Spring has finally sprung here in Michigan, and not a moment too soon! It amazes me how a change in season affects my state-of-being. Right now, it is like coming out of a long slumber, the winter time hibernating effect, as I refer to it. Not slumber in terms of obligations, duties and busy-ness, but slumber on a very deep level that one is not aware of until the sun starts shining again, bringing warmth and opening the eyes wide as if for the first time.
It has reminded me of some very important lessons I have learned in the past, but apparently forget about. The first one has to do with ‘time’. I find my biggest challenges in my life are with ‘time’ these days. There is never a shortage of things that need doing, and more that demand attention, and there never seems to be enough time. But just the other day, one of our FIRST warm and sunny spring days, I stopped everything and plainly saw what my problem was. I have neglected my decades-long practice of being STILL. Instead, I am constantly ‘running’ and doing things—running ‘toward’ things, running for productivity and completions, running to satisfy others expectations or needs, or running ‘from’ things that are negative. You name it. It is the ‘spinning wheel’ world—spinning like the mouse on that wheel, running and running but he gets nowhere—just keeps spinning that circle. What all this really shows me is how it is possible to not be fully present in any of the busy-ness if I am not coming from a foundation of ‘stillness’. I believe that the definition of full aliveness is full presence/awareness in the Now. Stillness is the only path I know to practice living in the Now—this moment, this opportunity, not my agenda, but this surprise agenda that asks for stillness, with hearing and listening ears.
I have always had this fascination with the archetype of the Monk—the monastic way of life. I read books about it, have my favorite monastic authors (David Steindl-Rast being first), and have tried for years to learn from THIS way of life about how one ought to go about living in this full aliveness. It is the paradigm that I look to for living my life. The monk’s job is to learn how to be present in every moment. Truly present, listening and hearing what opportunity might be at hand, and then in that full, pure listening, be able to respond from the highest perspective. Some orders of monks follow the “Hours” of the day in this practice, which I find illuminating about how to practice being fully present. Every hour has its virtue and ‘devil’. The practice is acknowledging both sides of this, and deliberately pursuing and living the virtue.
What is this stillness? How do I practice it? Over the years, I have practiced it by starting my day with journal writing, and reading edifying writings—even if only a sentence or two, and ruminating over them, letting them sink into the crusty, dry ground of the “busy-ness” mindset. The next crucial element for me is Nature. I have to be in nature, because that is where I ‘hear’ the loudest. Walking through the woods, where nothing is man-made and all is pure gift, as I see it. Combine that with warm sun after a long, cold, dark winter, and there is more than loudness, there is astounding beauty and perfection—and this, all before flowers have even begun to bloom! All is well, all is as it ought to be—that is what this moment speaks. It is truly giving oneself to the surroundings that are given as Gift: singing birds, sensations of the crisp pine-ground under my feet and their sweet fragrance, the smell of the earthy soil coming alive again, the slight breeze on my face, and even the happy sound of the far-off train whistle, which I have always found comforting since I was a child. All is perfection, and I am not only emptied out, but re-filled with what is more real and alive. In a word, it always seems to come down to one: gratitude. Gratitude requires being present in the moment, and acknowledging what is there. Right now, I am alive and all is perfection and beauty in this moment—my response can only be gratitude, which is the deepest form of prayer, it seems to me. No, my mind pleads, don’t look out at the world and see all that is so wrong, and all you are supposed to “do”. Instead, stay in this moment, listening, allowing all the senses to take over and leave the world to itself just for now. I watch my dog have her ‘gratitude’ moment rolling again and again on the dry ground, scratching off the winter’s deadness for her, too. She is in ecstasy, rolling from side to side and groaning her thankful prayer—all is fullness for her in this very moment.
Several years ago in Connecticut, I practiced this stillness at a cabin owned by my dear friends the Litwins. The austere cabin was nestled far back into the woods, right next to a gorgeous river. That cabin had no electricity or plumbing, but was equipped with a wood-burning stove and an outhouse. I have never lived in a more complete and perfect place in all my life. The first time, I spent over a month living there. It was late summer, and I took my baths in the river, dried off in the hot, shining sun, and cooked with boiled river water. It was pure bliss. My days consisted of journal writing (which always includes the “search for God” as part of that practice), walking through the woods and largely living out-of-doors, and practicing flute. No matter what activity I did there, I learned about being present in the moment—the Now. Even brushing my teeth down at the river in the cold early-morning was a whole new experience of brushing my teeth, for example. Inside the cabin’s silence, there was such a palpable presence of fullness, it is difficult to explain. Reading and writing at night by the light of an oil lamp is magical and unforgettable. There is something to be said for not having the hum of electricity subwoofing its way around your daily sound-scape. The hum of the refrigerator, the water pump, the little lights shining from whatever equipment or appliance is plugged in, etc. There is something magical, mysterious, and enlightening that this cabin gave me, the knowledge of which I will always have with me.
After that month of living there, time went by and I moved away for a short period. When I came back to the area, I happened to find a place to live on that same river, farther upstream. My generous friends who owned the cabin had now renovated it in an amazingly noble and creative way, while choosing not to add electricity or plumbing. They spaced enormous stones across the river, which I learned if you ran just right and jumped just gracefully enough, you could “fly” over them one foot per stone—something I did time and time again. These same gigantic boulders would surprisingly become completely covered by the spring runoff—an exciting and dramatic time to be sitting next to this torrent of whitewater. The Litwins granted me permission to go there one day a week, every week. It happened to work best on a Wednesday for me, and I would wake up with a start because I couldn’t wait to go there. I would walk through the woods to get to the cabin with my flute and journal and tape-recorder and necessities all in my backpack. I would enter the life of stillness, and live in it for an entire day. It was the one day a week that I gave myself permission to do WHATEVER I wanted. That meant, possibly, nothing. Permission to do nothing—-not something we usually allow ourselves! The amazing thing is, not only did I not end up doing ‘nothing’, I found I was far more productive than on any other day of the week! I wrote in my journal for hours, literally, and then could not wait to play flute, and ended up writing several pieces of music right from there. It was silent and still, and yet that singing river just outside the windows permeated every moment with celebration—and the best possible music. I recorded that river, and to this day, I begin most of my practice sessions with that recording playing (with birds and whatever sounds were present at the time), as it keeps me in that great space of peace and natural-ness.
So once again, I have gone back to this forward way of living by being reminded of it by the coming of Spring. I do not often have the available time I once had to spend an entire day doing this, but I most certainly have the time, and more importantly, NEED to make the time, to give this practice of stillness the priority of all I “do” in a day. Suddenly, in that stillness, as I sit writing in my journal out in the newly warm sunshine, I remember what I always knew: Be still, and Know God. (Just a little editing to make the point clear?the original phrase from the bible is: “Be still, and know that I am God”). I think of what I heard someone once say: we are human BEINGS, not human DOINGS. I have had this proven again and again with my own experience of it—stillness is required, to be alive humans. I know it, then I forget it, then I remember it again. Life seems like it is this cycle, does it not? Summer, then Winter, then Spring!
May any of you who read this also remember the fullness of taking time to be still, with no distractions. There is not one person with whom I have come in contact within the past month alone that I would not recommend this to. We are all too busy, spinning away. Are we present? Accomplishing anything? Pretty soon, ten years go by—-I don’t want to miss my life while I’m still living! So, thank God for Spring! Everything starts anew, and it is our opportunity to start anew.
With blessings and joy,
April 6, 2008