In a recent meditation talk-back session, a fellow practitioner made a very insightful comment that brought the fallibility of conceptual language to light
--she said that the term "stillness" has sometimes been difficult for her to implement in the way it may be intended during meditation, because we are so often given a directive to "be still" that infers some kind of effort or resistance.
I can certainly relate! I recall plenty of instances when that phrase was used as a kind of veiled language for other commands, usually along the lines of:
"Get it together."
"You're too much."
Whether it comes from caretakers as a child or your yoga teacher as an adult, having someone tell you to "be still" can set off a cycle of effort or self-judgment that can feel distracting at best and shame-inducing at worst, neither of which is an ideal environment for the kind of process we are (hopefully) facilitating with meditation.
If it happens, it happens, but some clarity before sitting might take this variable out altogether. The question now is--how? It would seem there are a couple of options:
1. Use alternative conceptual language
2. Clarify what "stillness" means in the context of meditative experience
In the first approach, simply changing the wording could ease the problem. For example, saying "allow your attention to come to rest" rather than "allow your attention to find stillness" could read as a less imperative statement, and might better facilitate the movement of attention.
On the other hand, the second option may allow some clarity regarding what is meant by "stillness" within the meditative framework along with the additional possibility of undoing mental conditioning we may have acquired regarding the word from earlier experiences in life.
Before we proceed any further, it's important to note that trying to describe stillness is much like describing silence or space-- most of the language won't be entirely accurate because we are describing the formless. That being said, let's do the best we can with the linguistically-limited brains we have.
A helpful place to start is what stillness in meditation is not:
-It is not effortful
-It is not rigid
-It is not static or inert
-It is not a moral or behavioral imperative
-It is not a reprimand
-It is not just a concept, though we have to speak about it using the conceptual limitation of language
So what is stillness?
To date, I have found four distinct ways that stillness can be experienced. While these terms may not fit for everyone, they served me as a decent roadmap early in my practice. These can occur during and/or outside of meditation.
-Mental stillness: The verbal commentary of the brain slows down. Most humans over the age of 3 have some form of steadily operating, self-referential narrative running in the background during the waking state. Mental stillness implies that this narrative has slowed or stopped for a period of time, and is what many people consider the goal of meditation.
-Emotional stillness: The habitual energetic expansions and contractions within the body caused by internal and external stimuli (what we refer to as "emotions" or "feelings") lessen in intensity or become absent for a period of time. The resulting functional flow of energy is often felt as stillness.
-Somatic stillness: Habitual rigidity, guarding, contraction, or resistance in the body begins to release or is released completely for a period of time. The resulting openness/somatic relaxation is often perceived as stillness.
-Total stillness: Although it seems that this type of stillness would be dependent on the above three experiences, they actually only unveil it. This stillness is always present. While mental, emotional, and somatic experiences may reveal stillness, they only do so because they are already taking place within that very stillness. Total stillness is the background within which all thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions occur. This means, paradoxically, that even the things written above concerning what stillness is not are held within total stillness-- it's just that they don't seem to be effective ways for one to experience it, generally speaking.
Total stillness is what I reference in guided practices and in whatever writing you may see here. It is not something to be done, learned, or earned, as it is already an inherent quality of who you are. All we do is provide conditions to facilitate small glimpses of it as frequently as we can, so it can eventually be recognized for what it is: A deep, fundamental foundation of your true nature.