‘Experiment with Light’ — a spiritual movement in British Quakerism

May 2, 2011 § 16 Comments

In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, Helen Meads has a chapter on a spiritual movement among British Friends that I found intriguing and surprising (“’Experiment with Light’: Radical Spiritual Wing of British Quakerism”, pages 217-232). Surprising because I’d never heard of it, intriguing because I thought it might really appeal to a lot of American liberal Friends. Experiment with Light has a website, www.experiment-with-light.org.uk, and I offer links to some other resources below.

Experiment with Light is a structured format for experiencing the Light and for sharing that experience with others in small groups that Rex Ambler started in 1996. The process is based on Ambler’s analysis of early Friends’ writings, in which he felt he had identified common steps in their experience of the Light and specifically, on a meditation process described in one of George Fox’s early publications (1653; see book description below). ‘Experimenters’ meet in ‘Light Groups’ for forty minutes of guided meditation, the meditation consisting of six steps interspersed with periods of silence, usually guided by a tape or CD recording (there’s also an online streaming version), but sometimes read aloud. There seem to be several versions of meditations to choose from: Meditation on the individual, Meditation on the world, and two Fox-based versions. After the meditation, there follows a period of silence for personal reflection and then a period of sharing. As with worship sharing, participants keep the sharing of others confidential.

Meads says that many Experimenters report having quite profound and often life-changing experiences during these sessions, that, for many, it deepens their spiritual lives in an ongoing way, both in meeting for worship and in their daily practice. It also creates strong bonds between the participants in a Light Group, and a sense of wider community with participants in other Light Groups.

According to Meads, Experiment with Light has also generated some tension within meetings. Friends sometimes turn to these Light Groups because of frustration with the lack of spiritual depth in their meeting or their meeting for worship, an attitude that their Light Group experience often reinforces—or awakens, if they had not felt that way before. Most Light Groups have been organized outside the formal structures of their meetings and the strong sense of spiritual sharing within the Light Group seems also to sometimes reinforce a sense of distance from the meeting.

For their part, meetings sometimes have resisted or resented the formation of Light Groups and often do not understand the impulse to start such a group or what goes on in them. While sharing your experience within the Light Group is an integral part of the Experiment with Light process, Experimenters often find it difficult to share their experiences outside the Light Group and meet with difficulties when they do, so the Experimenters and their group can seem secretive and opaque to outsiders, according to Meads. Furthermore, non-Experimenters have sometimes felt an implicit criticism in the Experimenters’ enthusiasm for their Groups and their experience and in the Experimenters’ conviction that what they are doing and experiencing is true or core Quakerism. The movement has chosen not to become a Listed Informal Group of Britain Yearly Meeting and usually organizes outside the formal structures of local meetings (only two Light Groups have done so, out of roughly one hundred formed so far), so there’s no formal way for meetings to engage with their local Light Group and, often, no sense of responsibility for them.

As I said, I am surprised that I have not heard of this movement; I’m not sure whether I’m just less well-informed than I thought I was or that the lines of communication between British and American Friends are just less efficient than I thought. Also, I’m surprised that no Light Groups seem to have formed in the U.S., especially since the basic resources are easily available online. Finally, I wonder whether liberal American Quaker meetings will provide fertile soil for Experiment with Light, and if Light Groups migrate here, will this cause problems in the US as it has in the UK? Do any of my readers have first hand experience with Experiment with Light? I would like to better understand this movement and its impact on British Quakerism and on local meetings in BYM, and to know of its progress in the U.S., if any Light Groups have formed here already.

If you are interested in knowing more, here are some resources:

Experiment with Light website: http://www.experiment-with-light.org.uk/.

Books about Experiment with Light:

Seeing, Hearing, Knowing: reflections on Experiment with Light, John Lampen editor. Chapters on “the origins of Experiment with Light, the experiences of some Light Groups, reflections on questions and difficulties that have arisen, and chapters linking the practice to worship, prayer, discernment, the psychology of ‘Focusing’, political action, and possible future developments.” Available from the Quaker Center Bookshop in England, £ 7. Quotes are from the Quaker Center blurb on the book.

Light to live by: an exploration in Quaker spirituality, by Rex Ambler. An explication of Experiment with Light, describing Ambler’s personal story behind the work and discussing the specific source in a 1653 publication of George Fox where Ambler claims to have found a clearly described meditation process. This book is available from FGC bookstore ($11.00), where it’s listed as a “Bestseller”, along with a couple of other books by Ambler: http://www.quakerbooks.org/RexAmbler.

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§ 16 Responses to ‘Experiment with Light’ — a spiritual movement in British Quakerism

  • ewler says:

    An update: The International Gathering for practitioners of Experiment with Light took place in 2013 at Woodbrooke Quaker Study centre in the UK, Birmingham. Participants from 12 countries. In 2016 Rex Ambler was invited to speak (on another topic) to the FGC in Minneapolis. On this occasion he was also asked to take part in sessions about the Experiment with Light practice. As a result, a group of American Quakers have decided to start a network of those interested in following up the practice further.
    I have been on the Steering Group of the Experiment with Light for six years (just stepping down this December, having done my two triennia) and have been monitoring the email traffic, with Helen Meads. We are in touch with most Light groups in the UK. They are well integrated now with their meetings: we have established a practice of strongly advising new groups to go through their Meeting’s business procedure to inform everyone of the group and give regular updates. Also in all that time we have not received any information leading us to think that the Light group has caused a problem. (and much to the contrary). Of course that doesn’t mean there are no problems at all ever, but I keep my ear attentively to the ground, and have not heard of any.
    The practice is now I would say well established among British Quakers – not universally practised, but for instance offered as a practice on every day of Britain YM’s triennial Gathering. I have found it life-changing and transformative.

  • I attended experiment with light in Philadelphia around 2010/11. It was led by Ray Bentman but I gather he has since, sadly, died. We do it at Homewood Friends in Baltimore.

  • Helen Meads says:

    I’m interested in your interpretation of what I wrote in the chapter in The Quaker Condition, Steven, because after finishing my research (full thesis accessible here: http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/3076/) I came to a more nuanced conclusion. I concluded the issue was with the Meeting and the way Friends did not truly know and love each other (and in one case an Elder described the state of eldership in her Meeting as lamentable), rather than with the Light group.

    Most Light groups do not lead to tension within Meetings (in Britain) because we now recommend that the establishment of a Light group is taken through the Meeting’s business process (which had not happened in the Meetings where my research was based). There’s a document recommending the process at: http://www.experiment-with-light.org.uk/guidance.pdf. If the Light group’s establishment is endorsed by minute after a thorough explanation, all can be made clear and can be understood.

    A couple of years ago Rex (Ambler) took the question of the Experiment’s place in Britain Yearly Meeting through his Local Meeting and Area Meeting business process to Meeting for Sufferings, which referred it to Quaker Life (a Central Committee of BYM) for advice. Quaker Life set up a group to discern the matter in conjunction with some representatives from the Experiment with Light Steering Group (Rex was one of them). The outcome of this process is that Experiment with Light practice is becoming well established in Local and Area Meetings throughout Britain, its place is in Local and Area Meetings. In addition, we (I’m on the Steering Group, too) are currently getting many requests from Meetings throughout Britain and Ireland to run introductory workshops. Friends in Norway have been over for training and use the practice actively as well. We have also had interest from the Netherlands and France and, of course, Rex started with his Carey Lecture in Germany (later published as ‘Light to Live by’). We also run introductory workshops at Quaker Centres in England (Woodbrooke, Swarthmoor Hall, Charney Manor, Jordans and Glenthorne).

    I am an experienced workshop introducer myself. I’ve worked with Rex, and with Diana Lampen, amongst others. The consensus is that the Experiment is a very safe practice. Therapists who have tried the practice do not demur: John Lampen has told us of a particular sceptic who then decided, after trying the Experiment, to introduce elements from it into his professional work. So I do not recognise the reservations ahoover has. In my experience, both from undertaking the detailed fieldwork in my research and from my practice as an introducer and a trainer of introducers, the Experiment is safe because it allows the Experimenter to go only as far as it is safe for her (or him) to go. John Lampen’s chapter in ‘Seeing Hearing Knowing’ on ‘Experiencing Darkness in Experiment with Light’ deals with the whole issue thoroughly and I particularly commend his penultimate paragraph (p55).

    We are trying to establish where Light groups are throughout the world and in September 2013 we are holding an International Light Gathering at Woodbrooke. Enquiries about the Gathering (we hope Friends will come from America as well as Africa, Australia, Continental Europe and Britain) can be made to ewl2013internationalgathering@gmail.com and other enquiries about practice can be made to experimetwithlight@gmail.com.

    I’d be pleased to hear from any American Friends about experience of Experiment with Light.

  • ahoover says:

    I have participated in a light group and have some reservations about them, but not the reservations you mention. Before I go into that, I should say that Ambler’s work performs a great service among Friends in that it points to a kind of experience that seemed central to Friends at one time and that had mostly gotten lost. I think that it’s inevitable that it would cause conflict in that the experience is very much like being “born again.” Joseph Phipps, who wrote the most important Quaker theological work of the 18th century, points to the same kind of experience –
    “the soul of man hath not only a faculty of cogitation, by which it ordinarily thinks, unites, divides, compares, or forms ideas, but also a latent power of internal sensation, or of perceiving spiritual objects by an inward and spiritual sense, when presented through a proper medium; which till the beams of Divine light shine upon it, it must be as totally unacquainted with, as the child in its mother’s womb is with its faculties of sight and hearing. . . . Thus born of the spirit, into this proper medium of Divine knowledge, the soul is made acquainted with that spiritual sense it could neither discover, nor believe pertained to it, whilst in its natural state. This is no new faculty added, but its own mental power newly opened and brought into its due place and use.
    Words are inadequate to the expression of this internal sense felt in the soul under Divine influence. It cannot be ideally conveyed to the understanding of the inexperienced; for it is not an image, but a sensation, impossible to be conceived but by its own impression.”

    The experiment with the light groups are trying to get Friends to that kind of experience and for that I say “Halleleuja!” But you can expect that if you tell Friends that they must be born again, you are not going to be very popular. So you end up being kind of mysterious about the whole thing. (But how can you not shout out that there’s this amazing process that people have no idea is available to them and that can change their lives in ways they can’t imagine.) And you end up being connected in a profound way with the people with whom you are sharing this experience because you end up touching the things that are most important and most sensitive in your lives.
    But I have reservations about the way Ambler initiates people into this process and experience. Foremost, this process brings up some powerful energies. There’s a lot of psychic armor people have in place and it’s there for a reason. You need to learn to respect those defenses and you also need to learn not to be fooled by them. I don’t think you get a sense of how threatening this process can be from reading Ambler and I don’t think he provides the tools to deal with those threats. And that can be important because if someone tries this and comes away feeling overwhelmed by those psychic forces, they may give up. Likewise, if they fall for some of the tricks our psyche can use – they may conclude that this is too hard for them.
    Ambler references the work of the American philosopher Eugene Gendlin. Gendlin has a community that’s been intensively doing this kind of work for forty years and I think they do a much better job of leading people into this process and helping them to stay with it. I’d especially recommend Ann Weiser’s The Radical Acceptance of Everything. Interestingly, one of the inspirations for Gendlin’s work was some time he spent at Pendle Hill in the 40’s.
    Also, if you want to read about this experience/process, you need to read Penington, not Fox. Penington put greater emphasis on it and is much more accessible.
    “Now the main thing necessary towards the redemption of the soul is, after the revealing of this principle, and some sense and feeling of it, and the turning of the mind towards it, to wait to be made more and more acquainted with it, that in the stirrings, movings, and leadings thereof, there be a ready giving up to be gathered into it, and guided by it.
    For though this principle be all life, yet it is at first but as a seed, and the appearance of the Lord in it is but as in a seed; very little, low, weak, hard to be discerned, easy to be overlooked and despised, and some greater and more undeniable appearance expected.”

  • Johan Maurer says:

    Reedwood Friends Church (Portland, Oregon, USA; part of Northwest Yearly Meeting) started an experiments with light group eleven years ago, at the time the Lampens visited us, and it continues.

    • Johan Maurer says:

      PS: By the Lampens, I’m referring to John and Diana Lampen, who were Reedwood’s scholars in residence in the year 2000. John edited the book Seeing, Hearing, Knowing: reflections on Experiment with Light.

  • Jan Michael says:

    Our meeting in Stillwater, OK, has had a nominal Light Group active for about three years. It started using Rex Ambler’s guidelines, then morphed using a variation of the guidelines, then into a midweek worship but more structured than the Sunday meeting for worship. We still return to Rex’s pattern with some regularity.

    I happened onto the Light to Live By book, was significantly impressed, attended one of Rex’s workshops at Pendle Hill, and did presentations for both our monthly and quarterly meetings. This hasn’t caused any friction or schism in the meeting. Some people don’t participate because of time constraints or lack of interest. One older member participated for a while but found no utility. Or perhaps more strongly he felt it a waste of time spending this much time in a contemplative mode rather than DOING something. That’s been a consistent theme for him for many years so has not special relevance to Light Groups.

  • Salt Lake Monthly Meeting read Rex Ambler’s book many years ago and held a series on Light. It was very rewarding.

  • A few years back Sacramento Friends Meeting explored the teachings and practice through a study group I facilitated, we all benefited greatly both on personal and Meeting wide levels. I use it quite frequently when I bump up against inner turmoil during Meeting for Worship and occasionally a very rich message lifts up for sharing. I also use it frequently during times of personal prayer and meditation. I learned about it from someone at Quaker Center (PYM retreat center) and I think they had a Light group perhaps affiliated with the Santa Cruz Meeting. It has been too long now to be certain.

  • Christine M. Greenland says:

    Hi, Steve —

    There have been a few gatherings at Pendle Hill (conference center in PA) a few years back, as well as several meetings in the area that have engaged in the work. Marcelle Martin has done a fair bit of work with this approach, as have Friends in New England.

    • Jody Kinney says:

      Marcelle Martin gave a workshop at Downingtown (PA) meeting and I just came back from our monthly gathering. We are usually 4-8 and we play the basic cd that Rex recorded. It hadn’t occured to me to do an online search. This has been very fruitful. Most of our meeting members don’t attend, although about 20 took the workshop, but most are very pleased that we exist.

  • There is an Experiments with Light group at Twin Cities Friends Meeting here in MN. As far as I know, there hasn’t been any tension about it. It is one of many small groups that have grown out of the life of the meeting. I’ve used and appreciated the meditations, but I haven’t been a part of the group, yet.

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