Does stillness catch you by surprise sometimes? By stillness, I mean the hyper-focused, super-engaged moments of true mindfulness. These are the moments when you’re not fidgeting, your mind’s not wandering, and every sense is on heightened awareness.
I had one of those moments yesterday, notable mostly because of how rare it is. As much as I try to be mindful in my daily life, to bring my full attention to whatever I am doing, I can see that most of the time there is still a lot of noise, static, in the background.
What are the necessary elements for finding these moments of stillness? First, not being afraid to let the on-going mental narrative subside so you can see what else is there. Too often, we give the monkey mind free rein, burying any chance for stillness under layers of busy-ness and planning and worrying, because we are afraid of what it would mean to accept ourselves and this moment just as it is. What would happen if you turned down the volume for a while?
Is solitude a prerequisite for stillness? Maybe. I found myself alone in the morning this weekend while my husband travels for work. The rhythms of the day changed, slowed, were more reflective. No one was waiting to hear me say something, so I said nothing. I have never thought I could handle a silent retreat, but a silent morning once in a while opens something up.
Nature also contributes to the capacity for stillness. A particularly beautiful day – crisp air, brilliant sun, the smell of fallen leaves – stimulates the senses so deeply sometimes that we snap to attention and appreciation. It is impossible to ignore the birds singing, the breeze blowing, and my presence in the midst of it.
Thoreau famously went to live in the woods at Walden Pond in order to find these moments of stillness. But even he realized that solitude in nature wasn’t realistic all the time. He wrote, “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” He understood that there was a time and a need for each of these. The two years of solitary living showed him a path for how to live, though, and as Brooks Atkinson observed, confirmed that he “could find all truth within himself.”
If we are to find the truth within ourselves, how we start and finish our days matters. Those beginnings and endings are the set-up for our energy levels, our potential for everyday mindfulness and even our creativity. Soren Gordhamer recommends 30 minutes in the morning for activities that “help you meet the day with calm and clarity,” and 60 minutes in the evening for activities of relaxation and ease that help you “transition from the day to sleep”. There is no one prescription for these activities, the idea is simply to pay attention to the inner life instead of the outer life that dominates so much of our time. So whether you meditate, pray, read, take a walk, enjoy a warm bath, or listen to music, you will probably improve the quality of your sleep and your ability to focus during the day.
These deliberate practices open a door to so-called “dispositional” mindfulness, being aware of what we are thinking and feeling in the moment, which is connected to healthier lifestyles, better heart health and fewer symptoms of depression. The more often you step over that threshold into the quiet place where stillness resides, the better able you will be to locate stillness again, even when life moves too fast and feels out of control.