By Jon Berry
I FELT LIKE A WATERBORNE VERSION OF THE "BEAR who goes with me” from Delmore Schwartz’s poem when I went for a swim the other night. The first five minutes of treading water with this clumsy, lumbering body seemed like an eternity.
But I pressed on – four strokes, breath; four strokes, breath – and eventually I began to move internally as well as through the water. I looked at my watch, and forty minutes had passed. Where had the time gone?
That but-but-but hesitation melting into effortlessness is not new. It occurs many Sundays when I plunk down onto a bench in Quaker meeting. Skepticism – An hour? Of silence? – gives way to a deep, still stream that renews, resolves, and sends me back into the world.
I periodically wonder if this stream courses through more of life than I recognize. Is “flow” – that pure state of focus and creativity at work, when I am lost joyfully in the task at hand – just a secular description of the mystical reverie I experience in Quaker meeting?
Is an athlete in “the zone” – the sheer being-in-the-moment and time standing still around you – in a state akin to what the Friend a few seats over from me feels in meeting for worship?
Would it bring down some of the walls between our workaday worlds and our spiritual lives if we recognized a kindred spirit – whatever name it goes by – at work (and play) in both places? Would we look at our colleagues differently? Make decisions differently? Look differently at all the “others” in our lives – secular vs. sacred, religion vs. "the world"?
I have an engrained resistance to religious terms. Too often, they’re used for manipulation, position, and power. But I think that life on some level is essentially mystical. It holds mysteries that we can’t explain – from the edges of knowledge to our even being here (how did that happen). It holds the possibility of joy. Surprise. Wonder. Spaciousness. Moving outside time. Of deeper connection.
My life works better when I recognize that this deeper flow is everywhere, and not just in “my” church, “my” meeting, “my” meditation spot. I think that’s part of the epiphany that’s beautifully described in the recent PBS documentary The Buddha (photo above). After years of torturous seeking after enlightenment, Siddhartha remembers sitting under a tree, as a child, on a beautiful day, and in that moment realizes that “the underlying fabric of this world,” with all its brokenness, “is joy.”
That joy, to me, is not so different from the feeling that washed over me the first time I heard a Friend in Quaker meeting recite the wonderfully rhythmic prayer from early Friend Isaac Penington describing the “sweet experience” of spiritual surrender:
“Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything, and sink down to the seed which God sows in thy heart, and let that be in thee, and grow in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of life, which is his portion.” - Isaac Penington (1681)
It helps me to know that such moments of joy can break through at any time. That joy can take me by surprise – like the time a few weeks ago driving into New York City when we were directed to the onramp of the Willis Avenue Bridge by a woman traffic cop who was giving directions while dancing (yes, a dancing New York City cop).
Or slip through my ear buds, when I listen to music both overtly spiritual – from Renaissance polyphony (like Huelgas Ensemble) to the second disc of Van Morrison’s Hymns to the Silence – to spirit-infused affirmations of life, from John Coltrane’s Ballads, to some of Duke Ellington’s solo piano pieces, to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s duets.
Sometimes I can help move myself into the stream. But here, too, it’s an idiosyncratic practice drawn from sources as disparate as my faith tradition to 12-step (the Serenity Prayer) to a mantra given me a few years ago by a Buddhist teacher while I was going through a hard stretch. That mantra, “Let this serve to awaken me,” now sits on the bulletin board at my job in a place where my eye easily falls while I’m starting to write.
The point, I believe, is not how I get there, but that I get there.
For more on the PBS documentary The Buddha, including to view it, click here. The quotation in my essay is from Mark Epstein, one of the experts interviewed for the program.
For the full text of Delmore Schwartz’s poem “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me” and its evocation of “the withness of the body,” click here.
For more on Van Morrison’s Hymns to the Silence, which confounded the mainstream rock press (like his other albums on spiritual seeking), but inspired a devoted following among fans like me, click here. Click the album title for more on the other music, Piano Reflections (Duke Ellington), John Coltrane's Ballads, Utopia Triumphans (Huelgas Ensemble), Ella & Louis, Ella & Louis Again.
You can find bios and writings of Isaac Penington on the Web, but I think a better starting point for him and other Quaker writers is an anthology like The Quaker Reader.