Stillness of Mind
As I was clearing my desk a few days ago I came across an article in O Magazine about a woman, Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma), whose calling and purpose in life is to hug people. The writer, Meredith Bryan, attended a weekend event which involved at least one hug a day. Meredith wondered why Amma’s hugs are so powerful that she attracts hundreds of followers and even volunteers for her traveling seminars. She inquired about what kind of spiritual blessing one might receive from engaging in such an embrace. An accompanying translator for Amma suggested that the gift is “stillness of mind.” That phrase stuck with me since silence and stillness are close companions in my life these days.
It began, well as a little girl. I loved to go outside and sit in the wind. Although I am certain I appeared “weird” to the neighbors and some relatives and friends who stopped by to visit my parents, I yearned to soak in the sun and Santa Ana winds permeating the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California. “Why is that child sitting out there by herself in the backyard,” people would ask my mother? Ruby would smile and let them know that it was fine by her. I am certain she thought about the many mischievous activities a solitary female child might encounter in or outside of the house. The fact that I chose to sit in solitude somehow warmed her heart.
Drawn to the stillness that hovered in the wind I even found something serene about the groans of mourning doves and songs of chirping birds. I felt enveloped both by something (maybe Spirit) blowing in the wind and the peaceful quiet. Resting in silence served as my escape from the background chatter of television, bark of the radio and swishing of the washing machine. I could skip the ringing telephone, Mom calling my brothers, or Dad discussing things “little pitcher with big ears” shouldn’t hear.
I was reminded of why I find stillness so powerful when I visited the South rim of the Grand Canyon during spring break several years ago. As I stood there in awe of this wonder of the world, it was suddenly revealed—in a word, stillness. As I surveyed this magnificent space, felt it, and listened to it, I noticed an energy emanating from it. It was an energy pulsating at a special frequency…and I knew in that moment that it was the same energy that holds all things together. “Wow,” I thought, “wouldn’t it be nice if I could just pitch a tent and stay at the Grand Canyon all the time?”
When I returned home, I started getting up earlier so I could feel the stillness in the morning and then I observed that sometimes that same stillness permeated my office. And there was actually stillness in my car as other cars whizzed past on the highway. Then it seemed that when I stopped and paid attention–stillness was showing up everywhere—in the kitchen, and in the classroom or was it there all the while and I just hadn’t notice?
Now many moons later I wonder what do I need to do to re-capture the “stillness of mind” that I enjoyed as a little girl perched on a log in the backyard. Must I rush out on a blustery day to sit on the deck, travel once again to the Grand Canyon or take an early morning walk to feel that deep peace again? Would stilling my mind achieve the same result?
And I wonder how might my life be different if I practiced stillness of mind? Eckhart Tolle reminds us, “To meet everything and everyone through stillness instead of mental noise is the greatest gift you can offer to the universe.” There’s that word “gift” again. So stillness of mind is the gift?
The need for and gift of stillness became more obvious when I faced a heart transplant in 1995, a major heart transplant rejection episode which landed me in the hospital for 27 days in 2003, kidney failure in 2004, followed by a year of dialysis, a kidney transplant in 2005, and a heart valve replacement on the transplanted heart and a pacemaker in 2006. Accompanying this laundry list of medical challenges were countless medical procedures, pain, pills, and mood shifts. I realized in the midst of each crisis that I needed to “still my mind” and listen within because often my life depended on it. Moreover, I spent a lot of time on my back, frequently awake in the middle of the quiet night and I felt re-assured time and again that I was being held by a Holiness that I could not see but that I knew was present. At times, I gained a peace that passeth understanding as well as guidance. I doubt that I would be writing this reflection in 2014 had I not been aware of the power of silence–how stilling my mind renews my physical energy, enhances my mental acuity and softens my heart.
As I began to read more widely on the topic of spirituality I noticed a pattern among spiritual figures across many faith traditions. They all regularly spend substantial amounts of time being still often in solitude, silence, or contemplative prayer. Since I started taking time for silence twice a day in “Listening Prayer,” as I term it, I’ve noticed profound changes that help me maneuver the chaos and craziness of my personal, professional, and medical lives.
What have I learned when I still my mind and heart to listen within? Among the multitude of answers to innumerable questions and concerns, four things stand out:
- I’ve learned that in the past when I prayed, I did a lot more talking than listening;
- I’ve learned that the words “silent” and “listen” contain exactly the same letters but they are just re-arranged;
- I’ve learned about who I am and who I am not;
- I’ve learned that by engaging in the practice of letting go of fear thoughts, anxiety, depression or anything that disturbs my peace of mind, I later find that I have more peace as well as love, hope and joy in my heart.
Perhaps it is my background in psychology that makes me think there is a link between a quiet mind and a peaceful heart. I remember reading many years ago about “hot cognitions” or the notion that neutral thoughts do not exist. Every thought has affect and my thinking and feelings are connected. I suspect that I could spend time examining each thought for its affective content and determine which ones to keep. Or I could just practice quieting my mind when I notice that I’ve lapsed into some disruptive rumination.
I now believe the same stillness I felt outside in the backyard as a little girl, at the Grand Canyon, on silent retreats, or in the early morning is everywhere—even in my mind and heart. And there too lies a Peace that passeth understanding. Noticing and awareness are key, however. Practice too.
So I wonder what it would feel like if you paused and stilled the inner chatter and listened to the chirping birds, to the wind, and to all of the lovely stillness that always surrounds you?
Perhaps “stilling your mind” might help you feel that peace in your heart.