Fall Down Seven Times


Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on . . . you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. —Thomas Merton

This is a story about failure. It is a tale of unsuccessful attempts, dead ends, discouragement, and misunderstandings. There is courage and perseverance and joy too, but primarily it is about things not working out according to plan, even when the plans were crafted in faith with care. Success has been the byproduct of getting it wrong much of the time. It is an example of the old Zen adage, “Fall down seven times; stand up eight.” I was able to name and claim my ministry by making mistakes along the way.

Yes, I have a ministry (defined here simply as work to which one is called). If you are like I was, perhaps your image of a spiritual vocation is one where the minister has a big moment of being struck with inspiration; receives a complete, clear vision; and then steps out boldly to single-handedly do God’s work in the just, right way. Answering my call went a little differently. The message was often vague; the path was neither straight nor easy; the destination was either deceptively clear or entirely unknown; and I did not do it on my own, because nobody can. Quaker organizations and processes, and Friends both individually and in groups, have made my ministry live and breathe and have its being.

I am not special. I have average intelligence and do not possess any gifts that are unique to me. Many others do what I do. I am merely someone who found help and healing and joy from learning how to directly experience body-mind awareness in the present moment. One of the reasons I was drawn to Quakerism as a primary spiritual path is our history of sensual, vibrant physicality as a sign of authentic spiritual depth, and I seek to remind Friends of this practical, body-based mysticism. Another aspect of our faith that attracted me is the shared belief that we are all ministers. I recall a social hour conversation as a new attender at Brooklyn (N.Y.) Meeting in the late 1990s, when I remarked on the radical choice by early Friends to eliminate the clergy. “Actually,” a Friend replied, “it’s more radical than that. What we have eliminated is the laity.”

That went straight to the heart. Reflecting on my professional life as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, as a doula and childbirth educator, and as a (somewhat inconsistent) follower of Jesus, I began to see the continuity of personal ministry and the sacred nature of everyday life. That was plenty, and it might have ended there. As I deepened and strengthened my commitment to the Quaker path, however, I felt an underlying dissatisfaction, a disconnection that bothered me. Somehow, even though my spiritual insights typically informed and improved my work with people in secular settings, it didn’t flow in the other direction. My skill as a teacher and healer were gifts that could benefit Friends and our life together in community, but I wasn’t sure how to offer them, and I had many fears about how I would be received if I did.

During the next several years, I chose to ignore the dissatisfaction. I endured a number of painful personal losses, family health crises, and professional setbacks, and eventually I found myself in a spiritual desert. Although my life was blessed and fundamentally good, I was living in precisely the opposite way to what I was teaching: I sectioned off the parts of myself that I could not bear to face, put my head down, and just kept doing what I had been doing. Then in early 2007, I attended a screening of An Inconvenient Truth, and I entered into a deep and stubborn depression.

What was the point of anything I was doing? Helping women and their partners to birth powerfully and without violence? Big deal, the world their children will inherit will be a horror show. Easing the pain and tension of how a person moves and lives in their body? Great, they can breathe deeply the carbon dioxide that will overwhelm our planet as we all drown in the rising seas. My negativity and feeling of powerlessness was vast and unrelenting. It seemed too late to make any significant difference.

That summer I attended my first residential Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, where I heard about the green renovation being planned for Friends Center, a place I’d never been. The project included innovative sustainable features that would position it as a three-dimensional Quaker urban witness for earthcare. Still overwhelmed by the enormity of climate change, I wondered if volunteering a few hours on the fundraising team might help, so I began doing that. About two months into it, I was hired part-time for the remainder of the capital campaign.

And that, to echo Naomi Klein, changed everything.

My connection to myriad Friends groups increased rapidly and exponentially, and in less than two years, I went from being an isolated Friend in a small meeting to someone connected to a worldwide Quaker network. How did this happen? I just kept looking for opportunity and showing up to find out what my part could be. At Friends Center I had many opportunities. I got to know yearly meeting staff and the work of American Friends Service Committee and Friends Council on Education, where I joined the staff and was surprised but pleased to also be mentored in my mindfulness practice. I became clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Sessions Planning Group and took the clerking workshop at Pendle Hill, a place that has become a touchstone for developing my work. I attended my first Friends General Conference Gathering, worked with staff at Friends Fiduciary to plan a Quaker fundraisers conference, and learned about the various branches of Quakerism through Friends World Committee on Consultation. This all provided an expanded context for my growing faith and practice, and I felt less alone, more understood.

My despair about climate change was beginning to transform into a sense of communal possibility. Issues of environmental sustainability continued to bubble up in the yearly meeting. In the summer of 2009, Friends literally cried out from the floor of sessions, pleading for what to do to about this enormous, urgent problem. I was among those curious seekers, and a small group of us became Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT). My involvement with EQAT taught me much, by offering multiple chances to stretch beyond my comfort zone. I learned the logic of certain types of strategic thinking and effective action. It was uncomfortable to confront powerful corporate figures or communicate with authorities like police, yet it was also exhilarating and satisfying in a way nothing else in my life has been. Direct action requires present moment awareness; it is one of the most excellent ways I’ve practiced that. Our training was centered on the heart, clear thinking, and full-body sensing. We put our bodies on the line in our actions, even when not risking arrest.

Despair dropped away. I began to cultivate a deeper experience of embodied Spirit, not just on the bench in worship but on my feet in the street. I saw that there is little difference between silent meditation and vocal agitation (and anything in between), if one is open and aware in the body-mind. I felt excited, and believed I had found a new way to bring my work to Quakers. Between acting boldly with EQAT and continuing to develop my mindfulness practice, I felt confident enough to launch Way Opens Center, a group practice for learning and healing. Initially, the group included other Friends who shared the calling, the space, and the expenses. My vision was grand, my planning almost nil. Less than three months after we opened our doors, for various legitimate reasons, each one backed out, and I was left trying to carry the expenses on my own. Eighteen months later, I closed the place. I felt mocked by my own brand. Way Opens? I questioned my wisdom in naming the business as I had. I had been so sure, so led by Spirit. I knew I had a lot to learn about the business side of what I felt called to, yet I didn’t expect to be defeated. Could I sense my leadings accurately? Where was I being taken?

Before I could delve into these questions in any significant way, I was offered the job of executive director at EQAT. Yes! This is why the center had not been successful, I thought. My energy was meant to go into building EQAT, to bring all the Quaker and nonprofit leadership skills I’d been cultivating to this amazing endeavor that I had been with from the beginning. I soon discovered, however, that my vision for the organization was not shared by key members of the board, and the kind of leadership they wanted was not necessarily what I could offer. It was clear that what EQAT needed and what I was meant to do did not mesh. One year after I began with such high hopes, I resigned.

Through this I learned once again that helpers will appear when you are on the path, often unexpectedly. This can be beautiful, intimate, loving, and nurturing. Occasionally help comes in the form of hostility and rejection. I experienced the latter in my role at EQAT, through some painful and unfortunate encounters. At the time, it left me deeply wounded and even more confused about my calling. In retrospect, however, it was exactly what I needed in order to wake up and become redirected. This left me largely unemployed, and again I winced at the idea that way opens. I had made two attempts to follow where I sensed I was being led, and failed.

[drocpap]O[/dropcap]r had I? Over coffee, a good Friend and enthusiastic nonprofit leader asked me to name the things I could be proud of as director of EQAT and Way Opens Center, and I was able to recognize some accomplishments. I made a list of what I had learned or was better at now, and I began to embrace the fruits of my faithfulness. I had tried to change myself to fit certain situations or produce work in a way I believed would be acceptable to others rather than what felt true to me; no wonder I felt frustrated much of the time. I was reminded of a famous quote from Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I began to look for an arena where I could practice this. I called a clearness committee of Friends from my meeting who helped me enormously. I began asking Quakers involved in spiritual direction and chaplaincy about their work. I discovered a wonderful place, the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which provides among its many offerings an introduction to clinical pastoral education. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to become a hospital chaplain, and so the foundations course seemed a perfect way to explore that question. The course requirements were varied and challenging, and included volunteering 100 hours at a designated hospital or hospice. I was blessed to work at a local community hospital whose director of pastoral care is a Friend.

I spent nine months doing a weekly four-hour shift, and every week I was miserable. Sure, there were some deeply moving moments, some patient encounters that touched me in tender and meaningful ways, but mostly I felt like a phony going into those rooms and offering my presence. I dreaded every shift and relied on every mindfulness self-care tool in my kit to get through. I kept thinking it would get easier over time. It did not. Meanwhile, my classmates told amazing stories of blissful intimacy and beauty in their patient visits. I was definitely not the only one who felt insecure and ineffective, but it seemed that way.

Another dead end. Although I could do a decent job as a caregiver, hospital chaplaincy is not for me. My clarity on this point was liberating and a relief, even though I had worked hard only to arrive at the answer no. Many good things resulted from taking this course. I gained in communication skills by being part of the sanga we co-created (we did a lot of listening practice). For my final project, I collected all the exercises and movements I’d used to help me stay present and grounded at the hospital and made them into portable, on-the-spot self-care cards for caregivers (now a product under development). I have a new respect for anyone who does chaplaincy work. Perhaps the most important outcome is rediscovering my joy in teaching, which has given me the confidence to keep shaping my ministry. I experienced the contrast between how I feel as an Alexander teacher or group facilitator and how I feel doing pastoral care. There is an interesting overlap of the two, yet I notice that teaching mindful movement “makes me come alive,” as Thurman says. It is essential to know this about myself, to recognize more specifically my gifts.

Recently, two Friends groups have provided guidance and inspiration. As meeting secretary for Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting (CPMM), I have admired their commitment to nurturing gifts and leadings (there’s a committee just for that). They provide spiritual and administrative support for individual public ministries. CPMM’s process for recognizing and recording ministers is now guiding my own meeting as I seek their endorsement (because there hasn’t been a recorded minister in a few decades). The Releasing Ministry Alliance (RMA) has also been a huge help to me this year. Their mission includes encouraging Friends to claim their ministries and to help ministers find ways to support themselves as they follow their callings. I appreciate this institutional peer support, having best practices available for all, and I rely on the network RMA is building to continue cultivating my work.

Working for Central Philadelphia Meeting brings me back to Friends Center, where I took myself one hot August day in 2007 to see if volunteering might pull me out of despair and put my feet back on a path to love and service. It did. I thought I knew where I was headed, what was required, and how it would turn out. Much of the time I was wrong, thankfully. I made many mistakes. Unexpected helpers appeared, almost always terrific people who have remained close and valuable friends; sometimes help came in the form of insult or a nasty unpleasant shock to my system. Through it all, I learned. I am teachable.

“Fall down seven times; stand up eight.” This is the way of mindful living. I haven’t seen another way, for anyone. Just keep getting up, because it is all there for us, each of us. Awareness can hold it all.

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 grow in thee, and be 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 God’s portion. —Isaac Penington

Amy Ward Brimmer

Amy Ward Brimmer, of Fallsington (Pa.) Meeting, has investigated meditation and mindful movement since childhood, and has practiced Alexander Technique for 25 years. She has taught at Yale, Villanova, Brooklyn College, and along the Delaware Canal. Her program, Moving Into Mindfulness, is a popular workshop at the FGC Gathering, and is available to Quaker groups and meetings, as well as in the wider public sphere.

7 thoughts on “Fall Down Seven Times

  1. I have a bumper sticker on my truck: “Falling down doesn’t make you a failure – staying down does”

    Seems positive to me; do you agree?

  2. I LOVE hearing your story. It’s an important one when we think of being models–or even if that never occurs to us. As a teacher–a Quaker teacher–I had no doubts as to my calling from God, though it wasn’t a calling my meeting recognized–I think because so many were doing it and I rarely asked for support. Now that I am not teaching and I’m uncertain and failing often, the support gathers and the spiritual moments deepen. I am learning to intentionally dig further into my writing to find the true source. And I fall and have to keep getting up. Thank you. And thank you for posting. I’m not great at sending letters to the editor, but I want you to know how inspiring your story is.

  3. Amy,
    In reading your story I kept feeling a question coming from you; something between the lines. perhaps it is only my question to myself in similar circumstances. The question is: “Why, despite the fact that i have serious gifts, a desire to walk in the light, and a calling to enter into selfless service does no one truly love me?” I have discovered that when I ask myself that question it is because I have been trying to fix the world and the people in it and get gratitude for it. In my eagerness to massage the world into wellness I have dug too deep into its muscles almost with a deliberate effort to make it say ‘ouch’. As you know from your therapy practice, people hold onto their pain because it is familiar; also because it is proof they have been wronged and some kind angel should come and gently waft away their hurt. The irony is that people open to us when we are not needy; but as Brene Brown has pointed out letting go of neediness is a surrender to vulnerability.

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