On Stillness

Imagine a spinning top. Stillness is like a perfectly centered top, spinning so fast it appears motionless. It appears this way not because it isn’t moving, but because it’s spinning at full speed.

Stillness is not the absence or negation of energy, life, or movement. Stillness is dynamic. It is unconflicted movement, life in harmony with itself, skill in action. It can be experienced whenever there is total, uninhibited, unconflicted participation in the moment you are in — when you are wholeheartedly present with whatever you’re doing.

– Erich Schiffmann, Yoga: The Spirit and  Practice of Moving into Stillness

This morning, I meditated in my hosts’ garden. It is filled with trees, flowers, fruit, and herbs, and butterflies and hummingbirds often come to visit. As I closed my eyes and began to listen to my breath, I also heard, smelled, and felt the alive-ness of my surroundings. The soft grass and uneven dirt underneath my feet, the smell of the flora around me, the hum of a hummingbird’s wings (so I imagine with closed eyes), the gentle fullness of a summer breeze grazing me as I sat. I felt at peace and at ease.

Afterwards, I sat on the patio overlooking their garden and read those words above. It’s been awhile seen I’ve seen or even thought of a spinning top — is there an app for that? — and I’d never thought of stillness that way. Stillness to me was the calm surface of a lake or the quiet of the deep ocean. But Erich’s words resonate. Because after all, doesn’t a lake, pond or ocean always have little waves, no matter how calm the winds? Doesn’t the deep sea move in a conveyor belt fashion and transport nutrients to the upper layers? In fact, a big misconception of meditation is that you’re supposed to empty the mind, quiet it of all thoughts. Good luck with that! Meditation is actually the practice of allowing thoughts to pass through, letting go of the holding-on of these thoughts and the feelings that follow. Meditation is about checking in with your internal weather and allowing that weather to exist.

And so it is with yoga asana. I do the same poses over and over again to practice being in the moment, letting go of judgments or assessments and honoring how my body is feeling that day. I practice being uninhibited, unconflicted and fully present in what I’m doing. I get better at it each time I try.

I’m intrigued, Erich. What else will your words teach me?

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4 thoughts on “On Stillness

  1. I suspect the obsession with “empty mind” in meditation culture is due primarily to the ease of it’s achievements, benefits of that stage of meditation, and dangers of what lay beyond it.

    I really, really detest the obsession with emptiness, as it’s only the staging ground for real growth.

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    1. Yes, it does seem like an obsession sometimes. I think many people who don’t meditate experience a zooming and zipping of thoughts which becomes a breeding ground for a distracted life. So, it’s easy to think that tranquility comes from the absence of thoughts. I thought this too when I first tried meditating. And I’m very glad I was mistaken!

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  2. Well, wildly speculate that former meditation teachers, back in feudal times, intentionally didn’t mention that it’s a first, not final goal. This so that initiates fell into the trap that I did when meditating, which really helped.

    Master says: Meditate on “Mu” to seek enlightenment. Beginner interprets it as “empty your mind and you will be enlightened”. Tries to, very hard, eventually figures out it’s impossible. Realizes their interpretation threw them off, how they threw them off, and how ignorant that reveals them to be about their own nature. Notices that, in attempting to forcibly empty their minds, they’ve consciously developed control over a variety of their mental processes. Uses that control.

    So, it’s a trap. If that’s how it was originally utilized, that’s fucking genius. I don’t know. It’s how it worked for me.

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