A Quiet Stillness
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the stillness that allows us to truly listen, whether to another person, to God, or to our own inner voice. That kind of stillness is like a presence, a waiting, an openness to something that is not us or is not currently known by us. In such quietness, we can hear what is said and what is left unsaid. In this way, we deepen relationships.
But this kind of stillness takes time. That wasn’t hard to come by when I was a child. Then, the days felt wide and limitless. Often I would lie on my stomach on the rock that overlooked the stream by our house, watching the water sluice past, the leaves and sticks bobbing and swirling, the water skippers darting across the surface of protected pools. Mesmerized, motionless, my mind quiet, I felt as if I might stay there forever.
Of course, time passed, and I got caught up in the eddy of chores and dinner and homework. Yet even so, life seemed slower, simpler, and more gentle than it does now. Not even the adults in my family seemed to rush.
Our Hectic Lives
Now many of us are hectic. We barely notice what we feel, and we hardly see what’s going around us. We hurry from one place to another, trying to keep track of more tasks than we can complete. Whatever we do, it’s never enough, and we’re never done.
Some of us find escape in such relentless busyness. Like an addiction, overwhelming activity can help us avoid our anxiety, sadness, loneliness, shame, bitterness. Afraid that some emotion might show itself and break our hearts, some of us will do almost anything to stay in motion.
Stillness may bring us closer to ourselves and those we love, yet it’s also scary, because when we embrace stillness, we lose our defenses. Thoughts, memories, sensations we have ignored rise up and demand attention. In stillness, we see and feel.
Filling Up Our Lives
That’s not the only reason people take on impossible schedules, of course. One salary rarely supports a family anymore. Fifty-hour work weeks are common. The world seems dangerous and children are closely supervised. Who has time to rock on front porches or gaze at water skippers? For many of us in the United States these days, both adults and children, life is a breathless dash from one chore to another.
Yet even those who are not busy, who have no jobs or don’t know what to do with themselves after work, may find themselves keyed up and anxious. They may fill their emptiness with addictions or mindless entertainment like television.
No matter how little – or how much – free time we have, we do not necessarily know how to be still. Nor do we necessarily want to be. After all, if stillness makes us uncomfortable, why seek it?
What Is Stillness?
Most of us want to feel content. That’s one reason we do so much. Completing tasks and earning money make us feel valuable. They bring us satisfaction. Yet when we depend on external accomplishments to make us happy, we leave ourselves open to the pain of failure and financial stress.
True happiness comes when we accept ourselves as we are and our life as it is. To do this, we must find a way to be still and serene inside.
Stillness is a particular way of being and moving through the world. According to Eckhart Tolle, it is awareness itself, and this awareness is our essential nature. We “are that awareness,” he writes, “disguised as a person.”  He’s not talking about the conscious awareness we experience when we think. When our minds are pondering thoughts and generating ideas, our heads are noisy, like a busy street. If we are still, that inner commotion is silenced.
For Meister Eckhart, such stillness is divine. “Nothing in all creation,” he writes, “is so like God as stillness.”
Does he mean that God is stillness? Any metaphor we create for the divine is just that – a metaphor. We don’t know what God really is. So what is Eckhart saying when he makes this comparison?
I think that, like Tolle, he’s saying that stillness and awareness are the same thing. The divine is this awareness, this stillness, this essence that shapes itself into rocks and trees and sunflowers and people. When we are still, we touch the divine.
So maybe stillness is worth cultivating. But how do we do that?
On the website, Friends of Silence, is a story from Theophane the Monk who wrote the book Tales of a Magic Monastery. In the story, a seeker asks a monk to teach him about the Great Silence.
“Where do you think you will find it?” the monk asks.
The seeker thinks it can be found inside himself. “If only I could go deep within, I’m sure I’d escape the noise at last.”
Yet no matter how hard he tries to do this, it doesn’t for him. He needs help.
The monk tells the seeker that he, too, tried to find the Great Silence by going within. Indeed, he did find some silence there. But one day, he seemed to see Jesus stand before him and beckon him, saying, “Come, follow me.” Then the monk sought the silence outside himself and learned that what he had been hearing within had been noise, after all. 
According to Theophane, then, we find stillness not by going within and meditating. We find it when we look outward toward God.
Centering prayer looks outward. A form of contemplative practice made popular in the United States by Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault, centering prayer invites us to listen to God. In her book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Bourgeault comments that children seem naturally able to be silent and listen. Certainly no one taught me how to patiently watch the water pass by. When we grow up, though, we often lose that ability. Centering prayer can help us find it again, but not by looking inside. Instead, the meditation directs us outward, toward that sacred source in the universe.
By sitting in silence and opening our hearts and spirits to that which is holy, by focusing on our breath and on the godhead, we learn to listen. What do we hear? For me, centering prayer is a silence so deep I am not aware of hearing anything. I barely know anything. During such prayer, I feel a resonant peace. I feel emptiness and fullness at the same time, a knowing and seeing and forgetting.
You see, the distinction between seeking inside and outside is, in the end, a false one. Thomas Merton writes about a diamond within each of us. It blazes “with the invisible light of heaven.” It is “the pure glory of God written in us,” a point of truth and nothingness, a holiness so strong we cannot destroy it. How we discover it, Merton does not say. “I have no program for this seeing,” he tells us. “It is only given.” If we seek it, however, we may find that “the gate of heaven is everywhere.”  Stillness is everywhere.
God and heaven are just two names for this stillness. I’m not talking about the stillness of addiction, that numbing oblivion that eases the hunger of our souls, softens the sharpness of our pain. When we are trapped in our addictions, cloistered within our separateness, the joyful oneness that infuses the universe seems very far away. In spite of the moment of bliss drugs may give us, we feel lonely. Sacred stillness is never lonely.
The Blessings Stillness Bestows
The more still we feel within our being, the easier it is for us to tolerate our uncomfortable emotions. It’s something of a paradox. Stillness forces us to face our pain, but it also gives us the courage to do so. Something within the silence holds us. The more still we become, the more comforted we feel.
What is it that holds us?
You might as well as what is god? Theophane says that we find the Great Silence by following Jesus. Others will follow Yahweh or Allah or Krishna or Kali. Do we find stillness in the goddess or in nature? Perhaps we believe in a life force that fills our lungs with breath, a breath that is knowing and seeing and being and shining, both within and without.
Whatever we think might be that essence and isness, when we are still, we can learn to let go and be loved.
How do we become still?
Merton admits he has no prescription to offer. Theophane tells us to follow our teacher. Prayer, contemplation, meditation, whirling, chanting, lighting candles, watching water skippers are all possible ways to find the stillness we seek.
Perhaps the first thing to do is to slow down. When we are in a hurry, we can’t find God. “Time is what keeps light from reaching us,” Meister Eckhart writes, offering light as a metaphor for the divine. Caught up in time, we remain trapped in our separateness. We cannot touch one another; we cannot touch the divine.
But how in the world do we escape time?
I think that to escape time, we need to work and love and live in the moment. In the moment, time holds still. If this is true, it really means that it doesn’t matter how busy we are. If we can capture that childlike ability to watch with wonder, to focus with an intensity beyond thought, we can rush and whirl around our day and still find ourselves fully rooted here, in our essential nature, in this eternity of now. We will know nothing except what exists. Our hearts and souls will be open to the stillness, and the stillness will touch our center, and the diamond within us will shine.
It is that easy and that hard.
In faith and fondness,
- Tolle, Eckhart, Stillness Speaks, Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003, 3.
- “Theophane the Monk,” Tales of a Magic Monastery, quoted on Friends of Silence, May 1992, Vol. V, No. 5, http://friendsofsilence.net/quote/source/tales-magic-monastery, accessed 9/3/18.
- Merton, Thomas, A Merton Reader, ed. Thomas P. McDonnell, New York: Image Books, 1989, 347, quoted by Bourgeault.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens