Where stillness resides

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.IMG_0072

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.balance

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.

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Taking the slow road on Earth Day

Okay, I know it’s a bit of an oxymoron — driving on Earth Day. But if we assume the drive is necessary, can it be a mindful celebration of nature?

Driving into the city, I have a choice: Take the busy highway and then the congested main street, or make the journey on the slower parkway that meanders along the water, but gets me to the same destination. Today the road less traveled is clearly the better choice.

It’s mid-afternoon with a light rain falling. The road twists and turns, following nature’s path, not mine. Suddenly I am fully awake to my experience. This is not the time for rote driving; rather, the road grabs my attention and demands that I give it its due.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that any time we use an instrument or a machine, we change. We become something else that is a blend of self and machine. He suggests reciting this verse before driving, to make the experience more mindful:

Before starting the car,

I know where I’m going.

The car and I are one.

If the car goes fast, I go fast.

imageI settle into a steady rhythm as I respond to the organic curves in the road. There are stretches where I can go faster, but being forced to take my time around the curves makes keeping a slower, steady pace more fluid. On the main roads, I would have been speeding up just to stop. Here on the parkway, pauses are fewer, the motion is smoother, and I feel calmer as I drive.

I notice places in the creek where trees have fallen and boulders have piled up, chaotic spots that are reminders of wild winter weather. At the same time, Spring is announcing itself with a full-on burst of color. The bright yellow-green of new growth and the intense magenta of redbud trees flash around every turn. I realize what a gift it is to have this way of coming home.

Thoreau wrote that, “There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.” During the thirty minutes I’ve spent on the parkway, it’s been impossible to think about work or worries for very long. Nature has taken over my attention, if only for a little while.

Celebrating Earth Day by driving might not be what environmentalists had in mind when they inaugurated the occasion back in 1970. But before we can care for the environment, we have to notice it, and a mindful Earth Day drive has a way of stirring close observation and appreciation for all that surrounds us.

 

Change: always hard, never too late, start now

The good news this week came from a study showing that if you stop smoking by age 40, you get back all the years of life that you had lost by smoking. Even if you stop smoking after 40, some of your longevity deficit is made up.

The bad news is that it is still just as hard as ever to quit smoking.

We can hear and believe all of the benefits of eating healthy, exercising, getting a new job or ending a relationship, and still find ourselves unable to make the changes we need. Sometimes change is too frightening, and sometimes it’s just overwhelming; either way, we stay stuck where we are. Changes on the outside come more easily – we might change the color of our hair, the way we dress, or the car we drive on a whim. But making changes to our habits of mind, belief and behavior is so much harder.

So we swat away the thoughts about changing, as if they were gnats buzzing around our heads. “It’s too late for me”, “I’m too busy right now”, “Maybe I’ll think about it tomorrow, or next week, or next month.”

You know what? The time to change is now, and it always has been.  The promise of a longer, healthier, happier life might seem like a distant dream, but what about the certainty that the action you take today is your first, necessary step? You cannot be different in the future if you never start. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” Close your eyes, visualize launching yourself on that wave, and start believing that you can change.IMG_0851

I attended an amazing concert a few nights ago, called “Sing the Truth,” featuring singers Dianne Reeves, Angelique Kidjo and Lizz Wright. They sang songs of empowerment, freedom, truth and love, by great female artists. Their rendition of “Both Sides Now” brought me to tears. At one point, Kidjo spoke to the audience about peace and freedom in the world, reminding us that it is up to each of us to do one small thing every day to make the world a better place for each other. In that moment, I know that everyone believed that possible.sing the truth

That’s how change will come – little by little, with one small choice each day. That’s how change happens for us as individuals, and for the world we live in. So whether it’s the choice to skip one cigarette today, or the choice to be kind today to someone you dislike, or the choice to speak out today about injustice you’ve ignored, look to today. Today is when we change.