This article was first published in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper.
“I’m sick of people telling me I’m going to save the world,” said my friend Eliza over coffee. “I know they mean it as a compliment, but it feels like one hell of a burden.” A charismatic activist, thought-leader, and author, Eliza (not her real name) gives people hope and confidence when both are in short supply. No matter what horrific mass shooting or eco-crisis comes up on the news, Eliza finds a way to help people believe everything will be okay. Her energy seems boundless. It isn’t.
“I’m just so tired,” she told me. “I’ve been doing so much for so long. I know I should keep going. But honestly, I’m not sure I can. I want so much to just be still.”
Eliza said those last three words slowly, with quiet emphasis: Just. Be. Still.
I think we all know how she feels. As the world keeps speeding up, it’s harder and harder to keep pace. We recycle bottles, adopt pound puppies, and post inspirational thoughts on Instagram—only to hear that the Pacific Gyre keeps growing, unwanted pets keep reproducing, and hate speech keeps flowing through the Internet. It’s enough to flatten a superhero.
A few years ago, I hit the limit Eliza may be approaching. I got so tired of trying, so starved for calm, I bought a house at the edge of a national forest. Each day I woke to the sounds of wind and birdsong, nothing else. Then I’d go outside, sit down, and Just. Be. Still.
I thought I’d do this for a week or two before bouncing back to “normal.” Well, not so much. I ended up sitting still every day for months, then years. I began sprinkling myself with birdseed so that sparrows and chipmunks could perch on my crossed legs or open hands and enjoy a snack. I loved their busy little lives, their quick little feet warm on my skin. And I loved just sitting there, still as a stump.
For a long time, I felt guilty, telling myself I should get up and get busy, dammit! My smartwatch agreed. Every so often it would tap me on the wrist and flash the words, “Time to stand!” or “Achieve your move goal!” It didn’t say why I should stand at those particular moments, or where those “move goals” came from. Certainly not from me. The watch was pre-programmed by helpful folks who, like you and I, had been taught from the cradle that action is valuable and good, stillness sluggish and bad.
It took a long time for me to realize just how crazy this is.
Our particular society is obsessed with doing stuff, having stuff, focusing on stuff. In school, I’d learned that “reality” consisted of a gajillion tiny bits of stuff bumping into each other. But the truth is that 95 percent of the universe is either “dark energy” or “dark matter.” We don’t know what these things are; we only know what they aren’t. Dark matter is the absence of everything, even space. Dark energy is the absence of all action. Together, these two utterly still things seem to be causing the universe to expand, in a way no one yet understands.
When I think about people who’ve changed the world, I see a strong parallel. It’s in the silence, the not-doing, the unknowing, that human minds can experience huge expansion. Great scientific strides have happened in “the bed, the bath, and the bus;” the places where Archimedes, Descartes, and Einstein happened to be hanging out, not working or even thinking when they suddenly saw the answers to fundamental scientific questions.
Spiritual traditions from everywhere in the world contain powerful stories of stillness. The Old Testament tells us that the prophet Elijah experienced a wind so strong it broke solid rock, “but God was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but God was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.” That voice seems to have called Jesus into the desert. Over in Asia, the Buddha sought and sought freedom from suffering but only found it when he was willing to sit and sit.
You don’t have to be an extraordinary person to have extraordinary encounters with stillness. You just have to persist and pay attention. For example, one day as I sat down in the forest and sprinkled myself with birdseed, I was startled to hear a distinct voice say, “Your name is stillness.” Suddenly everything disappeared, and I was floating in a kind of luminous emptiness. It was utterly still but beautiful beyond description. It was bliss. It was home.
After that experience, I took to sitting down each morning and saying out loud, “My name is stillness.” I didn’t experience anything as intense as that first day, but each time I used it as a mantra, the phrase “My name is stillness” transported me into deep peace.
One day, after I’d been sitting for a while, I looked up to see a flock of wild turkeys standing in front of me. They were acting very strangely. Each one seemed to be frozen, motionless, in a different position. I watched them for a minute or so. None of them moved at all.
“Damn!” I thought. “That is weird.” Then I began to count them. That seemed to break the spell: all the turkeys abruptly began moving again, as if someone had pressed “play” after they’d been on “pause.”
This baffled me, but I wasn’t about to let it stop me from doing absolutely nothing. I repeated, “My name is stillness,” felt myself sinking into peace, and closed my eyes. Several minutes later I opened them again. All those turkeys (seventeen of them) were lying flat on the ground, their necks outstretched, completely limp. This isn’t how turkeys sleep; they roost upright. I’ve never seen a turkey, let alone a flock of them, behave that way.
This made me ponder whether one human being getting very still might affect other creatures in ways I’d never suspected. Is there a non-physical, non-mental part of us that, like dark matter and energy, is exercising more power than anything we can see? I thought of seeds and zygotes germinating in the quiet dark; life needing stillness in which to grow and thrive. Is it possible we are that stillness?
A few days after the turkey incident, a guest arrived at my home. She showed me a poem she’d written a few months earlier. In it, an unidentified narrator in the distant future—some great, loving force—recounts how it watched humans, with all our well-intended busyness, nearly make our own world unlivable. You can find a link to the whole poem below, but part of it reads:
What crucial inspiration turned you at the last?
I’ll never know what broke over you,
and with what calamity, clamor
but when you knelt, as one, it was a mighty sight.
You placed your hunger on the ground
and left it to lie among the gadgetry of old logics,
beside the corpses of cruelty and greed….
And so we came to the age of the great unbuilding,
where everyone’s name is stillness.
As I read that line, the world seemed to stop. What was it that had said to me, “Your name is stillness”? Was it talking to this poet as well? Where was it taking us? And what the hell was it doing with those turkeys?
I’ve been muddling this over for years, and I can’t claim to have any solid answers. But I do suspect we need a lot more stillness than our social training leads us to believe. When we’re weary and discouraged, like Eliza, taking time to Just Be Still isn’t giving up or giving in. It’s moving forward.
Author and teacher Eckhart Tolle says we resonate to the beautiful verse in Psalms, “Be still and know that I am God,” because it repeats different names for our own essence. “‘Being,’ ‘stillness,’ ‘knowing,’ and ‘I am,’” he says, “are all synonymous in their core.” Each one, Tolle suggests, guides us to our own real essence.
After our coffee conversation, Eliza told me she’d decided to spend more time in the stillness she craved. She seemed to grow stronger and more cheerful just thinking about it. She wasn’t descending into laziness; she was moving into another expression of her enormous power.
So if you long to act, by all means, act. But if you ever long for quiet, take the risk. Defy your inner critic, your social training, and your smartwatch. Go back to yourself, to the invisible source that moves the universe. Just. Be. Still.
If Martha’s blend of spirituality, science, and humor appeals to you, you might be a Wayfinder. Read more about it here.
You can also read the entire poem mentioned in this article, The Great Turning, here.