In Stillness

Tranquility is an important element of the early Buddhist approach to liberating the mind from its tendency towards reactivity, and, thereby, from the habitual attitude of stressful dissatisfaction. The combination of calming the mind (tranquility) and seeing clearly the nature of our own subjective experience of the world, inside and outside, is both the fruit of the path and the path itself. Both tranquility and wisdom can seem hard to come by in this very busy time of year; and yet, in a way, tranquility is near at hand. The sunlight is definitely heading towards its least active time of year in our hemisphere, and the earth is settling into a deep state of rest right before our eyes––under the blanket of fresh snow. This often unseen “way things really are” is forming a backstitch to the busy “doing” of our days. We have to work harder to stay alive both physically and socially, it seems. Maybe this dynamic tension between the draw towards rest and the need for activity is one root of the seasonal stress we feel, and perhaps it is spilling over, adding to some of the collective political unrest we all feel. Maybe if we can manage to touch that growing external tranquility in the bear’s hibernation, for example, our hearts will find a little more balance. In the cold and the stillness, can we touch something very quiet, very still? Our daily meditation can help in its call for us to stop.

Tranquility can give rise to clear seeing, and such wisdom can nurture tranquility. Many years ago, in the mid-1990s, I regularly attended Jack Kornfield’s ten-day New Year’s retreat at IMS. A hundred of us began together, a day or two after Christmas, and practiced in silence until after the New Year. There was definitely great opportunity for states of tranquility to arise.  One year, Jack said to us in a Dharma talk that when the heart is very quiet, you can ask it the question: “What is the most profound teaching you have ever had?” During the walking period afterwards, I did ask that question of my heart. In response, I immediately experienced a clear memory from twenty years earlier. I was sitting in a bed in the old Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital. I was very weak––recently diagnosed with acute leukemia. Most people thought I was going to die. It was late in the evening. A friend, on her way home from a visit to her brother’s farm in New York state, stopped by to give me a very ripe peach from one of his trees. It was wonderful––sweet, juicy, and tasting of sunlight. I can see and taste it now. I was so happy and content––and so was my friend. Seeing us both, I realized immediately there and then––as an embodied fact––that receiving is giving. I had become what I recognized as a vehicle of love. To receive was hard for me then, as it sometimes is today, but I began a practice with it that continues to this very moment. It has become a practice through which I am able to see more clearly and to discern in my life when it is actually appropriate and healing to do things myself and when it is important to receive. That insight, remembered in tranquility twenty-five years ago, helped me last year when I had a life-altering accident on my bicycle. I trusted that I could settle back and receive the love and kindness that came to me from the VIMS support sangha, as well as from friends and family. I trusted that life would take care of itself.

Another “most profound teaching I have ever had,” one which was about both mental and bodily tranquility, has been enormously helpful to me. In March of 2018, I was again in a retreat at IMS. The Dharma Hall is much different now: the old red carpet and linoleum have been replaced by wooden floors; the walls are new and brighter; the heat windows double-paned and tightly sealed. The teachers were different: not Jack, Rodney Smith, and Tara Brach; but Bhikkhu Analayo, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Bonnie Duran, and Sally Clough. Even the silence was being held more loosely; it was a different format with the full group invited into an open discussion each evening. But the tranquility was there, and it was very accessible to me. Just two weeks before, I had ended a one-month silent retreat at the Forest Refuge. There were many attendees in this retreat who had not practiced under Analayo’s guidance before, and one such person, a research neuroscientist, asked him about his repeatedly using the word on in describing where the mind should rest in relation to the body. She wanted to know what that meant in regard to where the Buddha thought the mind resided. Analayo has been asked this question many times before, and he gave his usual answer about being a German and not a native English speaker. He said he needed a word and chose that one: it didn’t refer to the location of the mind. He then did something different––something that gave me what was and still is, via the visual memory of the moment, a life-changing teaching.

This thin-as-a-rail, robed monk looked behind him, moved back a bit, and then leaned against the altar shelf. He said, “This is what I mean,” and then totally relaxed his body and his mind––totally. He appeared as a limp skeleton. It was that simple, that brief. The evening of discussion questions went on, and for me, everything had changed. 

I started practicing with what Analayo modeled that night, and I had practiced towards that complete letting go often––each time remembering that moment at IMS with a bit of awe––when I found myself, six months later, cold, wet, injured and shaking, lying on the damp ground on the bike path in Lebanon, New Hampshire, awaiting help. I recalled the image and realized I could do it. I found the tranquility of body and mind. It was the stillness in which I located the absence of pain. Physical pain was a big part of those weeks and months of rebalancing and recovering. There was pain in most every movement for a while, but always in stillness was the absence of pain. That absence offered relief and opened the possibility of clear seeing. As healing progressed, I could begin to access that tranquility in some movements. I could, with honesty, know the pain as sometimes discomfort and one that was even interesting in regard to finding alternate ways of doing a movement. Both the body and the mind’s stillness have been important to me, as has this sense of interested curiosity.

In this regard another related, profound, and embodied teaching I received was during the last days of a six-week IMS retreat. Walking alone in the woods, I felt as if something, some force, had entered my body. I stopped still and received the unbidden thought: “If I can remember interest and compassion, I will be alright.” A favorite quote of mine from Thich Nhat Hanh comes to mind: “Peace is all around us––in our bodies and in our hearts. It is not just a matter of faith; it is a matter of practice.” We can trust the quiet that comes to the body and mind when we let go. It is the backstitch to our lives––right beneath the terror. 

The solstice is approaching. This year in our valley, it will be on Sunday, December 22, at 11:19 p.m. EST. There will be a pause in our universe––just as there is between every in-breath and out-breath, between every out-breath and in-breath, of our lives. Might you practice with intentionally joining the profound subtlety of that moment?

And I turned 

and opened the door, and still the snow poured down, 

smelling of iron and the pale, vast eternal, and 

there it was, whether I was ready or not: 

the silence; the blank, white, glittering sublime.

–– Mary Oliver, “Early Snow” 

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