When we find ourselves trapped in a maze of painful thoughts, we can find an open path by cultivating stillness. Being still helps us recognize where we are grasping or avoiding so that we can begin to let go of thoughts about how we wish things could be and, instead, accept how they really are.
In the stillness of the pause, we can allow some space to expand between our “selves” and the circumstance at hand. This vantage point of noticing makes it possible to see what is happening rather than be what is happening. We can begin to cultivate a sense of stillness with sitting.
When we observe the movements of our mind and follow our breath, we begin to recognize ourselves as whole, strong beings, separate from racing thoughts and feelings that might otherwise consume us. This means we are less likely to experience even difficult feelings as unbearable or unmanageable. We can allow and observe rather than avoid painful feelings. Again, sitting helps us see the feeling instead of be the feeling. We can watch stormy feelings without drowning in their intensity. We can understand that we are having a normal, human feeling experience without grasping (holding on with fear of loss) or aversion (pushing away with fear of discomfort). This understanding affords a kind of stability so that we are not pushed and pulled around by our feelings.
Finding stillness can be as simple as pausing and taking a moment to breathe deeply. It can be helpful to try this before we say or do anything the next time strong feelings come up. Slow down and try to notice what is happening. Locate where the feeling is in your body (do you feel tension in your neck or shoulders? were you holding your breath or was your breathing shallow?), and how the feeling is moving in your body (is your heart racing, are you wringing your hands or fidgeting?). Breathe deeply and remind yourself that you are okay. Feelings come and go and we can decide if and how to respond when they show up. Yes, being still gives us the power and the clarity to decide. How? We can use the clarity stillness affords to free ourselves from limiting thoughts or a limited range of responses that get us stuck in the maze of habitual thought patterns. Recognizing patterns and triggers helps us get out of autopilot. For example, we don’t have to scream and curse when someone cuts us off in traffic. Pausing can give us the power and emotional stability to choose a different response.
Sitting in meditation helps us cultivate self-awareness so we can allow feelings without creating suffering. We can notice -- simply notice -- what is happening. Here is an example of how we might experience disappointment with and without the benefits of stillness:
I feel disappointed. Disappointments are a normal part of the experience of being human. It is okay to feel this feeling. I know that feelings are not permanent, they are always changing. I can be with this feeling and I know I am still okay.
I feel disappointed. I hate this feeling. I want it to go away. It isn’t fair. I don’t deserve this. This is too much. I can’t take this. I have to do something to make this feeling go away.
Notice how in the second example aversion to the feeling of disappointment is likely to cause suffering. Suffering is caused by refusal to accept what is (wishing things could be different) and by trying to “escape” using behaviors that are harmful. In the first example, the facts are accepted and the feeling of disappointment is allowed. That doesn’t mean we give up and don’t try to make changes for the future. It does mean we accept what is happening now and decide what to do next.
Ideas, feelings, and priorities are always shifting. Nothing is fixed or permanent, not even the self. We have changed and we are always changing. We feel different ways on different days and even during different seasons and circumstances. The things we thought about last year or ten years ago are probably not the things we thought about yesterday. The same is true of feelings. They are not permanent they come and go, passing like clouds.
When we are still, we cultivate a waking awareness of now. We are less likely to scare ourselves with worries about tomorrow or beat ourselves up about yesterday. We can learn to accept and let go of what has happened because it cannot be changed. We can stop using habitual thoughts to make up scary stories about what might happen tomorrow because we are choosing to be open and curious and can accept that we don’t know. Besides, if we have to make something up it is kinder to make up something good.
Watch what is happening in your mind and body. Deep abdominal breaths are calming and centering. Problems don’t go away but we find that we have more clarity and mental energy to explore solutions and avoid the suffering that comes when we refuse to face the reality of our current circumstances.
Meditation and mindfulness help you cultivate stillness. The benefits of stillness are always available to you, including:
• Help with managing insomnia and stress. Learning to be still helps to invoke the relaxation response making it easier to let go of the tension that comes with stress and anxiety. That means it is easier to calm the mind and get to sleep.
• Building resilience, one of the most reliable predictors of success. It is easier to stay with something when we learn how to experience it as separate from the self. We can then stay with and allow challenging emotions instead of trying to avoid them when we begin to feel uncomfortable.
Cultivating stillness does not mean that our problems will go away but we may find that we have more clarity and mental energy to explore solutions.