Stillness. This word conjures up images of faraway places, just out of reach of our busy lives; remote high mountain lakes, snow capped peaks, listless air in the middle of vast expanses of desert, the void of deep space or even the deserted hallways of a cavernous library to name a few. In such wide open “nooks and crannies”, precious moments of stillness may be mined. However, only a fortunate few have the time and resources to scour the planet for places of solitude. Sucking on the straw of stillness in places such as these are treasured rest stops where life may be experienced in the raw without the influence of the mind’s conditioning. But, the nature of the mind is to is to whirl constantly and just transporting the physical body into a bubble of stillness does little to alter the fundamental nature of the mind. Getting a respite from the incessant activity of the mind is a universal need. True stillness is not of the mind, but is discovered in the subjective sense of being of which mind is a, not the component.
The mind functions like a hydroelectric turbine which depends on water hurtling down with great force to moves its blades. The mechanical energy generated is then converted into electricity. Similarly, in the case of the mind, the endless cascade of thoughts work to turn the “turbine blades” of the mind creating new experiences. Thoughts are never stationary. They emerge, reveal their contents and then disappear, sometimes in a fraction of a second. No two thoughts are the same, just as ripples on the surface of a river keep changing their patterns.
Like a river upstream to a hydroelectric turbine that never stops flowing day or night, the riverine flow of thoughts never ceases. Sometimes it is a smooth and calm flow, and at other times it may be turbulent. Just as a raging river may appear calm from a great distance, witnessing the mind from a distance may give it an appearance of calmness. Identification with the contents of the mind is like stepping into a river. We can decide how far we may want go into a river, but we cannot influence the speed of its current. Similarly the depth to which we identify with thoughts is in our control. When we submit our awareness to any of the streams of thoughts that come to us continuously, it may become hard to pull back to the safety of the “dry bank”, that of a neutral witness.
We may wade and swim in a river but we cannot stay underwater for extended periods of time like other aquatic creatures. Being underwater for a more than a minute is uncomfortable and nearly impossible for most people, we come up gasping for air. Similar, if we wade too deeply into thoughts and are swept away by its currents the mind starts to feel like a very uncomfortable space. Just as the surface waters may be still but there may be a treacherous undercurrent, thoughts are similarly unpredictable in terms of how far they drag us in.
It may appear that the activity of thoughts is suspended while we sleep, but that may be due the temporary cessation of our awareness of them during sleep. Greater our identification with thoughts, higher is the “dam” holding such thoughts, waiting to release new experiences. Like a river that is fed by tributaries along its way to the sea, the flow of thoughts is strengthened by various memory streams that bring in old, stored impressions that may relate to a current experience we may be having in the mind. Whether it is enjoyable or painful, every experience we have in the mind is mixed with the “waters” of the past and the “vapors” of the future. Just as the water at the mouth of a river where it joins the sea is the mixture of all the tributaries flowing into the river along it course, any experience we identify with is a mixture of many different thoughts. Thoughts that are old or new, of the past, present or future, real or imagined, raw/undiluted, processed etc. are mixed in with most experiences. Rarely do we see the pure raw feed of thoughts.
Like a curtain of mist rising up from the where a waterfall touches the bottom, when an experience of the present collides with that from the past or an imagined future a veil shrouds the mind. When enveloped by dense fog, it is nearly impossible to tell the edge of a cliff from the safety of level ground. Similarly, when we are deep in the midst of thoughts we cannot be certain of safety and stability of the ground on which we place the precious treasure of our peace and happiness. On such unknown terrain, danger may lurk in every step. No matter how familiar the mind may seem, it is the great unknown. Just as we can see mist covering the valley floor from the vantage point of a mountain top, “rising” above the mind by letting our awareness expand may help us see beyond the blinding veil of thoughts.
Blinded by impressions from the past and an imagined future, we may fall into traps within the mind, which are nothing but grooves of prior mental conditioning. The sense of familiarity we have with them creates a false sense of security. Conditioned grooves in the mind function as endless loops in which our awareness travels. Greater the identification with certain patterns of thought, greater is the frequency of transit of our awareness in a defined path and hence deeper the grooves. Over time, the experience of the mind may only be what we see in the depths of the grooves of conditioning we create for ourselves. The “walls” of these grooves within the mind are slippery and it becomes impossible keep our awareness in a state of stillness.
Trapped by our own habits and conditioning, the mind may appear like a series of narrow canyons. Just as rain water could easily flood such canyons, we run the risk of being suddenly deluged by thoughts with nowhere to go. Although it may appear that we are helplessly chained to the mind, by setting our awareness free it is possible to “coexist” side by side with the mind on equal footing rather than the common scenario of a master (mind) and slave (us) relationship.
Maintaining a healthy distance from the mind is the first step. This is achieved through the steps of non-identification with thought and maintaining a witnessing attitude towards thoughts. It takes some degree of detachment to give away the heavy investments we may have made into thought patterns through the vehicle of identification. Just as the energy and turbulence is great where falling columns of water hit the base of a waterfall; the points where we identify with the continuous stream of thoughts, turbulence is felt. But, even a very turbulent mind from a distance appears still. Whenever we are able to “see” the mind from a distance, we are in the subjective observer/witnessing mode. The more time we spend in this role, closer we get to the subjective state of stillness. We need not search nature for pockets of stillness, when we can carry that state with us wherever we go.