I've been thinking a lot about how various cultures encourage and discourage both individual and collective reflection.
Within my own tradition of Judaism, the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time set our for individuals to pore over the state of their souls--and to do it in the presence of many other individuals doing the same things. Some of the prayers we say aloud in unison ask us to take responsibility collectively for, and to unburden ourselves collectively from, "sins" or misdeeds we may have committed during the year. But the meditations of our individual hearts remain profoundly private.
Certainly the High Holy Days recognize the importance of the heart's direct prayer. The Torah portions (sections of the Jewish Bible) that we read on Rosh Hashanah focus explicitly on individual prayer or discussion--and even unabashedly direct bargaining--with God. The story of Hannah (the Biblical character who shares my name) is the tale of a woman who pleads for what she needs, using not the formal words of communal ritual practice but a song of her own, only partially articulated in any way those around her could understand. The story of Sarah likewise shows us the centrality of direct prayer rather than communal supplication--although perhaps in her case we learn a very different lesson as we watch her prayer that Hagar and her son be banished from the household of Abraham, a banishment the world is still dealing with.
As an atheist, prayer doesn't make much sense to me as anything but a way to talk to oneself. For those who hesitate to spend their lives in heavy reflection, prayer can be exactly the permission to spend a little while meditating about one's self. I am, as I'm sure you can tell, an avid navel-gazer already--and therefore find such constructed periods of prayer somewhat frustrating and contrived.
But I also find the space between private individual reflection and collective reflection to be cavernous.
There are ways that other cultures try to bridge this divide. The Clearness Committee, a concept drawn from Quaker thought, is designed to combine the meditations of an individual with the intellectual reflection of the community. Although the subject is the individual, those invited by the participant to join his or her clearness committee all think together to assist the individual in his or her process of reflection.
Traditionally, the focus person prepares a written statement outlining the issues he or she is facing. Like most bloggers, many participants find writing about their issues to be intensely fruitful to further thinking. The statement is circulated to those the focus person has asked to be on the committee.
When the group gathers, the focus person introduces the discussion. As one practitioner explains, "the committee members may speak--but everything they say is governed by one rule, a simple rule and yet one that most people find difficult and demanding: members are forbidden to speak to the focus person in any way except to ask honest, open questions. This means absolutely no advice and no amateur psychoanalysis. It means no 'Why don’t you...?' It means no 'That happened to me one time, and here’s what I did...' It means no 'There’s a book/therapist/exercise/diet that would help you a lot.' Nothing is allowed except real questions, honest and open questions, questions that will help the focus person remove the blocks to his or her inner truth without becoming burdened by the personal agendas of committee members. I may think I know the answer to your problem, and on rare occasions I may be right. But my answer is absolutely no value to you. The only answer that counts is one that arises from your own inner truth."
As the focus person answers the questions (as feels appropriate), deeper questions can arise. Through this dialectic, through its gentleness and silences as well as its depth, those on the clearness committee surround the focus person with space to allow a reflection far deeper than one mind working along might be able to approach. The Clearness process is not about determining the best way to fix a problem. It is about the community helping the individual's still, small voice to come forward. At the same time, as the above practitioner says, it is "a way to renew community in our individualist times, a way to free people from their isolation without threatening their integrity, a way to counteract the excesses of technique in caring, a way to create space for the spirit to move among us with healing and with power."
A blogger I admire very much wrote a post a couple of years ago which gives a very concise example of how a clearness committee can work. She then challenges us to think of who serves on our own clearness committees, who sits in the group that asks questions that cut to the core but always with love. "Find a unique way to thank them for serving," she writes,"--and start using them."
You, dear Reader, sit on my Clearness Committee. Thank you for the work you have already done, and the work that is to come. I am so honored by the comments yesterday's post received. So many of my favorite bloggers, folks whose blogs I've read and who've read this blog since I first started, seem to have stuck around for all those months when I was barely reading blogs and barely writing. How wonderful to see that you're still there for me.