Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu once said, “Stillness and tranquillity set things in order in the Universe.”
The Danish sage Søren Kierkegaard likewise encouraged us to times of quietude: “Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.”
This is a remarkable attitude in our very busy, constantly moving world where activity, productivity and busyness are equated with our value as a human being. Is this really true?
Perhaps the things we busy ourselves with are not all that important, taking too much time and effort while accomplishing little or nothing in service of others or in helping us achieve our major life goals.
In my daily medical practice, I often encounter people who are busy, very busy. They attest to being too busy to exercise, to shop for and cook healthy meals at home, to attend to important relationships — and too busy, for sure, to center their minds by relaxation or meditation. In other words … too busy.
A Zen practice encourages us to make our mind spacious by attending to the quietude and stillness at the center of it rather than being fooled into being continually distracted by its content of thoughts, ideas, images and so on. A centering exercise can be very easy.
Try this simple exercise: Just lay down this newspaper for 10 minutes and sit quietly with your eyes closed, or open if you prefer. Focus only on your breath, the rhythmic inward and outward pattern, the in and out, rise and fall of your chest, the space between breaths. Notice how your mind calms. As thoughts pop into your mind, let them float away like leaves on a stream. Return to the stillness of breathing.
Stillness, reflection and contemplation may be the ticket to sorting out our priorities and also to reducing the negative health effects of stress. It is well known that stress increases risk of cardiovascular disease, mental health problems, diabetes, cancer, headache, chronic pain and impacts every body system. Taking the time to center is a way to improve your nerves, your heart, and even your relationships.
A moment or two of stillness allows our attention to move from constant focus on content, activity and planning. Instead, we enter into the richness of our inner being, that immutable spiritual center that is always there, patiently awaiting our attention. Like an ever-flowing spring, the quiet mind offers a continual feast. This is true inner peace, always there for us to enjoy in abundance.
Winter is the time in the cycle of the seasons for stillness. Especially in colder climates, it is evident that the leaves have fallen, and that plants, roots and seeds all remain dormant while awaiting the warmth of returning spring. We can similarly use this time of year to enter into a practice that is not only is health promoting for us now, but ensures future growth.
Here are some ideas:
- Spend at least 10 minutes a day of unstructured time in quiet reflection, deep breathing, meditation or prayer.
- From time to time through the day, take three breaths, while clearing your mind for those three breaths of any thoughts. If it doesn’t work the first time, take another three breaths. Do this anytime you feel stressed or upset.
- Notice stillness in nature: the rooted tree, the heron awaiting a fish, the unblinking cat, ready to pounce on a mouse, or the unmoving mountain. Emulate these qualities from time to time. Stillness brings poise, preparation and precision.
I’ll close with a quote from the ancient Greek writer and scholar Plutarch, who wrote, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”
Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.