“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… Look at a tree, a flower, a plant… Allow nature to teach you stillness.” – Eckhart Tolle
The most common benefit people seek through meditation is relief from incessant mental chatter, the mind activity that, while in a relatively healthy person is mostly benign, can also be very disturbing. Anxious, angry, melancholy, or even absurdly irrelevant thoughts and their corresponding emotions often interfere with our ability for clear, calm and efficient mental focus. Even appropriate and useful thoughts will repeat themselves over and over again. Distressing thoughts can become a living hell of involuntary mental activity. Sometimes it can feel like we are trapped inside a cacophony of distracting mental commotion.
This mental noise is the personalized egoic mind that is conditioned into us by society telling us over and over the story of who we are and what life is about. It compulsively creates an opaque screen of concepts repeating what has been told to us by others about our own identity, the world, and our place in the world. The reason it is continual is that any crack in it, any space of quiet and mental stillness, will disrupt the hypnotic hold it has on us as our identity in the world. This is something the ego cannot allow, and so it chatters on and on, a perpetual motion machine of mental activity.
But there are spaces. We have all experienced moments of quiet and mental stillness, and they are the best moments of our lives. They often occur in very special experiences with the beauty of Nature. They also occur in moments of exhilarating physical endeavor, artistic performance or appreciation, and in moments of profound intimacy with a cherished person. These moments of quiet are indeed our very best moments. They call forth from beneath the mental noise, from within a natural realm of profound stillness as quiet as the emptiness of space, another you that is free, wise and at one with all life. In these moments of quiet and stillness, we experience who we truly and naturally are at our deepest level. To a Buddhist, this is your original and true self, the place of Buddha-mind. Buddhist meditation is specifically intended to awaken this dimension of wise and quiet mind, and the great secret of human existence is that to be in this stillness is to be truly sane.
This can seem all nicely esoteric, interesting to contemplate, nearly impossible to voluntarily access, and of very little value to this identity, me, in the world, maneuvering and managing my life circumstances. Not so. One of the great mistakes of the personalized egoic mind is its insistence on dualistic “either-or” thinking. Situations are either this or that. Never the twain shall meet. We live as if this special realm is only for exceptional moments. We pursue hobbies, romance, sports, the arts and religion to activate this realm so as to feel connected, even spiritual. We may find it in hiking, skiing, music, loving encounters, religious participation, and, of course, meditation. But the clarity and connectedness we experience in these activities are not where we live the majority of our lives. Buddhism challenges us: What if it was?
This deeper realm is the well from which our egoic self can draw its fundamental psychological and spiritual wellbeing (one of those interesting etymological connections). Without an ongoing connection to our fundamental source, our everyday lives are like a small boat on the ocean, completely dependent on external forces, the weather (and whether) of our lives, for its stability. Buddhism directs us to not mistake the waves for the ocean, or our life-circumstances for our life.
Beneath the surface of both the ocean and our lives there is a deep stillness, constant and calm. This is the true realm of all that is spiritual, not stories of God in Heaven, separated from us, judging us. It is also the realm of true psychological health and optimal life functioning. We can stumble upon these “peak experiences,” as the psychologist Abraham Maslow termed them, or, we can, as Buddhism teaches us, cultivate skillfulness in finding our way to this underlying stillness and integrating it with our everyday experience. We can learn to live our ordinary lives touching this dimension of our essential Beingness. This is the meaning of Enlightenment. This is the true purpose of meditation and the associated Buddhist practice of mindfulness. Spontaneous awakenings into this truth can and do occur for some under exceptional circumstances, but Buddhist meditation has for millennia developed a valid body of teaching and practice that we can trust to lead us there.
This moment. Can you touch the deep inner stillness that abides within? Can you bring your awareness to the subtle life-giving phenomenon of your own breathing? Can you recognize the field of energetic stillness beneath the movement of inhalation and exhalation? Can you look at a flower or a tree and see the great secret of harmony in life? When you do, in that moment, you will not experience yourself as a separate person. You will be awareness itself having entered into the great unifying field of stillness that holds all life together. Can you feel within this stillness the absolute certainty and calm of your assured placement in life? Do you notice the fading, quieting and even silencing of the mental chatter that you had come to believe as immutable? If you can, you will have entered into Zen. You will have crossed the barrier of limited egoic self-centeredness to the place where life circumstances can be lived vitally connected to Life itself.
Seek the deep inner stillness in the trees, the flowers, the birds, the sky, the mountains. Discover that this same stillness resides in you as your natural presence. This is our true Nature, and it is completely wise and sane. Find it through meditation. Find it through stopping your self-absorbed hectic activity to linger in Nature. Allow Nature’s stillness to resonate with your own inner stillness and Nature until separation of outer and inner dissolves. Rediscover your true Self, your true Nature. Find it and then…. bring it into your life circumstances. You will discover that the mind quiets by itself when we learn the art of presence in deepened stillness, even in the midst of life’s commotion.