Quaker Meeting, Jazz Blues Groove, and the Sweat Lodge
My experience as a lifelong Quaker has kept me on a path of openings to the leadings of my heart. I have developed—or more accurately come upon—a group of practices that have served to hold my spiritual life together. I call them my spiritual trinity: Quaker meeting for worship, jazz blues groove, and the sweat lodge. Each involves a corporate or group spiritual dynamic; each requires transcendence of the ego, with the result being greater than the sum of the parts.
When we sit in a gathered meeting, one that has settled and has a palpable silence, we can receive messages that are greater than what we can think of alone. Gerald Hewitson described a gathered meeting in his talk “Journey into life: Inheriting the story of early Friends” for the 2013 Swarthmore Lecture of Britain Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions, published by Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre:
Unless we are extremely unfortunate in our journey through the Society of Friends, we all know when we have experienced a gathered meeting: a meeting where the silence is as soft as velvet, as deep as a still pool; a silence where words emerge, only to deepen and enrich that rich silence, and where Presence is as palpable and soft as the skin of a peach; where the membrane separating this moment in time and eternity is filament‐fine.
The same sort of thing happens in a jazz or blues groove and in the sweat lodge. Each one of these “ceremonies” is a bit different in their intensity and their pathway, and, for me, each feeds the others to enhance the quality of the experiences themselves and of life in general.
Many times as I am playing music with a compatible group (a gathered meeting), I have an experience of dissociation where I begin to play at a level that exceeds my normal skill. It is as though I am watching myself play. My only control over it is to suppress it: as soon as I start thinking about what notes I am playing, I lose it. As long as I just allow it to stream, I can ride it and have fun with it. It is as though I am possessed: my ears and mouth are in use, but the source of the music is within and beyond me. I do have some interaction with it—I am a part of it—when I figure out what key we are in and communicate with the others in a social way. Additionally, I am a harmonica player and have some skill in playing. There are riffs and songs I can play without dipping into groove, many of which I have learned during groove, but when I am able to experience groove, the music goes much deeper.
A similar phenomenon happens during meeting for worship. As I am sitting and quieting myself, thoughts begin to emerge. These thoughts often reflect my life, but they take on greater meaning and coherence than I had previously considered. As I allow the thought pattern to emerge, I am often surprised at its coherence. I can use breathing to enhance the quiet listening state of mind. Then at a certain point, I start to feel a quickening of my heartbeat. I put my feet flat on the floor, and I feel an energy pulsing through my whole body. And then with energy beyond my own volition, I stand up. It’s very much like the blues groove; I find myself in a dissociated state—watching myself. My legs move, but something beyond just me is moving them. I speak and the message comes through my lips, but it is more than just my thoughts. What happens sometimes is that I am so surprised at what I say that I lose track of the thought. This is similar to what happens when I start to think of the notes in a jam session, and I wait silently for a moment in order to allow it to continue.
In the sweat lodge, this sense of leading begins as soon as I make a commitment to have a lodge, and it continues through the whole experience. There comes a time in the preparation of every sweat where I have to let go of my attachment to doing it. I have to wait for the Spirit to allow me to move forward. I do use quite a bit of accumulated knowledge to conduct the sweat; I am more skilled in conducting the sweat than anything else I do. Each sweat is a bit different because of the people who are in it. When we have a lot of people who are experienced with the sweat, it tends to be a bit hotter and more intense, and when it is a bunch of newbies it can be shorter and not as hot. The regulation of the heat (the amount and frequency of water pouring and the number and temperature of the rocks) comes through me, but, like a message in meeting or a riff in a jam, it is within and beyond me. A sweat has four parts or rounds; in the second and third rounds, each participant has an opportunity to speak. During the orientation to the sweat, I tell people that it is an exercise in speaking from the heart or speaking with little or no thought, and that this is what is most important. It does not matter so much what you say; rather, it is all about what your spirit wants to say. It is the same kind of transcendence that is required for a successful groove or meeting for worship.
Wallace Black Elk, a Lakota elder and my first teacher of the sweat lodge, said (and I paraphrase), “Everyone has one drop of knowledge—no more and no less. It is wonderful to have that drop of knowledge, but it is not enough to keep us from getting lost. If we are wise, we will join in a circle with others, and when we all put our drops of knowledge into the middle of the circle, we can all get wet with spirit.” That is the healing that is available in meeting for worship, blues groove, and the sweat lodge.
I add here that I grew up in a Quaker meeting but did not speak in one until I was 30 years old. It was in the dynamic quieting of the sweat lodge that I was finally able to quiet my own mind enough to hear my own “still, small voice.” I have used the sweat in ministry with young Friends and found that they were able to use the same dynamic quieting to learn about speaking in meeting at a much younger age than I did.
I learned something from listening to the music of Miles Davis, the jazz trumpeter. He has a way of taking a single note; committing himself to it; and playing much longer and harder, and bending it more than anyone I have ever heard. What I learned—whether he intended it or not— is that my commitment to my message, when disciplined by deep listening, can overcome the accepted form and actually become greater than the form would allow. The feedback I get in relation to my harmonica playing, my messages in meeting, and in leading of the sweat lodge confirms this. I believe this is the essence of the Quaker message: when we commit ourselves to listening to the silent love of our community (God), we can access a message that is both uniquely our own and much greater than ourselves. It is an affirmation of the individual spirit in unison with the whole. The lesson in all of these examples is that we should not be distracted from our own divinity by an outside source, whether it is a book, a minister, or a tradition.
The Quaker way is a way of courage—the Latin root of “courage” is the word “cour” which means heart. The way of courage is listening deeply to one’s own “still, small voice” and grounding that message by participation in a community. This is an act of balancing: listening inwardly and outwardly. Wisdom comes when we become skilled at this process.