Two BirdsAs I’ve said before, meditation can be summed up in one sentence:

‘Meditation is the skill of being still.’

The stillness I’m speaking of is not the comatose stillness we are in watching TV, nor is it sleep. In this stillness we are wide awake, but the activities of the restless attention are suspended, and the body is allowed to relax.

In this state all the innate self adjusting, self healing, self cleansing mechanisms that nature gave us are allowed to take over, and when we rise up from this stillness, we are fresh and ready for anything.

Stillness is something all things in nature take for granted – dogs, cats, birds, insects, fish, everything in the universe – when nothing is happening, they go still. They go still and enjoy it.

We on the other hand, have no such skill.

Our western culture doesn’t acknowledge the worth of stillness – only action, however mindless, is valued. As such, from the day we’re born to the day we die, we try to constantly be on the move doing things.  And in those rare times when we do nothing, our cultural guilt is heavy – words like laziness, bludger, waste of time – they all rattle about in the back of the mind making it such that we cannot relax into doing nothing, as we should.

So this is why we have meditation methods – to help us train the mind to let go and stop when we want it to.

And why? Because stillness heals.  It heals everything.

 

So let’s look at stillness for a bit, then I’ll talk about how it heals.

When we sit with our attention trained on sensations instead of thoughts – gradually the mind and body go still in a reciprocal dance between the two.

As the mind goes still, so too does the body.

And as the body goes still, so too does the mind.

When we first begin meditation, it takes a bit of practice to get used to this dance and let it happen. Old physical tensions take a while to unravel in the body as aches and pains. And in the mind, long forgotten emotional anxiety takes a while to arise and pass away.

Not only this, but it takes a while for the mind and body to adapt to the unique environment of meditation – to learn how to accept the process of meditation and surrender. Powerful habits of thinking and reacting keep interfering with the natural process of meditation.

But, if we keep practicing, like any skill, at some point our mind and body work it out and we don’t have to work so hard to meditate anymore.

At that point, whenever we sit, we settle quite quickly into an acceptance of things as they are in each moment, surrendering to ‘real time’ flow – where time-consciousness fades away and everything we sense becomes simply a succession of momentary events appearing and disappearing in a sublime stillness.

And the more we practice, the faster this appearing and disappearing gets – until eventually, things are disappearing almost at the same time as they appear, and profound stillness is all there is.

This is mind and body in balance – integrated and aware, and completely whole.

And in that stillness we find natural forces taking over, reclaiming us, rebalancing and healing whatever is out of balance.

Because in that stillness, whatever is out of balance shows itself – as pain or aching; as bristling loops of worrying spinning in the wide open space of the mind; as patterns of powerful emotion we cannot find reasons for.

Anything out of balance, whoever small, becomes obvious in the stillness and that is enough for it to be healed.  We don’t have to rub at it, or react or stretch or bustle off to the doctor or therapist.  All we have to do is feel it, and natural forces will heal it.

So … what do I mean by ‘nature forces’?

 

Beyond all the folklore and myths about ‘mother nature’, one thing is clear.  Depending on your position and how you perceive it, all physical manifestation develops in patterns.

Why nature does this is still a matter of conjecture, but the consensus is still the same: neither chaos or order is exclusive to itself.  Each has qualities of the other. Chaos and order are in an eternal dance with one another, each leading the other.  What seems chaotic when focused on from one perspective, becomes orderly when focused on from another and vice versa.

For example, the formation of clouds and the timing of weather patterns over a particular place seem to have no order when viewed in the context of a couple of years, or even ten years – but if seen over a thousand years a definite and very orderly pattern, a design would emerge.

Alternatively, if you stand in the outback desert and see the terrain, you would be tempted to call it a mess of rocks and scrub – but if you fly over it in a jet and look down from thousands of feet, you see there is a pattern.

Nature has formed itself into a particular design.

James Gleik, in his book ‘Chaos’ wrote:  ‘Nature forms patterns.  Some are orderly in space, but disorderly in time, others orderly in time but disorderly in space.’  And nature always adjusts itself to these patterns.  Pattern-forming is the invisible line it is always correcting to, like a ship navigating at sea.

So we see that nature, no matter how smashed and ruined, if let to its own devices, will reorganize itself into a coherent pattern – it will heal itself.

At a dinner party one night, I heard someone tell a story that illustrated very well the relationship between the presence of stillness and the healing power of nature. It was about two biologists who were hired by the Brazilian government in the late ‘70s to try to regenerate a large section of rainforest that had been ruined by a decommissioned mine.  The project was an experiment to see if it could be done.

Full of optimism, the biologists set out for this place, and when they got there a depressing sight greeted them.  The forest was so cut up it wasn’t a forest any more – just ruined trees and eroded dirt. The streams were polluted by chemicals, the wildlife had disappeared, and the slag heaps from the mine had washed down in the rains and covered everything, even right down the valleys, dust in summer and mud in winter.

The biologists told the government that it would cost a lot of money, and when they presented the government with the estimate the project was called off.  It was too expensive.  So the biologists returned to America and everyone assumed the forest was lost.

About ten years later one of the biologists happened to be doing some more work in the same area, so he decided to go to the mine site and see how things had developed. He drove up the road, but at first he couldn’t find the track into the mine site. So he stopped the car and walked into the forest.

It took him a long time to find the site, but when he found it what he saw was barely recognizable from the rest of what was now a vibrant forest.

Because coherent life had returned in that ten years.  All the wildlife, all the trees, all the plants had quietly adapted and re-established themselves.  The forest had been left alone and in the stillness that is its nature, it healed itself and equilibrium had returned according to its own ancient design.

This sense of design and ‘rightness’ is the preeminent quality of nature – an equilibrium between chaos and order that is always perfectly in balance.

“The universe confronts us with this obvious, but far-reaching fact.  It is not mere confusion, but it is arranged in units which attract our attention, larger and smaller units in a series of discrete ‘levels’, which for precision we call a hierarchy of wholes and parts.  The first fact about the natural universe is its organization as a system of systems from larger to smaller.”  [1]

This movement of nature towards equilibrium is a dynamic, a force of existence itself.  As such, if left to itself it will recreate itself according to the patterns it knows, the patterns it has been forming itself into for millions of years.  And those patterns are always the physical expressions of equilibrium, of balance, of harmony.

This movement towards harmony is the bottom line of nature.

 

So, you may well be asking how this applies to meditation.

Well, I’ll start my answer with another question.

What does an animal do when it is sick?

It stops.  It lies down, and withdraws its body from action.  Its eyes may be closed but it is not unconscious.  It has shut down all its volitional motors, and leaves its body for nature to heal, while it remains passively aware, waiting.

What do we humans do when we’re tired or sick?

We might take a pill, drink more coffee, curse our luck, or watch television to try to forget everything – but rarely do we stop.  Though we might manage to shrug our illness off in the short term, as we get older it becomes more and more difficult to do this:  our hangovers get worse, our colds last longer and our bodies don’t respond the way they used to.  We might say, ‘oh, I’m getting old’ as if that is supposed to be the reason for all our afflictions and physical tension.  But that is only a very small part of the reason.  The other part is that we have never given our bodies or minds the stillness in which to rejuvenate.

Unlike the animal, we rarely switch off and leave the mind/body for nature to work on, to find balance in its own way.  We don’t have enough time or enough money, or this or that.  There is always a reason, and it is at the heart of our declining quality of life, and when I say quality, I don’t mean affluence.  In fact, we are living much longer, spending more money, enjoying more comforts, but spending more time sick or unconscious, or distracting ourselves – trying to forget – dancing to forget, television or a film, or to a bar, anywhere to just forget.

Forget what?  Everything – our lives, our problems, our mysterious tension, our loneliness, ourselves.  We want to forget because we don’t know what else to do in the face of everything.  And all these things that we use to forget, the television, the films, the drinking and drugs, they exhaust us.  Yet we keep doing these things because of their powerful capacity for helping us to forget.  Most of our entertainments are directed to this addiction we have to forgetting, when all we really need is a little aware stillness to reconnect with nature and let things sort themselves out within us.

So let’s think now about the qualities of this stillness.

Have you ever watched a cat?  Stillness is what a cat does when it is sitting.  Watch it as it sits in a doorway, or on the grass, or on a windowsill.  Both paws primly placed together at the front, body in a symmetrical crouch.  It is tasting time as it passes, the sensual textures of the moments and seconds.  No thinking or worrying or anticipation, only stillness.  A sound comes?  The ear swivels to pick it up.  The sound goes, it’s gone.  Relaxed emptiness until the next sense contact.

No wonder cats look so good and exude such a sense of powerful grace.  They are practiced in the art of ‘being here now’.  Awareness and economy of function come naturally to them.

And as we practice meditation, so stillness gradually comes to us as well.

Like the forest, it is in stillness that we become rejuvenated by the nature we have spent our life shutting out with obsessive thinking and activity.  This is what we practice in meditation.  We practice aware stillness.  We develop the ability to stop every so often, and allow nature to possess us and heal the wear and tear of life.


[1] Alfred North Whitehead, in Rupert Sheldrake, ‘The Present of the Past’ Harper Collins, London 1994 p 55

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