What’s the difference between meditation and meeting for worship?
This question is asked so often, by all sorts of people. Some may be Quakers with long experience of meeting for worship, but little experience of meditation. Others may be Buddhists with much experience of meditation but little or no experience of Quaker worship. Still others may have little experience of either tradition, but have read about them and are puzzled by the apparent similarity.
Of course, I have to begin my reply in a typical Quaker fashion by saying ‘it depends what you mean by …’
Most commonly, I think, that by ‘meeting for worship’ people mean the unprogrammed Quaker meeting based in silence as usually practised by Quakers in Britain and also by some Quakers in America. By meditation they mean one of the forms of silent meditation such as mindfulness of breathing or a silent mantra meditation where the attention is returned, every time it wanders, to a word or phrase. (This is typically associated with Buddhism, but occurs in many other traditions too.)
When a group of people are sat together in silence it is very hard, and probably impossible, to tell what any one of them is actually doing.
If the reason for gathering is a meditation group, most, probably all, of those present would say that they were meditating (or trying to). It is usually held to be a individual activity, even though people do gather together to practice.
If the reason for the gathering is a meeting for worship and those present were asked what they were doing, answers would probably include ‘listening to God’, ‘enjoying the peace and quiet’, ‘listening to the Light’, ‘thinking’, ‘seeking guidance’ and ‘meditating’. Probably most would say that meeting for worship is essentially a communal experience, and would note the expectation that one or more people may be moved to speak. Speaking in a silent meditation group would generally be considered inappropriate.
There was a time when I was sure that I understood the difference, and that the key was that meditation is individual, meeting for worship is communal. Then I heard Thich Nhat Hanh speaking about the importance of being in a sangha and of the something different that happens when we meditate together. I understood him to be talking about that difference that I encounter when I meet for worship with others instead of having a ‘quiet time’ at home alone. In Quaker speak I heard that his words came from experience, an experience that I shared. So then I didn’t know the difference any more.
And this month my calendar is reminding me that in 1652 George Fox wrote:
Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and then doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the Light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes. QF&P 20.42
Which, though written by a Quaker, seems to me to be a good description of meditation …
Or maybe it’s like my father loved to ask us as children:
‘What’s the difference between a mouse?’
To which his answer was: ‘One of its legs is both the same.’