“Peace: it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of all of those things and still be calm in your heart.”
A magnet on my fridge has reminded me for years that peace and stillness are available any time I need them. I value such reminders, especially during the holidays. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of the season. For many of us, this is time of joy and connection. The holidays may also bring grief and longing for family members who are no longer with us or for failed relationships. The cooler weather and shorter hours of daylight may be difficult for some of us. The opportunities and challenges of the holidays invite us to come into stillness, a state of being quiet or calm.
A form of meditation called Shamatha Meditation offers us the opportunity to practice peacefully abiding or calm abiding. The root of the word Shamatha is sham, which means to be peaceful, and is the same root as the Sanskrit word Shanti, meaning peace.
In this practice, we cultivate inner peace by connecting with a stillness that is fundamental, all pervasive, and ever present. We are simply slowing down and settling into the stillness that already exists in and around us.
Stillness is not the absence of movement, it is the place from which movement is born. Stillness gives rise to movement, action, dance, life. The stillness we seek is not a rigid, unmoving state, like a rock or statue. It is open and receptive, like a tree, strong, yet flexible. In the practice, we are continually seeking a balance between effort and relaxation. It takes effort to be present, to pay attention, and to cultivate mindfulness, but that effort must be balanced with relaxation and acceptance of who we are and what we feel.
Relaxation is essential to stillness, and so we begin by finding relaxation in the body because outer stillness creates an environment that is conducive to inner stillness. This is why we take the time to focus on posture and alignment as a means of cultivating stillness. Finding the right meditation posture takes more effort in the beginning, but even after we become familiar with what posture works well for us, it is important to take the time to attend to the points of posture and move attention through the body consciously relaxing the habitual tension and tightness that we all carry with us. I recommend two general poses, seated and supine. I invite you to try both variations.
The first is traditionally called the 8-point posture of Vairochana. Here are the eight points:
1. The spine is long and upright, with its natural curves. Having just the right amount of support under the hips is essential here.
2. The shoulders are balanced over the hips and the arms are relaxed by the sides.
3. The hands are intentionally placed on the thighs or in the lap in a way that supports points 1 and 2.
4. The chin is slightly tucked to bring length to the back of the neck as the head balances atop the spinal column.
5. The forehead and jaw are relaxed, lips lightly touching, and tongue resting at the top of the mouth.
6. The eyes are either closed or open slightly with the gaze down at the floor.
7. The legs are either comfortably crossed, or if sitting in a chair, feet are planted firmly on the floor.
8. Breath flows naturally in and out through the nostrils.
Meditating Lying Down
The second posture is called the 10-point lying down posture. The ten points of your feet, buttocks, shoulders, elbows, low back and head are in contact with the floor. It is a good idea to have a yoga mat or blanket underneath your torso in this pose to cushion the back of the body. It is important that your feet are firmly planted, with the knees falling in toward one another so that the hips and pelvis and abdomen relax fully.
Once you settle into your pose, discover your breath. The breath is the primary focal point at the heart of this practice. When you notice tension returning to your body or that you have become caught up in a “thought knot” in your mind, rediscover your breath and let go with the outbreath. This is the practice. It doesn’t matter how many times you have to do this, just keep coming back again and again and again to the breath. You can pay particular attention to the grounding, settling, releasing qualities of the outbreath, and most especially the stillness to be discovered at the bottom of the exhale. This is a good place to rest your mind. Not holding the breath, just becoming aware of the natural pauses between breaths.
Why is stillness important? Stillness allows us to cultivate discernment by creating space between ourselves and our thoughts so that we are not constantly reacting to our life with a habitual reactivity. Pema Chodron wrote this about being still:
The practice of “remaining like a log” is based on refraining, not repressing. When you realize you’re thinking, just acknowledge that. Then turn your attention to your breath flowing in and out, to your body, to the immediacy of your experience. Doing this allows you to be present and alert, and thoughts have a chance to calm down. With this practice, it can be helpful to gently breathe in and out with the restlessness of the energy. This is a major support for learning to stay present. Basic wakefulness is right here, if we can just relax. Our situation is fundamentally fluid, unbiased, and free, and we can tune into this at any time. When we practice “remaining like a log,” we allow for this opportunity.
Learning to be still takes practice. For most of us, sitting still is difficult. It becomes easier if you practice a little every day. This holiday season, make a commitment to yourself to practice stillness for a few minutes every day. A formal meditation practice is wonderful, but I invite you to be flexible and to cultivate stillness while driving, cooking, or gathering with family.
Practice moving towards stillness by doing just one thing at a time. Can you stay right there with whatever arises in the stillness without moving to fix it or change it or turn away from it? Our practice is to be present for what is, without judgment or needing it to be any other way. That is how we can find peace everywhere.