The Skill of Being Still

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve not been posting over the last year, largely because I’ve been preoccupied with other things – but also because the answers to most of the questions I’m getting are covered in previous posts.

Thing is though, I keep getting questions asking me to comment on all kinds of weird views of meditation -things like, ‘is meditation a way of connecting with god’, or, ‘will I experience other dimensions when I meditate’, and so on. And I have to email back that really, on those issues, I have absolutely nothing to say.

So I’ll say it here – my view of meditation is extremely practical, because I’m a practical person. For me, meditation is simply a tool I use to build a skill – and what might or might not happen as a result of my use of that skill is not important – because, as anyone who meditates knows, all kinds of strange and temporary mental states come and go as we practice, some pleasant, some unpleasant, and some momentarily fascinating. But none of these things are at all at all significant. They’re simply the temporary effects of a mind and body processing stuff so it can clear it away.

So I’m going to re-state my position, so the weird and entertaining questions can be directed elsewhere.

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When meditation is stripped back to its core, it’s really quite simple.

Just stop. Do nothing. Go still for a while and stay wakefully still, and be content to stay wakefully still.

That’s all it is.

And this is what every creature on the planet is doing for parts of each of their days. Every so often they stop and do nothing. Animals, birds, insects, reptiles, fish – they all do it. They sit or they lie down and they go still. And in that stillness they’re immediately at ease. They might even close their eyes for a while, but they aren’t asleep. They’re alert, passively aware, and utterly calm – peacefully waiting for something to happen, when they will come out of stillness and take action. And in these sublime spaces throughout their day they’re not worrying or fretting, or planning or thinking about anything – nor are they anxious or tense or bored. They’ve simply disengaged their attention from life’s processes for a while, so their mind and body can refresh themselves.

If you’ve got a pet cat, or a dog, maybe take some time and watch them. You’ll see that when there’s nothing to do, they do nothing. And they do it with great pleasure. In effect they’re meditating. They’re not trying to meditate. It’s simply something they do – a natural part of their lives, like eating, drinking and keeping clean. But as much as they find stillness pleasurable to do, that’s not its only purpose. These periods of disengagement also have practical function in their lives. With the mind still and passively aware, and their body restfully inert, their entire organism goes about renewing itself. Muscles relax, breathing lengthens, tensions unwind, organs get a chance to rejuvenate. The blood is cleaned. Excess hormones are metabolised. Waste is processed.

At the same time as this is happening, a similar process takes place in their brain. Recent thoughts and experiences are sorted through and reorganised into more efficient patterns. What’s recently learnt is clarified and prioritised, and what’s not needed gets archived into the unconscious. In all those spaces where your pet dog or pet cat seems to be doing nothing, there’s a whole process of rejuvenation taking place as their mind and body re-balances themselves to be ready for whatever will come next.

All it all happens naturally in stillness.

Because that’s the way of nature. When things are left alone for a while, they re-balance and regenerate. Forests recover. Fallow fields self fertilise. Over-fished oceans come back to life. Similarly, the mind and body also re-balances itself. There’s no need for positive thinking or white light or visualisations – it happens naturally.

If there is stillness.

As I said before, this innate capacity to go still is something every creature on the planet can do … every creature that is, except us.

We, unfortunately, have great difficulty with stillness. It might have been different a few thousand years ago, when life was less complicated – perhaps then stillness was an integral part of our lives as well. But no longer. In the complex world we human’s have built for ourselves, our lives have become far too complicated and hard-driven by the vast machine of our civilisation. We’re too disturbed by our restless minds – analysing, worrying, daydreaming, remembering, anticipating. We exist in a constant state of agitation which, because we’ve lived with it all our lives, we don’t notice.

This loss of our ability to be still, which every other creature on the planet takes for granted, is a primary cause of most of our mental and physical suffering. Trouble is, when we look around, everyone else is just like us, so our anxious and agitated state seems normal. But in nature it’s not normal to suffer the way we do. Look around, at the birds, insects and animals. As we humans get sick, go crazy, get lonely and depressed and mess things up, every other creature on the planet is living quiet, peaceful, efficient lives.

And we could too – if we could just learn to stop. If we could be still for just a little each day.

And that’s why we have meditation which, when we strip it back to essentials, is simply a set of tools to help us learn the skill of being still, which we lost a long time ago.

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