In my experience, one of the most poignant benefits of walking a spiritual path is the opportunity to cultivate a relationship with stillness. In the early years of my practice, stillness was like an unknown continent on the other side of the earth; a foreign land with a mysterious terrain I barely even knew existed. Before I entered the practice, my orientation to life was often like that of a shark: swim constantly, I thought, or else you’ll die! I was often in search of a set of experiences in the outer world that would fill what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins refers to as the “god-shaped hole” in my heart. In the end, this wasn’t a very sustainable way to live, not if what I was truly seeking was a rich, grounded and meaningful life.
The early years of my practice also featured a good amount of fumbling around as I learned to walk – or should I say crawl? – on this new terrain. I was gaining exposure to an entirely new way of being that, in its formal structure, often centered on the concept of doing nothing at all. On my first silent retreat, my restlessness felt so large that there were many periods of sitting mediation during which I thought a freight train was going to explode right through my chest! Yet something kept bringing me back, something intuitively told me this was the path I needed to follow no matter how excruciating it may feel. Because, the truth is, that even on that first retreat I was able to touch moments of stillness that revealed a whole new way of experiencing this life; a way of being that wasn’t constantly pushing me towards the next thing but was allowing me to rest in the stillness and intimacy of not needing to do anything at all.
I can clearly remember a moment a year or two after that first retreat, I was at a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction training with Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Mount Madonna Center outside of Monterey, when the full beauty of stillness truly landed for me. During this seven-day training, Jon incorporated three days of silence. During that time, I can recall sitting outside the dining hall one morning after breakfast, there was about a half hour before we were to meet again in the meditation hall, and I had absolutely nowhere to be and absolutely nothing to do. It was a clear, warm spring morning and I simply sat down in a chair in a small courtyard, overlooking the redwoods and Monterey Bay, and did something that was quite shocking: nothing. And not only did I do nothing but I enjoyed doing nothing. I wasn’t thinking and I wasn’t not thinking. I was simply sitting in a chair overlooking the lush green valley below me. I was simply feeling the warmth of the morning sun on my skin. That was it. Nothing more, nothing less.
As my practice has evolved, I’ve come to a personal understanding of stillness and it’s difference from silence. For me, silence is the absence of noise and distraction while stillness is an embodied quality of being. Silence is something I may be able to influence by going on retreat or by finding quiet spaces and places in my life in which to practice, reflect, or simply rest and relax. Silence can be beautiful and deeply nourishing but it’s not something I can always control. Stillness, on the other hand, is an inner quality that I can nurture and cultivate; it’s a refuge I can always return to because it exists within my body. In a challenging meeting at work, with intense emotions and divergent perspectives swirling all around me, silence may be something I desire but is not available in that moment. However, I can drop into the sensations in my body and seek refuge within a stillness that exists there. I can rest in the interior stillness that follows a few slow deep breaths. Stillness is a resource that, for me, exists both in and out of retreat, both on and off the meditation cushion.
Even in my formal sitting practice, I find a distinction between silence and stillness. For example, while my mind may be very active during a particular meditation – moving from the past to the future, from remembering to planning – my body is actually resting in stillness. While my mind may be far from silent and filled with “traffic,” my body is like a car pulled off to the side of the road. And, when life gets noisy and full of bumper-to-bumper intensity, it’s this car-by-the-side-of-the-road stillness that I seek out within myself. It’s a quality I can call upon no matter what’s taking place in the world around me. Over time, my body has learned to cultivate this relationship with stillness and it has been an unexpected, and deeply nourishing, aspect of my practice.