It is perhaps an odd feature of being human that we live both in clock time and in the timeless present. This means that within all the changes and dramas that continously swirl—inside us and around us—there is a place of rest and stillness. This stillness cannot be understood or explained through language, which can only act as a signpost pointing to something that can only be experienced—in this way stillness is no-thing. If you can embrace even a little of this experience by finding your own pathway to stillness, you will come to learn a third way to deal with life—beyond fight and flight. You may learn to observe and follow—a way that will bring less stress and suffering and more peace to your life.
I have a friend who tells me this when I am confused and anxious. He says things like, “things are happening for you— not to you”. Then I say that I do not understand and he will say, “you are not supposed to understand, you are meant to accept”. All I know at this point in my journey is that making an effort to fix things, and anxiously looking for relief, does not work well—and even makes things worse. So I have begun to trust in not knowing and not doing. I use my stillness practice to help calm my “monkey mind” and I wait for a way forward—and I feel so much better! I inviite you to try this with your own Pathways to Stillness (Read more in my book).
Some time ago, I was diagnosed with Trigeminal Neuralgia, a very painful jaw condition. My neurologist sent me for an MRI. I also suffer from a degree of claustrophobia—I do not like elevators or other enclosed spaces. The MRI machine is an enclosed space and noisy. The nurse asked me if I wanted Ativan to keep my nerves calm during the test. I was nervous but I decided to rely on my stillness practice. I asked them to play some baroque gentle classical music and I attempted to relax and follow my breath. To my surprise, I remained calm and even temporarily forgot where I was during the procedure— The test ended without incident. While there is no guarantee, your stillness practice of choice is often there as support when you most need it.
I teach a course on this topic at St. Thomas University. As with my course, Aging and Tai Chi, there is a stillness-mindfulness dimension to the course material. This means that we not only explore research about the nature of spirituality in different traditions, and how it is understood as we move through our journey of aging and changing—we also explore our own pathways to stillness. I invite the students to participate in a selection of relax-into-stillness movements. The purpose of this activity is to emphasize that our spiritual life is an experience and not only a set of concepts and beliefs. It is also a personal experience. I find that many chronologically younger students are skeptical about organized religious and spiritual traditions—but they are very open to talk about their personal ways of finding meaning and peace in their lives. (Read more in my book).
A few months ago our community lost a special person—Jim Day. The title of this post is from the Celebration of Life announcement in his honor. To quote the announcement again, “Jim firmly believed that in times of sadness there is always room for smiles and even laughter. When things are dark, if we look we can always find light and a reason to count our blessings.” In all my encounters with Jim, I found that he did live this way, even when he was in his final days. He is an inspiration to all of us to continue the “journey to life” no matter what is happening inside us and around us.
The experience of loneliness is a natural part of being human. For most of us, it is an uncomfortable feeling that comes from a sense of being separate from others—not connected. Our common response to loneliness is to go to our favorite comfort behaviors—self-medication, food, television, social media, shopping—anything that will distract us and relieve the painful feelings. There is a third way to encounter loneliness and that is to allow it, accept it, and sit with it. The next time you are lonely try not to create a story around the feeling—just let it be. You may use one of my relax-into-stillness movements to help you in this new way of being with loneliness. You may find that your loneliness will start to change into aloneness—and bring you stillness and moments of peace. Read more in my book Pathways to Stillness.
In a recent article in our local newspaper (St. Croix Courier July 28, 2017) we meet Doug Kierstead. At 98, he makes Swedish weave blankets. He served in the Second World War and assisted in the liberation of Holland. He has also been twice a widower. He says that his hands were shaking— “It is surprising how calming it (Weaving) is on your nerves”—“You relax and it makes an awful difference”. He says that he also loses track of time in this activity, he just works away at it. Doug is an example of someone who has discovered a pathway to stillness later in life. Explore your pathways.
When we “butt up” against an unwanted life change—something we cannot control— we usually become fearful and either frantically attempt to fix the situation (fight), or we deny, resist, or otherwise run from it (flight). However, there is a third way—we can let go and accept. This is giving-in, not giving-up. It is allowing the situation to be part of your journey. This way takes practice, but it will help you feel better, and may even help you see a pathway forward that you did not notice in the midst of your turmoil. In Tai Chi philosophy this is using yin energy, which is not simply the absence of yang energy, but a force in itself— one that is very much needed in our world.
There is recent research that talks about successful aging. In order to age successfully you need such things as health, financial security, and social relationships. But there is a problem with this picture. Life happens and we may experience many forms of loss on our journey through this life. So we could fail or be unsuccessful in two ways— first, we suffer because of our losses, and second, we have failed to measure up in the areas we “should have” succeeded. In this scenario, there are winners and losers in the game of aging. The term successful aging itself is not appropriate in considering the journey of aging and changing. Meaningful aging is a better word—it makes the discussion personal and unique, and helps us look inside for our own wisdom and pathways to stillness. Read more in my book Pathways to Stillness.
We are so accustomed to experiencing and thinking about time as past, present, and future that we hardly notice that it is our own creation. We suffer from our exclusive belief in this version of time— we experience anxiety by worrying about what has happened, or what will happen to us. We are usually “thinking in time”. Yet, you may notice that there are breaks in time—a sudden trauma, falling in love, or the experience of nature or beautiful music. At these times there is no thought— no past and future, just the present. Pay attention to these breaks in time — they are pathways to the stillness that waits within. Explore your pathways.
Once you finally stop for a moment—or life stops you—you realize that your monkey mind has been very busy and has kept you stuck on the “hamster wheel”. Borrowing from John Kabat Zinn, many of our thoughts are based on fear—“fear that you are not good enough”, “that bad things will happen”, “that good things won’t last”, “that you will not get your way”, “that other people might hurt you”, and so on. It is no wonder that stillness evades us until there is a break in the constant vortex of confusion. Once we do experience this opening, speaking for myself, it is vital to continuously use my stillness practice to remind myself of this wonderful gift of space, balance, and peace. Explore your pathways to stillness.
I am spending a few days at one of my favorite stillness refuges—A Trappist monastery in northern New Brunswick. It is such a gift of peace and a place to rest my body and allow my spirit to be renewed. When I arrive here I literally and symbolically put my car keys and my wallet in the desk drawer. I go for walks on the trails in the woods, and I sleep a lot. There is no expectation to do anything in particular. However, I also rise at 3:30 in the morning to attend the meditation and prayer session in the chapel. It is a magical experience of comforting stillness— in the silence, chanting, and companionship. My tensions and challenges become lighter. Stillness works!
If we had a choice, I suspect that hardly anyone would choose to suffer. Our lives are regularly subjected to unwanted changes—physical, emotional and even spiritual. The story of our life changes meaning— often without any warning. Yes, there are also many wonderful changes, but these do not cause us any problem, unless we hang on to them if and when they do change. However, it is worth embracing the idea that the universe is doing things for us and not to us. What we take to be painful experiences very often result in new meaning in our lives, more peace, and less personal baggage. The key to this new direction in your journey to more life is simple but takes practice—let go, accept, allow and follow.
A good café offers an atmosphere that is friendly, welcoming, and non-judgemental. You can sit quietly by yourself and read —or just watch and listen to what is going on around you. It offers the chance to stop and become present—thus creating a space for stillness to emerge. I find this stillness environment especially helpful at times of loneliness when I am travelling alone. Then there is the coffee experience itself. For me a good latte engages all the senses and offers relaxation and comfort—a warm cup, the wonderful scent, the latte art and texture, the sound of the barista pulling shots, and the magic taste to be lingered over.
I teach Tai Chi to dementia survivors. The residents gather for the class. I play calming music. It is a seated programme and I tell them that there are no expectations for the class. They can try some movements, take a nap, or just listen to the music. The result is wonderful stillness in the group and in the room. The staff member reports that for these folks to stay still for 30 minutes truly is unexpected stillness. I think Tai Chi takes them beyond the confusion and anxiety of their life situation to the stillness at the centre of their story. Read more in my book Pathways to Stillness.
I woke up this morning to the view in the photo below and I instantly felt total peace and comfort. My monkey mind had stopped and I was receiving the wonderful gift that nature has to offer. It is true that nature speaks to us if we can suspend the habit of analysis—“what color is that”— “that would make a great painting”— “that reminds me of a sunrise in Italy”. Give yourself a break and just be there with it! (Okay, I did take a quick photo without breaking the spell).
Many self-help books offer six easy steps to happiness and enlightenment. This approach may work for some—but it can often be disillusioning and disappointing. Rather than promising a quick fix, my book Pathways to Stillness offers a way to approach your journey that helps you to find a pathway that "fits your life". The stillness stories in the book offer examples of how I—and others—have discovered stillness and have come to regain the sense of "our story" in the midst of life changes, including many forms of loss—whether through illness, career, or relationships.
Whatever your choice of practice—meditation, Tai Chi, Yoga, Kirtan or other—it is done for itself. It is the present moment that matters, the journey not the outcome. You may experience boredom, restlessness, or deep peace and insight—appreciate them all and keep going. I was once in a meditation class where the teacher asked the group how they could know for sure that they had experienced a successful session. One person talked about light, another about a feeling of communion. Then my wife Liz said—the fact that it is over. The teacher responded, “there is a wise person—you stayed to complete the session”. If you practice with no expectations you will not be disappointed
My wife Liz, who is an artist, came up with the title of this post. A trompe l’oeil gives us the illusion of depth where none exists. Current circumstances suggest that—what you hear is what you get. When I listen to those around me, I find that these times of great unpredictability and harsh sentiments create emotions of confusion, frustration, and anxiety. However, if we look deeper, these conditions also invite us to look inside for our ever-present inner peace and stillness. We can discover and explore our unique pathways to stillness. Your pathway may or may not be a spiritual or religious practice—it may be a stillness refuge found in music, a garden, coffee shop, or other. It may also be found in the companionship of a good friend—or in reaching out to another in compassion and kindness. I invite you to learn more about taking this journey in my book Pathways to Stillness.
Pathways to Stillness Blog
My Blog is about how you can discover your own Pathways to Stillness, and why that is so valuable to your life. We will explore what it means to lose and regain our sense of “our story” in the midst and aftermath of loss—negative beliefs about aging and how we can make them more positive, and the many benefits reaped by creating a refuge of stillness within.