Soon after I was married, I found myself busier than I’d ever been before. Working two part-time jobs, commuting to acupuncture school and studying for some exams, I needed to feel some sense of quiet inside. So I decided to hold the question “Where is rest?”
The answer didn’t come to me in words; instead, I discovered that just asking the question elicited a sense of stillness and peace. Once my mind became calm, I could rest in the busyness.
My interest in stillness didn’t start, or stop, there. Since childhood, I’d wondered about the words from Psalm 46 that we learned in Sunday school: be still and know that I am God. So when I began hearing Eastern teachings, I was intrigued by concepts such as samsara (continuous movement) and nirvana (cessation).
In the East, an image that’s referred to as the “wheel of samsara” has been used for centuries to depict the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth and the conditions that cause suffering. The conditions of ego that power the wheel are sometimes called the three poisons. They are desire, or attachment; hatred, or aversion; and ignorance, or illusion. When one’s life is lived free of these conditions, one is said to be freed from the wheel of samsara.
In my own experience, the first two conditions, attachment and aversion, are best remedied by addressing the third condition, ignorance. You could say that the root condition of suffering is ignorance of our true nature, ignorance of knowing ourselves as spirit. Attachment and aversion, then, cause day-to-day suffering.
Stillness, I have seen, is both the treatment for ignorance and the ultimate antidote to samsara. When your mind is still, you get a rest from the push-pull energies that drive the ego and cause suffering. In stillness, the energies of attachment and aversion can unwind. The sense of a “me” who desires can relax out of the centre of experience and ultimately dissolve. That is the harmonizing quality of stillness.
To get a dose of what life is like divorced from stillness, try this experiment: think a thought that has “push” energy, such as “I don’t want to go to work” or “I don’t want to have that difficult conversation.” Or think, “That shouldn’t be.” Now check in with your body. Can you feel it registering aversion? It may feel like there’s a hand in your gut, pushing away.
Next, consider a “pull” thought, such as “I want to meet someone who will love me” or “They should do what I want.” Hold that thought and then pay attention to your body. Do you feel a grasping fist in your gut? Tension across your shoulders?
Either way, push or pull, your body beautifully lets you know which thoughts will cause you constriction, inner-division or feelings of separation. It would seem, then, that if you could stop those divisive thoughts, you’d be at peace with whatever presents itself in each moment.
But wait . . . having trouble finding the “off” switch? Yep, thoughts keep coming. The more you try not to think, the more aversion arises. And the more you try not to have divisive thoughts, the more attachment arises. Both efforts take you further away from experiencing inner peace.
But there is an alternative to push-pull thoughts. Again using your body as a thought meter, feel your gut as you contemplate the phrase “Thoughts simply arise.” Let the words permeate your body. Do they make you feel more peaceful, or less so? My guess is that you feel more peaceful. Perhaps you can sense relaxation as you let go of assigning credit or blame for having a particular thought. When you align yourself this way with what life is presenting—with reality—the experience of inner division gives way to peace.
Thoughts themselves don’t create division, separation and suffering. Rather, investing thoughts with belief, identifying with them and taking them personally are what fuels the wheel of samsara.
Thoughts themselves don’t create division, separation and suffering.
When you identify with a thought, that creates a fixed position in time and space—like a star in the night sky. As you identify with more thoughts, you create more fixed positions, until you have an entire constellation of ideas and beliefs. The lines of that constellation continue to grow and overlap, creating something that begins to look solid, like an object. Those fixed points create an illusion of an individual “me,” with its own boundaries separating it from the whole.
You can live your whole life in ignorance, not knowing that suffering is a result of believing the thoughts that suggest you are separate from the whole. But if you examine your push-pull thoughts, discover which beliefs you’re investing in and question them, you can slip into stillness and become your own medicine—the perfect antidote to the poisons of ignorance, attachment and aversion.
What is Stillness?
Connect with the quiet at the centre of your whirling personal energies.
Begin by sitting comfortably. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and let your body settle, inviting relaxation. Observe your body as you allow it to cease moving. Lean softly into your experience and give it your whole attention.
Now drop this question into the space between your muscles and bones: what is stillness? Let your body experience the answer. Let the body’s response wash into every part of you, from the top of your head down to the floor or chair where you are sitting. As your body quiets and softens, notice the stillness gather and settle.
Maintaining a steady and intimate quality of attention, let the stillness widen and let your senses open globally to the outer world. Notice the space of your awareness and let it relax outward. Let sounds in the distance enter the space of your awareness, but don’t strain to hear or to make note of them. Notice any sounds that arise closer to you, between the edge of your body and the outer shores of your hearing.
While continuing to soften into stillness, rest a portion of your attention on the surface of your body, allowing it to stop there completely, allowing the stillness saturating you inside and out to soften any sense of boundaries between your body and the outside world.
Let any sense of a “me” who is aware relax out of the center, letting stillness dissolve all attachment, all effort.
Mukti Gray (muktisource.org) teaches meditation and self-inquiry around the country. She’s the cofounder, with her husband, Adyashanti, of Open Gate Sangha in San Jose, California.