A Practice of Such Gentle Collective Ecstasy

I have come early to Friends meeting this morning. I sit alone in a room that is sparse and welcoming, like the living room of someone whose only interest is the people who come to visit. I sit alone with the empty chairs and the golden flecks of dust that gently drift through the early sunlight. My breath pulls in; flows out; pulls in; flows out. A calm begins to rise, yet thoughts still flutter about busily. People arrive and sit, one by one, planted around the empty center. My attention can settle for a time on one individual and then the next. As I attend to each in turn, I become aware that, as the density of people increases, their focus moves together, heliotropically, toward the empty center of the meeting. And there my concentration finally rests, at the center.

Slowly, breathing, I settle down centerwise—root down, down to the center, all the way down. Sitting, centering down, one discovers that at the core a sap courses, thick, golden, mineral, drawn up from a taproot centered down into the Earth.

Cool air flows down the nostrils, down to the blossoming lungs and back and belly.

There’s a rustle. Someone shifts in a chair like leaves shuffling in a private breeze. Ah, yes, we are gathered like a grove of trees—cedar, spruce, yew, mangrove, bo, oak—rooting and breathing ancient rhythms in the light of the morning sun. I feel how we are each gripped fast into the same Earth. I feel how the sap singing through me is drawn from a source pulsing in the vastness below.

A wind rustles through our grove as someone stands. I open my eyes and meet a look of gentle concentration in a man’s face: the gaze beneath his lids is focused below, like that of a sailor drawing some secret, coiled life up from the deep, using all the sensitivity in his strong arms to lull it to the surface. That something is close to the surface now—it is clear in his face, in how the eyes behind his lids now search the waters for a glimpse of its form. The surface gently roils off its obscure shape, radiates the slow waves of words that now form in the man’s mouth.

"What if"—my eyes close as he slowly begins—"What if in love we are connected to a level of reality, a level where there is only love, a level that is more real than what we usually are aware of? What if love is what is truly real, and everything else is illusion?"

Stillness. The man sits. I feel his taproot pulling up the glowing sap. I feel the vast source deep below pulsing its vitality through me and through him. I feel this silent circled grove of trees begin to empty down together into the center below.

Each cell in my body drinks of the sap and passes the cup. Ah, yes, it is a love among them. Millions of cells are dancing. My body arises from their dance. In the oceanic rhythm of my heart they move as one, in labor and in play, in birth and in death. Yes, their harmony, their union—this is what is real, this love.

Breath pulls in; flows out; pulls in; flows out.

Through the window: treads shrieking on pavement, the growling of a motor. The noise blows past, unreal. The silent room cradles our breathing, gentle crucible for our breath. Yes, our harmony, our union, this is what is real, this love.

Oh! I’m slipping! My body jerks back as if I am yanking myself out of a doze. I was slipping out of myself—out of myself into us. The feeling lingers like the afterglow of a blinding flash. Words now form around it, intoned in astonishment: "Holy," "Love." I must have been spilling past the brink into union. No, not "I," but rather, there was a spilling past the brink into union, and "I" caught itself emptying and panicked. Oh, why did I pull myself back? Do not worry. Just breathe and center down again.

Again, a breeze stirs the surface of our gathering. Someone behind me has risen.

"On the radio I heard this biologist"—she pauses to calm her nervous rush. It seems like the trees in the grove gently lean in to listen. As if they have embraced her with a canopy from the sun, she settles. Now reconnected with the source of her words:

I’ve been sitting here since our friend spoke, getting deeper into the truth of what he said. I was reminded of something I heard on the radio a few days ago. This biologist was giving a talk—I don’t remember what his name was. But anyway, he was talking about early evolution, specifically the evolution of single cells into multicellular creatures. And the picture that he painted about how this works struck me very deeply. I had to pull over—I had the radio on in my car, so I had to pull over to listen ’cause I was so captivated. He was saying that in evolution, at these points of great leaps in complexity, the key force is cooperation, not competition. You have a harmonization between individuals, you have an increased resonance as things that used to be separate come together—you have a dance.

Without that, cells wouldn’t have arisen from molecules in the first place and we wouldn’t have gotten creatures more complex from that, and we definitely wouldn’t have communities, which, it seems to me, are a kind of super-organism. It’s cooperation and mutual aid that are basic, not competition. So when I ponder this I feel—I feel very clearly that love is the fundamental reality. Our bodies are formed by love, and they function by love. And I think that what we as Quakers try to do is to live so our society is in accordance with that reality. And what we’re doing right here in our worship is like cells getting into deeper and deeper harmony together. We’re entering into this harmonious unity.

When she drops back into silence I am surprised I was not the one who was speaking. It was as if the movement swelling to the surface into her words was moving in all of us.

Later, at the close of meeting, as the people, milling, begin to trickle homeward, I realize this meeting has not closed but opened. The cells of our circle are spilling out of the crucible, spilling out of our still waters to sweep back into the currents and eddies of larger super-organisms. What will we be compelled to build, maintain, destroy? How can this opening not become an emptying?

As I step outside the meetinghouse, the light that strikes me is as vivid and luminous as a sunset blazing off a perfectly still pool. The verbena crackles into ultraviolet. The grasses bake beneath the sun into a green as sharp as their fibrous redolence. The hide of the cottonwood folds warm into enshadowed layers of brown—wrinkled labyrinths leading to those ancient things the tree keeps secret. Yes, everything draws me into encounter. In tasting the source of union with the people in Quaker meeting I have tasted the source of union with each thing that is with me.

A screaming bores into my head—a car drills past. I glimpse the driver: her whole body is tense, each joint ratcheted to clench into that machine. The subtle thread connecting us catches—then snaps, and falls in the wake of her grinding buzz.

Yes, it hurts. It hurts to be so tender to the mundane violence we so easily ignore. What a bodily dislocation it takes to become symbiotic with our machines. When we lock ourselves into these exoskeletons we are reduced, as we reduce everyone else, to a red light or a green light in the smooth flowing of our insectine circulatory system.

The glistening hulls fly past me. I watch them turning onto interconnecting streets, which themselves ramify and iterate, infinitely. At night the whole work lights up like a motherboard—an entire city made in the image of the machine. What does it matter to it how harmoniously unified we have been the moment before we step into a car? We serve as cells within this massively sprawling super-organism just the same.

The machines themselves flood out into the world from mighty centers of production, towering crucibles seething with workers who replicate and repeat, replicate and repeat, replicate and repeat, replicate and repeat. We must churn together like pistons to keep the streets flowing. And what voracious streets! Each cell must eat and emit, eat and emit constantly, or die. So the collective body must keep the raw crude coming down the gullet, and that takes sharp teeth. So we have developed teeth as sharp as rows of soldiers. Thousands of marching jackboots, after all, sound like the gnashing jaw of a mechanical beast. They also look like the treadmarks of a giant tank. Who comprises the body of that tank, that beast?

Yes, it hurts. It hurts to be torn from the union I have just become tender and vulnerable enough to embrace. But there is also a thrill, a hurt and a thrill like that after a parting with one’s lover. Union is possible. It is real and true and powerful. It will always be there, waiting for our return. And perhaps it will come calling unannounced. Not only can one person open onto the ground of union with all, many people can—together. The more we can center our lives together in practices of such gentle collective ecstasy, the stronger we will be to evolve and to live in full expression of our universal unity.

Nathanie Mahlberg

Nathaniel Mahlberg attends Santa Fe (N. Mex.) Meeting. He writes, plays the violin in a band, and works at an independent bookstore. He also coordinates truth in military recruiting activities with the Veterans for Peace chapter in Santa Fe.