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Stories: Religious

An Interview with Charlotte Roberts

Fifteen years ago, Charlotte Roberts had an experience in a Quaker Meeting for Worship that she will never forget. It was what she thought of when asked if she had ever experienced collective resonance. In this interview with Renee Levi, Charlotte describes the setting, in a landmark historic meeting house, what she felt in those moments, and how it affected her life. She also shares a similarly felt encounter in a group of executives she was facilitating in a leadership workshop.

RL: Charlotte, would you please describe your experience of collective resonance?

CR: It was a Sunday morning at Quaker meeting, a Friends’ Meeting for Worship. The building is a historic landmark, built in the late 1700s. When you sit on one of the pews and you look up, there are these windows up there. This building is made of real thick stone walls with plaster inside, which is the old plaster. And even now some of the panes in the windows are the original yellowish glass and you can see the waves in the glass, because they just couldn't make glass then like they do now. The benches are original, too, uncomfortable wooden benches with no cushions on them. So in so many ways, the original founders of that meeting are always there. Because the building is old, those are the original benches, the old wooden benches that are uncomfortable. There are no cushions on anything.

The place has an old wooden, creaky floor. So there's that smell of old, that sort of a dusty-musty smell. That’s always part of the experience for me entering that space. The sunlight coming through those three windows up there at the front, high up on that wall. So the sunlight's coming through and that dusty smell and the creaky floor when you walk to wherever you sit down. And when you sit down on the wooden bench, it creaks. It lets you know it knows you're here. There are so many ways you're announced.

And you can just hear, as you sit down and center, or begin centering, the folks coming in. So there's always this welcoming and people being announced, almost, by the building itself. It's just an incredible place.

And before we walk into the meeting room, there's a little anteroom. People are always quietly saying hi and hugging and hanging their coats up and that sort of stuff. So there's fellowship out there but people know, when they step into the doorway of the meeting room, you're to go in quietly. You may smile at someone, you may wave at someone. But it's about silence.

RL: When was this, Charlotte?

CR: It was about fifteen years ago.

RL: It feels so present to me, the way you're describing it.

CR: It is present with me right now. I went there that day in anticipation. I was what we would call “heavy of heart.” There was something bothering me and I didn't know what it was and I went there to be centered and to be nurtured. I wanted for Spirit just to be with me, with no expectation other than just reconnecting with Spirit. And the old meeting house makes it so much easier. Sitting there, though, I had trouble closing my eyes. It was almost like I couldn't let go of whatever it was that was burdensome. That's usually a sign for me that I'm struggling, when I can't even close my eyes.

Finally I did. And the personal sense, when I finally could let go of the outside world and just be here, be now and be in Spirit, waiting - how can I describe that sensation? That sensation is like - I don't know any other way to say this - a warm, cool breeze. I know those are opposites, but it's both warm and cool at the same time. A warm, cool breeze that blows from above me, around me and through me.

RL: Mmm, beautiful.

CR: So it's almost as if I can just feel myself just going whoosh. You know, just going away. Not as in away away, but letting go of the other world and coming into this one, the world of me in Spirit.

Well, it didn't take long, Renee, before it began to feel like something was going on in the room. And, again, I don't have my eyes open, once I close them in meeting, they tend to stay closed. But it was a sense of a feeling of expansiveness, of something bigger, of something going beyond.

Let's say the word electricity, not irritating like electricity - it's not sparky - but an “Oh!” like when you're sitting in a room and someone comes in the room from behind you, and you don't hear a word, but you know they're there?

RL: Yes.

CR: A presence.

RL: A felt sense?

CR: Yes, a felt sense. A presence. It was like I could feel that breeze, that centeredness going out and beginning to surround everybody. And it didn't go like in one row, two rows, three. It doesn't go linearly. It just sort of oozes, kind of like an amoeba, because it doesn't go evenly, in concentric circles. It just sort of oozes and what I'm aware of is that it was oozing to my right, because I always sat on the left side of meeting. So it was sort of over there, beginning to include those folks coming around behind me and then coming back over to my left.

And I had that sensation of rising up, as if we were leaving our everyday selves somewhere and just rising, sitting there in the presence of Spirit. Now, my eyes are still closed so I don’t know what everybody else is feeling. We stayed in silence for some time, I don’t know how long. But somewhere close to the end of the hour, Douglas Steere, a professor at Haverford and a theologian, quoted some poetry. His voice softly entered. He was clearly in the space, not thinking from outside of it and his voice just sort of softly came in. He was standing. I know that because I did remember hearing the bench creak when he stood up.

I have no idea who the quote was from, but the image I had then, and again it was with my eyes closed, was that we were being wrapped, coddled with like a golden light. It was just all over, like a cocoon, surrounding us. Top, bottom, side to side, it was more -- it really was, it was like an elliptical shape, like we were in a cocoon. When I see it in my mind's eye again it was like a gauzy or cottony cocoon with gold light through it. And that didn't come until Douglas gave his poem. Spirit was there, Spirit was among us. Nobody spoke.

RL: How long did it go on?

CR: I don't know how long it took before it happened, maybe 45 minutes. Because you don't know anything about time. I just had no concept of time. I do know that when meeting came to an end - at the end of Friends meeting, we typically shake hands with people around us - people were slow to move. And that particular Sunday, everybody sitting around me, anyway, was quiet and slow and meeting was slow to close.

RL: Slow to close...

CR: Yeah. Even when we would extend hands, it was sort of slowly, like slow the speed down.

RL: Slow motion?

CR: That's how I knew it must have enveloped everybody, because we were all very gently, very quietly, slowly extending handshakes.

RL: Did you have a sense even in the beginning of the meeting that it was a different day?

CR: No. No, going into meeting, the only thing I knew was that I was heavy of heart. And hoping, I started to say anticipating, but it was more hoping, that I would just get fed and nurtured by Spirit. And if that's all that happened, that was great. You know if this one little weak link between me and Spirit was connected and I just in some way was nurtured, that would be enough. I had no idea, Renee, that it would be like it was.

See, for all I know, the meeting might have already moved to that space, and I joined it. I don’t know. I have no idea, no way of knowing, but once I let go of the world and just came in and that breeze came, that could have been the energy of the group.

RL: The breeze. So you felt it as air?

CR: Like warm, but sort of cool. Yes, it's sort of like the sensation of a breeze. So, for all I know, the meeting was already there and I finally moved in. I finally got quiet enough to be in.

RL: So the energy, you're saying, may very well have been there in the room already. And you, by letting go, you were able to enter it.

CR: Yes, but I'll never know that. I’ll never know how that energy field came to be, whether it flowed through me or I moved into it. But it's an energy field. It's that breeze, it's that energy field, it's that different -- well, energy field, it's that different energy. That just sort of mo-o-oved slowly around and included -- but, again, it could have been the energy field was there and I was just finally experiencing it. Or maybe it could have been there. There were four or five of us. You know, unless we could have interviewed everybody who was there that day at that moment, but it was just so interesting how, at the close of meeting, how slow we were to move. I mean, people clearly were surrounded and touched.

And, you know, we even quietly left the room. I mean, people were saying hi, but they were saying hi in quiet voices and that sort of thing.

RL: Which is not typical?

CR: No, typically, we would be normal voice, “good to see you,” “how are you feeling?” “How's your family?” That sort of stuff.

RL: Do you think it had something to do with the fact that you were heavy of heart that day?

CR: I've thought about that, Renee. I think that made me more receptive, because I was hopeful. I wanted to be nurtured by Spirit. I just wanted to be lightened. Just take the load off for an hour. And now that's about to make me cry. And it's not only to take the load off for an hour. It's just, I got not only that, I got taken to another place. And I do think that made a difference for me because then I was asking Spirit to enter, hoping Spirit would enter. RL: I think that makes one more open, more vulnerable in a certain way. It sounds like you came in very individual, very much yourself, with boundaries around yourself. And what it seems happened, it that they kind of melted, or dissolved, into the collective.

CR: Yes. Last time you and I talked, I mentioned this, that there's a phrase that I have heard for a long time, “Enter the meeting singly, as if none were present but the Lord”. So I always try to be in myself, of myself. Entering as if none were present but the Spirit. And always, by the way, intimidated by that thought. Would I touch the door handle and open the door if I thought the Spirit was on the other side? Just me with a private audience? So there's always that little 'Oh, dear!'.

RL: Oh!

CR: Yeah...yeah. It's one thing if I'm dying to face Spirit, but it's another thing if I'm living. Look at the responsibility that goes with it. If I'm living, it happens and I have to do something with the experience. If I'm dying, well, I died.

RL: Well, it's interesting that you mention that, Charlotte, that there's, along with that anticipation, hopefulness and openness, there's also that little thing, that little -- I don’t know what the word for it is. Awe is the one that comes to my mind. It stops us. A little bit of a resistance, maybe.

CR: There's always -- that's right. What if it is so grand and I don't know what to do with it? What if it is awesome? What do I do with that? Because we've not been taught. Even with the wonderful parents that I had -- and my mother and I would have these conversations about death and that sort of stuff since I can remember. Still, I never remember anybody saying to me that whenever you have these spiritual experiences or you have a sense of someone else or something greater, like God, well, that's just the way life is and you've been blessed. Nobody ever said that to me. But if I had children or if I had grandchildren, I'd have these conversations with them.

RL: Charlotte, can you remember where in your own body, you really the collective experience? Can you remember specifically how it felt? What got activated or where in your body you felt it?

CR: See, it's as if I didn’t have a body. I wasn’t aware of body. The awareness was as if I didn't have physical body at that time. We had been elevated. It wasn't an out-of-body experience, I mean, I knew it was me. But just for a while, I was just taken somewhere else and acknowledging a different form of me. Of us.

RL: Of us?

CR: Yes, everyone in that room. I was aware that when we were all elevated, there was a sense of rising up. If you asked me how far I think we rose up, maybe 12 inches. It's not like we went to the sky or something. It was sort of like a little bit of an elevator ride, just a little lift. Just something picked us up off the bench, so that I wouldn’t be aware of my physical weight, body. It felt like all of us moved up inside this cocoon.

RL: Oh, yes. You said you didn't have a mental image of it...

CR: Right. I just had a feeling of it, but you're right, I had no picture in my head of it. My intellect was not engaged, the rational mind was not engaged. It was my sensing of it. Though I might have had a mental image, my intellect didn't create that mental image. Because if my intellect had kicked in, it would have been going, “Oh, listen to that, that's a French poet and theologian. I wonder who that is, I wonder what book that’s in. He's a professor, isn't that amazing he can memorize that thing? Don't you think that's incredible? He quoted that” -- That's what my intellect would have been doing. Analyzing.

RL: And instead it was doing what?

CR: My intellect was just resting somewhere. I left it when I closed my eyes. This is real hard for me, Renee, I don't often leave it. But I left it somewhere. And so, all the rest of me was taking this in.

So, you know - it wasn't the brain part that was doing that. It was more my spirit, my soul, that part of me then was going through the experience and saw it and that part of me felt it.

RL: Was there a shift at all when Douglas Steere started speaking? And, if so, what was that?

CR: There wasn’t a shift. It was like music. It was like coming from the distance and was just gently coming in. It wasn't an intrusion. He just had an incredible ability and sensitivity to know how and when to come in and with what.

RL: What did he do for the group, Charlotte, when he gradually introduced sound into the room? It was the entrance of sound in stillness, yes?

CR: Yes.

RL: What do you think that sound did?

CR: Oh, a good question. I think it honored the experience. I think it began to bring us back to Earth with words, but beautiful words, so in that sense, he bridged us. He explained and bridged us. Explained, here's what it is, and bridged us back to the coming back that we were going to have to do.

And 'bridge' is a good word, because it's almost like he -- and I won't remember any bit of the poetry. But those words were like, “And you can always come back here again”. So in that sense, it was honoring. Like honoring and instructing and bridging. I'm just so sorry he's no longer living for you to talk to him, because he was an incredible person. His wife, Dorothy Steere, sometimes would do the same thing at the end of a meeting.

RL: So it honored it. It was the kind of a bridge that took beautiful words and...

CR: ...which are of this Earth. And of the intellect. And sort of began to reconnect us. But in a beautiful, loving, spiritual way.

RL: Charlotte, that sounds like a moment of shift and I’m interested in what shifts groups into resonance. What would you say the moments of shift were in your experience? For example, the silences entered into by words, you know, musical words, let's say. And earlier on, it seemed like another point of shift when you mentioned that you came in individually, anticipating Spirit but then it shifted into this collective thing. Other than what you've told me, can you identify any particular reasons that it shifted? Or things you remember about what happened just prior to it?

CR: No. No, it seemed ordinary. And because I was heavy of heart, I probably wouldn't have noticed anyway. There seemed to be four shifts. One was when I finally let go of my rational mind, closed my eyes and just the breeze came. That was shift number one. Shift number two was when my sense, my energy field started mo-o-oving out slowly, I used the word 'oozing', started moving out slowly and everybody was with me and incorporated in that energy field. And that held for the longest time.

The third one, then, was when it felt like we raised up about 12 inches or something, we were lifted. Now, see, again, I have no idea if anybody else ever felt that. Because it's just - I didn't ask anybody, I was just too -- it was just such a holy moment, you didn't want to talk about it, you know?

That was the third shift and then the fourth shift was when Douglas' voice comes from way over there somewhere and just gently waffles in with these incredible words.

RL: So...four shifts. That's great, thank you.

CR: Yeah, and then, with Douglas' voice and our opening our eyes again to shake hands...because we hadn't left the space yet. So I'm thinking everybody had to finish it, carry it to completion that day themselves.

RL: Sometime later.

CR: Yeah. I carried that whole thought with me for the longest time. I went home with just carrying it.

RL: Do you remember when it broke? I mean, this kind of bubble, I'm imagining this bubble. Do you remember noticing that it wasn't there anymore?

CR: No. No, it was probably so gradual. It was a Sunday so I probably didn't have to go do something right away. So it probably in some sense just carried bit by bit through the day. But I don't remember.

RL: Have you ever had that afterwards, that kind of experience?

CR: Yes. Not as intense, but yes. One time, Peter and I - Peter Senge - were leading the three-day leadership program. And at the close, a man stood up and talked to his wife in front of all of us about how much he loved her, how much he knew she had sacrificed for his career, and how grateful he was. And he was so glad that she was his wife. He started to cry. And many of us did as well.

So I have had it happen with eyes open. We were all sitting in a circle, there were about 40 of us, all sitting in a circle. We had been together for three days really looking at this whole business of a different way of being in an organization. So I've had it happen with eyes open and with business people in a non-religious setting.

RL: Was it the same type of feeling?

CR: Same sense of being surrounded by some energy field. Being emotionally lifted. His words took the energy of the group to that next level. There was this man, this executive, who was saying very intimate, loving, deep words in front of us all, letting us all witness it.

RL: Wow.

CR: So that's another time. When you first asked me to think about a collective resonance experience for this interview, I was thinking about both of these - either of them would have worked. And I remember, at the end of that day Peter and I both said, “You know, that's why we do this work.” And I sort of joked and I said, “If I've got to die, I want to do it today. Let me go out on this high.”

RL: Spirit really entered that room that day.

CR: Absolutely. And, again, we were all slow to leave it. To break up and go get baggage and taxis and stuff like that. It's like we knew we were in a different place, a different space, and just slow to physically leave it. There was a real quiet strength and warmth that day and there were many of us who were crying with him.

RL: When this man stood up and emotion entered into it - and loving, you used the word loving – was that the time you noticed the collective resonance?

CR: I've asked myself that question before. I think the fact that we had been together for three days and been learning together created it conditions that made it possible, but then not necessarily ensure that it would happen.

So his giving to his wife at that level and his gratitude, I think, was the precipitating event that moved us into that very special place. And the fact that we weren’t embarrassed by it and he wasn't embarrassed, and she wasn't, either. Nobody was, and you know how we get really funny around emotion?

RL: Yes.

CR: Well, nobody was that day, at least not visibly. Nobody made a wisecrack. We all were just there. And he was just there. He was moved, clearly moved to speak to her.

RL: Wow.

CR: Oh, it was, Renee, it was just incredible.

RL: I'm just curious, Charlotte, do you think that his emotion shifted the energy field in the room? There has been some research that says that emotions shift the electromagnetic fields surrounding human beings.

CR: I would say that the energy field was so different. See, I had gone past emotion to some other realm. And so there wasn't an emotion. At the time, I didn't feel awe or gratitude, it was just being there, in the new space. No, emotion doesn't sound like the right word for the other one, it's something bigger or beyond emotions. Emotions, to me, sounds too earthly. I was of a group. Though I existed, I was of the group.

RL: Charlotte, what value or significance have your several experiences of collective resonance had for your life or work?

CR: A grounded space that it's possible. That it could be a natural way for humans to be on this planet and inch by inch, row by row, if I can get folks to just experience it once, then I think they'd be like me, they'd be curious and wonder if they could do it again and with whom and how much and in what circumstances.

I just believe it could be the foundation of all relationships. But until people have the experience, it can't be. How can it be if they don't know what we're talking about?

RL: So part of your life's work, it sounds like, is to help to enable people to experience that state of collective unity or resonance or whatever you want to call it, so that they'll know, so that they'll seek it out in their different forms, in work, in life -- right?

CR: Yes. And that they would even on occasion use the "L" word. That there is love. And sometimes I'll joke about the "L" word. I say, well, let's not say it. Whatever we do, let's not say it. But it's love in that grander sense of unity.

RL: Yeah, isn't it amazing how afraid I think people are to use that? Personally, I think that is because of what you just said, because we are born knowing that, we are born knowing love in that sense, I think. And I think the loss of it, one way or another, throughout our lives, through our experiences is so painful that we are really afraid or embarrassed or whatever to get back to that place. Or fearful, maybe, that we'll lose it again, I don't know. But it's there for us, I think, anyway.

CR: We talk about a child's innocence. I think that sometimes is a phrase for a child living in that special world and in that grander love and in that resonance. I mean, sometimes children are playing and you know you shouldn’t enter their world, because they're in a very special place at that moment. You can watch them, you can just love them, but don't break the bubble.

RL: Exactly. And finally, Charlotte, what are you feeling right now?

CR: Very relaxed and warm. Not rushed. Not aware of time, so just here. Watching these strands of spider webs dancing outside this window, they're reflecting on the sun. And just watching how the light catches them.

RL: Thank you Charlotte, I really appreciate your wisdom and sharing this story with me.

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