During my first Yoga Teacher Training course our teacher, Jonny Kest, presented us with a reading list; one that overwhelmed me beyond belief. I certainly had not read that many books, even during my six years of college. We were to read all of the books on the first list and select three additional books from the other list.
You have heard the old saying “never judge a book by it’s cover?” Well, I did exactly that! I scanned the book list and then moved to the actual books on the shelf for further investigation. I was immediately drawn to the book, “Moving into Stillness.” Whether it was the simplicity of the cover, the intriquing title or an underlying, probably desperate need to find stillness; my choice had been made. I devoured the book, every single word of it. God knows, I needed this book. To this day, January 1, 2011, I have read the book many times over and revisit certain chapters for reinforcement, when the need arises. I had hoped to write a New Years sort of mission statement for the upcoming year, filled with words of wisdom and inspiration for our ASK readers but shockingly, I’m at a loss for words today. Instead, I encourage you to buy yourself a copy of Erich Schiffman’s “The Practice of Moving into Stillness.” If you are anything like me, busy, busy, busy inside and out from morning til night; you need this book, you will grow to love, honor and cherish this book – I’m certain! As a matter of fact, buy two copies. One to have and one to just hold. Below you will find an excerpt from the book along with a simple step by step guide to begin your journey into stillness. Perfect for the meditatively challenged – like me! There you have it, my words of wisdom, inspiration and hope. As you move into stillness this New Year, I wish for you an extraordinary year. May your days be filled with love, light and moments of stillness each day. Always love – Allison
You imagine a spinning top. Stillness is like a perfectly centered top, spinning so fast it appears motionless. It appears this way not because it isn’t moving, but because it’s spinning at full speed. Stillness is not the absence or negation of energy, life, or movement. Stillness is dynamic. It is unconflicted movement, life in harmony with itself, skill in action. It can be experienced whenever there is total, uninhibited, unconflicted participation in the moment you are in – when you are wholeheartedly present with whatever you are doing.
For most of us, however, most of the time, our lives do not resemble a perfectly centered top, spinning so fast it appears motionless. Our lives are more like a top in a somewhat wild, erratic, and chaotic spin, we know we’re alive because at least we’re still spinning, but we are not quite perfectly centered, and we are not spinning anywhere near full speed. We don’t have as much energy as we’d like, we are not experiencing as much aliveness as we might, nor are we experiencing the peace of stillness or the joy of being. Â Stillness, therefore, is a higher energy state than what we’re used to. This is because we are rarely wholehearted, or unconflicted, about anything. When you are not wholehearted, when you’d rather be someplace other than where you are, parts of you shut down and begin not to participate. Your energy circulation becomes constricted, and the creative life force is unable to flow through you unimpeded. Your energy flow, the amount of life force flowing through you, begins to diminish. The source of the energy does not diminish, but the amount that flows through you does. This leads to ill health, low energy, lowered vitality, lack of enthusiasm, depression, frustration, unhappiness, and suffering. None of this feels good.
When you are wholehearted about something, however, when you are where you want to be and are participating fully in the moment you are in – sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes mellow – you will experience a new sense of aliveness. You will experience a surge of energy, renewed vigor. This is not because there is actually an increase in energy, but because you are not constricting it quite so much. There is now a better energy flow. There is less conflict, less friction, less not wanting to be where you are, and therefore – for you – there will be the experience of more energy.Â This occurs whenever you are not attempting to spin clockwise and counter-clockwise simultaneously. Spinning in opposite directions happens when you act on opposing desires, when you are conflicted about what you are doing, not wholehearted – granted, this is most of the time. Stillness happens when you relax inside and are in harmony with yourself.
This is the point: When you experience yourself in stillness – that is, when you give your undivided attention to experiencing the truth about you – you will experience the conflict-free, calm, dynamic peace of perfectly centered abundant life energy. This exquisite peace deep within you is actually the experience of God, or the harmony of oneness felt within you as you. It’s how God is experiencing Himself-Herself now and always. It is the phenomenological feeling-tone of Being, or Existence, and it is the truest thing about who you are. When you experience the peace within you, you will spontaneously undergo a fundamental transformation in the way you think about yourself and how you see the world. Nothing will seem quite the same ever again.
Yoga is a way of moving into stillness in order to experience the truth of who you are. It is also a way of learning to be centered in action so that you always have the clearest perspective on what’s happening and are therefore able to respond most appropriately. Yoga is not the only way of doing this, of course, but it is an excellent way. It is an ancient process designed to help you uncover and discover your true nature so you can live daily life with that new awareness.
As you move into the depths of stillness, subtle and powerful changes will become apparent in your life. These will be both profound and entirely welcome. You will become familiar with the creative God Force inside you, the energy at your core. The world will look more beautiful because you’re seeing it as it is, without the distorting influence of your conditioning. You will feel different, happy for no apparent reason. It will seem as though you have undergone an important change, a rebirth, as though you’ve become a new person, and yet you will feel more yourself than ever before.
Moving into stillness in order to experience your true nature is the primary theme of yoga simply because everything about you – every thought, feeling, and emotion, as well as every aspect of your behavior – is predicated on the way you feel about yourself. The way you feel about yourself determines how you think, what you do, and how you interact with the world. It’s the basic factor that governs the quality of your life, the degree to which you are interested in living, and the way in which you interpret what’s happening.Â When your evaluation of self changes, when you feel differently about yourself, everything about you changes: your thoughts, feelings, emotions – every aspect of your behavior. The way you interpret and respond to the events in your life will also change. You will perceive the specific circumstances of your daily life differently because you’ll have a new awareness and vantage point. You’ll have less fear, fewer worries, more enthusiasm for life, and you will spontaneously become more effective in all you choose to do.
Accordingly, the way you interpret and respond to what happened in your past will also change. You’ll look back and say, “Oh, so that’s what was really going on!” And now, because you are seeing the situation differently, with a clearer and more mature understanding, you will find yourself able and willing to release old hurts, attitudes, and response patterns that were founded on your earlier limited understanding and that are now no longer appropriate. It feels good to let go of the past and be new in the now.Â The way you anticipate and imagine your future will also change. The greater your understanding, the more grand your vision. Your imagination will no longer be distorted by the fears and imagined needs of the ego, but will be grounded in Reality. The future will look bright. You will spontaneously become optimistic about the future well-being of yourself and humanity and everything associated with the earth, sky, and universe: Creation. Therefore, everything about you and your world will change relative to your change in self-image: present, past, and future.
Here is our situation: We are ignorant of our true nature, our real identity. We don’t know who we really are. This is because we have never experienced ourselves directly. We have never stayed “home” long enough to experience the truth about ourselves. We were not encouraged to do this. Instead we accepted as true what other people told us about ourselves. And, unfortunately, we were taught by people who, in all likelihood, and through no fault of their own, did not actually know.Â For example, when you were a child and your mother praised you for being “good,” you defined yourself as “good.” You began to think of yourself as a “good” person. When your father scolded you for being “bad,” you defined yourself as “bad,” and you began to think of yourself as “good” and “bad” at the same time. Other people said other things about you, everyone seemed to have informed opinions, and since you didn’t know – you were just a child – you believed them all. There was no reason not to. They seemed to know. Before too long, and not surprisingly, it became very confusing because we were defining ourselves and forming our self-images based on other people’s contradictory evaluations of who we are. From very early on, a fundamental conflict was introduced into our psyches revolving around this basic and most important issue: Who am I, really? And because we were not encouraged to find out for ourselves, we believed what other people told us. The result is that we feel guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, and confused about who we are. We feel judged.
If you feel guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, or confused about who you are, if you feel judged, you will invariably have difficulty giving and receiving love. It will not feel natural to you to express love easily. And when you are not giving or receiving love, when the energy of love is not circulating or passing through you easily, you gradually become bitter, you lose your natural sweetness. You unknowingly restrict your primary source of nourishment and therefore become hungry on all levels. You become unhappy or ill. You become unpleasant company. You forget how to love, and you forget how it feels to be loved. And all of this happens, to whatever extent, because guilt makes you feel that you are not worthy of love, that you do not deserve it, that you have none to give, and that in fact you are unlovable.Â To some degree, this is the conclusion many of us have unconsciously taken on without further scrutiny. We take it for granted. We believe it’s true. We think our guilt is justified and that punishment is our just reward. Our basic belief is, “I deserved the suffering I experienced in my past, and I deserve the suffering 1 am experiencing now. And the future probably holds a fair bit of suffering and hardship for me also. And then I’ll die – and who knows what that’s like:l It’s probably pretty horrible, too. I mean, life’s not easy. Let’s be realistic here….” And yet, all of this rigamarole is due to a fundamental misperception of Reality. All the guilt, unworthiness, justified suffering, self-hate, unhappiness, and unlovableness, as well as the subsequent inability to give or receive love easily, have come into being because of an inaccurate and incomplete perception of who we really are.
When you experience the truth of who you are, you will not feel guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, or confused. You will experience instead the tremendous relief of clarity – relief because you are not the unworthy, undeserving person you thought you were and because the internal pressure caused by these fundamental misperceptions is finally being released. When this happens, you will experience a healing sense of relief followed by a profoundly soothing inner peace, an even “at-easeness” – a stillness.
Levels of Stillness
There are two levels of stillness. The first level involves learning to relax, become centered, and meditate. The technique involves sitting or lying down and being absolutely still – without reading a book, talking, watching the television, or listening to the radio. It involves deliberately pausing, stopping all physical movement, becoming relaxed, calm, and quiet inside, and just being – consciously being conscious. It’s about being centered and still in the moment you are presently in.Â For a few minutes, every form of external activity stops. Then, in that physical quietness, you turn your attention inward and focus on yourself. Focus on what it feels like to be you. Experience you. Immerse your conscious awareness in your own unique feeling-tone, the feeling-tone of the Universe expressing Itself as you. Do this deliberately in order to consciously experience the truth of who you are.
The first level of stillness is about being with yourself in order to know yourself. This is accomplished by being wide awake and aware as you deliberately relax into yourself. The idea is to consciously enter into a state wherein you temporarily suspend everything you think you know about who you are, including anything you have ever been taught, and simply be attentive to what’s going on right there where you are. You practice being quiet, both physically and mentally, as you pay attention to the sensations in your body, the various thoughts in your mind, and your current experience of being conscious and alive. You practice simple body-mind awareness, being conscious of the moment you are now in, and thereby experience with clarity the energy of you. You consciously experience yourself as you actually are. In this way you open yourself to a new, truer, less distorted experience of you and the world.Â When you are able to relax and quietly suspend all your firmly held false ideas and limiting beliefs about who and what you are, only what is true will remain. You will then experience your ever-existing truth for yourself. This is like polishing a mirror – removing the grime – and seeing yourself clearly for the very first time. And though this is not as easy as it sounds, it is also not particularly difficult. Let me clarify something first, however. In order to let go of the false beliefs you have about who and what you are, it is not necessary to know which beliefs are true and which are false. In fact, you probably don’t know, and this is the problem. If you knew, you would not be uncertain about your true identity. If you knew, you would not be experiencing conflict and inner turmoil; you would be experiencing peace. Therefore, let go of them all! Let go of everything you think you know about who you are, and see what’s left.
When you let go of everything you think you know about yourself and stay with what’s left, when you willingly abandon the contradictory evaluations of who you are and courageously reach deeply into yourself in order to experience yourself directly, you will come upon a new experience of who you are. You will sense the creative energy that is the life of you, and you will then define and think about yourself in a new and expanded way. And since the way you think about and define yourself is central to your perception, behavior, and experience of the world, your world will spontaneously change as your self-concept changes and comes into closer alignment with what’s really true.
The second level of stillness involves living your daily life with this new and growing inner certainty of who you really are. in other words, meditation in action. This is not always easy, and it takes a little getting used to, for it means staying in touch with the deepest truth about yourself in the midst of daily life. This involves continually letting go of the judgments, evaluations, and contradictory opinions about yourself that arise in your mind throughout the day and in your relationships with other people. You do this by staying centered in your peace. You thereby learn to be suspicious of any suggestion – from yourself or others – that speaks of your guilt, your unworthiness, or your unlovableness. You learn it is appropriate to disregard any remaining inner self-criticism because in Level One you experienced yourself in a new way: as fundamentally lovable, innocent of all blame, and therefore deserving of every good thing.
Having experienced the truth about yourself in Level One, albeit momentarily, you had an insight – a glimmer of clarity, a moment of experience – about an inner truth that you can’t quite ignore. You experienced yourself in a new way and now know your deepest truth, even though you may not yet fully believe it. Part of you knows the truth, but you’re not totally convinced, and understandably so. Besides, when you are surrounded by others who are instead convinced of other things, it is doubly difficult to overcome your doubts.Â This is similar to what it must have been like for Copernicus when he first suspected that the world was round. He had an insight into the way things are, yet part of him probably still believed the flat-world theory. And because he was surrounded by other flat-world theorists, and because he couldn’t yet prove the world was round, it would have been difficult for him to be fully convinced or convincing to others.
The way to experience the truth of who you are (Level One) is by letting go of all your learned preconceptions about yourself and then staying present and open-minded for the experience. The way to stay in touch with your truth (Level Two), and confirm it to yourself over and over until there is absolutely no doubt, is by continuing to do what you did in Level One, but doing it now moment by moment during the day. This means, essentially, letting go of pretense and self-critical judgment and allowing self-acceptance – letting yourself be who you truly are. Again, you do this by staying centered in your peace, for only when you are at peace will you have the clearest perspective. By staying centered in your peace in the midst of daily life, you will validate your new perception of yourself and gradually become fully convinced. As a consequence, you will then be convincing to others.
How to Start
Let’s look at two excellent techniques for developing stillness and peace of mind. Both of these use your breathing as the primary focal point and both involve learning how to sit absolutely still. Sitting absolutely still – practicing conscious physical imrnobility – can teach you how to be in the conflict-free, higher-energy, “stillness” state for more of your daily life. You can learn what it feels like to have all your energy perfectly aligned and in harmony, like the spinning top. You can learn to participate fully in your experience of the now and still be relaxed. You can learn to be perfectly centered. And, of course, the more familiar you are with the feeling and experience of being centered, the easier it will be to stay that way. And since moving away from your center has been the source of all your suffering, the sooner you notice yourself going off, the better.
The importance of Level One (meditation) as an aid to the stable attainment of Level Two (meditation in action) cannot be overemphasized. The more familiar you are with the feeling-tone of your own centered being when you are “home” and alone, the more obvious it will be when you move away from it, and the easier it will be to find your way back to center in the midst of a busy life.
In this exercise you will be counting backward from fifty to zero, synchronizing the counting with your breathing. You’ll count the even numbers as you exhale and the odd numbers as you inhale.
Sit with your back straight and your eyes closed. If you can sit comfortably on the floor, do so. Otherwise, use a chair. Be comfortable.
Begin by breathing in gently, fully. As yell exhale, mentally say “fifty.” As you breathe in again, mentally say “forty-nine,” exhale “forty-eight,” inhale “forty-seven,” exhale “forty-six” … and so on.
Count backward on both the in-breath and the out-breath until you reach “twenty,” then count only on exhales. Silently count “twenty” as you exhale. Then, instead of counting “nineteen” on the in-breath, do nothing, just inhale. With the next exhalation count “nineteen” … and so on until you reach zero.
When you reach zero, stop counting, but stay aware of the natural flow of breath in exactly the same way as when you were counting. Watch the breath as though you were going to count, but don’t count. As you do this, practice sitting absolutely still. But don’t hold yourself still. Simply be so relaxed that no movement occurs.Â Be very aware of how you feel as you do this–how peaceful, energized, calm. Notice how pleasantly alert you are, how serene, fearless, at ease. Familiarize yourself with this feeling, with the feeling-tone of being centered and at peace, and rest here another two or three minutes. Absorb the stillness. Then prepare yourself, open your eyes, and return. This will take six or seven minutes.Â As you do this exercise, breathe normally. Do not do deep breathing or control the breath in any way. This is important. You are learning not to be in control. You are learning to get out of the way. Therefore, rather than controlling the breath, allow it to flow freely in and out at its own natural pace. Yet, stay aware of the breath. Keep track of the numbers. As the breath comes in, count. As the breath goes out, count. And when you reach zero, stay aware of the breath nonverbally. There should be no strain in your breathing as you do this. Keep it soft and easy.
As you count backward, you may be more aware than usual of your mind darting rapidly from one object of attention to another. You may be unusually aware of sounds, physical sensations, or thoughts. You may lose count altogether. None of this matters. All of these things are evidence that the technique is working. You’re becoming more aware.Â The value of this technique lies in its ability to help you notice where your attention is from moment to moment, what’s in your mind, and the contents of your consciousness. The counting is not only a centering device and a way of developing concentration, of training your mind to focus, it also acts as a backdrop on which your thoughts become very apparent.
For now, however, do not do anything with the various thoughts or sensations that arise. Simply be aware of them and continue counting. Gradually become more aware, more quiet within yourself, and increasingly dynamically still. As you immerse yourself in your stillness–and this is something that improves with each attempt–you will experience an unexpected and immensely satisfying sense of contentment and ease. Feel the peace.
Mindfulness of Breathing
Sit on the floor with your back straight and eyes closed. If you are unable to sit on the floor, use a chair. Be comfortable.
Begin with a somewhat deep and gentle inhalation. Hold the air for a moment, then release it slowly in a long, thin exhalation. Do this three times. Then, focus your awareness in your body and feel yourself breathing.
As attentively as you can, note the changing sensations throughout your body that accompany each breath. Tune in to the subtle differences in sensation between the inhalation and exhalation. What does it feel like to inhale? What does it feel like to exhale? How do you know which is happening? And where in your body do you actually feel the breathing taking place? The most obvious sensations will be in your abdomen, chest, or nostrils, but you can feel the movement of breath elsewhere, too. In fact, there may be nowhere in your body that you cannot feel it. Experience what’s happening.
Make no attempt to regulate or control your breathing as you do this. Again, practice letting go of control. Allow the breath to flow in and out on its own without your intervention. Some breaths will be deep, some will be shallow. Every breath will be different. All you need to do is be aware. You will experience the unbroken flow of breath when your mind is in an unbroken state, your attention continuous and one-pointed. That is the quality we want to cultivate, undivided attention to the instant of conscious experience you happen to be in.
Sit motionless, experience your whole body breathing, and then ride the breath into the sensation of yourself. Feel you. Experience the feeling-tone of the vibrating energy in your body, the overall sensation of “you.” Practice becoming still and familiarize yourself with the actual feeling of stillness and peace.
If you find it difficult to concentrate on the subtle sensations that accompany breathing, say “in” to yourself as you breathe in and “out” as you breathe out. When your attention strays, notice this and then return it to the constantly changing sensations throughout your breathing body.
Be thoroughly relaxed as you practice this technique. Sit tall and be absolutely still. Give yourself your own undivided attention, ride the breath into the feeling-tone of you, and concentrate on that feeling. Immerse yourself in it. Feel you. Do this for five or ten minutes. Do it for a few moments whenever you can. Do it now, if possible. This will prepare you for the next chapter.
Coming Back to Center
Motionless sitting is probably the easiest way of learning to be centered. Being centered, however, does not require that you be physically motionless. You learn to be centered, and you become increasingly familiar with the energetic feeling-tone of stillness through the practice of motionless sitting, and you immerse yourself in it as fully as you can when you can, but you then carry that feeling-tone with you into the motion of your life.
For as many moments of the day as you can, come back to center. Relax into where you are, breathe, and consciously be present in the now. Do this as you are driving, working, in the midst of a conversation – anything, everything – all day long.
And think of it like this: The feeling of stillness is peace, and the feeling of peace is joy. Therefore, come back to center and feel the joy. Do this frequently throughout the day. Come back to center as many moments of the day as you can, and let the joy you feel permeate everything you do.