As I think about the topic of being still, the first thing that comes to mind is all the dread I have had around it. As a child, being told to be still was definitely a punishment. I have always been a natural mover, a dancer. My meditation comes in the form of movement—in
yoga or dance or a hike. My mind calms in movement. In fact, I found yoga because of a knee injury that forced me out of my other, more strenuous activities, but I still had to move. Being still was associated with not being able to move and movement is my joy. So being
still was like saying “be depressed.” However, a few situations and choices have drawn my attention to the need for stillness and the recognition that stillness is a natural rhythm in the cycle of life.
My spiritual practice for the last five years has been 5-Rhythms Dance, founded by Gabrielle Roth. 5-Rhythms is based on the principal that there are five universal rhythms that catalyze motion deep in the psyche and represent life cycles and emotional
arcs. These rhythms are: flowing (feminine, seamless, curving, soft), staccato (masculine, angular, boundary-setting), chaos (the integration or collision of the masculine and feminine), lyrical (the rhythm of trance and self-realization, joy), and stillness (seeking
emptiness and taking refuge in it). For five years my practice has been to include my body in my spiritual practice, stillness being one of the five rhythms I’m so familiar with; something that comes as rest at the end of four rhythms of movement. Sitting on a zafu and
meditating in stillness has seemed like something I would feel suffocated by, too enlightened for my abilities and interests.
The Fear of Stillness
When I first heard stillness described by Roth as “seeking emptiness and taking refuge in it” my mind wondered, “why would anyone seek emptiness?” Emptiness, at first conjured up images of loneliness, meaninglessness, forced to deal with all the stuff I
don’t want to, and yet stillness is the state people try to attain with meditation—a stopping of the static, entering what some call “the zone,” being one with God or the Universe or All, being the Tao. This is the state I attain and seek to achieve through movement, so why
did stillness seem like such a thing to run from (even though I wanted to run into it)? It’s as if stillness and movement were antithetical and yet one cannot exist without the other as contrast.
I am now attending a university for my Master of Arts in Somatic (soma = body) Psychology, a program in which the department understands movement as practice and the inseparable connection of body-mind. Even in this department, at a Tibetan Buddhist
school, sitting meditation is required. Again, the rhythm of stillness beckons for my befriending. As I sit on the cushion, I choose to nourish my relationship to stillness, which begs the question, “What is my fear with stillness about?” As I sit still to contemplate, I
realize that my biggest fears are always way more intense than the thing I’m actually afraid of and they’re always about what I don’t know. Stillness I know least of the 5 rhythms. It was just always something that happened to give me a rest. It never entered my awareness
that rest was just as important as movement.
Some define life as movement, the very nature of living being movement, and death as non-movement. Stillness is often equated with not moving. So stillness isn’t rest for some, but may stir the fear of death or the fear that one has not truly lived.
Add to that the overemphasis on production in Western culture and stillness can be equated with worthlessness, a fate worse than death.
Movement in Stillness
As I sit with stillness, however, there is the recognition that movement is still happening. As my friend Bruce, a Certified Rolfer, would probably point out, there’s movement in stillness, it just shifts in quality, from mobility (gross motor
movement—the kind we’re used to) to motility (inherent, involuntary physiological motion). In this sense, stillness is relative to perspective. While I may be sitting still with no mobility, there are cells continuing to repair and reproduce, organs digesting and glands
regulating without any intended movement from what I consider “me.”
Stillness forges awareness of all the recognizable subtle movements happening to keep me alive without my volition—breath inspiring and expiring, heart beating, nerves impulsing and discharging. The environment reveals its subtleties—the sound of the
vent blowing, the swing outside swinging, the pigeon outside cooing, the car driving by, the clock ticking. As I still my body I am reminded that my daily tasks and issues are just a small, be it relevant, part of all the life happening within and around me. And then
there’s my mind, the ever-moving thinking machine, the last frontier most fear most.
As my meditation teacher points out, the mind will never stop thinking—that’s its job. Meditation is not about stopping thinking, that’s impossible. It’s about stepping back from your thoughts, not clinging or attaching to them, nor taking a ride on
them, so that you can notice the content of your thoughts, which allows one to also step back from the emotions and realize some of the silliness of our own dramas. This happens by sitting in an erect posture, focusing on the breath, noticing when you’re not in the room
anymore because you’ve taken a ride on your thoughts, and gently telling yourself, “thinking” as a cue to bringing your awareness back to the breath. This creates a compassionate attitude towards the self, and when we can do that, we can extend this to others as well. When
we still the body, we can notice the speed of our minds. When we become aware of the content of our thoughts by disconnecting from clinging to them, our minds can also find stillness.
So perhaps stillness is much the same as meditation. It’s not a stopping of movement, that’s impossible. Movement is life and there is movement in stillness. But it’s about stepping back from our movement to notice the content of our movement (and
subsequently, our thoughts). Being still allows us to recharge, making space for insight and self-realization to come. And the emptiness, the void, the fear of loneliness begins to shift as I cultivate my relationship to stillness, realizing that the emptiness is space and
space is not empty, it’s nourishment. It resets my relationships, gives me clarity, which allows me to make better decisions, and allows me to define and redefine my boundaries, to discharge what isn’t mine.
As I find the subtle movement in stillness and cultivate my relationship to stillness, a greater understanding grows and informs my mobility. From the felt-sense of stillness, my motor movement becomes more grounded and stable. I can find stillness in
my movement. A sense of peace can be found even in wild gestures. And so, the two inform each other, co-existing along a continuum in the paradox that they are simultaneously one and distinct.
Looking again at the 5-Rhythms metaphor, when we can move with the call for stillness, instead of fighting it, we naturally move back into life and its other rhythms. Somatic psychologists have pointed out that our health can directly correlate with our
ability to oscillate between all the rhythms and patterns of attention with equal dexterity, not fixating in any one, and that dis-ease correlates with getting stuck in one. As we begin to develop healthy relationships with all the rhythms, we gain a trust in Life itself,
that the rhythms naturally occur whether we choose them to or not. Our task is to move with them, rather than fight them or ourselves. As we find our own unique relationships with all of Life’s rhythms and our own patterns of attention reveal themselves, we create a sense
of safety within ourselves. Stillness allows us insight into our own attentions and rejuvenates us before the next transition.
Stillness as Deep Presence
As I give someone a massage I realize that stillness is and always has been my natural rhythm as a massage therapist, even if I hadn’t noticed it until now. Slowing down to the speed of bone, my senses open to the subtle energies of the craniosacral
rhythm and visceral movements. I realize that stillness is a way of being deeply present. It’s a way to step beyond the first (mask, role, persona) and second (defenses) layers of personality to be in direct contact with the core or essence layer. In this way, stillness
allows for deep experience of the Self, beyond awareness, into being.
This brings up another fear—that I have to face all the things I have shoved into the unconscious in order to reach my core. This is true to some extent. I can have moments of spontaneous core contact, not everything is defended, but the places that are
defended need some relationship mediation if contact is to happen. Sometimes in the journey to the core we get snagged by a defense. Where we get stuck, many healers believe, is in judging ourselves as ‘bad’ for being defensive or because of the thing we’re doing as
defense. I have seen so many clients get stuck here by literally aborting their feelings, heading straight into analysis because the self-judgment brings pain. This can lead into all sorts of projections that would be outside the scope of this article to talk about.
I myself work intentionally with this dynamic and have struggled and been challenged much, but this is the essence of core work and it is very transformational. As I work with clients to guide them back into their felt-sense, we notice the judgment, just
as a judgment, and the feeling that it conjures up. We then feel into that feeling. Lo and behold, something releases (not necessarily after one moment or session) and a lost aspect of Self gets reclaimed in the process. Accessing stillness through core contact then
becomes more possible. For more information on working with this dynamic, check out the book The Power of Focusing, by Ann Weiser Cornell or Focusing by Eugene Gendlin.
My meditation instructor, Karen Kissel Wegela, talks about the term brilliant sanity. Brilliant sanity is her notion that everyone is fundamentally awake; it’s what is basic about human beings. She says, “Who we are is totally free of any problem,
indestructibly so. You can drop your insanity, it’s extra, but you cannot drop brilliant sanity.” What I believe she is referring to with brilliant sanity is the core, beyond the persona and defenses. When we drop into stillness, we drop into the core or brilliant sanity.
The defenses may continue to exist and that’s great. They are there out of necessity. They’re not bad. They actually probably developed to protect the core from a threat. But they can become so habituated that we can no longer turn them off and then we don’t have access
to our core, the essential place of nourishment and insight. As we start to build a relationship with our defenses, however, we begin to have awareness of our own cycles and rhythms and that allows us to separate from being our defenses, allowing for greater and more
authentic choice that nourishes our essence.
When we slow to the rhythm of stillness, we let all the other movements continue to exist around us, but we shift our undivided attention to and embody what is internally moving and slow. We release our impulse to do and allow whatever is unnecessarily
held to unravel. This is the speed of deep nourishment and belonging. It’s the place of union with the Divine. It’s the place we find inside the core of our vigorous and repetitive movement meditations. From this place we move authentically back into the world.
©Copyright 2005 Tara Topper. All Rights Reserved.
Tara Topper has been a poet, writer, and dancer all her life. She has been a bodyworker since 2001 blending massage, deep tissue, core sequencing, craniosacral and visceral techniques with her knowledge of psychology, yoga, kundalini, emotional storage and release, and
transpersonal experience. She earned her BA in Psychology and Sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1999. She is currently a student at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado where she is earning her MA in Somatic Psychology. www.naropa.edu
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