When I visit an Arboretum, I’m overtaken by the harmony and beauty that slows and calms mind, body, and spirit. What might have once been an uninspiring patch of land has been cultivated and maintained with design, skill, and care into an oasis of peace – a respite in the surroundings of an otherwise busy world.
When I roam the uncultivated and unmaintained nature of meadow, stream, mountains, or sea, I experience a very different inner stillness. That experience not merely calms, it evokes something deeper, something still and timeless, a remembered home. Although difficult to recognize at first, there is a subtle but very significant difference between these two experiences – a felt and true distinction between a cultivated calmness and a natural uncultivated stillness. That distinction is well known to experienced meditators. and can be recognized by each of us, when carefully observing our inner experience.
Let’s step back for a moment and review the difference between our two “selves” – our ordinary ego-based self and our underlying natural and authentic self. We will then see that the continuum that connects calmness and restlessness is a characteristic of the former. A pervasive and unchanging stillness is characteristic of the latter.
The “I” we know as our day-to-day self is itself cultivated. It does not exist at birth. As we enter the process of naming and individuation we create and cultivate our seemingly unique and distinct personality, our ordinary self – a collection of experiences, history, memories, patterns of perception and reaction that are mentally “strung” together to appear as a continuous history– our personal self.
Over our lifetime we can further “cultivate” this personal self with efforts at self-improvement and psychological development. Using various approaches, we can gain greater insight, enhance day-to-day functioning, improve relationships, increase happiness, diminish reactivity, and establish a greater mental calm. This is a remarkable achievement. But it has a serious downside.
Innate to individualism is a disconnection from others, our essence, and our earthly home. The belief that we are an individual and distinct self is at the heart of this disconnection. The personal self is innately defensive, protective, and self-centered. As we upgrade our personal self these characteristics may become subtler and unseen. But given the right circumstances they can re-assert themselves, disturbing our carefully cultivated personal and upgraded self. We all have had the disillusioning experience of old reaction patterns suddenly re-appearing, just when we were certain we had moved beyond.
So here is the distinction between a cultivated personal sense of “calmness” and a natural uncultivated “stillness.” The former is always on a continuum with restlessness. Visiting the Arboretum, like engaging in a relaxation technique, will move me towards the calm end of the continuum. But as soon as I leave the Arboretum or stop the method, the shift is back towards the restless end of the continuum.
I am sure you have noticed the short lived calm after meditation, a yoga session, massage, vacation, or other methods or circumstances that cultivate mental calmness. That’s why there is an ongoing struggle with the overactive mind. You cannot, through mental will or effort, tap into the unchanging and uncultivated stillness that lies beyond ordinary mental calm.
Method induced or mentally created approaches to calmness are not the same as the stillness found in simple uncultivated nature or the simple uncultivated natural self. In each instance an inner silence is present that is natural rather than mentally created. It is inseparable from the natural state. We can say that this stillness is an essential, ever present, and unchanging perfume of what is spontaneously and naturally alive. Consider this image of a simple natural stillness offered by the poet T.S. Eliot: And the children in the apple-tree … A condition of complete simplicity.
Unlike mental calmness that is induced by a method or circumstance, natural stillness is not on a continuum with restlessness. It is pervasive, permanent, and unchanging. When we rest in our natural self, irrespective of outer challenges or mental “noise” these challenges occur in the context of a profound yet simple unmoving stillness, allowing us to navigate life’s difficulties with a stability and stillness that is unaffected by surface experiences. It can be compared to the deep sea which is unmoved by the shifting waves on its surface. Everything is experienced, but the ground upon which it plays out remains stable and still.
Unlike a transient mental calmness, natural stillness is the gateway to authentic creativity, insight, and realization of our true self and reality. Insight and truth are spontaneously known when we pass through the gate of simple natural stillness. In time, that innate knowledge points the way to the stable experience of natural being and the awakened qualities of human flourishing.
What the seeker truly seeks is its own essence – the natural self with its built-in serenity and stillness. We can arrive at this through the practice of meditation that emphasizes dropping into the natural self during formal practice, by intentionally dropping into natural moments of stillness during the day, and by appreciating those unplanned moments when we spontaneously experience effortless flow and natural stillness. In time, you will discover that stillness is at the core of all activity. Merely stop, drop in, and you will know.
With practice and experience you will realize the difference between a circumstance or method-based calmness, and a natural uncultivated stable stillness that is present every moment. With certainty, you will know this natural stillness when you experience it.
The bible calls it the peace that surpasses understanding. When you touch it, you will let go of your varied relaxation techniques and cultivated circumstances. Why would you need them? You will progressively and effortlessly live life with a still heart and mind irrespective of the challenges confronting you. And its perfume, the qualities of human flourishing will follow. This authentic and permanent stillness can then become the foundation of your life.