Learn to Be Still – and Heal
I met Peter at a seminar of meditation teachers. He was a good-looking man of about forty-five, an architect by profession. He told me in conversation that he had cancer once and conquered it with meditation. I was very impressed until he told me that he had also used chemotherapy and herbal remedies. So I asked him how he knew it was the meditation that cured his cancer if he was doing all these other things at the same time. It could well have been any of them, or a combination of them all. He shook his head and insisted that it was meditation.
Then he told me his story and it moved me very much, and, though I have long since lost contact with him, I will paraphrase what he told me:
He said, “I knew I was going to die. So I was doing all these things, the chemotherapy and herbal stuff as well as meditation. I wasn’t doing them because I believed in them, as much as I hoped they’d work. Understandably, with a hit or miss attitude like that, I got worse.
“But one night it all changed. I was meditating, and it was just like all the other meditations, full of morbid thoughts and defeat. I was very depressed. So I was trying to concentrate on the idea of living, frantically visualizing white light and chanting and imagining all this other positive stuff.
“But all the time, I could hear this clock ticking, an old grandfather clock in the hall. And no matter how hard I chanted my affirmation, I felt like it was ticking the remaining seconds of my life away. I felt like I was being pushed to the edge of an abyss by a slow and gentle passing of time, and right then I started to panic.
“That was when I hit a wall of absolute desperation. In that moment I gave up on the affirmations and white light. I gave up on everything. I thought, ‘nothing is ever going to work. I might as well just go out and get drunk and have a good time.’ But for some reason, I kept on meditating. The timer buzzed the end of the forty minutes I had allotted myself, but I kept going. I kept going because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I’d lost all hope.
“But you know, incredible as it seems, it was that loss of hope that changed everything for me. From the moment I lost hope, meditation began to take off. The blackness cleared like some kind of mucky fog, and for the first time I knew what it was like to have a clear mind. I could see the morbid thoughts and feel the desperation, but it was all from a distance. I wasn’t involved. And at that moment, I didn’t care if I lived or died – it wasn’t an issue any more. All I was interested in was each moment as it passed. Each moment was so sweet and full of everything.
“When I finally came out of the meditation, I felt a profound change had come over me. I felt great – and the air felt sweet to breath – a weight had been lifted from my chest, and life felt good, so good.
“I think, paradoxically, that it was the loss of hope that changed me. I gave up my single pointed and very anxious obsession with wanting to live, and it opened up meditation for me and gave me back my life.
“That was the only thing that changed in my routine from then on. I did the same chemotherapy I’d been doing for ages, and took the same herbal stuff, but from that night, I just knew I was going to live. I didn’t hope any more – I knew. And that made me want to meditate more and more, because I could feel life pulsing within me during the meditation. I could feel my body as a friend – a lover even. So meditation got deeper and more satisfying. I was like a man dying of thirst drinking gallons of cool, clear water. And here I am. I’m alive.. And the only reason I’m alive is because I gave up clinging to life, and began to live.”
I found Peter’s story unique, and inspiring. His initial hope had formed a goal. It had been something specific he wanted from meditation. And this wanting only served to twist his mind in tight spirals of ‘wanting but not having’, ‘wanting but not believing’.
It wasn’t until, in a peak of desperation, he gave up this wanting and opened up his mind to the unconditioned and unknowable potential of life, death, meditation and whatever happened, that he began to experience what life actually meant to him, rather than just imagining and hoping for it.
So it is for all of us with meditation.
In order to meditate well, you have to do something which in Western terms is unthinkable. You have to not want anything from it. You have to not bother about whether you are ‘good at it’ or ‘not good at it’. To meditate well, you should practice because you have chosen to practice – just do the business, the routine.
To want anything from meditation – to be always grasping or hoping or clinging, is to defeat it. All of these graspings only create their own avenues of frustration and suffering, and stillness is lost.
To meditate efficiently, you must train yourself to let everything go. Stillness appears in the space that is left, and in that stillness the forces of nature will give you all that you need.
In the hyperactive, and very artificial world we humans have created for ourselves, where everything responds directly to our actions, from light-switches and taps in our houses, to our car and the jobs we work at, we’ve been conditioned to the view that if we don’t take action, nothing will happen.
That is, to make something work, or change, or heal, we have to do something – flick a switch, turn a key, take a drug, pay someone, or do something.
This arrogant, and particularly human view includes within it a profound forgetting. We forget that there are immense universal forces other than human will, which are more powerful and intelligent than us. We forget that we live within a vast universal river of energy we call ‘nature’.
And it’s very telling that we usually refer to nature as something separate from ourselves. But we’re not separate – our body is a manifestation of these forces, as is our life and everything in it. Everything we are, and everything we do is a tiny cross current in a vast river of natural forces.
So what do I mean by ‘natural forces’?
Beyond all the folklore and myths about ‘mother nature’, one thing is clear. Depending on your position, and how you are perceiving it, all physical manifestation develops in a pattern. Why it 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 seems 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 when you fly over it in a jet and look down from thousands of feet, you see that there is a pattern, nature has formed itself into a particular design.
‘Nature forms patterns. Some are orderly in space, but disorderly in time, others orderly in time but disorderly in space.’ [‘Chaos’ by James Gleik, Cardinal, London 1990, p 309]
Nature always adjusts itself to these patterns. They are the invisible line that it is always correcting to, like a ship navigating at sea.
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, but 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, creating dust in summer and mud in winter.
The biologists told the government that it would cost a lot of money to regenerate the forest, and when they presented the government with the estimate the project was called off. It was too expensive. The biologists went back to America and everyone assumed the forest was lost.
About ten years later one of the biologists happened to be doing some 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 and when he found it, it was barely recognisable from the rest of the forest.
Life had returned in that ten years. All the wildlife, the trees and all the plants had quietly reclaimed and re-established themselves. The forest had healed itself and equilibrium had returned. The forest had been left alone and in the stillness that is its nature, it reformed itself according to its own ancient design.
This sense of design and ‘rightness’ is a pre-eminent quality of nature – an equilibrium between chaos and order that is always perfection.
‘The universe continually confronts us with this obvious, and far-reaching fact. It is not mere confusion, but 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.’[Alfred North Whitehead, in Rupert Sheldrake, ‘The Present of the Past’ Harper Collins, London 1994 p 55]
This movement of nature towards equilibrium is a dynamic, a force. If left to itself nature will always recreate itself according to the patterns it knows – the patterns it has been forming itself into for billions of years. And those patterns are physical expressions of equilibrium, of balance, of harmony. This movement towards harmony is the bottom line of nature.
So how do we get the natural forces to work for us?
Well, I’ll start my answer with another question. What does an animal do when it is sick? It stops. It lies down. It withdraws its body from action. Its eyes may be closed but it is not unconscious. It simply shuts down its volitional motors, and leaves its body for nature to heal, while it remains passively aware, waiting.
And what do we humans do when we’re tired or sick? We get fearful and take action.
We might take a pill, drink more coffee, curse our luck, or watch television to try to forget everything. And though we might manage to shrug our illness off in the short term, this resilience gets harder as we get older. Our hangovers get worse, our colds last longer and our bodies don’t respond the way they used to. And 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 main reason is, we have never given our bodies or minds the stillness they needed to rejuvenate.
Unlike the animal, we rarely switch off and leave the mind/body for nature to work on, and find balance in its own way. We tell ourselves 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 distracting ourselves – trying to forget.
Everything – our lives, our problems, our mysterious anxiety, our loneliness, ourselves. We want to forget because we don’t know what else to do in the face of everything.
And all the things that we use to forget, the television, the films, the drinking and drugs, they exhaust us. 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 practised in the art of ‘being here now’. Awareness and economy of function come naturally to them. And as we practice meditation, so it gradually comes to us as well.
We learn to stop.
To let go.
To become still, and surrender the mind and body to nature.
Because that’s what we’re doing when we learn to meditate. When there is stillness, all the reactive cycles between mind and body slow down. Life becomes a series of momentary sensations in an exquisite emptiness. And in that emptiness natural forces take us over, reclaiming, rebalancing and healing us. And we don’t have to do a thing.
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.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)