gathered from the rest of this post I also find inspiration in a lot of other places.

My other core practice, although it’s not as regular as morning meditation and weekly Meeting for Worship, is being outdoors. This can be walks in the countryside, strolls in the park, gardening, feeding the birds, tree-hugging, etc. It’s much more free-form, except when something arises from my meditation or my OBOD course which prompts me to something specific, but no less important for that.

Branches, mostly of oak, criss-cross the image, against a grey sky.

Tree image from a recent walk.