The Clearness Committee is a venerable Quaker practice for seeking clarity in important decisions, such as marriage. This method of discernment is based on a two-fold conviction: (1) that each of us has access to inner wisdom; and (2) that this inner light can become clear when a group gives its caring, undivided attention, and offers questions instead of advice.
Traditionally, the seeker or focus person invites five or six trusted individuals (with as much diversity of relationship to the seeker as possible) and provides them beforehand a written description of the situation or choices he is facing. The Clearness Committee then meets for about three hours, with the possibility of continuing in a second or third meeting in subsequent weeks. One member agrees to serve as clerk (or facilitator), another as recorder, and everyone serves as prayerful listener and channel for clarifying questions.
The essential and defining feature of the Clearness Committee is this: that after the focus person summarizes the issue, members of the committee assist her by asking questions rather than giving advice or problem solving. Honest, caring queries, arising out of prayerful silence, help the focus person to see herself and her situation in a new light and unblock her inner wisdom and authority.
In a workshop or intensive of sufficient duration, i.e. at least five days, an adaptation of the Clearness Committee process has been very valuable in the Going Forth stage. Here everyone is given the opportunity to be the focus person and seek clarity on a particular issue. The time for each person is necessarily reduced, i.e. less than an hour, but this time span has proved sufficient to yield important insights.
The Clearness Committee can also be used in a group that meets regularly over an extended period of time, for everyone in turn or upon request of a group member.
Block out two sessions of three hours each in the latter half of the workshop, say on two consecutive afternoons. (The work can be done in 2 ½ hour sessions, but it’s a squeeze). The process requires such keen, sustained attention, that back-to-back sessions are tiring.
Divide the participants into groups of five or at most six people each. It is useful in this practice to have people who are partners or work colleagues end up in the same small group.
Each group is given a separate, undisturbed meeting place. In each three-hour session, three people take their turns as focus person or seeker.
Before breaking into groups, take time to explain the process in detail:
- Acknowledge the Quaker origins of this method and state its purpose.
- While each of us faces a number of issues, we select just one to bring to the Clearness Committee. The process works best when we specify and delineate a particular issue—even if it is a major one—which calls for some choice or action on our part.
- Strict confidentiality is to be observed (unless the focus person specifies otherwise).
- Timing: Each person has 45 minutes as focus person or seeker. Of this allotted time the focus person takes no more than 10 minutes to present his particular issue and situation. That leaves 35 minutes for the Clearness-style queries, and possible reflections at the close. There will be a 10-minute stretch break before the next person’s turn as seeker.
- Before presenting his issue, the focus person asks another group member to be facilitator (who will serve as time-keeper and process reminder) and yet another to be the scribe (jotting key queries and points, perhaps in the focus person’s own notebook).
- At this point, group members may decide if they wish to listen and respond to the focus person from the perspective of one living in the past or the present or the future. (“I’ll be an ancestor this time.”) To include “the beings of the three times” has been useful in our adaptation of the Clearness Committee, for it opens us to the wider context of our work and some radically different perspectives. (“From the viewpoint of a future being, I would ask you this…”) These adopted roles are to be held lightly, and not weighted with literalness, lest they restrict other questions one may be moved to ask.
- Both before and after the focus person presents her issue, the group takes some moments of silence. It is a prayerful silence in which we devote our full attention to the seeker. The questions we offer will arise out of that prayerful intention.
- Make clear, above all, that questions are the heart of the Clearness Committee. It requires mindfulness and self-discipline not to fall into old habits of wanting to “fix” and give advice. This means no psychological “rescuing,” no solutions offered, no stories or wise counsel from our own experience. Only honest, probing, caring questions are called for. Though often challenging, these questions are offered with humility and an attitude of absolute respect.
- When the queries we offer are actually advice in disguise, or when we lapse into anecdotes from our own lives, the facilitator helps us stick to the Clearness practice. On the other hand, don’t hold back on questions just because they may seem “off the wall.” A query like “what colors do you associate with these job alternatives?” may open a realm of intuition.
- It is, of course, in the answers the focus person hears himself making, that he uncovers his inner wisdom. So his responses should be ample enough to allow for that, yet brief enough to let more questions be asked. Some questions may stir reflections that the focus person finds hard to articulate or wishes to keep to himself. He is always free to refrain from a verbal answer.
- If there is time at the end, group members may wish to speak of the qualities they sense in the focus person, and the kind of trust they feel in his capacity to make the right choice and take the right action.
- Sometimes the right line of action becomes immediately clear to the focus person; sometimes it unfolds more gradually, as she continues later to digest the experience of the Clearness process. She is encouraged to trust in this gradual unfolding; but if her intuition strongly prompts her near the end of the session to ask the group for direct advice, she may, of course, do so.
If time permits, consider giving people more opportunity to prepare. This would include a silent time alone, in which they let a key issue/question emerge. And then they might talk briefly in pairs, to help themselves name and specify this issue. The Life Map practice can precede the Clearness Committee to help people clarify their questions.