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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Stillness

Less is more.
| Robert Browning

Stillness

Teens today may chuckle at boomers wistfully recalling better days when we were not all walking around staring into screens, reduced to thumbs and eyeballs, so immersed in texting or streaming or gaming that we are isolated from each other even on a busy street. Those were simpler times when one could watch television without being watched, when privacy had not yet been stolen and trafficked in exchange for petty conveniences, when we were not inundated by thousands of programming choices courtesy of Amazon and Netflix and the rest in a digital whirlwind of distraction designed to induce a feeling of being in control of a life angling out of control. Things more human and less digital had value. The truth was not just something to tie in knots to manipulate public opinion, the word “friend” meant more than a “thumbs up” icon on Facebook, and sharing feelings with loved ones called for more care, time, and attention than it takes to send a smiley face.

What made the “better days” better is that there was so much less of everything we have since allowed to define and overwhelm us: less media, less intrusion of corporate interests into private life, less of the mood of urgency inflicted by the sheer pace of digital technology and the mounting evidence of damage to the planetary ecosystem that has left us at least subliminally aware that we are on a collision course with fate and running out of time. Faster and faster we go, wantonly depleting resources we have made no provision to replace, producing more and more goods while advertising sells consumers on the need for them, learning and practicing impatience and intolerance daily. Viewed in the larger context, the cost of free two-day delivery, it turns out, has been far greater than the price of shipping.

Many of the same young people who would laugh at the nostalgia of their grandparents suffer from unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation, pessimism, even cynicism—and not without reason. They can feel that something fundamental has gone missing whether or not they can name it—something that was asphalted over in the reckless acceleration of life and the proliferation of increasingly immersive and therefore increasingly distracting technologies. What is missing is stillness. In stillness, we turn from the man-made world and come home to ourselves and our source. The practice of stillness, whether in formal meditation or a walk in the woods, confers many benefits essential to our well-being: breathing room, the time and focus needed for philosophical self-examination and the cultivation of a balanced and sanguine character, intuitive guidance, ample opportunities to recognize the need for and make course corrections, humility before life as something greater than our will, empathy and fairness in dealing with others, and much more.

There is a wisdom in stillness that transcends human understanding. One discovers it through making stillness a regular and frequent practice, giving it the attention it deserves, being with and exploring it. In stillness, we’re simply aware—breathing, noticing thoughts and feelings and physical impressions but doing nothing about them. After a while, stillness releases us from incessant identification with the world of perception and thought, revealing the expansive identity of awareness itself, the wellspring of all intelligence, creativity, and agency. Hanging out in stillness frees us from being reactive. The spaciousness of awareness spontaneously extends itself to others, and they feel it, and are disarmed and enlivened by it. Stillness returns us to our natural pace, restores and rejuvenates us, clears our vision, and inspires a sense of belonging, direction, and purpose.

For these reasons, I encourage my clients to begin making the practice of stillness part of their daily routine, and watch how life improves. This doesn’t require sitting with eyes closed. In fact, as stillness deepens within the horizon of our experience, it becomes central to who we are—the “I AM” or Oversoul referenced in the world’s ancient spiritual texts that goes with us wherever we go. We may be driving, checking out at the market, talking to a friend, or taking part in a meeting—yet we remain mindful of the medium of still awareness within which the entire universe emerges into actuality and falls away again, like the momentary shapes in the cascading water of a fountain. I have not seen any situation that is not made better simply by remembering to be still. Its agency is unfailing and “past finding out.” By contrast, all human effort and ingenuity are workarounds.

The proposition that stillness can heal and resolve effortlessly what all effort only seems to make worse may strike us as counterintuitive, but perhaps we can agree that, all things considered, it is worth making the experiment. Human will has led us to the brink of catastrophic conditions—monstrous hurricanes, runaway wildfires and floods, the extinction of whole species, the unleashing of deadly microorganisms, the development of apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction, politically imposed famine, and that is the short list—yet we persist in placing our faith in a way of being that has no future. As we’re still here, we may presume that, at least for now, life has not given up on us. Let us make the most of the opportunity and put down our smartphones long enough to reclaim the only thing that can sustain and guide us—the mysterious stillness that abides within us and all things, that brought us forth out of itself and is ever with us, watching and waiting for us to shake off our sleepwalk and come home to our true nature.