One Easter Sunday in Providence, Rhode Island, I attended the local Quaker Meeting for Worship. At one point I was moved to rise and say, ‘There is something dead about this meeting.’ The rest of the hour was passed in total silence but, at the end, instead of being outraged by my comment, everyone gathered round saying, ‘How did you know? Will you come back next Sunday and we will bring a picnic and explore this.’
Silence can be dead or it can be vibrant. Some of the most powerful Quaker Meetings I have attended have been those when no-one was moved to speak, when the whole hour was passed in a silence so vibrant that we all emerged from it totally energised.
But how to be truly silent? Often when we meditate we try too hard. Reflecting on this I recall something an Alexander Technique teacher once said while giving me a lesson: ‘Be focused but not intense.’ In focused silence a message may sometimes appear – like writing on a wall. Let me give a dramatic example of this.
Many years ago when I started the Hampstead Theatre in London it was a very stressful time. There were no grants in those days and we lurched from one financial crisis to another. Once I ran away from a particularly difficult situation and went to stay in the country for two days. That first afternoon I lay down for a nap and had what, in my boyhood, had been a recurring nightmare. In it I would see, far away in the sky, a stone hurtling towards me at great speed, growing bigger and bigger. Just before it crushed me, I would wake in terror. But on this occasion, instead of my normal panicked response I began to breathe deeply, accepting the imminence of the enormous rock. As I breathed in and out so the rock seemed to become lighter and lighter until, like a huge balloon, it came to rest on my stomach, and in the centre of it I saw clearly the words ‘Return to London’. Out of the deep silence had come an insight, an answer to my problem. I got up, packed my bag and, refreshed and revitalised, went back to face the music.