Rumer Godden’s extraordinary book, In This House of Brede, is about an enclosed community of Benedictine nuns in England in the middle of the 20th century. Early in the story, a financial crisis (caused by the impetuous choice of a previous leader) threatens to overset the abbey. The newly-elected Abbess realizes she needs to act carefully, maintaining outward serenity for those in her care, causing as few ripples as possible lest anxiety bring dissension and panic.
“When you are in trouble,” Abbess Catherine told herself, “think of a bird caught under a net; the more it struggles and makes a flutter, the more it gets enmeshed; if it is still and looks about for a hole, keeping its strength, it has a chance of escape.” (p. 163)
I don’t know about you, but emotional, psychological and spiritual stillness is a skill I have not fully mastered. I figure that – at the rate I am going – somewhere around age 143, I should be able to rest in such stillness more than 50% of the time. And from there it will be a downhill coast into full Buddha-nature. In the meantime, I have fluttering-myself-into-enmeshment down to a science.
Fortunately, it turns out that winter is our ally in practicing stillness. For one thing, it is often so cold that a kind of physical hibernation is triggered, and sleep brings its own quietude (even if you have reached the age where you wake up frequently in the night with a full bladder.) The real trick, of course, is to maintain stillness once I wake up and the tsunami of December events begins its onrush.
I have learned that deep breathing helps. This is actually supported by physiological studies that prove that while a person is breathing deeply, the mind literally cannot be anxious. I can’t remember exactly what chemical is released when one breathes deeply [my husband is the one who remembers facts like this], but some chemical or hormonal reaction takes place and one stops short of leaping into the abyss of overwhelmed panic. If I can just rest (be still) in the breathing, time stops thrashing and centers in now, and I stop thrashing and settle right along with it. I will confess that while I can sometimes maintain this gentle now-awareness for minutes at a time (even when I return to normal breathing), there are at least an equal number of times that the panic starts nudging at the edges of my consciousness the second I stop breathing deeply. And I find it interesting that I can observe that even as it starts to happen.
I have learned that gratitude helps by turning my mind from worst case scenarios to the beauty (grace, joy, hope, tenderness, compassion) of a blessing that is right before my eyes. It is very hard to be anxious when someone has just said something kind or affirming, or has solved a problem I didn’t know how to solve, or has smiled at me, or has sent me an encouraging note. It is hard to be anxious when I am focused on (focused on; not just seeing, but attentively aware of) the full moon in a clear sky, or the snow lying totally unblemished on the street outside our house, or the bud on my amaryllis showing the first sliver of red, or that first sip of coffee in the morning.
I have learned that honesty helps. I can see options when I take the time to identify what is causing me to fall into anxiety (rather than inviting me to curiosity or excitement or wonder). I have learned that naming my fear, or my anger, or my grief, is the first step in acknowledging that it is real. It is also the most important step in knowing what I truly need to experience before I can practice a non-anxious presence (which my mentor reminded me more than once is not the same as a non-anxious non-presence). If I am afraid, I can’t face the fear as long as I am not willing to name it ‘fear.’ If I am angry, I can’t resolve my anger if I am busy pretending it is something else.
So it seems pretty straight-forward: I need to go still and start breathing deeply until I can notice the safety and beauty of the now that is enfolding me in miracle. In that safe now, I can notice what I am feeling and that what I am feeling is not me, it is a feeling I am having. I am separate from the feeling and, therefore, can choose how I want to respond to it. I have options. Once I can see options, I find myself going still(er) to contemplate which option I want to choose.
I’ve set myself a goal of accomplishing all the steps in order at least once a day, thus increasing my stillness competence by 400% over the current practice.
A little encouragement from my friends would be much appreciated.
Text © 2014, Andrea La Sonde Anastos
Photos © 2014, Immram Chara, LLC
Note: Both photos are from fiber pieces. The first is a close-up of Immram Chara (which can be seen in the Gallery here on the website); the second is called Focus: Transformation and is available through my Etsy shop.