The good news is my voice is back. The bad news is my voice is back. As I reported last week, I have been without a voice of late, just whisper, sometimes soft, sometimes rasping. I had my hair cut last week and the din of the hair dryers and music and conversation was too much for my whisper. Usually I love to tell stories and talk with my kind hair cutter, but I just couldn’t participate.
Sitting back, it dawned on me that I could go beyond being silent. I could practice the stillness I try to practice on the cushion. A new world opened. I saw more. I heard more. I felt more. I felt that I was part of a greater whole. Right there in a haircutting salon.
When you become still, you become attentive. Life opens up and becomes larger. You discover moments inside moments inside moments. On top of which, one of my noble friends in our Sunday sitting group commented that it was an uncommonly good haircut. “Whenever a contractor comes to the house, my wife tells me to be quiet and let them do their work. Maybe you should always be quiet when you get a hair cut.”
Last Sunday, we spoke about the difference between silence and stillness. Silence is a special external condition that can lead to an internal absence of noise. On silent retreats, people can reach sublime states of concentration. Yet stillness is not just an auditory but a physical state and it doesn’t depend on perfect external conditions. The paradox is that we can practice stillness in the midst of all kinds of conditions, even traumatic conditions. Stillness can descend like grace. We can be still in the midst of an argument, in the thick of exacting demands. This is not easy but it is possible. Stillness is finding a vertical axis inside, upright and noble and attentive, finding an inner alignment in a turning world. Stillness is not climbing up out of the mess and sometimes chaos of our life. It is a state of being grounded, touching the earth of our real, humble, moment-by-moment experience.
Stillness is stopping running towards or away from any experience. It is the state of no spin, no cover up. For years now I’ve believed that awakening is not a bolt out of the blue many small moments many times. It is the fruit of the slow process of learning to see without judgment, extending compassionate awareness without identification to all the orphans and strays and pushy, needy beings that appear inside and outside. A Zen master once said that there are no enlightened people, just enlightened moments.
The ancient teachings of the Buddhism teach that there is an ordinary and extraordinary (or “mundane” and “superior”) level of understanding for each step on the Eightfold Path. An ordinary understanding of the first step, “wise view,” is seeing karma—seeing that our conscious actions lead to lawful effects (“vipaka” or ripenings). The clouds clear and you realize that what you do and say has consequence and nothing is too small to count: certain actions lead to ease and happiness, other actions to tension, contraction, unhappiness. “Superior” wise view means glimpsing that there is a life beyond aiming to maximize our personal happiness, as wholesome and reasonable as that is. We can live as if we are part of a greater whole…even while we’re getting a hair cut.