I brought this message to the West Hills Friends community today:
“The stillness inside must become exquisite; it must deepen into a moment of absolutely pure and utterly simple wakefulness in which your whole being is vitally present. In this stillness, you exist in beauty, and your next movement is clear. It is the practical, immediate ground of both appreciation and wisdom.”
-Gerald G. May
I am so intrigued by these moments of stillness. Almost exactly three years ago Beth and I were celebrating our honeymoon in southern Oregon. We had rented a cabin located deep into the Cascade Mountains for several days. On August 9th and entered this into my journal:
Beth and I went exploring today. We made our way through paths of pine trees, and impressive cedars. The smell of juniper and pine sap blew with the air, so sharp and intense. I was searching for a sugarpine cone, a massive, nearly fourteen inch long cone which dwarfs its small brothers and sisters that rest on the forest floor around it. Its obvious then that these giants aren’t too hard to find when exploring the forest. I picked one up and marveled at its symmetry.
We then made our way to the shell of a tipi I constructed nearly two years ago. Its long poles have cracked and bent under the stresses of snow and wind. Yet its shape is commanding against the backdrop of the mountains. It rests on what feels like sacred ground. An open clearing surrounded by the tree covered mountains, patches of twisted oak trees here and there, and massive, now dead pine trees covered in fluorescent green patches of moss. An all too familiar inner voice visits me, “Mark, what are you doing? Shouldn’t you be doing something?” I responded, Why do we always need to be doing something? There is nothing wrong with doing nothing. So I leaned against a long, sturdy branch that I found while walking. As Beth gathered petrified wood and small rocks, I just stood and did nothing but feel the warm sun. I danced around my makeshift walking stick to take it all in. There was nothing to do. How beautiful.
I closed this entry with this quote:
“I stand like a tree. I look around and feel my body. I notice my breath...My listening is sharp and my seeing acute...My being lives and wisdom comes.”
I’ve only ever experienced this type of heavy stillness a couple times, yet each time I did I left it feeling like something had changed. If these moments are the immediate and practical grounds of appreciation and wisdom...how could you not leave them feeling changed? I have to wonder, are these the very grounds we are trying to reach with every invitation to open worship? Are these the sacred grounds where we meet God? Where we hear her voice, where we see him pointing to the next far off point in the distance?
For me the challenge has been to figure out how to increase the frequency of experiences with heavy silence and stillness. My experience is that when I try to enter into them intentionally I am either haunted by things of my past, or by the concerns of the future. To enter into a moment, as fully as I did that day in southern Oregon, is very difficult. So I have had to remind myself how the present moment will always be better then the past and the future. As one poet says, “The moment’s depth is greater than that of the future. And from the fields of the past, what can you harvest again? The soul does not understand the word seasons. The petals on the sun can only be touched now.” I think this is exactly why we as Quakers trust each other with the work of worship. We know that some of us may be able to enter into this moment of heavy stillness, to enter the ground of appreciation and wisdom, to hear the voice of God’s leading and affirmation. While some of us, depending on the week will wrestle with the hauntings and concerns of our past and future, and maybe that wrestling is exactly what we need to do that week anyway. Our work of leading worship as Quakers depends on the peculiarity of our present selves, but we are reminded that where two or more are gathered in the name of God, God will be there as well.
When we look around, I believe that we benefit from the creativity and richness of those around us who experience these moments, and who decide to record, paint, write, or perform out of them. When I open a book of poetry, I believe that I have there a collection of words being expressed out of deep contemplation. When I behold a painting, I see the strokes of the brush as moments when the artist was completely lost in the process. For a community filled with creative types, I think we can all attest to moments when we’ve become completely present to the creative process. The temptation for folks who want to induce these moments is to follow the stereotypes of prayer or mediation. To sit in a quiet place, to do nothing but sit, but who has not experienced prayer and meditation in activity?
As I’ve tried to increase the frequency of my experiences of heavy stillness, I have realized that the likelihood of success of this goal depends on finding a practice or art that assists me in this process. One of my favorite writers, David James Duncan, has written beautifully about the art of flyfishing. I remember reading his accounts of fishing excursions and thinking they sounded like a pilgrimage. He has described canyon walls rising from river banks as church walls, and the rhythm of his fly casting as liturgy. I then watched a video clip of him fishing, he was hunched close to the water, aiming his cast with such care, and as quickly as the fly touched the water it disappeared into the invisible mouth of a rainbow trout. He delicately brought in the fish and then held it just under the surface of the water in his palm. The camera focused on his face and I could tell that he had entered into such a moment that I’ve been talking about. A true moment of appreciation. After releasing the fish he stood in the river with his hand on his hip, staring deeply into the water. I have no idea what he was thinking, but I trust that it was a moment of clarity, of near perfect presence to himself, his setting, and the divine. Duncan writes in his collection of essays God Laughs and Plays that "any person waist deep in a misty green river, casting for salmon, is in a position of prayerfulness."
The Perfect Stillness
the perfect stillness
and the greatest excitement, and the most profound act,
and the word almost as complete
as His name.