Meditation vs Stillness Practice
There are two very important paths to inner satisfaction that often appear the same, but are actually quite different. One is meditation, a very well-known term, and the other is Stillness Practice, a term I use in order to identify a distinctly different path. In the most common understanding of meditation, it is something we do (or intentionally don’t do) with our thinking. It is the cultivation of specific mental qualities such as concentration (‘single mindedness’ or ‘mindfulness’), or autonomic relaxation, or impulse control, or emotional distancing, or morality, or emptiness of mental activity, or positivity, or compassion, or simply ‘open awareness’. What I have chosen to call stillness practice is something very specific that we do with our bodies, and has no instruction regarding mental activity. (Think of “stillness” here, not as a peaceful state of mind, but as a physical state – the kind of stillness your 3rd grade teacher would occasionally demand when she said, “Be still.” She simply wanted you to stop talking and stay in your seat.) While meditation is usually practiced in a sitting position, it can also be practiced while doing just about anything – walking, washing the dishes, or playing golf. Stillness practice, however, is specifically sitting erect with the back of the neck and torso quite engaged and the front of the body (face, throat, and torso) relaxed -- sit tall and softly -- for at least twenty minutes every day. It has a defining time dimension which may or may not be recommended in meditation. (We give daily wakeful Stillness Practice the same sort of value that we give our nightly sleep.) Also, there is no external guidance by voice or music as there might be in meditation. Unlike meditation what you think or feel during your sitting time does not represent the practice in any way. Our brains do what they want – worry, fantasize, or even meditate without judgement or restraint. The posture (always seated) of stillness practice can be easily mastered, particularly given the aid of chairs and cushions. The truly difficult part of the practice is mastering its time dimension. Sitting a long time with oneself every day is often unpleasant, and so we use whatever advantages we can to solidify our habit. These may be based on common inclinations and values such as comfort, sociability, predictability, or acquisitiveness. Thankfully we do not have to try to control the activity of our brains as we might in meditation. In some meditation traditions the normal, natural activity of the brain is called “monkey mind” and an effort is made to control and transform that activity. With stillness practice there is no agenda beyond experiencing ourselves. We trust and even revere our “monkey minds”. And, yes, mental elements of dignity, concentration, sanity, appreciativeness, compassion, and deep satisfaction often arise, but these are not part of a mental practice. They are the results of the ever-so -simple physical practice.
At the risk of sounding overly theoretical and even outlandish about something very basic, we could consider that by allowing all brain function, stillness practice ensures a healthy, more balanced ecology of the very complex human psyche. The process requires a lot of trust in the players in our inner world – not just the voices of our cognitive, legalistic, and executive process that we cultivate in meditation, but also the more emotional voices of playful, self-centered child, concerned mother, combative warrior, and kind saint; all part of the menagerie of “monkey mind”. With patience we can eventually trust that what we do in life moment by moment can be wisely directed by the total ecological congress of these myriad voices. We need only sit still regularly; back strong, front soft. That’s it.
Regarding which approach is better, I make no judgement. I personally have a lot of trust in the capacity of brains to integrate input and response in the best sort of way if given regular wakeful down time. The stillness practice simply maintains a physical stage for spontaneously productive brain activity. That said, it takes a lot of patience and courage to let the often annoying, even painful, and certainly tedious discourse of brain function play out, unguided and unrestrained, on a daily basis. A great many people find that meditation, which purposely exerts more executive brain function in that process, also works wonderfully well. My concern is the frustration that often arises when the two approaches are not seen as quite different. Stillness practice seems to be the more natural path, with much similarity to the habit of all beings with a nervous system to spend a lot of time wakeful and motionless. It has no more hierarchy of achievement than, say, the skill of being able to sleep. It is such an ancient process, predating Yogis and Buddhists, ordinary human beings, monkeys, other mammals, and the other vertebrates. Meditation, however, seems distinctly human; a practice only possible in brains with very sophisticated language/cognitive capacities. It is a unique gift for a very specialized being. It appears in highly respected traditions with well-defined levels of mastery. One approach is not a minor variation of the other. Their origins, rationales, and protocols are very different.
Interestingly, meditation practices like concentration or emotional distancing may arise spontaneously and temporarily during stillness practice, in response to internal needs of the moment. By definition, the converse would not be true. And that is why a Stillness Group can happily include people of every practice persuasion. A Stillness Group invites every sort of person – all cultures, ages, gender orientations, races, and spiritual backgrounds, all levels of income and education, those of either Red or Blue political persuasions. We may sit together in our respective practices quite happily because those differences are absolutely private and need never be debated. And in that simple, quiet company we keep, there is a deep bond and mutual support beyond any discussion.
If you are interested in being part of a Stillness Group please discover more about this opportunity at www.wayofstillness.com, or the Face Book page “Stillness Groups”, or email Jeff Wright at email@example.com. We are currently meeting every Tuesday evening (6:15-7:15) at Body and Soul Wellness Center in Dubuque and every Wednesday evening (6:00-7:00) at the Rountree Gallery in Platteville. Groups are small, masked, and socially distanced in large, well ventilated rooms. No fees are charged, and participants are urged to stay only as long as they are comfortable. (There are three 15-minute sitting sessions broken by two 5-minute periods of slowly walking single file once around the room.) There are no levels of attainment or hierarchies of authority. You may sit in a chair or on the floor with no judgement either way. People of all backgrounds, political or religious persuasions, are welcome, and are only asked to avoid hot button topics of discussion during our informal conversations before and after sitting. Come sit with us.
Guidelines for Stillness Group Facilitators
There are many opportunities these days for instruction in meditation. Many meditation based religious groups offer guidance. More novel approaches include gong therapy, yoga assisted meditation, or psychotherapeutic packages like Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction. Assistance is delivered in classroom settings and religious halls, through lectures, workshops, as well as individually through books, blogs, videos, and a wide variety of apps. Everyone of these opportunities follows two premises: One, people hoping to meditate will be benefited by a particular, specialized set of skills, usually rather difficult to master and usually uniquely better than those offered by another group. The second premise is that inspiration as offered through the example of the teacher’s personality or their rhetoric will be a major boon to the student’s progress.
Without wishing to argue against the truth or value of these premises, for they are in most cases sound, Stillness Groups take a different approach. We believe that the essential activity within every meditation approach is simply sitting still for a period of time. By that we mean structural stillness -- ie, not using voluntary muscles of movement. Postural muscles remain active, as well as involuntary activities of body function, including cognitive and emotional activity of the brain. Therefore, while some meditation approaches involve specific mental activity -- a euphoria producing activity, a devotional activity, a distancing, observational activity, or a relaxing activity -- the stillness group requires only physically sitting still. What the participant chooses to think or feel while sitting still is their business, and no one guides them from such independence. There is no judgement and beyond a few tips for physically positioning oneself comfortably or reducing the annoyances of sleepiness, digestion, or fidgetiness, there is nothing to be taught. The stillness group premise is that the essence of all meditative approaches is a habit of simple structural stillness. From that stillness other goals and skills may take the participant toward an appropriate tradition, but our defining aim is to support structural stillness and that is all. We make no claims about life after death, or end states like enlightenment, or about cultivating non-ordinary skills or insights. Rationales for sitting still might include such benefits as dignity, sanity, appreciativeness and compassion, but those are random anecdotal reports and not promises engendering any expectation.
The other unique stillness group premise is that community may be a more effective support for the stillness habit than inspiration. Both of our premises preclude the need for a “qualified” teacher. Or, perhaps more accurately, we consider every participant to be a teacher. There are no ladders of achievement. The participant who has been practicing for 50 years is not better at it than the person who started last month, just as the person who has been sleeping every night for 50 years is not better at sleeping than the baby in their crib. It is that kind of thing. Structural stillness is just being awake and not moving. That said, just as there is a lot of hope and joy in being inspired by a fiery sermon or wise dharma talk, a guided meditation, or the words of a very calm, confident, and articulate speaker, there is a lot of hope and joy when we sit together in a stillness group. I will not attempt to explain that, but that is how it seems to be.
As the weeks go by people begin to know each other. They chat about all sorts of things --
vacations, events, their stories -- and not much about matters of practice. They sit for an hour and then chat another five or ten minutes even more warmly. Week after week they return, sometimes bringing a friend to try it out. They say that sitting together like this helps their solitary home practice. When questions come up -- especially with new-comers -- people give their suggestions. Everyone has their own slant on the practice. We are all teachers equally. Personally, I think that community is a stronger, more durable support than “expertise” and inspiration. Expectation that surrounds inspiration is a wonderful feeling, but it is often followed at some point by frustration. Someone talks about the ease they have found or some sort of deeply felt cosmic revelation. We may then aspire by force of will and intellect to something similar. That is good, but usually the ease or revelation we hope for does not happen, and if it does, the satisfaction is temporary. Life traipses along. We get dejected, our practice falters, or we look for the next inspiration fix. Community on the other hand is nothing fancy and can always be there just as you expect it. If you probe any meditative group, whether of an ancient religion or of somebody’s healing workshop, you will always find under all the sparkling practices, the austerities, the reverences, the exotic promises, a practice of simple structural stillness and community. Those are the well springs. Because of this I think stillness groups are a particularly unique and effective opportunity.
I would like to see the concept spread. Here are some useful guidelines that ensure that the basic premises are maintained:
● Leadership. Trained teachers are not required. Facilitators are important, however.
Someone needs to organize the group, making sure there is an adequate facility in
which to meet comfortably, quietly, and predictably every week; and perhaps get the
word out that there is this opportunity through social media, group emails, or a website.
A facilitator also needs to welcome new people, explain the format, keep time and ring a
bell at certain intervals. And keep everything friendly. These duties could be split up
among more than one facilitator, and certainly there should be people willing to fill in
whenever the usual welcomer/time keeper is away. Such duties could rotate through the
group, but again we seek the simplest, most predictable, least threatening approach
● Group size. A stillness group should be small enough that everyone gets to know
everyone else easily and that its organization can remain casual, organic, and fluid,
without need of governing boards, committees, by-laws, or formal positions of duty. As a group reaches a
certain less wieldy size, say 15 attenders at any given week, new groups should form.
Formal membership is unnecessary, nor should there be any sort of attendance
expectation. People attend when it works out for them. The formation of new groups is
also informal. People drift to situations of greatest comfort and convenience. Likewise a community that is dwindling in size may eventually disband and its remaining attenders scatter to other groups that are flourishing.
● No central organizational body. Stillness groups are simple enough that there is no need of a central organizational body. Trademark branding is unnecessary. As long as hierarchies and power structures are avoided the simple basics of stillness and community will endure in functional consistency.
● No fees or donations. Stillness groups should scrupulously avoid any profit motive. No
donations or fees for participants. There are no experts to be paid, and the entrance of
money into a situation brings a quantum leap in complexity and the risk of corruption,
large or small. Not the least of this is the possible exclusion of very poor people who either do not have the money for this kind of thing or feel uncomfortable that they are not supporting the group at the same level that others are. That said there may be some costs in maintaining a stillness group. Usually a facility can be secured rent free for an hour a week, especially when there is no profit motive. Many organizations see this generosity as an public relations opportunity. Some stillness groups may find a member with a room in their home large enough to accommodate the group. Be sure, though, that there are easy alternatives when the house is not available due to vacations, overnight guests, illness, etc. It is important that a stillness group meets every week, with the exception of closures due to
severe weather or national holidays. Other costs, such as maintaining a website or
group emailing program will either be avoided by using other media options or met by a
● Session format. The format of a session is somewhat arbitrary. The one I have used is
adapted from Soto Zen gatherings I used to attend. We sit in a circle facing one another.
We sit for an hour. The hour is broken into three sitting periods: 20 minutes, 15 minutes, and 15 minutes. The beginning and end of a period is signaled by striking a singing
bowl once. (Just as appropriate would be a clap of hands, or a simple statement like,
“Let’s begin”, or “Let’s take a break,” or “Let’s walk,” or, at the end, “Thanks for being
here.”) Between the periods of sitting we walk clockwise slowly once around the circle of
seats. People have their own way of walking quietly. I take a step with each new breath
movement, my right hand clapping my left hand into my mid-section. It looks something
like Zen kinhin. Others walk with exaggerated movements to enhance self-observation
as recommended by the Mindfulness tradition. Such differences do not impact our main
intention very much, which is simply to limber up a bit and refresh our attention. Some
participants choose to remain at their seats, perhaps stretching a little, or just continuing
their sitting. When everyone who had been walking gets back to their place, we sit down
at the same time, and the practice resumes. The usual, unregimented period of time for
socializing seems to be about 15 minutes before and after sitting.
● Avoid captivity. While the hour long format is the standard stillness group opportunity,
participants will need to know that they can arrive late, leave early, or take breaks from
the group as needed. Sometimes competing obligations require this flexibility, but more
important, there are times when the practice is unsettling -- physical illness, physical
discomfort, excessive anxiety, overwhelming emotional activity -- and participants should
● How we sit physically. As with differences in walking, there is no right or wrong way of
sitting. My own preference is to sit balanced and erect with unsupported back; the front
of my body, legs and arms, very relaxed, the back of my body strong and actively
engaged. I think this enhances the calm, alert quality of my experience. Others,
however, will opt to lean back against the wall or the chair back if they prefer to sit in a
chair. Some will spend most of the hour lying supine on the floor. It should be
emphasized to new participants that sitting cross legged on the floor is not judged to be
better than sitting in a chair. (I prefer the stabilized feeling in my legs when they are
pressed to the floor, but require a blanket folded to just so to keep my hips high enough
to ensure a comfortable alignment in my spine. Others do not find the floor as important
to them.) Sometimes participants will make suggestions if someone appears
uncomfortable in the way they sit, or kneel, but for the most part we are confident that
people do best on their own in finding ways to meet their needs.
● Socializing. Before and after sitting in stillness, we chat. While community builds in
stillness, it is expressed in conversation. As a facilitator you should have people
introduce themselves to new participants briefly. Simply going around the circle and
giving our names would suffice. Conversations may involve the whole group at times or
break up among smaller groups, and at times it may be up to you to get things going by
engaging individuals in various ways that give them confidence and spark the interest of
the group as a whole. You should also set an example of not engaging in conversations
that are negatively gossipy, or concern matters of politics or other value-based subjects.
Expect (and even hope) that political and spiritual views will be quite diverse. One of the
benefits of stillness groups is that they soften differences among people wordlessly and
can contribute much to social harmony.
● Personal boundaries. Do nothing that either encourages or discourages relationships
among participants. Such may develop, but respect boundaries and do not share
personal information (especially contact information) without the person’s permission.
Privacy is a matter of safety as well as comfort. In general, avoid flirting or bantering
comments, however harmless and engaging they may seem to be at the time, as their
effect may be unexpectedly threatening or offensive, and divisive in a group. Your
example in such matters will be much more persuasive than any sort of formal
● Defining the mission. As facilitator you will need to present the mission of the stillness
group. This has already been fairly well described, however, you may need to remind
participants that all meditation/spiritual traditions (or the absence of a meditation/spiritual
tradition) are welcome. The use of malas and rosaries during sitting are acceptable.
Anything we do along with the simple sitting that is not disruptive is acceptable. Also,
while this has never been much of an issue in the stillness groups I have led, the group
should know that our purpose is not to function as a support group. Problem solving
around delicate issues requires facilitators to have certified professional skills, and for
the group to abide by more specialized kinds of restrictions. Moreover, the dynamics of
an issue focused support group may ultimately sabotage the safe and comfortable feelings of the group. Also, we do not want participants to attend out of an expectation that they will get help with personal problems. Let healing happen through the natural process of stillness. Keep the tone of the group empathetic, but also up-beat. Listening is very good; advice much less so.
● Instruction. As a facilitator remember the premises of stillness groups. Stillness
teaches stillness. The group members may instruct each other in various ways, but the
essence of instruction is stillness. The teaching does not emanate from a single person.
The depth of such instruction is not the depth of inspired truth, but rather the warmth of
community in sharing stillness.
Stillness Groups are profound by their simplicity, powerful both in providing personal satisfaction and social harmony. I hope that you will be part of a group -- or start a group -- actively facilitating or simply offering the precious gift of your stillness.
For more information or free promotional assistance contact:
Jeff Wright MA, E-RYT500