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Stillness Within

This message begins a three part series on stillness, which is not to be confused with not moving. Spiritually speaking, stillness – inner stillness which feels like inner peace – is something much different. It is often cultivated by non-movement and lack of noise, but inner stillness does not necessitate either.

Spiritual stillness is about quieting the mind, moving deeper than our ideas, judgments and opinions. Stillness is the space of inner awareness, it is consciousness itself. Stillness is where creativity and solutions to problems are found. Stillness is what has been called the Christ within, or Buddha nature. It is presence and mindfulness.

Can you remember a time when you felt that kind of stillness, that deep inner peace? One extraordinary experience I remember took place 20 years ago when I did a century ride through Death Valley to benefit juvenile diabetes. A friend and I were the last ones to finish the ride and it was dark in the valley except for the tail lights of the car we were following. Note: there is absolutely nothing in the middle of Death Valley except for one road. When we paused to take a short break, we took the opportunity to turn off all our lights, and become perfectly quiet. There we stood, still and silent in a huge valley with the dark outlines of mountains on either side of us, gazing up into the cloudless night sky shining forth with the Milky Way like I have never experienced it before. It was a profound moment of peace, awe and connection.

While this was an amazing experience of stillness and peace, it does not take a special place or time to touch this part of ourselves. In the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus reminds us that, "the kingdom is within you and it is outside you. If you will know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are sons and daughters of the Living One. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty and you are poverty."

Jesus is clear. To experience the Divine, we don't need to seek God in churches, or mountaintops, or in the sky or the sea. God is always with us and within us. The key to experiencing the realm of God is to know ourselves. Our true selves.  Then Jesus says that we are “poverty” without the knowledge of our deepest Self. In other words, we are lacking something that provides basic sustenance for life. To get there we need the practice of stillness.

Sadly, our society hasn’t created a landscape for stillness. The ingrained formula for successful living requires movement, accomplishing, and getting done. If I have 10 minutes before I have to leave for an appointment, I’m trying to figure out what I can get done in those 10 minutes!

While I may not be good at stillness, or it may not come naturally because I was programmed differently, that doesn’t mean  I don’t recognize the importance of practicing stillness.

When I do practice inner stillness, I feel like I gain valuable perspective on life and what is truly important. I am able to look at myself, my feelings, and my reactions and recognize when I’m being sucked into some drama going on in or around me. When I do practice inner stillness, I feel connected to something much greater than myself and I am reminded that love and compassion are the most important things in life.

However, this inner stillness has our egos to contend with, and our egos want attention. They want us to individuate instead of being drawn into the Oneness that awaits us in stillness. The job of our egos is to make us think that our opinions are right, that we’re different from everyone else. Our egos judge and get angry and feel guilt and are co-dependent and so much more to keep us focused on our separateness. Stillness lets us observe those voices until we can see them for what they are, a distraction for our egos to get attention and draw us into the drama of our days.

Parker Palmer tells a great story from his days of living in a Quaker community called Pendle Hill. Immediately, for me, this brings images of peacefulness, kind people getting along with each other, contemplative worship, gentleness, and closeness. But there was one woman living there that he described as “the devil’s spawn, sent directly from the pits of hell to destroy all that was green and good about life on earth.”

So, the people at Pendle Hill gather every morning in a “meeting for worship,” forty-five minutes of communal silence, occasionally broken by words spoken spontaneously from the heart. One morning, Parker arrived late for worship, and the only seat available was next to her.  Agitated, he came close to turning around and walking out. But he managed somehow to sit down, close his eyes, and start to meditate, slowly forgetting that he was sitting next to a creature from the dark side.

About a half hour later, head still bowed, he opened his eyes and found himself staring at the upturned hand this woman had rested on her knee. There, spotlighted by a shaft of sunlight, he saw the faint but steady throb of an artery in her wrist the elemental beat of her very human heart. In that moment, he knew beyond words that here was a person just like him, with strengths and weaknesses, hopes and disappointments, joys and despairs. In that moment, his sense of who she was, and of how he was to her, underwent some sort of transformation.

No, he never became close to the woman and was always somewhat wary of her, but he could no longer demonize her after that silent, sunlit moment.

It was stillness that had him taking a step back to get some perspective on the situation.

Michael Hyatt runs a leadership development firm and talks about being a quintessential achiever. One day his wife challenged him to read Martha Beck’s book, The Joy Diet. (FYI – Martha Beck is Oprah’s life coach, but also has a PhD from Harvard).

The first chapter is entitled “Nothing.” Basically, Beck says, “To begin the Joy Diet, you must do nothing for at least fifteen minutes a day.” Michael was so taken by this chapter that he read it four times and practiced doing nothing 15 minutes a day for three weeks straight. He said it was one of the more transformational things he has ever done.

Doing nothing is the essence of the practice of stillness. It’s not prayer (at least not in the conventional sense). It is not problem solving or planning. It is quieting your mind and simply being.

Michael gives three reasons for practicing the discipline of stillness:

  1. I want to maintain perspective. If I don’t make time to be still, then I find myself in reactive mode—influenced by hundreds of little voices with big demands.
  2. I want to stay connected to my true self. I don’t want to get confused, thinking that I am the image I present to the world. They are related, of course, but I want to live from the inside out.
  3. I want more internal margin in my life. While I have been pursing external margin in my calendar and finances, I also want internal margin—more room to notice what matters most and be thankful for it.

Eckhart Tolle, in his book Stillness Speaks, says, “When you lose touch with inner stillness, you lose touch with yourself. When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world. Your innermost sense of self, of who you are, is inseparable from stillness. This is the I Am that is deeper than name and form.” 

When I stop to consider this – really consider this – I realize that I spend a significant amount of my time lost in the world. I’m lost in my planning. I’m lost in feelings of anxiety about what is to come, or what needs to be done. I’m lost in worry about the country and the virus and my kids and our community. I’m lost in irritation with things that interrupt and take more time than they should. I imagine you understand.

This series is about taking back our very Selves. Finding stillness within. Next week we’ll talk about finding the still, small voice of Wisdom within the stillness, and the following week we’ll talk about what it looks like to practice stillness.

In the meantime, remember the realm of the Divine is within and stillness will help us to experience it.

I encourage you to make time for stillness, for doing nothing. Even if you start at 2 minutes a day! It can look like meditation, or it can simply mean being fully present to the moment, to the sunrise, to your breathing and your body. I also invite you to pay attention to your mind and the twisting, turning roads it takes you on. Take a step back and watch the drama your ego pulls you into.

Love & Light!