Monday, September 15, 2008

Quaker Silence and Nonviolent Communication

This weekend my family drove to Arkansas so that my wife and I could facilitate an Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop. The workshop was a Training for Trainers, and the participants were all Quakers. While a babysitter played with the children downstairs, eight Quakers (the participants) joined with a progressive Lutheran in Exile (me) and a deeply spiritual agnostic hurt by organized religion and wrestling with questions of faith (my wife) to immerse ourselves not only in learning the art of facilitating an experiential workshop, but also in improving our ability to live in a spirit of nonviolence.

And so I’m thinking a lot about what it means to live out a spirit of nonviolence. And on that issue, Quakers (or Friends) have much to teach us.

Quakers are among my favorite people. There is something ironic about saying this. After all, part of what defines being a Quaker is an ethical commitment to resisting the us/them dynamics that so often shape group identity. I like Quakers as a group in part because, as a group, they reject those conventional group-defining criteria which create boundaries between groups. In other words, Quakers generally resist characterizing persons in terms of group identity. And here I am doing it in expressing my fondness for Quakers.

And yet there is no question that Quakers are an identifiable group, a community distinct from other communities by virtue of characteristics that can be identified (if only in the most general terms). Quaker worship is characterized, historically and today, by meditative silence. The typical Quaker community gathers in a circle (rather than facing a pulpit) and for an hour or so sits quietly. Occasionally someone is moved to speak. In one Quaker meeting I attended, many were so moved, and so the hour passed with numerous thoughtful reflections coming at me from different parts of the circle.

But that’s the exception. More often than not, at least in my experience of Quaker worship, no one speaks at all. The hour passes in a special kind of silence. Borrowing Simone Weil’s words, it is “a silence which is not an absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of sound. Noises, if there are any, only reach me after crossing this silence.”

I cannot but believe that the deliberate attempt, on a regular basis, to immerse oneself in that kind of Silence—especially to do so in community with others—has the power to transform the spirit. Few Quakers would contest that immersion in such Silence is a means of connecting with the divine—although they would likely have very different, often competing, conceptions of the divine. But the point in Quaker worship is to set aside such competing ideologies and share together in the same root experience from which all these competing theological speculations flow. It is to discover community in a place free from the things that divide us—a place of Silence.

It is a place free from the effort to impose labels and categories and hierarchies, a place in which what we have in common rises to the surface. When the Silence of a Quaker meeting ends, when my eyes open and I look around at those in the circle with me, I see human beings like myself, and there is the almost irresistible urge to hug.

The essence of conflict resolution, as we teach it in AVP, is to get beyond the differences in viewpoints and agendas, the disagreements about how we ought to live, the diverging political and religious allegiances, the group affiliations and class distinctions, etc.—to get past these things and seek instead the place of common humanity—the place of feelings and needs. If connections of empathy can be forged at that level, then disagreements and differences lose their capacity to define us, and thereby also their capacity to separate US from THEM. And when that happens, we can actually have a human conversation—even a conversation about matters that we deeply disagree on.

If the human connection doesn’t happen, then too often so-called “conversations” about divergent political or religious or moral ideas are nothing of the kind. Instead of having a conversation, we are seeking to impose our ideas on the other guy and then, out of duty, waiting impatiently for the other guy to stop talking so we can get back to showing them how wrong they are. We somehow imagine they are really listening and trying to understand our point of view even though we refuse to return the favor.

I am surely guilty of doing this. We all are. But when we do, we’ve lost all hope of having meaningful exchanges that can move us to deeper levels of wisdom.

Let me say that I believe in healthy debate. I engage in it for a living. I believe that it is important to discuss issues and ideas with those who disagree with us, to share why we believe what we believe, why it matters to us, and to offer objections to opposing views (and then afford the other parties to the debate the opportunity to do the same). My point is not that debate has no place in human relationships, but that such debate is healthy only to the extent that it proceeds out of a place of mutual respect and a recognition of shared humanity, and when the goal isn’t to win the debate but to facilitate learning—both for oneself and for the other parties to the debate.

Mutual learning won’t happen unless all parties are engaged in an authentic effort to listen to and understand those with whom we disagree. And we don’t make such efforts when we think of our opponents as just that, rather than as fellow human beings struggling with us to figure things out in a complex and confusing world. To listen is to empty ourselves, at least for a moment, of our own “stuff”—the judgments and ideas and concerns that so fill up our minds that there is no room left to receive what others are trying to share.

To really hear others, we need to find in ourselves that place of Silence which is really also a place of listening. In the Silence of worship, we are listening to Reality itself, to Truth in whatever form it might descend upon us. We are opening ourselves up fully, waiting expectantly, making a space into which the divine may rush: a tide of grace. In a sense, listening to our neighbors is really no different from worship. It is an exercise of caring attention, of openness to being transformed, of trust.

Some measure of this needs to happen every time we connect with another person. If not, then all we are doing is imposing ourselves on them. Even in philosophical discussions and debates, we need to cultivate the inner Silence that is an opening up of the self to that which is Other. This is the context for real human conversation, rather than verbal fights or intellectual fencing matches.

We’ve all had, I think, the experience of debating issues over and over, with strangers or with people we love, only to find that things are going nowhere. When this happens, I suspect that what has happened is that the context for real human conversation has been lost. And one thing that Quakers teach us is the power of Silence to help restore that context.


  1. As a Quaker, I sometimes feel the term "Silence" is a misnomer for what happens in the mystical encounter Friends share together in Meeting for Worship. It is very much of time of "listening to the Light," a communal gathering of listening with the third ear to the music of the Universe in our soul searching. From the outside it may look still and sound very quiet; but from the inside we are hearing a lot.

    We Friends also use this process in our business meetings which we call "Meeting for Worship on the Occasion for Business." Again, to the outside world this may look like a peaceful, quiet, non-voting version of consensus in decision making. To us though, when we are really in tune with each other and the divine, it is experienced as a Spirit-led process. That is our goal and prayer anyway.

    Peace and non-violence is a fundamental testimony of Friends. Something we are ever striving for. Recently you, Eric, and your sweet wife, Ty, helped Friends in Arkansas learn more about peace-making, by training us to be Alternatives to Violence Trainers. To us, whether or not you are a lapsed Lutheran or someone wounded by organized religion, spreading AVP, a means by which we can teach peace in the broken lives of others, makes you one with Christ-spirit, one with goodness and beauty, one with Light Within each person.


  2. Here is the broader passage from which Simone Weil's remark about silence is drawn:

    "The infinity of the ordinary expanses of perception is replaced by an infinity to the second or sometimes the third degree. At the same time, filling every part of this infinity of infinity, there is silence, a silence which is not an absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of sound. Noises, if there are any, only reach me after crossing this silence."

    She is talking here about what results from her practice of meditative prayer when it is carried out with absolute attention (she typically recited the Lord's Prayer in Greek for this purpose).

    While what she is describing is more vivid and intense than what most people including myself experience during meditative prayer or quiet worship, I can relate to what she is describing. It is something more than silence, even though silence is an important dimension of it.