“Many myths, sacred stories, and rituals are attempts to recreate a sense of stillness. This is their essence. Indeed, without some awareness of stillness, ritual takes on only its external approximation, becoming heavy and solemn,” writes Swami Chetananda from “Stillness,” in Parabola’s  Fall 1992 theme, “The Oral Tradition.”   “On the other hand, ritual that arises out of the experience of stillness is a light and joyful thing.”

Last Sunday evening, at my local meditation sangha in Tarrytown ( a group of us had a rich discussion about surrender and letting go.  Some of us decided that we tend to get overly focused on the action of letting go–and letting go of things.  Perhaps just surrendering to a situation, letting it be, was the way to let a little freedom, a little space, a little stillness appear in the thick of our lives.   We agreed that freedom may not have anything to do with outer conditions being calm and peaceful.  But a few of us wondered whether it would be easier in some ways to live a monastic life.   After all, our days would be filled with rituals that would pull us down out of our heads into our hearts–into stillness.  Yet ritual can become as mechanical as the daily commute.

Sometimes a great stillness can appear in the midst the facing obstacles, or great shocks. Some of us remembered that happening in the city on 9/11, or in the midst of private shocks.  Here is the swami:  “Stillness is not the same thing as silence, nor is it like quieting the mind.  It does not operate on a simply personal level. The stillness we are interested in knowing is always within us, even as we are within it, and we find freedom through our contact with it. As we become established in our contact with its power, we recognize that all our desires, wants, needs, insecurities, and tensions are nothing. Underlying every pursuit, and even our quest for meaning as a whole, is the longing for contact with stillness. When we have this, what more is needed?”

We remember this longing in a moment of stillness.  This is what we really wanted, we remember.  We didn’t really need all those things we thought we needed.  And all those urgent matters that were keeping us from sitting down and being still?   In contact with stillness, they don’t even seem real.  In stillness, we are granted the blessing of complete acceptance.  We are given a place to be.

For nearly forty years, Parabola has drawn on the wisdom and art of the world’s great spiritual traditions and indigenous ways.   Perhaps what we really wished to bring to readers is that underlying experience of stillness.   In 1980, in the issue “Obstacles,” a Parabola interviewer in India recorded this gem from a then-young Dalai Lama:  “If you utilize obstacles properly, then it strengthens your courage, and it also gives you more intelligence, more wisdom. “  Obstacles can cause us to make special kinds of efforts, he explained.  It can invite insight, understanding, hidden capacities.

And underlying those gifts is stillness.


6 thoughts on “Stillness

  1. “People say that what we are seeking is a meaning of life. I don’t think this is what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.”

    I was thinking along the same lines as I thought about these words of Joseph Campbell’s yesterday-how do you get to the point which he is speaking about. It can’t be forced and anytime I’ve been truly experiencing being alive I’ve been living out of a still centre and have been accepting life, others and self as they are not as I would have them!
    A friend who is a monastic contemplative just spent last week in solitude in her community-she needed time out so moved into another hermitage and spent a week alone, away from the daily rituals of monastic life and emerged energised and refreshed. So indeed the ritual can cease to bring us where it was intended to when we are doing it by rote.

    1. It’s really interesting to think that the experience of feeling of being really alive comes in those moments of letting be, of acceptance, of stillness. That this might be a more active state in a more subtle way, a way of being with life and not against it. Hmmmmmmmm

  2. Thanks for this, Tracy. I love “If you utilize obstacles properly, then it strengthens your courage…” Also I’m interested in myths and sacred stories as ways to recreate stillness, a new idea for me. I just ordered the Oral Tradition issue and am looking forward to reading Swami Chetananda’s essay.

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