Way of Stillness
In healthcare circles it is pretty much accepted that a practice called “meditation” can be significant in the management of stress, and therefore quite important in dealing with a host of stress related afflictions -- from emotional problems to auto-immune disorders to cardio-vascular issues. While much of the support for this opinion is anecdotal, there is also a growing body of hard data to back up the many glowing reports from meditators.
That said, there is also a lot of confusion about just what meditation actually is, and how it is accomplished. Part of the problem is that over the past fifty years that the practice has been seeping into public awareness it has been packaged in the exotic traditions of the Far East. For many, the term, meditation, as used in many Christian religions, means pondering moral recommendations, but once the distinction is made between that practice and the less cognitive practices from India or Japan, a good many of us will associate meditation with incomprehensible chanting, varying degrees of self-denial, incense, and bells. In addition, there will be quite a sense of levels of mastery – from fidgety, bone aching beginners striving to sit cross legged on the floor on up to experts, highly revered, upon whose words would-be meditators hang in the hope of finding one more nugget of information that they need in order to climb the meditation ladder.
Before continuing, it is important that I place what I have to say in a personal context. I write from a forty-five year span of failed infatuations, first with Vedic Yoga and later with Buddhism. These relationships had been dedicated; even passionate. The opinions that I hold now are based as much upon a rather stark assessment of myself as upon my observations of anyone else. What I perceive now as honest, muscular, and insightful opinions, may seem to others quite dismissive, arrogant, and harsh, with notes of sour grape. My apologies. It is a lover’s quarrel that only stillness can resolve …
It seems to me that a very small percentage of Western society has accepted the meditation challenge in one foreign tradition or another, and the rest feel bewildered, offended, or embarrassed by such strangeness. Of that small group of would-be meditators, I suspect many, myself included, have been quite frustrated. We have not been able to quiet our minds. Nor have we had even a glimmer of the unusual, ecstatic, life changing experiences that we had expected. Many of us have pretended success through the unspoken competition of soft smiles and a display of ever more debilitating sensitivities, but we are well aware that we have not had much luck in quelling our attachments or vanquishing our egos as had been so strongly recommended by the experts. Perhaps I am not alone in having occasionally blamed my failures on a strange causal situation called karma, but the fact is, our mission turned out to be very difficult. Still, there was something so very attractive about just being purely healthy, clear minded, and at peace, that we continued our struggles and others have joined us.
In view of these disappointments I would like to look at meditation a little differently. I would assert first of all that it is not the sort of thing someone is better at or worse at than someone else, no matter how long they have practiced or how smart they appear to be. After all, this fancy, foreign thing called meditation is just sitting still. Nothing more or less than that. Just sitting still. Perhaps it would be useful to abandon the messy, over-loaded word, “meditation”, with its exotica, exclusivity, and frustration, and just call the practice, “sitting still”. That would imply not moving our bodies or talking; also being both relaxed and wakeful and thus able to handle sitting still for ten minutes or more. Granted, even this is not so easy, but there are lots of useful tips about posture, breathing, and comfortable thinking that could be offered, but just for sitting still, and nothing more arcane than that .
Next, I would like to assert that sitting still is not a special discovery, a precious secret, or sacred offering from the East, but something as natural – if different – as sleeping. I see bow hunters, fishermen, and idle people on park benches doing it. But, strangely simple as it is, such behavior is a rather rare sight. Watching TV does not count. It is distraction, a busy-ness of mind; not stillness. Kicking back in a lounge chair does not count. It is not wakeful and alert. Sitting in stillness is just sitting up, fairly erect, being alert, and not really anything else. And yet that alone is pure gold.
The basic human habit of sitting in stillness, shared by cats, rabbits, frogs, and most other animals, seems to have been lost in many parts of the human world, our own included. In other times and places the practice of stillness was inseparable from hunting, from being keenly aware of both the dangers and the joys of one’s immediate surroundings. It was inseparable from vigils with babies or the ill, of being with them until they slept, and then, as well, being ready to meet their needs whenever they awakened. It was the occupation of long nights and dark winters with no other entertainment than a warming fire. Quiet, but attentive. Could it be that the demands of agricultural societies for long days of labor with down time only for rest, and for distraction from a difficult and somewhat crippled life, and then to an even greater degree, similar demands that came with industrialization, encouraged ever less time in idle stillness? Whether we are paid by the hour or by the completion of tasks, seemingly unproductive periods of doing nothing are not an easy option. And perhaps from that came a strong, if unspoken belief that the ethos and integrity of the highly complex societies created by these economic revolutions would be destabilized if people looked too closely at their thoughts and feelings, as would be likely to happen in stillness. Yes, the promise of recreation, the pleasant distraction, has been an acceptable incentive to get us through the tough parts of our day or week. And sleep, certainly, remains an abiding refuge and source of renewal, but the weight of a work ethic, an ethic of productive accountability for time and of the work-born pressures for competition and advancement has permeated our lives on and off the job. We can be grateful for the society we have found ourselves in for the past seventy years, a society somewhat less driven by practical needs and yet motivated by the anguish of devastating wars and injustice toward a more effective cultivation of compassion. At first, formal traditions of idleness, elevated to religious heights, were invited in order to help justify even small forays into alert and healing stillness. Perhaps now, the notion having gained a foothold of acceptability, we can begin to value a simpler way of idleness as a necessity even in such a hard driving work culture as ours.
I return now to the analogy of sleep. Suppose, quite fancifully, that people no longer slept. Suppose that it had been considered a waste of time and by now had not been practiced for several centuries. Yes, we had somehow learned to manage without sleep. Our health was not great, and we felt deeply that something was missing from our lives. We truly did not know what that could be, and somehow we struggled on in spite of our difficulties. Then, suppose that the practice of sleeping was introduced from some far corner of the world. A revered sleep master told us, “You are to lie down on a soft surface, under a wool blanket, with a pillow supporting your head. With dedicated practice you will be able to achieve a mental state of supreme and holy emptiness interrupted at times by experiences that defy logic, time, and space.” How attractive! We would lie down as instructed and attempt unsuccessfully to empty our minds and have visions. We would feel both guilty for wasting time, especially with such a strange practice, and yet righteous at our efforts at pleasing our teacher. We would toss and turn impatiently, wondering how to make the true sleep experience happen. We would visualize the experience and pretend we had accomplished it, trying to look and act renewed even though we did not feel that way. Perhaps there would be impulses to proselytize and expound in an attempt to convince ourselves of sleep’s joy. And, we would look enviously at the master snoozing away. We would notice how genuinely refreshed and happy he looked when he awakened and would bow deeply to him with reverence and longing.
I believe that while quite different from sleep, sitting in stillness is just as natural and healthy. As with sleeping – the bed, darkness, preparations, and habits – there are tips which help us to sit quietly until alert stillness becomes both as commonplace and profound as sleeping. Those tips do not include such inhuman requirements as emptying our minds, or being detached, or being self-less. Nor do they include contradictory notions like “meditation in motion”. Doing things with concentration may be wonderfully satisfying, but it is not the practice of sitting in stillness. In fact sitting is the foundation of concentrated activity, not the reverse as implied by “meditation in motion”. Therefore, we look instead at very concrete, doable instructions. We look toward strengthening and aligning our bodies to great efficiency in erect, wakeful – and painless – posture, choosing the proper sort of cushion or the proper sort of chair, settling our nerves with smooth, steady breathing, and easing the churn of our thoughts with thoughts that are calming. Above all we would include a persistent reminder of the value of patience, plain and simple. All appropriate instruction, if different, is no more sophisticated than what we would give to someone who had never slept. Once we have then been able to sit quietly for a while, stillness becomes customary. If at times it is still difficult, it feels, as with sleep, quite natural and is a sufficient end in itself. It needs no selling or explanation. We are no longer embarrassed, covetous, or frustrated by the practice.
And then we begin to take great satisfaction sitting in public, especially among other sitters in stillness. We find such community inexplicably primal and simple. It is such a welcome amalgam of solitude and sociability. We find that stillness breeds stillness. We find that stillness breeds stillness breeds peace. We stretch our legs as a group at fixed intervals, so as not to disturb one another by doing so individually at odd times. The intervals are signaled by a designated time keeper by a single clap of hands, and then we all stand up and slowly walk single file once around the room to refresh our wakefulness. There are no special bells. At the end of a session we just say, “Thanks,” because we feel grateful. There is no need to bow. No need for “Namaste.” No need to thank Guru or Buddha. No professionals; no fees. We are just ordinary people, unaffiliated with any particular tradition or religion; ordinary people in the silent company of one another. We begin with the timekeeper saying, “Let’s sit”, then sit in ordinary stillness, and end with everyone saying, “Thanks.” We chat a little and then go home.
Be assured that it is not necessarily wrong to surround your sitting practice with liturgies, mythologies, philosophies, thangkas, and tea, any more than it is wrong to sleep in a four post mahogany bed, on a memory mattress, your family on the wall, and Debussy in your ear, but the sleep itself will be no different than that of a soldier on a cot and the sitting itself will be no different than that of a hawk on a wire. Adornment of either practice may be gracious, comforting, and lovely, and that is what it is. Adornment. Make no mistake about this. These are matters of taste, not meaning. Nice, but not defining. That said, there would be little criticism of foreign approaches. With enough perspective the trappings of meditation traditions are generally not damaging, and may indeed provide useful emotional support. It is our nature as human beings to embellish what we appreciate. But we must never lose sight of the simple core within that embellishment, for it really does suffice.
Now that the points of meditation’s natural simplicity and also of the abundance of tips contributing to its success have been made, we may set aside its similarity to sleep. The differences are considerable. Most people need to sleep around eight hours out of twenty-four, while considerable benefit is felt from sitting in stillness only half an hour a day. More importantly, sleep takes us to a realm of experience totally different from wakefulness, whereas sitting in stillness subtly clarifies an existing state of wakefulness. Sometimes we overlook this difference and have falsely dramatic expectations of our sitting practice. Sleep is down time to restore the physical and psychological machinery of our life. Wakeful stillness is up time to encounter the reality of ourselves and surroundings in all of its mystery, to which we then respond quite naturally and spontaneously with appreciation, then affection, then gratitude and the impulses of kindness. Our good behavior need not be instructed and deliberate. It need not be a product of much effort and fraught with confusion and frustration. It can flow effortlessly as a result of our stillness. Sleep restores our vitality, and sitting in stillness restores our sanity -- our sense of wonder and our compassion. Obviously sleep has priority as a practice. We die without vitality. But without appreciation and compassion, we also die. It is a much slower, less direct death to be sure, but death nonetheless by war, by the fouling of our environment, by chronic, jittery feelings of panic, by avoidable illnesses, by loneliness and a grinding lack of affection for one another, and by the emptiness of not knowing who we are and what we should do. “Get more sleep,” the doctor says. “and you will heal.” And she might add as well, “Practice being wide awake without moving, and you and the rest of us will thrive.” Give it a try and see for yourself.
Formal Public Stillness
A Call to Inaction
All Suffering (and Some Pain) Is Avoidable
The Buddha taught that suffering was avoidable. That was the main thrust of his prodigious teaching. With certain insights and the practice of certain behaviors we could feel a deep psychological ease, even in the midst of pain. Whether somatic or psychological, pain is a natural, biological experience, but suffering is a more complex experience shaped by memory and fear, and such related manifestations as anger, greed, aversion, or addiction. Peace is the countering experience of embracing the immediacy of perception and spontaneously responding to that perception with indiscriminate affection. Abundant and abiding feelings of such peace are, in the Buddhist outlook within our capacity. In addition and particularly as emphasized in Mahayana Buddhist traditions, the experience of peace engenders feelings of compassion that compel us not only to help others find peace, but also to ease the pain in ourselves and others. Those feelings are not so much intellectual, moral matters as simple emotional urgencies.
The Buddha was not as optimistic about eliminating pain in our lives as he was about eliminating suffering. Some pain, a great deal of pain actually, is unavoidable – and here we consider the pain associated with inevitable aging, illness, death, or the loss of loved ones. Nothing can be done about that. Other pain, though, is theoretically avoidable, and that, along with the greater elimination of suffering, is well worth considering. Avoidable pain often arises in situations of crime, injustice, neglect, poverty, discrimination, or the misuse of natural resources – situations that are often potentially within our control to change. All have the common element of abuse. Avoidable pain is usually inflicted by other people, our selves, or other beings such as microbes and mosquitoes. Whether motivated by emotionally simple survival needs, more complex feelings of greed or jealousy, or even more convoluted processes we might be tempted, if crudely, to call pure evil, all abusive behavior begins in emotional fear and intellectual confusion. The basis of avoidable pain is internal agitation born of a desperation for basic necessities, for safety, or for dignity. If we study our own motivations as well as those of others, we will find this to be true. The Buddha taught from within a pervasive culture that had discovered that such abusive agitation, regardless of its size, entrenchment, or perceived justification, subsides during the simple act of sitting erect in stillness. That act does not necessarily include stillness of thinking and feeling. Essentially it is just the plain physical act of sitting upright, deliberately, by choice, unmoving, for fairly long periods of time. Those who practice such stillness do not need to fight fantasies of desire or revenge. Such disturbances may persist for an hour or two (or more …) and then wither, exhausted, and lacking in further interest. Nor do sitters need to cultivate trance states or other non-normal mental activity. By the simple practice of sitting still, that alone, the suffering of the sitter diminishes reliably, and thereby his or her inclination to inflict pain on others.
Stillness Breeds Stillness
By sitting in stillness we can find peace, but what about the reliable urgency of our concurrent growth in compassion? We may feel better, but we find we would also very much like to have others feel better. We would like our peace to spread beyond us. We would like people to stop hurting us and others. We would like to reduce avoidable pain. What can be done about the pain caused by domestic abuse, by corporate or political inhumanity, or, more generally, by the harshness of individuals around us? As we find that sitting in stillness reduces our own suffering, we also find that at some level of psychological benefit our sitting is always contagious. Stillness breeds stillness breeds peace. Every brain seeks peace; seeks safety, comfort, and understanding. We are attracted initially to the outward appearance of peace – the example that the person sitting presents – and then by imagining the possibility of experiencing peace through our own sitting, and finally, in fits and starts, by our actual participation in that practice. This is a very long, slow process, tree-like in its growth, but the end result is predictably a more satisfying climate of behavior.
Therefore, in service to ourselves and others we could practice Formal Public Stillness (FPS). We could take our place alone, but far preferably nurturing and supporting one another’s stillness as a group, in public places like malls, subway stations, or more pointedly, areas that focus protest and civil demonstration, like areas of social turmoil. We might perhaps sit at the sites of corporate or military travesty; or on a scale less grand, at the scenes of more personal familial conflict in job or family. The procedure is reminiscent of Gandhi’s civil disobedience and its later appearance with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s. FPS is both passive and pacific, but much simpler than most protest strategies. It values understatement – actually no statement - highly. As a protest activity there would be no arguing and loud accusation, no threat of legal action, no angry demonstrations with bludgeoning harangues and chanting, which only intensify deeply held fear and confusion and so limit the extent to which the message is heard. There may be a strong impulse to identify an issue. We may feel strongly that we need to have a specific message defining our concerns. Perhaps it would be expressed very quietly just once or twice, by one person in the sitting group. Outside a factory farm he or she might say to a company representative, “You have been cruel to millions of chickens.” Outside the home of a child molester, he or she might say, “You have hurt many children deeply.” The point would be to bring some awareness of the specific avoidable pain that is being inflicted on others. This is a tempting addition to the bare protocol I have proposed, but, I believe that maintaining the purity of stillness alone, resisting the urge to make any statement either of blame to the miscreant, or of consolation to the victim, makes the stronger point. We should limit the possibility of defensive reaction in any way we can. I believe that all people, when calm, are amazingly perceptive and wise. In stillness they become capable of recognizing their errors and find strength to correct them. This is such an ancient insight and still to be found in many cultures across the world. By removing all directive statements, stillness becomes an act of compassion to both the perpetrator and the victim, and in non-contentious situations also offers a pathway to peace for those suffering unavoidable pain. In Formal Public Stillness, stillness is the only message and I believe it has the strength to bring about positive change. Stillness breeds stillness breeds compassion breeds peace.
FPS in Practice
Formal Public Stillness is a simple, practical approach to nurturing compassionate change. As you begin to organize an FPS event make sure that members of your core sitting group understand the principles and intentions of the practice, and encourage everyone to diligently sit in stillness on their own every day in order to be capable of lengthy public sessions. Time spent in practice is the essential ingredient of this skill. Participants should also know that practicing with others is a considerable boon in mastering the art of stillness. It applies our instinctive impulses to imitate others and to be strengthened in our efforts by the subtle, unspoken dynamics of peer pressure. In public sessions, being in a group provides a feeling of safety and a confidence in the value of the endeavor. The weight of a group also communicates the significance of a stillness session to observers in a way that an isolated individual would not.
Beyond the practiced core group, be inclusive in inviting anyone else to sit with you for even very brief periods of time with no expectation other than their physical stillness. There should be no considerations regarding beliefs in addition to the effectiveness of stillness, whether religious, philosophical, or political, other than the expectation that they should not be expressed in any way during participation in the FPS session. Participants should identify themselves only as “FPS sitters”. They should wear neat, comfortable clothes that do not identify them as being part of a special group. There is no signage, no buttons, no photos, candles, or flowers. No inspirational background music, no matter how soothing. No singing. No ritual beyond the bell that marks the beginnings and endings of sessions. Just stillness. That is the message.
While the term, “vigil”, has been used to identify periods of watchful attention by groups, it usually implies that it occurs during the natural nocturnal hours of sleep and often that it is done as part of a religious observance, or at least from a specific stance on an issue. FPS, however, may occur at any time, and because it is intended to be observed by non-participants, it might be more appropriate during the day than during the hours of sleep. Also, it is intended as an expression of simplification, safety, and generalized compassion, rather than honoring less concrete religious events. For that reason, I suggest that the observance I am advocating be termed FPS, a specific, unique activity joining the class of non-violent protest activities like “sit-ins”, “rallies”, “boycotts”, or “peace marches”.
FPS need not limit itself to places of protest, but also include places where pain is less avoidable and suffering, the base affliction, is especially abundant: at the beds of the sick, at hospice sites, in prisons, at the sides of the grieving, the depressed, the anxious, the shunned, and the lonely. And also include the places of joy, for stillness is the bedrock of happiness. FPS is appropriate in the background at birthdays, marriages, and other celebrations. Finally, include the places where joy and suffering mingle and intertwine – in malls, train stations, or park pavilions -- for these are the places of ordinary daily life and they, too, rest on a bed of stillness.
The actual format of an FPS session can be flexible. I have borrowed a little from the Soto Zen tradition, but other approaches could also be appropriate. Both folding chairs and cushions (folded blankets are the most adjustable) should be available for participants. Breaks should be scheduled into a session so that sitters can stretch their legs and refresh their circulation. I use a schedule of twenty minute periods of sitting separated by walking as a group, one small step with each breath, clockwise in a circle the size of the sitting area, individuals returning to their seats and waiting for everyone else to return to their seat before sitting down again. When there is a large group crowded in a small space it is important that everyone take a step forward with each breath, even if it means invading a socially defined personal space slightly. Otherwise, the movement of the group will stall and too much time will pass before sitting again. Alternately the group could simply stand at their places and stretch a little. I also encourage individual sitters to lie down or stretch mid-period if discomfort or sleepiness become an unpleasant distraction. For very long sessions a group can be organized into teams that rotate through shifts. Finally, in the format I have described, one sitter should be designated as time keeper, and either clap their hands or ring a bell signaling the beginning and end of periods. Someone else might be in charge of organizing sessions – securing permission to use a space, contacting a core group for participation, scheduling shifts, and advertising. Yet another person might be responsible for instructing participants in the format and troubleshooting problems participants may be having with their practice. While certain duties may require more effort, knowledge, and experience, any sense of authority, entitlement, or hierarchy should be scrupulously avoided. All sitters should be considered of equal status in the group, and of equal status among all they come in contact with in an FPS session – prisoner, Alzheimer patient, CEO, and MD, alike.
Beginning participants should be assured that FPS is non-religious, has no special theories of serendipity or unified consciousness, and does not require any special abilities like sitting cross-legged or concentrating intently. They should be further assured that no fees are charged and no donations solicited of either practitioners or recipients. There are no expectations or requirements for those involved; no vows or commitments, but only their presence in stillness at the particular moment of their participation. What they need not be told, but will perhaps discover through practice, is that FBS is 10% instruction by example and 90% a love affair with the present moment.
* * *
If you are interested in participating in an FPS group or in receiving the services of such a group, please request additional information from: