“When everything is moving and shifting, the only way to counteract chaos is stillness. When things feel extraordinary, strive for ordinary. When the surface is wavy, dive deeper for quieter waters.” — Kristin Armstrong
The word “stillness” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the absence of movement our sound.”
I’ve never liked definitions that can only say what something is not, instead of what it is. For me, stillness contains energy waiting to be used. It is a quality of being that allows me to be aware of what is really going on inside my mind and heart. Once I am in touch with that I receive all the energy I need to move forward in life.
I would even go so far as to say that stillness is our natural state of being. Yet most of us, myself included, have become so distanced from this state of being that it seems to be a myth. We live in a world where the absence of stillness has distanced us from connecting with our very selves.
In our modern world we are induced to live external lives instead of internal ones. We are on demand 24 hours of every day, seven days a week. Our bosses, parents, friends (real or Facebook), and spammers can reach us at any time.
The constant distractions of electronic devices, pictures, media, and news strive to tell us who we are or should be. This changing redefinition of the external self causes stress, confusion, and anxiety. To cope we use stimulating or depressing food and drink. We create beliefs based not in what we need but to reinforce a vision of who others want us to be. We enhance protective mechanisms to keep everyone out. These become so strong that we even protect ourselves from knowing what we really think or who we really are.
I have found myself, in times of stress and over-commitment, so afraid of looking at what I want or need that I must distract myself even to sleep. I’ve done this by putting on headphones to watch TV at night so as not to disturb my husband. Then sometime in the early morning hours I’d awaken to the sound of a loud infomercial in my ears. I have no memory of when I fell asleep or what I was watching. It is a way to run away from some truth I don’t want to face, to run away from myself.
I did this for a couple of years until I realized that I craved stillness, but I no longer knew how to be still. I needed to provide time to return to stillness every day and to be comfortable with looking inside without judgment. Only then did I stop looking for opportunities to run away.
Mindfulness and Its Relationship to Stillness
As shown in a review of empirical studies and the literature by National Institutes of Health, the practice of mindfulness has been used as a means of therapy and practice for many psychological benefits for decades, The Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health (2011). Those who learn to practice mindfulness through meditation, silent contemplation, stillness and other methods have reported reduced stress, boosted memory, enhanced focus and concentration, decreased emotional reactivity, and improved personal relationships. Mindfulness practices also promote empathy and compassion in both therapists and their patients.
I am not, by nature, a noisy person. I’ve never enjoyed big social gatherings where people are moving and mingling, talking constantly. They exhaust me. I always say I lead a quiet life, and it’s true. It is me, my husband and two cats. Our children have been leading their own lives with their own families for more than fifteen years now. But quiet and stillness are very different things.
Even in the quietness of the house, my brain is constantly going. I’m writing something, planning something, scheduling something, getting ready for something, or recovering from something. And I’m analyzing all of it the entire time. I often feel that if I can only squeeze in a little more time I’ll miraculously get it all done.
It often seems that stillness can only be momentary and fleeting. My brain reminds me of all the things I need to do, even though my heart longs for stillness for more than a moment.
Finding Daily Opportunities to Create Stillness
Being in nature has always brought me a sense of wonder and a realization that I am a very small part of a greater interconnected whole. Most of the time, when I retreat for writing, I seek out the ocean. There is something about the power of the waves and the constant drone of their crash on the shore brings me focus and washes away the busyness of my thoughts.
It would be wonderful to be in constant retreat mode, but that’s not realistic in my daily life. I believe that finding the ability to have stillness daily, and to create stillness for me whenever I need it is important. I can’t always wait for the next time I get to retreat to the beach or the mountains.
When I can still my mind, I make direct contact with my heart, with love, with beauty, and most of all with the sacred.
I’ve found that the key for me in finding stillness is intentionality. Depending on where I am, and the time available to me, there are several things I can do to induce stillness within my mind. I begin with small things and then work up to larger things on a daily basis.
Relish a moment of stoppage. When a traffic light turns red, often my immediate reaction was I’m losing time. I have so much to do. I can’t afford this extra minute or two in my day when I could be doing something else.
Now I take that moment to relish a moment to be still. I thank the light for turning red, for forcing me to stop.
When I’m in a line I hadn’t anticipated — at the bank, waiting to checkout at the grocery store, on hold with customer support — I take those moments to relish an opportunity to be still in my mind. I take a full, deep breath and do nothing but simply be aware of my standing or sitting or waiting. I try not to think, but just to be aware of myself. I might stretch or smile or say a prayer.
Physically slow down. Too often I find myself rushing when I walk. Unless I am truly late to an appointment, I now force myself to walk slower, to again be aware of my surroundings, of my body, of my movement through the space.
Slow my breathing. By taking slow, deep breaths I slow my heart rate and that in turn lowers my blood pressure, cortisol levels decline, and hormones are released that relax my mind and body.
When everything is pushing me to go faster and faster and I’m feeling overwhelmed by having to get out the next article, or the next chapter, or the next book, or the next ad campaign (even writing this list can be panic inducing sometimes), I will sit, breathe deeply, and simply put my head down on my desk for a few minutes. I practice being aware of my breath, of who I am and why I’m here.
Reduce external stimuli. I turn off the lights, turn off music, shut out the TV in the other room by putting on sound dampening headphones.
Use a calming word or sound or phrase. In the Hindu tradition, the sound of “om” is said to contain the entire universe. It is considered to be the first sound from the beginning of time, and therefore encompasses the past, present, and future. Though I am not a practicing Hindu, I like the word “om” because it is simple, a single syllable and easy to hold and breathe out for several seconds. The important part to the practice of using a calming word or phrase is finding something that works for you. It might be repeating: “I am calm.” Or “I am still.” Or simply, “I am.”
Focus on a soothing image. When I cannot be out in nature, I have images in my mind to bring nature to me. I close my eyes and call forth an image of snow falling and dampening all sound, or bright sunshine over a field of flowers, or it may even be of my cat snuggling close to me and feeling her warmth.
Listen to a piece of music — no words. If I cannot get my mind to quiet, I will find a piece of music to take my focus. It doesn’t completely quiet my mind because the music fills it. But it does cause me to concentrate and I allow the music to tell me a story. Most often that story is about me, my true thoughts — either in reality or in allegory.
Make time before going to sleep to accept stillness. If I find no time during the day, then I make sure to make time for stillness before going to sleep. I choose a time to turn off the lights and focus on being still. I take a moment to glory in the darkness. I use it to pull a blanket over my mind and dampen the chaos of thought. I give myself permission to not pay attention to anything.
Sometimes I do a relaxation exercise I learned as a teenager. I stretching each part of my body and relaxing it separately beginning with my feet and working my way up to my neck and head. It is a stretch and count to five, followed by relaxing that part of my body. It is a way of turning off the noise of the day, the expectations, and returning completely to my inner self.
Meditation. Some people would add meditation to the above. That is great too. I know many practitioners of meditation and I admire their ability to commit to it. For me, meditation has a lot of expectations about how to sit, how to clear the mind, what to say based on past associations. All the rules and the physical act of sitting in the lotus position actually stops me from doing it.
For me to relearn stillness I had to begin with only a minute or two each day. Once I was consistent with that, I worked up to a practice of 15 minutes, then 30 minutes. Like any exercise program it takes consistency of practice. Once you have worked up to 30 minutes you’ll know if that is enough or you need more.
The experience of stillness is as individual as the path to get there. When you find what works for you, it is the daily practice of stillness that brings so many rewards. I still do retreats two or three times a year. But I no longer expect them to make up for all the months in between of busyness. Instead, I find time every day for stillness.
The Spiritual Practice of Stillness
When I can still my mind, I make direct contact with my heart, with love, with beauty, and most of all with the sacred. Because of this, I see stillness as a spiritual practice and that inspires me even more to commit to the practice.
For those who believe in prayer and practice it daily, this may be your personal practice of stillness. In prayer one is removing their desires and the noise of the world around them, asking their mind to be still and accept the presence of the Holy.
Spiritual practices vary from person to person and region to region. Even those who share the same religion experience the sacred in different ways and have different interpretations of its meaning. But all share the common theme of taking oneself out of their daily lives and becoming part of a oneness, a wholeness — a part of something larger than ourselves.
“To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment.” — Eckhart Tolle
For me, in true stillness there is no me. Instead there is a connection with the wholeness of life past, present, and future, of which I am a part. It is in that connection that I find respite from the chaos that life sometimes becomes. It puts my daily challenges into perspective where they are not so large and cannot consume my spirit.
In stillness I can listen. I am able to put aside preconceptions and hear possibilities without having to assess their viability. Stillness does not ask for evaluation. It asks for presence. It shares its abundance and asks me to simply be a part of the whole.
I leave you with a favorite poem from Pablo Neruda that speaks to me about the power of stillness.
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about…
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
Extravagaria : A Bilingual Edition
by Pablo Neruda (Author), Alastair Reid (Translator)
Noonday Press; Bilingual edition (January 2001. page 26)