If idleness is a state of lounging about, not doing much of anything, maybe resting, maybe killing time, then idleness can be active and stressful nonetheless.
When we’re “not doing anything” we’re usually doing something… daydreaming, browsing social media, watching TV. Relative to some more active, purposeful task, we may be idle now, but our idleness comes without that other, more elusive quality we may call stillness. What even is stillness?
In 2005, the author and sound-recording expert Gordon Hempton asked a similar question about silence. What is silence? He defined it not as pure quiet, but as the sustained absence of anthropogenic or man-made sound – freedom from noise pollution – and he argued that silence is going extinct. We can travel deep into the wilderness inside a great national park or other vast protected space, but no matter how far we hike from the nearest road or trail, a jet will surely fly overhead, cancelling the silence for many miles around its path. Minutes later, another jet.
Likewise, if we search for stillness in our own inner landscapes – defining stillness as awareness without mental chatter – we may find that it exists… nowhere. As Hempton struggled to find “one square inch” of silence anywhere in the USA, we might struggle to identify any context when we’re truly still, awake but not thinking.
Even in those moments when we seek relaxation and refreshment – a long, hot shower on a Saturday morning – our minds are still replaying past events and holding imagined conversations and beginning to write emails and trying to plan the day. Deep sleep is a time when our minds quiesce, but it comes without awareness, so we can’t remember the experience and learn from it.
We might think that to achieve conscious stillness, we’d need to go on vacation, travel to some far-away place and clear our calendar of appointments and obligations. But meditation shows us that stillness is in reach, no matter where we are or even how busy we are, as long as we can set a few minutes aside to breathe and – here is the hard part – to relinquish our attachment to whatever thoughts appear on our mental stage.
It might be that tomorrow, we’re leaving on a trip, or giving a high-stakes presentation at work, or attending a long-awaited reunion. We can still meditate now. Whatever is happening tomorrow only affects us now through the mechanism of thought. The trip, the presentation, the reunion cannot reach out from tomorrow into today and physically touch us in the present moment. The impact of future events on our present experience is realized only to the extent that we visualize these events, think about them, give them our attention. When we meditate, giving all our attention to our current breath instead of to the contents of “tomorrow,” those contents have no grip. Stillness is available if we practice accepting it, no matter what’s approaching on the calendar.
But we run away from stillness – our reflex is to avoid it – so the experience of stillness can be shocking when it happens.
One time I was traveling in South India and I found myself in a home, a living room with eight members of an extended family, all waiting for a ceremony that was to happen a few hours later. As we sat together for what would be a good half-hour, I noticed that no one was talking, so I looked around, sure that someone would be reading a newspaper, someone would be using their phone, someone would be eating a snack. To my surprise everyone was sitting still, looking at the floor or out into the room, doing nothing whatsoever.
And no one seemed uncomfortable about it. No fidgeting, no attempts to break the silence? A group of people packed in a small space, letting time pass without words or distractions, and being OK with it? The closest experience I could remember might have been a dentist’s waiting room, but even there they’d be reading and checking their phones.
My host told me later, these moments are rare: to sit in silence is not really a norm for his family, nor is it a cultural norm he would identify. But when it does happen, he confirmed, his family doesn’t feel awkward about it or even give it a second thought. That’s what was new and interesting for me. In any group I’d ever been a part of — family, work, or social — if stillness like that had occurred, it would have been treated as an emergency like fire. Someone would have taken it as their responsibility to put it out.
So what is it like to achieve stillness?
Prior to 2020, the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Code (Title 27, Section 5.22) required that vodka should be distilled to such a level of purity “as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” By this definition, all of the fancy brands of vodka – Grey Goose, Ketel One – only tasted different because of their impurities.
Stillness is similar to vodka in that if we ever achieved pure stillness it would have no distinctive character. But we’re human, and as we progress toward stillness through meditation, there is usually some kind of “inflection” to the state we actually achieve.
In my own practice, I notice a difference between positively inflected and negatively inflected stillness.
Negatively inflected stillness is when we’ve slowed down our breathing and the pace of our thoughts and we’re feeling very calm in comparison to a typical waking moment, but within the calm there’s just a little edginess, a trace of dissatisfaction, a faint craving, an antsy feeling so subtle you might not notice it. But when you end the meditation session and get up from your chair, it comes as a relief to pick up your phone and start scrolling through the notifications. It comes as a relief for your attention to be captured by some external thing.
This is not to say that meditation was worthless or ineffective, just that on this particular occasion, it didn’t free you absolutely from little wants and cravings.
Positively inflected stillness feels almost the same as negatively inflected stillness, because the inflections we’re speaking about are so miniscule. But when stillness is positively inflected, it means you feel just a little bit good – not actively ecstatic – just calmly content. Breathing in and out feels ever so slightly pleasurable. Sitting in your chair feels just a little bit relaxing. And when you get up, mingling again with the many forces that would capture your attention, you don’t plunge into them as if to seek something you lack.
A positively inflected resting state – the experience of just sitting down, doing nothing but breathing — not thinking, not daydreaming – just being still, and feeling a little bit good: this is a remarkable situation. I’ve come to think of it as a foundation for living — the foundation we should cultivate — the foundation we need, but are never shown in school.