Monthly Archives: August 2017

What Happens in the Silence?

At the heart of Quaker spiritual practice is the notion of shared silent worship.  Entering into communal silence without expectation.  Wonderful. And terrifying.

Fifty years ago I went to my first Quaker Meeting when the Vietnam War resistance gathered at the Friends Meetinghouse in Pasadena, California.  I expected the usual agenda but, because we were in a Quaker Meeting, we settled into an extended period of silence.  I leaned back on the wooden pew and closed my eyes.  A wave of energy washed over me.  Baptized by the silence.

Quaker Meeting

In the United States, there are two forms of Quaker worship: the most common is the unprogrammed Meeting; a gathering without a minister, centered around an hour of communal silence.  (That’s the form I’m used to.)  There are also programmed Meetings where there is a minister and the service usually follows the Protestant format: singing, bible-reading, and a sermon.

Unprogrammed silent meeting begins on the hour and extends for roughly 60 minutes, ending when the Clerk shakes hands with the person next to him.  The hour may be entirely silent or punctuated with messages, unprogrammed leadings.

Quakers believe their form of worship was practiced by early Christians, immediately after the death of Jesus.  First-generation Christians, living outside Jerusalem, would gather in silence and wait for the spirit of Jesus to speak through one of them.  Contemporary Quakers refer to this process as “waiting for the Holy Spirit” or “waiting on the Light.”

Quakers frequently use the metaphor of “the light.”  Illumination.  A message comes when your consciousness is enlightened.

Preparation for Meeting

Participants show up for silent Meeting with varying levels of preparation. Typically there is no handout to explain Quaker practice.  Of course, if you’ve already been to a Quaker Meeting you know what to expect; if you haven’t, good luck figuring it out.

Zen Buddhists practice communal silence but it’s actually individual meditation occurring in a group setting.  There’s formal preparation for the Zen form of silence.  Quakers have no formal training; they’re taught to swim by being thrown into the water.

Some silent Meeting participants cushion the impact by reading the Bible or some other spiritual document.  Some practice a form of meditation, such as focusing on their breath.  Others silently repeat a mantra, such as Om mani padme hum.

I’ve Employed several different strategies to settle into Meeting, to clear my consciousness.  (I visualize this as using one of several different swimming strokes after entering the spiritual water). At the moment, I focus on what is on the surface of my mind — consciousness debris — and try to move it aside.  For example, if I am worried about a member of my family, I say to myself, “I’m worried about Jim; I’ll return to that later.”  If this doesn’t work, I focus on my breath.

Sometimes there is an event that dominates the news, and the collective consciousness, that makes it difficult to sink into the silence.  For example, the election of Donald Trump or the white-supremacist violence at Charlottesville.  Initially I will cope with this by acknowledging it and trying to move it aside.  If this doesn’t work, I ask, “what part of me is involved in this event.”  As in, “what is my inner terrorist?”  That’s usually enough to settle in.

What happens in the silence

If you have practiced long-distance running or swimming, you know about “the zone.”  After strenuous repetitive exercise one sometimes settles into a domain of no thought.  That’s what I try to achieve in Quaker Meeting, settling into a mental state where I am unaware of my surroundings.  My eyes may be closed but I’m not asleep; I’m literally spaced out.

Historic Quaker teaching, on preparation for silent Meeting, is to make the self an empty vessel that can then be filled by “the light” or “the Holy Spirit” or the equivalent.  Preparation for an ecstatic experience.

The preparation isn’t always successful.  Sometimes I’m aware of my body — aches and pains of a septuagenarian — and I can’t get to the zone.  Other times I’m too agitated by some personal concern; a part of me is acting up and will not let go.

Most times I get to the zone and nothing happens.

Because Quakers share communal silence, sometimes I will get to the zone and be interrupted because a participant will rise and break the silence with a message.


I’ve been attending Quaker Meeting for 50 years and I’ve heard all kinds of messages.  The sublime and the ridiculous.  Glorious and disturbing.

Quaker gatherings are uniquely democratic and that means that everyone has the right to speak.  Of course, not every Meeting participant is spiritually mature; as a result, people may speak inappropriately.  This happens, but not as often as you might think.  Most Meetings are predominantly silent and when participants rise to speak, most messages are heartfelt – even if they may not resonate with everyone in attendance.

While there are many circumstances that cause someone to stand and break the silence, three seem worthy of note.  First, occasionally a participant will speak about a traumatic event: for example, a death or a serious illness.  I remember a Meeting where a participant spoke about his cancer diagnosis.

Second, sometimes a participant will speak about a leading.  American Quakers — in unprogrammed Meetings — are in the liberal wing of Christianity; ethically it’s a religion of social action.  When a Meeting attender rises to share their leading, usually this means they are stepping away from the usual course of their life and going on a mission to pursue peace and justice.  For example, becoming part of the Standing Rock action.  (Sometimes a Quaker Meeting will provide financial support for a particular leading, for example, permitting a Meeting member to quit their job.)

Third, I’ve had the experience where I feel moved to speak in Meeting and before I do, someone else rises and, in effect, delivers the message that I had imagined.  Experienced Quakers talk about gathered Meetings, where a particular message — perhaps as broad as gratitude or as specific as response to particular violent event — hovers over the silence and influences all the messages.

Speaking in Meeting

If you are involved in Quaker Meeting, a regular attender, there are opportunities to speak that prepare you for silent Meeting for Worship.  For example, once a month the Meeting meets to take care of business.  That provides a vehicle to speak in a particular form of Meeting.  In addition, during any given month there are usually opportunities to meet with Quakers in smaller worship groups.  One format for these ad hoc groups is worship sharing.  

Typically a worship sharing group meets for an hour to address a prearranged topic.  For example, a group might meet to consider the topic: What keeps me from being the nonviolent person I want to be?  

The rules for the worship-sharing groups are applicable to all Quaker gatherings:  Speak out of the silence.   Allow silence between messages.  Speak from your personal experience.  In other words: speak from the heart not from the head.  And, do not respond to the message (messages) that came before you speak; speak authentically.  Speak only once.  

Of course there are important differences between delivering a message in a small — typically less than dozen participants — worship-sharing group and a large Quaker Meeting for Worship — often more than a hundred participants.  You are expected to speak in worship-sharing, although you don’t have to.  You are not expected to speak in Meeting for Worship, unless the spirit moves you.

How do you know when the spirit moves you?  It depends upon who you ask.  Historically, Quakers have described the impetus to deliver a message as a physical experience; that is, the inclination to rise and speak in Meeting is first a visceral sensation.  Although their formal name is “the Religious Society of Friends,” participants in a Friends Meeting are usually called Quakers.  Historically, participants in a Meeting for Worship recognized that they were called to speak because their body shook; they quaked.

In my 50 years of attending Quaker Meetings, I’ve probably spoken less than once per year.  Over those five decades, my experience has migrated from the intellectual to the physical.  The last couple of times I experienced a leading, I felt it in my body before it registered in my mind. (I’ve discussed this with other long-term Quakers and they’ve usually had the same experience: the longer you attend Friends Meeting, the less often you speak and the more likely that, when you speak, the impetus is primarily physical.)


So, what happens in the silence?  The religious scholar Huston Smith described Quakers as “mystical Christians” and said they occupy a relationship with Christianity that parallels Zen Buddhists’ relationship to Buddhism, in general — they’re both on the edge of their mother religion.

Participating in the silence is a mystical experience, but it doesn’t have to be viewed through the lens of Christianity.  I know a number of professed Quakers that are not Christocentric; that is, they are not immersed in the traditional symbols of Christianity such as “the holy trinity: the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost.

Participating in the silence can be an ecstatic experience.  However, to have this experience, you have to accept certain conditions.  One is toleration of silence.  If you cannot sit still for 10 minutes — let alone 60 minutes, you are unlikely to have an ecstatic experience in a Quaker Meeting.

Sitting in silence presupposes a deeper concern for personal health.  I believe that taking time in silence is as important to my health as getting exercise, eating proper food, and having adequate sleep.  (If you don’t believe in getting out into nature, you are unlikely to value taking time in silence.)  Silent Meeting energizes me.

Of course it is one thing to sit in silence for 60 minutes, follow your breath, and attempt to slip into “the zone.”  It is another thing to go through all this and harbor the expectation that you may receive a leading — one that you may or may not feel like expressing.  In other words, one has to choose whether or not you expect the reality of “ecstatic experience.”

Recent research indicates that somewhere between one-quarter and one-half of American adults have had an ecstatic experience.  So, it’s not weird to sit in silent meeting and hope that you have one.

Ecstatic experiences — emerging from the silence — come in several flavors.  Two seem worthy of mention.  One I’ll characterize as the answer.  That is, I go into Meeting carrying a problem, such as how do I deal with one of my children.  I sink into the silence, enter into the zone, and the answer emerges: do such and such.  The other form of ecstatic experience is the leading. As I’ve indicated, this typically begins as a physical sensation.

What happens in the silence?  You’ll have to go to a Quaker Meeting to find out.

A word of advice:  If you decide to attend a silent Meeting, don’t form your opinion on one experience.  Imagine talking a walk in nature for the first time.  Perhaps it’s a cloudy day or you get caught in a thunderstorm.  Even though your walk may be spoiled, that probably wouldn’t deter you from going out again.  That parallels the experience of going to Quaker silent Meeting.  The first Meeting you attend may be chatty — have an unusual number of messages — or you may not feel well that day; that shouldn’t deter you from attending another Meeting.  What you are aiming for is a completely silent Meeting.

When you eventually experience deep silence, ask yourself: What’s happening?  Am I comfortable in the silence?  Do I feel energized?  What are my expectations?  Have I come home?

Game of Trump: The Battle of Charlottesville

We’re more than half way through season 1 of “Game of Trump” and each week’s episode brings new surprises. The aftermath of the battle of Charlottesville caused Emperor Trump to reveal his true character.  Meanwhile, the resistance found new energy.

Immediately after the dreadful white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Trump made contradictory statements.  Then he held a rambling press conference where he blamed “both sides” for the melee — even though the white supremacists clearly provoked the violence and one of their participants murdered a counter protestor.  (At Charlottesville, white supremacists hurled racial epithets at the opposition, threatened to rape women, and chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”)

The battle of Charlottesville marks the end of “Game of Trump” phase one:

1. Trump’s legislative program collapsed. Trump entered the oval office with political momentum and a Republican majority in Congress.  Nonetheless, he hasn’t managed to pass any significant legislation.

2. Trump’s relationship with Republican members of Congress deteriorated.  Trump displayed no ability to manage congressional relationships in order to achieve Republican policy objectives.  Trump’s interaction with GOP congressional leaders — particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan — has deteriorated to the point where Trump criticizes them daily on Twitter.

3. The White House is understaffed.  The Trump Administration has been historically slow filling White House positions and Trump’s staff  are inexperienced loyalists — for example, Jared Kushner.  As of August 16, Trump’s inner circle has been completely replaced — other than family members.  The result is policy incoherence.

4. Trump is isolated.  Because of White House staff turmoil and the deteriorating relationship with Congress, Trump is increasingly isolated.  This isn’t a good situation because Trump is, to say the least, an inexperienced President.  But it’s particularly distressing because many observers regard him as deranged.

Over the last six months, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of commentators claiming to detect signs of Trump’s mental illness.  There have also been many articles claiming that Trump’s advisers treat him like a child and spend an inordinate amount of time trying to stifle his impulsive outbursts.

5. Nonetheless, Trump held onto his base.  Trump is very unpopular with Democrats and Independents but continues to have the approval of 80 percent of Republicans.  There’s been a lot of discussion about this dichotomy.  The consensus is that Trump’s supporters see him as a maverick and feel he has been unfairly maligned by the mainstream media.

While Trump’s position deteriorated, the resistance strengthened.  Since January the resistance focussed on protecting Obamacare (very successfully) and electing Democrats in purple or red Congressional districts (not as successful).  The resistance gained members but was predominantly a white progressive endeavor.

Charlottesville changed that.  The  Charlottesville anti-hate protesters were multiracial.   (By the way: I’m using this informative post by Brian McLaren as my guide to what went on at Charlottesville []).   Now the resistance is shifting its focus to the danger of white supremacy.

The night of August 20th, MoveOn hosted a national “Confronting White Supremacy” phone call that included 20 progressive groups including Indivisible, Democracy for America, Color of Change, People’s Action, and Black Alliance for Just Immigration ( ). The host, Mehrdad Azemun from People’s Action, reminded listeners that white supremacists have the ear of the Republican party and have shaped the Trump agenda: draconian budget cuts, restriction of voting rights, and, in general, “declaring war on communities of color.”

Two excellent resources explained US white supremacy.  Eric Ward, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, urged participants to refer to white supremacists as white nationalists.  He said their goal is to create an ethno state, to overthrow the existing government by fear and intimidation.  He said white nationalists attack the belief “that a multiracial society can work.”  Ward noted that white nationalists blame jews for the beliefs that multiracism can work and that racial progress has occurred.

Tarso Luis Ramos, from Political Research Associates, amplified Eric Ward’s presentation.  He noted that white nationalists attack Americans on five dimensions: race, religion, gender, class, and sexuality.  Ramos proposed six excellent “Democratic Principles for Antidemocratic Times”:

1. Unity: “If you come for any of us, you will have to go through all of us.”  This principle commits the resistance to protect immigrants as well as individuals or groups attacked for race, religion, gender, class, or sexuality.

2. Solidarity:  “Support Freedom fighters and defend targets of political retaliation.”This principle commits the resistance to defend those who are targeted by the Trump Administration, such as wrongfully arrested protesters.

3. Perseverance: “Never give up on democracy.”  This stance commits the resistance to operate democratically at all levels of organization.

4. Clarity : “Keep our hearts open and our eyes on the prize.”  The resistance is committed to nonviolence, which comes from the heart.

5. Openness: “Demand a free press that doesn’t censor itself to maintain access to Trump.”  This principle is particularly important because, on a daily basis, Trump attacks the mainstream media.

6. Vision: “Build an attractive, alternative vision that reflects people’s needs.”  This principle acknowledges that the resistance must build a vision that features safety for all Americans, real equity.  A vision that includes racial justice but also addresses Americans’ economic concerns.

Game of Trump: the battle for America’s soul has begun.

Under the Dome


Willow Creek was the third address Gene Walker took us to.  Walked onto a golden, ten-acre dome.  Gasped at the 180 degree view: Goat Rock, Salmon Creek beach, Point Reyes lighthouse, and Sonoma Mountain. Our hearts’ desire.  “We’ll buy it.”  Gene laughed, “Don’t you want to see the house first?”

We took water for granted.  City dwellers.  Turn on the tap and water flows out.


Five years in, we drove onto Willow Creek, turned on the tap and nothing. Neighbor’s horses snapped the water line.  Time to appreciate country-water-system mechanics.

Then came the drought of 2014.  Water tankers cruised Willow Creek. Neighbors ran out of water.  Our well soldiered on.


“You have the most reliable water on Willow Creek,” said hydrologist Gene Boudreau.

Most of Willow Creek ridge is Mesozoic-era Franciscan melange.                                              Closed                                                                                                                                                     Chert.  Shale.  Serpentine.  Compacted Clay.                                                                                    Water only found in open fractures.

Our dome is a remnant of the younger Merced formation.                                                           Open                                                                                                                                               Sandstone.                                                                                                                                                  120 acre-feet of water.



Make America Safe Again

Through six months of Donald Trump the progressive resistance has been united by opposition to his policies.  The good news is that we have stopped his legislative program.  The bad news is that most Americans don’t understand what progressives stand for, other than opposing Trump.  Now’s the time to bring forward an  agenda that emphasizes safety.

During the next six months, Trump won’t change.  He’ll continue to lie, bloviate, and feather his own nest.  His racism and resentment will become more obvious.   And congressional Republicans will careen from issue to issue without challenging Trump or accomplishing anything of significance.

This six-month period provides a golden opportunity for progressives and Democrats, in general, to tell voters what they stand for.  So far, the results have been underwhelming.

Democrats have responded with “A Better Deal.” (  Washington Progressives have their own “Progressive Agenda.” (  Both documents are too complicated.  They follow the losing HRC prescription: “when in doubt hand the voter a policy paper.”

An affective progressive agenda should contain only a handful of objectives. And, hopefully, one or two memorable phrases.

Affordable Healthcare: The obvious place for progressives to begin is with healthcare.  The resistance has beaten back Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  Progressives believe in strengthening Obamacare and expanding Medicaid into the 19 states that do not have it.

We should aim higher.  Progressives should advocate Medicare for All; a concept easy to remember.  We stand for safety through the democratization of healthcare.

Economic Equality: Most Americans believe the system is rigged.  61 percent feel “the country is headed in the wrong direction.”  Voters continue to rank “the economy” as the number one problem.

While the stock market is booming and total employment is at record levels, most Americans do not believe capitalism is working for them.  Consumer-credit is at near-record levels; Americans carry more than $1 trillion in credit-card debt.

The Progressive Agenda offers a thirteen-point proposal “to restore an economy that works for working Americans.”  While they are all good important, progressives need to identify one or two memorable ideas that differentiate them from Republicans.  Two suggestions:

Feature the slogan: Give America a raise.  The Progressive Agenda suggests: “Raise the federal minimum wage, so that it reaches $15/hour, while indexing it to inflation.”  Republicans have shown no interest in this measure but it’s one that resonates with most voters.  (A recent poll [ ] found that 74 percent of respondents favored raising the minimum wage.) Safety through better wages.

The second suggestion is adopt the slogan: Make Capitalism work for everyone.  One of the unnoticed sections of “A Better Deal” is the section on “Cracking Down on Corporate Monopolies” ( which states:

The extensive concentration of power in the hands of a few corporations hurts wages, undermines job growth, and threatens to squeeze out small businesses, suppliers, and new, innovative competitors… A Better Deal on competition means that we will revisit our antitrust laws to ensure that the economic freedom of all Americans—consumers, workers, and small businesses—come before big corporations that are getting even bigger.

This break up monopolies stance represents a dramatic change from previous Democratic platforms.  It differentiates progressives from Republicans and is an issue that resonates with voters in general — for example, a 2015 poll found that a majority of Americans favored breaking up the largest financial institutions.

Of course there are many other issues that could be featured in a progressive agenda; among these are climate change, immigration, reproductive rights, and criminal justice to mention only a few.  Rather than add another issue to the three already mentioned, it would be more productive for the progressive agenda to focus on values.

The place to start is with safety.  

America is a great country but American democracy is not working for everyone.  We need look no farther than the Charlottesville violence, or the number of voters that believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, to understand that Americans are not satisfied with the status quo.

Donald Trump won the presidency because his slogan, “make America great again,” resonated with more voters than did Hillary Clinton’s slogan, “stronger together.”

Trump’s slogan, “make America great again,” was interpreted by many of his supporters as, “let’s return to the fifties when America was number one in the world and white men called all the shots.”  Clinton’s tepid slogan was interpreted as “let’s keep doing what Obama has been doing,” an endorsement of the status quo.

Progressives need an effective alternative to “make America great again.”  Make America safe again.  This reflects the reality that because of economic inequality and Donald Trump, most Americans are fearful.  They fear for the future because the economy is not working for them and they do not have adequate healthcare, education, or housing.  Many Americans fear for the future because of climate change.

In addition, the Charlottesville violence reminds us that many Americans are fearful because of the color of their skin, or their gender/sexual orientation, or their religion or country of origin.  Donald Trump has brought bigotry and hate into the mainstream.  He has legitimized the politics of resentment.

It’s time for progressives to stand up to Trump’s hate-filled conduct and proclaim to all Americans: We will make America safe again.

6 Months of Trump, 6 Lessons Learned

After six months of the Donald Trump presidency, we know what to expect going forward.  We’ve learned six lessons.

1.Trump lies all the time:  Going into the election we knew that Trump lies at an astounding rate — typically more than one lie per day — but after January 20th some of us nurtured the hope that Donald would begin acting more presidential.  No way.

Trump may go incommunicado for a day or two , but then he will unleash a barrage of misstatements, distortions, and outright falsehoods — usually via twitter.  On July 26, The Washington Post posted a headline, ” 26 hours, 29 Trumpian False or Misleading Claims.”

Writing in Mother Jones, Denise Clifton ( ) mused that while Trump’s “chronic duplicity” may be the consequence of a severe psychological disorder, “the 45th president’s stream of lies echoes a contemporary form of Russian propaganda known as the ‘Firehose of Falsehood’.”  Clifton wrote:

In 2016, the nonpartisan research organization RAND released a study of messaging techniques seen in [Russian-controlled] media. The researchers described two key features: “high numbers of channels and messages” and “a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions.”

Whether Trump lies because he’s adopted a Russian tactic or because he’s mentally ill, his chronic duplicity is having serious consequences for American political discourse.  Many voters don’t know who to believe; they can’t discern “fake news.”  As a result there’s unparalleled polarization: voters who trust Trump and the majority who don’t.

Trump’s conduct riles up legitimate news outlets, such as Mother Jones and The Washington Post, and they report negatively on Trump, which feeds his paranoia, causing him to lash out.

2. The Trump Administration leaks: Viewed from the Left Coast, the Washington culture thrives on gossip and insider information.  Nonetheless, the Trump era has seen an unusual number of leaks.

Trump supporters blame this on the dark state — the national security state — and the liberal media — such as Mother Jones and The Washington Post — whom they believe are out to get Trump.  There’s some truth to this suspicion because once Trump entered office, he blasted both groups.

But there’s another explanation: Trump has an unusually abrasive personality and a lot of Washington insiders don’t like him.  He lashes out and they respond by leaking.

Whatever the cause, the leaks are likely to continue, which will contribute to Trump’s paranoia.

3. Trump only cares about Trump.  After the election, there was a brief interval where some Americans thought, “I didn’t vote for Trump, but whether I like it or not, he’s the President and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.”  That period is over.  The nation is divided between those who support the President (roughly one-third of the electorate) and those who do not (two-thirds of the electorate).

Since January 20th, Trump has made no attempt to reach out to those who either did not vote for him or did so reluctantly.  He only talks to his base.

And he’s used his office to benefit his business interests.

4. Trump hasn’t gotten the job done.  In an August 7th tweet, Trump said his base supports him because of the “record Stock Market, border security, military strength, jobs, Supreme Court pick, economic enthusiasm, deregulation & so much more.”

Trump tries to take credit for the booming stock market and the generally positive financial news, but a case can be made that these are carryovers from the Obama Administration.  On the tweeted list, the only event that Trump was directly involved in was the selection of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Trump’s base expected him to keep his campaign promises, such as “repeal and replace Obamacare,” “build a border wall,” and “lock up Hillary Clinton.”  None of these have been accomplished.  Furthermore, Trump’s recent failure to push through Obamacare repeal suggests that he does not have the wherewithal to move his legislative agenda through the (Republican-controlled) congress.

5. Trump’s strongest card continues to be racism.  Writing in The New York Times, Emory University professor Carol Anderson observed:

The guiding principle in Mr. Trump’s government is to turn the politics of white resentment into the policies of white rage — that calculated mechanism of executive orders, laws and agency directives that undermines and punishes minority achievement and aspiration.

On August 2nd, Trump endorsed a Republican initiative — led by Senators Cotton and Perdue — that would dramatically change immigration policy and reduce immigration levels by 50 percent.  That same day, presidential aide Stephen Miller appeared at a White House press conference to laud the immigration initiative and claim that current policy has produced a slew of economic problems such as income inequality and a dearth of good-paying jobs.  There’s no compelling evidence for this assertion but it plays well with Trump’s (white) base.

6. The Mueller inquiry isn’t going away.  Since May, former FBI director Robert Mueller has been the special counsel responsible for the investigation into possible ties between Russia and Trump’s election campaign.  Trump calls the Mueller inquiry “a witch hunt.”  The good news is that the Trump-Russia investigation will grind on, mostly out of sight of the media, and eventually produce results.  The bad news is that it will take many months — we’ll be fortunate to see definitive results in a year.

Meanwhile the Mueller inquiry will feed Trump’s paranoia. An already unstable President will become even more erratic.  Hold on tight!