Last month I shifted away from our central gospel phrase “A Baptism of Repentance for the Forgiveness of Sin” and moved towards the topic of prayer. I would like to stay focused on prayer for at least a few months because I think it is something that is far broader and richer than most people realize.
Last month I talked about how prayer is being intentful with one’s presence to and awareness of God. As a result, just about any activity can be prayerful if it is practiced with the intent to be present to God, whether it is intercessory prayer (spoken prayer), meditation, walking or even driving a car.
This month I want to take a moment to touch on the idea of stillness, and how important that is. Often when a person thinks of prayer they think of a quiet setting, if the prayer is not spoken aloud then it is to be done in silence. Silence is important, particularly in a world that is so noisy today, but stillness is something a little bit different than silence, although there can certainly be overlap.
When I say stillness, I am referring to a quality of being, specifically one’s mind. One could think of Stillness as the opposite of a busy mind. A busy mind is constantly chattering, with thoughts running right and left, on any number of topics all at once. I am sure at least some of you reading this know exactly what I am talking about. And interestingly enough, a lot of people avoid silence in general because it reveals a busy mind, it reveals all the thoughts of the day, the excitement, the anxiety, the ideas, the task list—wherever a mind might go when given a chance to get away from all the distractions and noise of the world.
Stillness is an ability to quiet the busy mind, the somewhat compulsive aspect of the self. This inner chatter, this busy mind, it is one of the many things that can get in the way of a deeper relationship with God. If one’s hope is for God to move within them, how can that person be aware of God’s movement if there is this internal monologue going on, all the thoughts, they distract. Stillness then is a way to be present to God, to let God move within one’s self, to be open to the love and embrace of God.
Now that being said, as someone who has practiced silent meditation for over 20 years, and someone who has been teaching it for over five years, getting to stillness is very challenging, in fact, for most people, it takes quite a bit of practice. It takes a willingness to sit with one’s thoughts and to identify those thoughts and to ever so gently push those thoughts to the side. The challenge of stillness is often a barrier for many who attempt silent meditation as there is a feeling one is doing it wrong, or that they are somehow unable to meditate. On the contrary, confronting the inner chatter is a primary component of meditation. In fact there is a very intentional contemplative prayer practice called Centering Prayer, something that I try to do just about every day, that practices exactly that, sitting in silence and gently pushing aside thoughts. I can say that after a number of years practicing this particular technique of meditation, it is very challenging to truly still the mind.
But I have also found that stillness doesn’t require silence, or even bodily stillness. There are activities that can cultivate the kind of mental stillness I am discussing. Running for years has been a way for me to still my thoughts, it takes running with all one’s focus on the sound of the one’s feet hitting the ground, the movement of the body and the complexity of the surroundings, focusing on all that often leads to an emptying of the mind. This past week I went Rock Climbing, and my climbing partner mentioned on our descent that he had not had a thought all day, the climbing took up so much focus, and climbing is not a silent activity, one has to communicate often with their climbing partner, one confronts all the sounds around them, with particular attention paid to potential danger. I have also experienced stillness while engaging in simple dance movements or while I am cooking a meal, or folding clothes. Stillness, or at least the kind of stillness I am referring to here in regards to prayer is really a state of letting go, of disappearing into the activity, not thinking, just being.
This kind of stillness is different than the mental state that typically accompanies watching TV or playing a video game or scrolling through Facebook or WhatsApp or listening to music or even reading. These activities are their own kind of distractions, they tend to distract from the busy minds instead of moving past the busy mind, of letting go of the busy mind. The stillness I am talking about is not zoning out (which is typical of TV watching) instead it is a kind of intense zoning in, of acknowledging the thoughts of the busy mind, and moving past them towards something deeper.
I apologize if this is all a bit esoteric, but cultivating this kind of stillness in our lives can be meaningful to deepening one’s relationship with God. It can also be meaningful to deepening our relationships with people because one becomes a better listener when the mind is stilled, and better listening pretty much always leads to healthier and deeper relationships. This kind of mental stillness usually starts in prayer, in quieting oneself and unabashedly searching the inner self while giving it all to God, but it can be utilized in many aspects of life, in appreciating the beauty of creation while on a walk in the woods, or witnessing the presence of God’s divine spark in all people while at the grocery store or becoming comfortable in just sitting in quiet solitude, if even for just a few minutes. Stillness is worth cultivating, so the question I ask of you this month is:
How are you cultivating stillness in your daily life? What can you do to help quiet a busy mind?
If you’re not sure how to answer that, let me know, and we can talk more one-on-one, there is no one “right” way of cultivating stillness, its different for everyone, and we can discussion concrete ways to move towards a still mind.