Exploration: Quaker Meeting

As part of my exploration of existing religions, communities and sacred spaces, I visited a Friends’ Meeting last Sunday at a Quaker church. Several colleagues have suggested I go, and even noted I should go to multiple meetings – their structure is pretty free form, and there’s lot of variety. So what you see on one day may not be representative.

The basic format is this: People gather in the meeting hall, sitting in circle or arc. You come in silently, sit silently.

If you are moved to speak, you speak – usually for a couple minutes – before sitting down in silence again.

That’s it.

The particular meeting I went to, there was silence for the first 50 minutes, ending with one woman standing to speak about her brother, who had been abusing drugs, and the struggle they both had with it. A little afterwards, a few other people stood to announce events being run by the community.

I gather that different congregations – and different meeting times within congregations – vary in how much time is typically spent talking. In this congregation, the early morning Sunday meeting is usually entirely silent. The second service (the one I went to) starts at 11:00, and is typically mostly silence, but usually has more than 1 speaker.

There’s a different-version-of-me, from a different time in my life, that would have been profoundly bored by the experience. “I’m traveling all this way to sit in silence for an hour? I could do that at home. Also, why?” And there’s a different-different-version-of-me that would have found it exactly what I needed – constantly surrounded by the hustle-bustle of New York City, desperately needing a moment of tranquility in a communal setting.

Last Sunday, I found myself appreciating it for what it was, though not something I felt moved to go back to immediately.

Something I noted was that I wasn’t sure exactly what to *do* during the silence. Silence is not inherently boring – it could be a time to silently reflect on something important, or think about your possible choices for the future, or just clear your mind to experience peace and clarity. The lack of direction could be a bug or a feature. If you’re already experienced with multiple forms of meditation or reflection, having the freedom to make of it what you will could be valuable.

I haven’t quite gotten the hang of any form of meditation though, and I’d have preferred a bit more direction. (I could imagine a Quaker who’s been going a while telling me that I’m missing the point).

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The Summer Solstice Paradox

In which I call something a paradox that, like most “paradoxes”, isn’t really. But is nonetheless a confusing problem.

After every Winter Solstice I’ve run, I get people asking me “so what’s for Summer Solstice?” It seems like an obvious question – clearly the Winter Solstice is just a small piece of a much larger puzzle. One holiday does not a culture make. And on the flipside, it’s helpful to build off of something already familiar. So a Summer Solstice feels like the obvious next step… right?

Honestly, that doesn’t feel right to me.

What are holidays for again?

Holidays serve a few key purposes – they connect us to our community, they connect us to ideas. Depending on their nature, they may give us an excuse to celebrate and have fun, or they may give us an excuse to be calm and contemplative. The generalized case of this is “give us an excuse to have an experience that society doesn’t normally encourage us to have.”

Used to be, there wasn’t a giant economy churning out more novel things to entertain us than we could ever possibly consume. Used to be, you had more or less one culture per-town, and your community ran a few big holidays per year.

Then we started having melting-pot (“salad bowl?”) metropolitan centers where we had lots of different cultures clashing, along with more and more people/companies/movements churning out novel experiences.[1] Now there are huge numbers of big parades, live-action theater events, conferences about art and science, a dozen new movies each week, as well as numerous small meetups catering to random niche interests.

The positive side is we get access to all these experiences. The downside is that we may lose access to the particular experience “my entire tribe is coming together to celebrate this thing we all care deeply about.”

Humanist culture has the potential to fill that void. But to successfully do that, it needs to create something people go to instead of all the other fun, exciting experiences that already exist.

The Brighter Than Today Solstice was successful because it was doing something that literally wasn’t being done – creating a holiday experience that had a story, had good original music and good art that tied together to create a deliberate experience. It also wasn’t afraid to get dark and explore sadness.

The Summer Solstice Paradox

Winter feels like a time of huddling in the darkness, drawing people close. I want to be reminded that the light will return, that I’m not alone.

Summer… I just want to enjoy the light. June 22nd, I just want to be out in the woods with friends, having a picnic or throwing a frisbee.

You could make a Summer Solstice that deliberately echoed the Brighter-Than-Today-style Winter Solstice – have a big outdoor music festival that celebrates being alive alongside reason and human achievement. But really, I’d rather my Summer Solstice just be fun, and if we’re just doing fun, it’s not something that really *needs* to be uniquely humanist. There are already outdoor music festivals and parties.

The people running those have years of experience, they are better at it than I am, and any unique spins I’ve thought of so far to put on it feel a bit awkward and forced. (If you are good at running that sort of event, by all means run a humanist-focused version of it, but most humanist organizers I know aren’t experienced festival organizers as well).

More generally – I’m not sure that the Solstice/Equinox framework makes for the best wheel of the year, especially if we’re trying to set something in motion that’ll weather the sands of time. Most places on the globe have some form of winter – even if doesn’t have life threatening cold, it typically at least has an encroaching darkness that makes for a potent symbol. But not as many regions have as distinct an autumn or spring. And four “Big” holidays seems to be asking for a lot of limited cultural attention.

But, still. One holiday seems overly minimalist.  So, what to do?

I do have some ideas I’m still mulling over. But first, I’d like to pose the question to people here. Think for a moment about how many holidays you actually want in a given year. Think about what you’d actually want to experience, when you want to experience, how busy you’re likely to be at that time of year and what it’d likely be competing with for your attention.

What do you want out of a humanist holiday year?

[1] I’m not actually certain I’m getting the history quite right here. One bug/feature of the rationalist community is that I start (correctly) second guessing everything I think I know, which means I feel obligated to do lots of research before I make any claims, which means I feel paralyzed and don’t actually get around to writing. But meanwhile, there DO clearly seem to be states of the world that need fixing, which requires writing stuff that motivates people. 

My current strategy is “do minimal research on wikipedia to make sure I’m not grossly wrong about my claims about history, holidays and ritual, and then go ahead and write the damn blogpost.

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Ecstatic Dance

The Solstice was inspired by a Catholic Christmas Eve party.

The Catholic lineage has been obvious to a lot of people. People afterwards tell me that it reminds them of a midnight mass – sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way. The candles, the music that is sometimes lively but is usually sung sitting down. The stories often have a sermon-like quality to them. What’s interesting was that this was *not* because I directly copied a Catholic mass (the elements I did consciously copy came more from Baptist culture). I started with my family’s Christmas Eve party – which doesn’t have candles, doesn’t have sermons (at least, not of the kind Solstice reminds people of).

I derived those elements as helpful ingredients to weave together with the existing structure. The candles are important because they can be extinguished in a dramatic fashion. The sermon elements were not there at first, but it felt important to tell a story in the darkness that emphasized the most frightening truths we have to face as a community – and then ended with the inspiration we needed to come out of that darkness.

The fact that this tied together in a way that felt much more Catholic than my family’s annual party was… probably coincidence? I’m not sure.

But it’s become increasingly clear, if rational ritual is to grow and thrive, it needs to draw wisdom from more than one source. So I’ve been making a practice of taking field trips to other events – some ritualistic, some musical or artistic, and learning techniques that can give a greater breadth and depth to the experiences I create. I’ve been interested in paganism, yoga, authentic relating and other practices.

I used to shy away from this sort of thing, because, actually learning from these practices involves subjecting yourself to a lot of woo. In some cases, priests or instructors telling you outright falsehoods. In other cases, there’s nothing *inherently* false in the instruction, but there’s an overall tone of mysticism, and a clear sense that the people around me would disagree with me on a lot of intellectual issues.

If you’re allergic to woo and mysticism, this post may rub you the wrong way. But I think it’s worthwhile to cultivate an appreciation for mystic practices. There’s lots of good, useful material there that has no need to be tied to a particular worldview.

Last week I finally went to an ecstatic dance. More than anything I’ve done in the past year, it gave me a sense of new directions to take secular ritual and community building.

Ecstatic dafnce essentially means “free form improv dancing”. In one sense, it’s basically clubbing – you go into a big room with music playing and lots of people and you move your body however you like.

There are some concrete differences – the Ecstatic Dance event I went specifically asked people not to bring drugs or alcohol, for example. But the biggest difference is the intentionality. The goal is to to find a one-ness with your body, and to find connection with the people around you.

When I arrived, I was instructed to remove my shoes, turn off my cell phone, and leave them with my coat and and backpack. Once I entered the room, there would be no talking.

Ecstatic dancing comes in waves: 45-60 minute playlists of music that take you on a musical and bodily journey. The goal is to get out of your head and find a playful one-ness with your body. Don’t worry whether you look stupid (or whether anyone else looks stupid). Move however feels right in the moment. There was occasional guidance from the facilitator, suggesting that we focus our attention on our shoulders, or hips, or breath. The guidance was more suggestion than instruction.

The music had a mix of tribal drums, Indian instrumentation and modern electronica. It began tranquil, with the instructor suggesting we explore flowing, circular movements. Over the next 20 minutes, it ramped up in intensity, and the guidance was to explore sharp, staccato movements – moving your body freely but abruptly, angular.

By the time we hit the half hour mark, there was a pitched intensity, with wild, chaotic movements. People would stomp or clap spontaneously, sing out wordless whoops or wordless songs – and other people would echo them, adding to the music in an organic fashion.

By the end, it became tranquil again. This time, the vibe didn’t push me towards languid, circular movements – instead, it conveyed stillness. With no instruction, myself and people around me tended to be sitting down or standing still, moving gently until we came to a complete stop.

If you want a more concrete, visual sense of what this all looked and felt like, this guided ecstatic wave video, by the Gabrielle Roth (the movement’s founder) is a good starting point. It has more instruction than I think an ideal dance event would, but it does a good job of explaining the key principles.

My own takeaways

I found the experience to do more or less exactly what it was supposed to do. I got into a semi-meditative state. I had a lot of fun. I also found myself singing quietly to myself, improvising words along with the music in a way that felt very natural.

It was also the first time I had a very strong sense of wanting another humanist holiday. I’ve had other ideas since reimagining the Winter Solstice, but nothing that really felt right to me. Ecstatic dance made me feel alive in a way that I haven’t really felt before, and I felt an immediate desire to share in that with my tribe. It’s the first time I’ve felt that way since thinking about my family’s Christmas celebration and wishing it told stories that I believe in.

I’m not exactly certain what form that should take. In some sense, the existing format is already perfect. It’s elegant and simple – take off your shoes, clear your mind, don’t talk and experience an hour of  connection with your body and the people around you. I’m not even sure this needs to be replicated – there are plenty of existing events that humanists could just start going to.

But humanists also tend to attract particular types of people with their own needs and considerations. In my next post I’ll explore possibilities for a humanist dance-centric event in a bit more detail.

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Preachers and Pews, Pagans and Pi

(…I couldn’t come up with a word that began with “P” that meant “circle”, but I was pretty committed when I got to the end of the title.)

Typically, when people think about ritual and religious substitutes, it’s common to mirror the Judeo-Christian tradition. This comes with some baggage that we may not even think of as baggage – lining people up in rows, putting them before one person-or-small-group who stand in front of them, and tell them what to do and think about.

There’s some good reason for this – it’s hard to otherwise fit a lot of people in a room, and at first glance your community can’t grow if you acquire more people.

But in the past year, I was exposed to Atheopaganism. Atheistic pagans – drawing from the pagan aesthetic but treating gods as metaphors – have been around for a while. But there’s a new push to grow them as a movement.  And it’s got me thinking.

Photo credit to ShahMai Network, http://www.shahmai.org/

Photo credit to ShahMai Network, http://www.shahmai.org/

Pagans seemed to have optimized less for rapid growth and more for “having a particular kind of ritual/community/culture.” Quakers seem like a Christian-lineage culture with the similar focus. They both tend to orient around a circle rather than rows of pews. Some ideas this points at:

  • Power structure. If you have a large organization you need some kinds of structure to run said organization. But within a ritual itself, there’s also a power structure (conceivably divorced from the organization’s). Preachers and Pews creates a hierarchy where people are limited in how much they can shape the ritual.
  • Having people form a circle creates an atmosphere that is more shared, more reminiscent of “gathered round a campfire”, and more conducive to creativity and spontaneity.
  • There’s an obvious problem with flat power structure – random people can drag it in a direction people find boring, annoying or offensive. How big a problem this is depends on how well people know each other and what group norms you have.

I could see a completely leaderless ritual working with up to 20 people (easier with 4-7) if everyone trusts each other. If there’s not uniform trust, I could see 10-40ish person rituals working if there’s a leader who’s job is “facilitator” rather than “leader”, who is good at their job.

This requires some critical mass of people who want to shape the ritual in some way, and those people either having enough skill to do so, or having a ritual designed in such a way that less skilled people can have fun/meaning with it.

Ritual components that may lend themselves well to this sort of thing, and/or examples to draw from. These don’t necessarily require a physical-circle-shape to the people, but it may help.

  • If people have a shared body of music, you can have people take turns suggesting songs people already know (or request that people perform, in the way Filk and Folk circles do).
  • Improvisational dance or music that doesn’t require everyone to face a projection screen.
  • You could have a ritual centered around building something. Start with a vague goal and a bunch of materials, and the ritual can be about creating something together. (Alternately, you could start by building an altar or sacred space, and then using it to do a second half of the ritual)

I’d be interested in experimenting in this direction, and in hearing how other experiments in this direction have gone.

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Beneath Midwinter Midnight

Beneath Midwinter Midnight
Written by Raymond Arnold

Beneath midwinter midnight moon
Told you I’d be coming soon
I wish somehow, I wish you knew
That you are not alone.

You are not alone.

Beneath midwinter midnight snow
There’s no sign pointing where to go
No single sign that life could grow
But still, you’re not alone.

You are not alone.

Beneath midwinter midnight sky
Sometimes people say goodbye,
And no one’s there to tell us why
But we are not alone.

But we are not alone.

But we are not alone…

Beneath midwinter morning light
Getting hard to know what’s right
But take my hand and hold on tight
Cause we are not alone.

We are not alone.

We are not alone.

We are not alone.

We are not alone

We are not alone

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Solstice Season is Upon Us

At the last minute, I was able to visit the Bay Area Solstice last weekend.

This was the first time I’d been to a Solstice that I wasn’t personally running, and… wow, it was heartwarming. I arrived on the day of their final rehearsal and preparations. There were some people setting up lights and decorations. There were people tying red ribbons around candles, preparing to give them to celebrators the next day. The choir was practicing their songs.

There was also some bickering about how to do the decorations and what music to sing. But it was adorable holiday bickering, and it actually gave me a sense that “this is a real thing that real people come together to celebrate, bringing their own strong opinions about how to make it beautiful.”

The Bay Area Solstice – Photo Courtesy Lawrence D’Anna

The Bay Solstice gotten written up as an article published (among other places) in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, another Solstice last weekend was going on in Seattle.

This upcoming weekend, two more Big Solstices are happening – one on Sunday the 21st in San Diego, a collaborative effort put on by the Coalition of Reason.

And the one I’m running personally in New York City. Last Monday we had our final musical rehearsal, and I got chills just listening to some of the pieces. We have a new song called Stardust, and a new arrangement of our “classic” song Bitter Wind Blown that I’m extremely proud of.

I’m looking forward to this weekend. Looking forward to talking to other organizers and learning how to iterate and improve this for next year. Looking forward – where I feel pretty confident there will be plenty of Secular Solstices that happen on their own, that are evolving in directions I didn’t predict but which meet the needs of their communities.

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Material Components

This is the second post in a series about how to run the Solstice. Here’s the introductory post.

There’s a variety of things you need to run a Solstice. I’ll go into more details for each of these later on, but for here’s a broad overview of helpful things.

1. People

This is the most important part. If your venue falls through, if you have no money for food or decorations, a group of enthusiastic people can still come together in the night to celebrate humanity a la “Charlie Brown Christmas” or the end of “The Grinch.”

In particular, you will need leaders: 1-4 organizers, who bring particular skills to the table.

  1. Someone who brings positive, upbeat energy
  2. Someone who brings solemnity.
  3. Someone who coordinating supplies and logistics.
  4. Someone to songlead – NOT necessarily someone musically talented, but someone who is musically enthusiastic, who can make people feel comfortable singing along.
  5. Someone who can promote the event and bring together people who want to celebrate.






You’ll also need participants: People excited to be there. This can be 5 people, 50 or 500. What’s important is that a critical mass of them (at least 50%) are enthusiastic, ready to celebrate (non-ironically), ready to sing or dance or whatever activities you have prepared. (Again, they do *not* need to be good singers, they just need to enthusiastically ready to try things)

Now, what if you don’t have some of the above? In particular, what if you (as an organizer) don’t feel comfortable with public speaking, or singing, or leading a crowd?

I’d take this as an opportunity to grow. The Solstice is about humanity rising to overcome their challenges. And singing in public doesn’t have to be that scary!

The first year I ran the Solstice, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do it. I didn’t even have a person telling me that this could be done, that it was part of a growing tradition that would profoundly affect people.

And I’ll be honest: it was a little intimidating.

But it was a valuable learning experience.

2. A Place

You need a place for your gathering. This can be a living room, a large lounge, or an auditorium. Two important characteristics it needs are:

  • Be physically comfortable. People will be there for at least an hour and probably two to four. Comfy chairs, couches or cushions to sit on are nice.
  • Almost exactly enough space to fit your participants. You want people to feel cozy and you want the event to feel vibrant. You want enough space that people are comfortable but not so much that people are spread apart. You want people to feel surrounded by a community.

3. Things

None of these are strictly necessary, but they’ll make things run a lot smoother:

Food and drink - Sharing food is one of the most ancient ways humans built trust and connection. It’s the middle of winter, and we have plenty of food, and that’s worth celebrating!

Light sources - These can be candles, lanterns, electric lights or anything else you can find. It can be fun to have a variety of lights with different levels of technological sophistication, symbolizing the progress of humanity. (I recommend this rock salt lamp off Amazon, beautiful and pretty inexpensive)

Lyrics - One way or another, people need to know what to sing. You can go to the resources tab at humanistculture.com and find either lyric sheets to print out or a PowerPoint to display on a projector. (A projector is much better if you have it – that way everyone is focused on one place instead of crinkling papers in their lap, and people can continue to read even as you descend into darkness).

Optional Bonus Things you might want are:

Musical Accompaniment - Many songs can be sung without any instrumental accompaniment, but if you have people who can play guitar, piano, or more, that can help things feel more lively. If you don’t have skilled musicians, then depending on your group you can either have people sing on their own (if you want a natural feel), or play songs over a sound-system, to sing along to karaoke style.

Decorations – You’ve already got lights of some sort, but you may also want decorations reminiscent of the themes of the event (astronomy, fire, and human triumph over winter)

Next Up: Creating the Arc

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