By Brian Luke Seaward
You must remain very still to get a hummingbird to perch on your hand as you hold a small bowl of sweet nectar in your palm. The slightest movement signals these tiny birds that it is not safe to land, let alone feed. Last summer I taught my wife’s grandson how to be still and attract hummingbirds. What looked like a lesson in communing with nature was really a lesson in stillness.
I explained that not only did he have to keep his arm and hand as still as a statue, it was essential for him to send love from his heart up through his shoulder, down his arm and through his hand, so the birds would sense his good intentions. Many people who try to do this try too hard, become anxious, and emit a sense of tension that the birds pick up on. Being still and gently broadcasting a feeling of love from our hearts can create a field of compassion in ourselves and our surroundings. This little boy listened to every word I said, closed his eyes and mustered up enough love to attract nearly all the hummingbirds in Colorado. It worked! For the next 30 minutes he had swarms of Broadtail, Calliope, and Rufus hummingbirds eating out of the palm of his hand, sometimes five or six at one time.
In this high-tech age of video games, social media, and binge watching, where our attention ricochets around our personal space like a thousand bouncing ping pong balls, moments of stillness are rare moments indeed. We add in smart-phone calls, text alerts, and video meetings and end up living in a culture of constant distraction. What we have gained with always-present sources of information and entertainment (we gorge on eye candy), we have lost in our ability to be calm and still. The immediate gratification of our desire for facts, fun, and ego-soothing messages is at odds with being able to concentrate, to be quietly attentive, or even to experience a sense of grace that can only be acquired through the discipline of sitting still. We have lost the ability to find balance, to achieve mental homeostasis.
What the ego sees as victory, the soul sees as stolen moments. In essence, we have lost the ability to maintain clear, conscious awareness where we can glimpse the greater reality beyond us. But we can regain this ability with the simple practice of stillness, also known as meditation. The quest for a still mind is not a recent phenomenon. It has given rise to many practices for thousands of years. Sacred texts and teachings from many traditions speak of stillness.
For example, Psalm 46 says: Be still and know that I am God.
Lao Tzu wrote of stillness in the Tao de Ching,
To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.
The Australian Aborigines have a word for stillness, dadirri, that means an inner listening during periods of quiet, a still awareness.
And in the Bhagavad Gita there is this:
Still your mind in me, still yourself in me
And without a doubt
You shall be united with me,
Lord of Love, dwelling in your heart.
Buddhist monks spend years cultivating stillness of mind to gain insight from the depths of the unconscious. This simple practice (though, not that simple) is to stop the chitter chatter of the small self, known in the West as the ego. By calming the activity of the ego, deep-seated wisdom may surface and shed light on the nature of Being.
The stillness of the mind has been compared to many things. The most common metaphor is of the smooth surface of a mountain lake. Where there is an active ego and busy brain there are countless ripples on the lake’s surface. The goal is to silence the ego’s ragged rants of fear-based thinking so that the surface of the water becomes so still that it can reflect, like a mirror, all that is around it.
So, how do we reclaim the lost art of stillness? We can begin by dedicating time each day to sitting quietly, without interruption. Mornings, before breakfast, often works best. Start by finding a quiet place where there is little risk of being disturbed. Next, remove all distractions – such as cell phones or computer screens. Then, sit comfortably, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Place all of your attention first on the inhalation (in-breath) and then the exhalation (out-breath). If your mind wanders (and it will) simply call your attention back to your breathing.
Start with 5 minutes of simple diaphragmatic breathing, feeling the breath enter and leave your body as you breathe in and out, paying attention either to the sensations around your nose or around your stomach as you feel the diaphragm rise and fall. After you master 5 minutes of being aware of your breath, consider adding a few minutes each day making a 30-minute duration the goal. Also, consider keeping a pad of paper and pen nearby to jot down thoughts that beg for your attention. Sometimes valuable ideas arise that will be less distracting if you write them down and then get right back to focusing on the breath.
The art of stillness is far more than physical stillness. Once you have removed external distractions, turn to internal distractions – those thoughts and emotions generated by the ego. Stillness includes keeping the mind calm and focused and this takes practice. The beauty of a still mind is that once distractions have been tamed, sensory perceptions are greatly increased and we can experience and observe more than we ever could have imagined.
One of the first obstacles we meet on the path to stillness is the need to be busy. Whether it’s a cultural influence (think the Puritan Ethic), or the constant lure of social media, we are used to always being active, always doing something or thinking about what we could be doing. And while working certainly adds a sense of purpose to our lives, wisdom keepers the world over remind us that it is in the moments of stillness that imagination, intuition, creativity, and insight reside. Before one can access these gifts, action must give way to non-action. In doing so, the ego will fight the demand to do nothing. Yet the secret is that nothing is really something – it’s the essential preparation for emptiness that is required for the more subtle thought processes to reveal themselves. And that is also where we can sit with the experience of love.
Upon returning home from the mountains where the hummingbirds first greeted us with delight, my wife’s grandson was eager to see if he could attract other birds to land on his hand. Patience, as it turns out, is both a requirement and a gift returned for practicing the art of stillness. I noticed how the carry-over effect of stillness lingered in other activities that this lively boy engaged in. (I have also noticed that in myself.) The next day I found him sitting ever so quietly in the backyard, arm outstretched with some sunflower seeds in the palm of his hand. Patiently waiting. Patiently practicing stillness. It took several attempts (nearly an hour), but his effort to sit still paid off. A chickadee landed on his fingertips and took a seed, then flew away. The rewards of stillness are immeasurable.
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The title of Brian Luke Seaward’s popular book, STAND LIKE MOUNTAIN, FLOW LIKE WATER, is also from Lao Tzu, Be still like a mountain, and flow like a great river.
He is the executive Director of the Paramount Wellness Institute located In Boulder, Colorado, and can be reached via his website, www.brianlukeseaward.net
The photograph that leads this post was taken by Brian Luke Seaward.