Most feelings seem like wild carnivores that ambush you, jump out of the bushes, seize you in their jaws, carry you off, and consume you till there’s nothing left. Stillness is not like that. Stillness is like a rare flower, easily overlooked; but, if you find it, you’ll want to collect and grow it in your garden.
By stillness I mean serenity, equanimity, calmness, tranquility, peace, quiet, repose. It’s the opposite of agitation, hyperactivity, hypervigilance, spastic, crazy, hectic, chaotic, nervous, excitable, frenetic, and troubled. The Greeks called it hesychia; the Buddhists, upekkha; Hindus, samatvam, and the Arabs, aslama, related to the name of their religion, Islam. It’s cherished by everyone almost as much as it’s avoided.
Correction, I don’t think stillness, per se, is avoided. Simplicity and inactivity are; but simplicity and inactivity are often the path to stillness. You might be afraid of simplicity and inactivity if you believe you always need to be productive and have an answer to everything; or if you don’t want to listen to your relentless thoughts that just get louder when you’re not busy. No, we value stillness; we just don’t know how to get it.
Stillness is that rare flower you find by accident. It must be cultivated if you want to make it a regular part of your life.
Remember a moment in your life when you were captivated by beauty. It could have been a sunset you couldn’t take your eyes off of, a beach that filled your senses, or music that reached into your soul. It might have been chocolate. Those are instances when stillness was like a rare flower. Take that specimen and cherish it. Develop the memory of that moment, keep it handy, and re-imagine it when needed.
The body is not necessarily still when you experience stillness in the wild. Athletes talk about a sense of stillness when they make a brilliant play. Their subjective sense of time slows down and everything is easy, while their bodies are in motion. Musicians say the same thing when their egos evaporate while their fingers are busy on the keyboard. Walking along the beach does not prevent you from attaining stillness, and dancing or playing doesn’t keep the music out of your soul. However, for stillness to be achieved, your mind must be quiet.
If you can’t remember a moment where you came upon stillness by accident, you’ll have to go out and find one. You’ll have to be like an explorer, seeking orchids in the Everglades. Slow down and try not to worry about the alligators. Look, listen, and feel carefully, wherever you are and see if you can find that beauty I was talking about. The trick is, you can’t try so hard. It can’t be a competition. You can’t force stillness.
If you can’t find any stillness, then you’ll have to make it from scratch. Take up meditation or yoga. These are activities in which stillness is the product. The other option is drugs; but, if you do that, you’ll need more drugs if you ever want to find it again.
I tend to cultivate stillness in the places where I need it most. When I’m in a hurry and must stop at a traffic light or wait in a line, that‘s my cue to cultivate stillness. It’s not as if I can do anything else, anyway. When I catch myself needing stillness, I tell myself I’m already doing everything I can, there is nothing more expected of me; therefore, I will be still and do nothing until I can go. Almost immediately I feel my heart rate drop, my blood pressure lower, and the sweat on my palms dry up. I often clasp my hands, look around, and discover something beautiful I would not have seen had I been frantic.
The second place I cultivate stillness is when I’m with clients. In this case, I’m not usually frustrated, as I am when I must wait; but I am needing to pay attention. I could be preparing an answer, making a diagnosis, putting together a formulation, or dreaming of lunch; but if I did any of those things while you were speaking, I wouldn’t be listening in the way you expect me to listen. In those moments, it’s important for me to give myself over to your story the way you see it and understand it as if I were you before I go messing around with my own interpretations and interventions. I don’t believe listening this way is the only thing a therapist should do; but I do believe it’s an essential component of our art.
Also, when a client has seen me be still, the stillness gives my words gravity when I finally do speak.
The third place I cultivate stillness is when I feel challenged or out of my element. This is the hardest plot of ground to cultivate stillness, for adrenaline is running; but being still is the most sensible thing to do. Being still eliminates much of the noise in the situation, the confounding factors of my own actions, and permits me to learn much more about what I am facing. Being still then is a period of study that makes any subsequent action I take all the more effective.
Another obvious place for stillness is in preparing to go to sleep. That’s a bad time for agitation, hyperactivity, hypervigilance, spasticity, craziness, nervousness, excitability, and trouble. It’s a good time to chill. It’s a great time to remember those rare moments of beauty, if you have them, or practice meditation, if you don’t. I wouldn’t try yoga, though; and, if you use drugs, you’ll get to where you always need drugs to go to sleep.
It’s possible to practice a partial stillness, where one part of you is still while the rest is working. That’s what athletes and musician are doing when they still their minds, so their bodies can perform beautifully. It’s also what I do when I write my first drafts. I still the part of me that wants to criticize my work prematurely. I tell myself to write crap for a first draft; as long as I write. The editor in me agrees to be still because it knows it can always change things later. If all of me was still, I wouldn’t write at all; I’d be in a hammock, contemplating the sky.
Stillness is also a great thing to cultivate for when those other feelings carry you off in their jaws. If you can be still — play dead, so to speak — carnivorous anger, fear, and confusion will pass you over and leave you alone.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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