The Virtue of Stillness

For many of us in the modern world, we live in an age of information overload and frenetic activity. It seems that everything moves at breakneck speed, and failure to comply with this unwritten imperative spells potential disaster. Coupled with this cultural mandate which often values speed over substance is a noticeable reduction in attention spans and inability for many to focus and live in the moment.

Yet it is this moment which is most real to us. The past is behind us, an ever growing collection of once present moments which recede into memory. And the future is at once malleable and inescapable, in part perhaps influenced by our actions in this moment and those past, yet far too unknowable to simply conform to our will.

Amid the pressures of our lives, we must seek moments to engage in stillness. For it is in stillness, both actual and metaphorical, that we can most connect with ourselves and the universe, which are all intertwined. In being “still,” and allowing our senses to reach out and process with minimal filtering the pulsation of the energy around us, we are most “in tune” and plugged into a vast reservoir which can be tapped and utilized to our advantage. This concept of a universal energy is found in widely divergent cultures worldwide, although it is perhaps most famously associated with the concept of chi or ki in the martial arts. For some, such a notion is far too metaphysical, so let’s counter with a real world example of the application of such theory…

I have heard it said that having children allows parents to experience childhood once again, albeit from a different perspective. My toddler son, like his parents, happens to enjoy being out in nature. These days he is rather captivated by searching for the fast-moving lizards which can be found all around his grandparents’ property.  Although it is possible to potentially outrun these lizards, for the most part they react to movement, and a toddler has yet to master the art of stealth and stalking.

But a child can learn (within reason) to be still. I am teaching my son this lesson in several steps. He has learned that the lizards like to bask in the sun, and there are always certain spots, at certain times of the day, where lizards tend to congregate. He has learned that rather than rush towards a lizard, it is better to approach slowly. Eventually he will learn that the best option may be to lie in wait, embracing the stillness, and let the lizard come to him. By blending with his environment, and settling into the flow of energy in a specific locale, he can experience stillness and reap the reward (getting close to the lizard) that he seeks.

In my practice of the martial arts, I have experienced stillness in many forms. Within all branches of Wing Chun Kung Fu, for example, there is an exercise termed chi sao, which translates as “energy arms.” Although it is often misunderstood by outsiders, this form of “touch sensitivity” training is designed to hone the reflexes, specifically for close quarters fighting, in which visual information is processed too slowly to counter rapid attacks. Rather, one is trained to first understand what it feels like when energy is in equilibrium (i.e. the parties engaged in the chi sao training are balancing each other via the extension of the ban sao / tan sao combination in one arm and the fuk sao of the second arm). Everything must be “just right.” Excessive forward energy or force is just as detrimental as insufficient forward energy or force.  Imprecision in the structure and positioning of the arms triggers a lack of equilibrium which invites immediate attack.

Because the arms, in effect, serve as antennae, the Wing Chun practitioner must learn to “listen” to the opponent through his body, searching for the lack of equilibrium which signals vulnerability while mindful of his or her own “center.” To do this, the mind must be “still,” in a relaxed frame rather than one which wishes to impose a specific outcome. The same is true in sparring — watch any experienced fighter and there is a stillness and calm until the moment when explosive movement is called for.

Experiencing stillness allows us to find our center. It is our center which “grounds us” and allows us to tap into not only our own internal energy, but the energy surrounding us. For those walking the Path of the Zentropist, this is an essential skill to cultivate.

So take a few minutes each day to experience stillness. Find a quiet place free of distraction. You can choose to stand or sit. Close your eyes. Focus on the breath. Be aware of each inhalation and exhalation. If you are trained in proper diaphragm breathing techniques (from Yoga, martial arts, etc.), put that breathing into practice. Inhale deeply through the nose. Allow your lungs to fill. Slowly exhale, forcing the air through the nostrils with the goal of equalizing the length of each inhalation and exhalation. As you settle into this rhythm, focus on the sounds around you. Next open your eyes, allowing your visual sense to return as you continue to breathe deliberately, which should also feed information via the sense of smell. Continue to remain attuned to the sounds in your environment, processing these auditory clues as well. Spend a few minutes in this state and notice the change in energy which you will experience. All in the practice of stillness.

It is in this deliberate stillness that we are most aware, and arguably, most alive…

1 thought on “The Virtue of Stillness

  1. we can learn a lesson from herons too… poised on one leg about to strike with the lightning flash of beak and splash of water. mindfulness, what I am trying to train myself in. nice post, especially interested in basking lizards

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