Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Way Will Open -- Or Not?

When Quakers engage in discernment, often we suggest to each other that if it's meant to be, "way will open." On the internet, I see that "way will open" is also cited as a "Zen proverb," but the full statement of this version is: "Move and way will open."

The experience of way opening is thrilling, affirming, and encouraging. We do feel reassured that we are on the right track when this happens.

But what does it mean when way doesn't open, at least not easily or immediately? It is tempting to take this as a sign that the path we are trying to take is really not the right one, but is this always the case? Social change is often met with resistance at first. If social activists took resistance as a sign that their vision for change is all wrong, nothing would ever change, because all change, being change, meets with at least some resistance. If you study historical examples of transitions from injustice to justice, you see that the resistance can be considerable, and the most successful movements are successful because the activists are prepared for resistance. They expect it, and have strategies for holding strong in the face of it.

So too in our personal lives, times of important discernment are times of personal change, and so some resistance (internal and external) is to be expected. These times of resistance can feel like way NOT opening, and so at these times, discernment can be especially difficult. Do we proceed? If so, how?

I do not have a comprehensive answer to this very important question. I can just speak from experience about one possible answer.

Sometimes if you push and nothing happens, and then push again, perhaps more hesitantly now, and still nothing happens, and then you push yet again, weakly, with growing uncertainty, and then start making token pushes out of habit, and then carefully reassess everything from the ground up all over again, and feel convinced that this really is the right path, and feel frustrated that the universe is not at all helping, and wonder what this all means, and wonder if the whole meaning of your life is going to end in pathetic frustration, and then you push again now fully expecting nothing to continue to happen...

Way still might suddenly open miraculously before your very eyes.


  1. For whatever reason, this post reminds me strongly of childbirth. "Way will open". In that statement, there is the implication of strong desire (whose?) either yours or more likely the Divine Light working in you. It is not "Way may open" or "Way should open" but "Way will open." When giving birth, if a woman becomes full of fear, if she struggles against her contractions, her body will produce hormones that will prolong her delivery. This is a survival strategy for times when a laboring woman is in dangerous circumstances that would endanger a newly born child and postpartum woman. The body tenses, the pain increases...everything works to delay the inevitable if only for a short time. However, if the woman focuses on her body and birth canal (the Way of the child) then Way will Open for her. The vaginal muscles' contractions become more productive. Her breathing becomes more regular. She conceives and accepts the task her body must perform. The woman stops acting against the inevitable process of creation. It still hurts like hell but whoever said that cooperation with Creation was painless?

  2. In my experience Way opening doesn't have much to do with lack of resistence. There is often friction in the work and often the friction is even an essential part of the work. No, Way opening has to do with the tools needed to do the work suddenly appearing. In many cases this is some other person with some skill or contact who just appears on the scene able to offer some assistance. Other times it is a chunk of time suddenly becoming available when some scheduled activity gets unexpectedly cancelled. Way opening doesn't mean that there are no obstacles to work through. Lack of resistence would mean we weren't on earth anymore! Some people seem to think that Way opening means no courage or effort or persistence is going to be required. But that's just spiritual romanticism.

    However, there is such a thing as Way not opening. This happens when what I think is a leading is actually my own self-will. When this is what is going on God will not offer me helpful tools to get the job done. Instead there will be little indications that I should be looking somewhere else to put my energies. A major sign of Way not opening is when people of spiritual weight do not catch any sense of excitment from you when you talk about the project. If they react as though you were trying to guilt them into cooperating then it's probably ego-driven and not Spirit-led. This is why discernment is not merely an individual process. There is a role for community and accountability.

  3. After some years of dissatisfaction with the leadership of the man who first brought me to pro-homeless activism, I began to pray that we might find someone with his charisma and different flaws.

    Some months later, we were rewarded by the appearance of a certain homeless man (with a strongly compassionate heart, great stubbornness, and some flaws that eventually got him into considerable trouble.) On the first night of this vigil, we were talking. He'd owned and professionally driven a truck, he said, had been stranded here when the truck was stolen.

    "I'm sorry I got your truck stolen," I told him, and explained. We both laughed about it. I went home exhausted, while he and some of the other homeless people involved decided to continue, starting a series of demonstrations he led for several months until the City found a way around the lawsuit that had protected the group until then.

    The demonstrations served as a safe site for camping for over a hundred people during those months, but left no lasting result except for our friendship with him and a few others.

    We got very little support from local clergy. One lay preacher told me later that after the initial impulse, the spiritual power went out of the effort as we became more determinedly stuck into continuing and winning some long term success. Perhaps, but it was toward the end that I met a young woman who in many ways was a natural Quaker, who went on attending our Meeting the next several years, until needing to leave town for family obligations.

    Having way slam shut on us... was indeed timely. We needed to rethink, to realize the limitations of this approach, stop making an idol of nonviolent activism & stubborn persistence.

    Now I have had my way blocked for over a year, with a grant for reviving our old street newspaper sitting in a bank account unused, while a dedicated would-be helper continued unable to rent us a needed distribution site. Through this time I've continued to wonder what I could write about poverty that I haven't already written, how I could possibly have more effect than Terry Messman of AFSC, who after decades of excellent professional journalism, passion and dedication, is still facing most of the same subject issues as when he started. (He did succeed in closing down one homicidally-negligent pyschiatric hospital, saving who-knows how many lives in the process, by a combination of good reporting plus supervisors who backed him up when the hospital's lawyers paid a visit. Once the story was broken, the 'real' media took it up.)

    So. I've had the best human help I could for this recent project, and it's failed. If this is really my next assignment, some place will be found, and the grant organization will cut me enough slack, and the inspiration I need to continue will come. And if not, it's been one long, frustrating learning-experience. I don't need to know, yet, what comes next.

  4. I am posting, but puzzled as to why I am. From my first reading there was something that wouldn't let me go, and I'm not at all sure what it is.

    After reading the post, I began to look for the origin of the phrase (which I learned as "proceed as Way opens"). So far, no luck.

    Although giving birth is outside my personal experience, Hystery's comment makes sense to me.

    My own experience with Way opening has not had to do with social activism, but with my personal life. What I want to put forward is that I have never found pushing to work.

    When I push, I am operating out of a cerebral (early Friends called it 'notional') or emotional or willful place. Usually those places in me are tinged with despair or colored by codependent/para-alcoholic 'rescue needs.'

    What I am learning to do is to stop everything, drop everything, and sit still. Most recently, to help me with discernment or with blocks that arise, I've been working with one or the other of Rex Ambler's Experiment with Light CDs.

    Ordinarily I flee guided meditations like the plague (nobody's going to impose a form on ME! the very idea). But from the outset I've been able to relax and accept the direction Rex offers.

    Allowing myself to be searched by the Light has often revealed to me where my 'notions' do not agree with God's.

    So far, God's have always been simpler than I could ever have imagined.

  5. Someone at our Meeting today said, "When it's my will, it starts out easy and gets harder. When it's God's will, it starts out hard and gets easier."

  6. I very much unite with what Richard M offers above: he articulates well what my own experience has been around Way opening.

    I want to expand a bit on what Richard alludes to, about the role of the community, especially when there is otherwise resistance from, let's say, "the establishment."

    Evidence that in fact the Way may be open (or opening) is when Friends who have labored with us come under the weight of our concern.

    In my own monthly meeting, one Friend was given the concern that we work to make the meetinghouse as fragrance-and-chemical free as possible. That Friend began working with a care-and-accountability committee, and those Friends in turn came under the weight of the original concern, took it up as their own, and brought information and suggestions to the meeting as a whole.

    There is more work to be done, since a few Friends are not united with the proposal that as a meeting we formally affirm and minute that we are committed to work towards being fragrance-and-chemical free, but that too is part of the journey...

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  7. I really appreciate all of you sharing your thoughts and experiences! This is really helpful, and your stories are very moving. Thank you.