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Soulful Sundays: Stillness

"You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction." -Bhagavad Gita



A question that I routinely find myself pondering is, 'How can I enjoy life more fully?' This quandary usually begins when I feel the stirrings of desire, most often precipitated by boredom or a lack of obvious challenge. For me (and most humans) to be happy, I have to strike a balance between challenge and comfort. Depending on which side of this line I fall on, I can either become overwhelmed or terribly apathetic. The magic is in finding a healthy relationship between the two: challenge and comfort. This balance is often found through the process of learning to be still.


In 1654, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal famously noted, "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." Almost 370 years later, this observation still rings true. It seems that as a species we have struggled with boredom, isolation, and stillness for quite some time. This can, in part, be explained by evolutionary biology, yet part of it is our own fault.


The human brain is a novelty seeking machine unlike any other ever made. The dopamine (or desire) pathway is so strong that we would lose the urge to eat or drink without it. It is this very pathway that helps us to seek out challenge and learn new things. However, if you feed desire too richly the pathway becomes 'poisoned' and addictive behaviors can arise. This is how gambling, pornography, and endless social media scrolls work. They all make it harder and harder for the user to get any real satisfaction.


The human creature is also hardwired for social interaction and status comparisons. Our success as a species depended on our ability to cooperate with each other. Status was a natural control mechanism for keeping people together. Put the two together and you can see that we have a biological reason to maintain a copacetic relationship in our given tribe. Yes, there are many more tribes to choose from now-a-days, and tribal boundaries are much more fluid than ever before, but that does not devalue the need to be accepted somewhere by someone.


Stillness for many of us is scary. It is unsettling. It poses a threat. But should it? Stillness, not inaction, is a place of calm that, when harnessed, is the most powerful state of the human mind. Stillness is the master archer as he makes a perfect shot. Stillness is the genius mathematician as she solves a proof. Stillness is how you feel when you are in flow doing the things that you love without distracting thoughts of time or accomplishment. Stillness seems fleeting, yet it is always there. I believe that stillness is the natural state of all humans. We learn to accept more and more noise into our lives as we get older. Becoming more still involves purposefully forgetting this clutter.


The key is focusing on the work, on the process, on putting one foot in front of the next. There are no shortcuts when it comes to cultivating stillness. You have to purposefully say no the the distractions. You have to expose yourself to as much stillness as you can handle in one sitting, plus a tiny bit more to create an adaptation. Seek the comfort of a challenging form of exercise or hobby. Seek the company of the woods or of animals. Find company that is comfortable with uncomfortable silence. Mentor yourself with small, frequent bouts of meditation, journalling, and the like. Like I said before, stillness (the fruit of your labors) is always right there inside of us all, we need only realize it. Focus on the process and the results will take care of themselves.

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