“We have only this moment,
sparkling like a star in our hand...
and melting like a snowflake.”

Meditation: Movement and Stillness

Excerpt from the book "Finding the Missing Peace" by Ajahn Amaro:
«In Buddhist meditation practice we are developing natural qualities that already exist within us as potentials. We are not trying to acquire anything special from outside, or trying to change ourselves into someone else in a forced or unnatural way.
Like all living things, human beings require both stability or steadiness and flexibility or adaptability; it’s necessary to have both of these qualities. If a tree or a plant were absolutely rigid, as soon as a breeze came along or something knocked against it, it would break. Conversely, if a plant has no strength in it, if it’s completely flexible, it will just droop, and not remain upright at all.
The basic theme for this lesson, movement and stillness, is about looking at these different elements of our being and seeing how they work together, looking at both that which is stable and steady and that which is flexible and adaptable.
Stillness, Silence, Space
A common misconception about meditation is that one is aiming for absolute stillness: stillness, silence, space. With that idea, one can feel burdened by agitation, noise and constriction – no stillness, no silence, no space – and this can lead one to long for these qualities that are missing. This is a misunderstanding of the goal of meditation. The whole thrust of Buddhism on the West Coast in the late 50’s and 60’s was to make emptiness the big thing, and this became a theme for the counterculture. By worshipping that kind of stillness, silence or emptiness, but mistaking absence and stasis for it, one can miss out on a large part of life, particularly the life of the thinking mind.
The Chattering Mind
The thinking mind will come up in most, if not all, of these meditation lessons; this is the chattering mind, the collection of commentators in the mind giving their opinions about everything. And it’s not as though there is just one commentary going, there’s a whole committee… and not all the members agree with each other!
Working with the chattering mind, which endlessly reviews the past and plans for the future and has opinions about everything else, can feel very burdensome. One wants the chattering mind to shut up, and it is easy to feel bliss when it does stop. However, if not thinking was equivalent to enlightenment, the Buddha would have prescribed an ancient form of Thorazine to wipe out the thinking process, and we’d all be happy. It doesn’t work that way. True happiness is not just a matter of not thinking. Ajahn Chah often said: “Water buffaloes [which are common in Thailand] are the epitome of the extremely quiet mind!” Water buffaloes have an aura of incredible density. They can hang around in rice paddies and chew their cud for hours on end. Similarly, a chicken can sit on its nest for days. So, by just sitting in meditation and not thinking for days and days, one might develop as much wisdom as a chicken, which is probably not a great deal. So, it’s good to acknowledge a sense of relief that one can get from the stillness, the silence, and the peace, but it’s a mistake to overestimate their importance.
Movement and Stillness on a Practical Level
On a practical level, the question may arise when sitting in meditation: When is it necessary to sit still and when is it appropriate to move when the body gets sore? Also, different forms of meditation involve movement, particularly walking meditation. This will be addressed in a later chapter. What we’re focusing on in this chapter is movement and stillness at a more subtle level.
Working With Movement and Stillness
It is important to understand how movement and stillness blend with each other. Skilful meditation involves respecting both of these elements.
First, one must understand what is known as “mindfulness of breathing.” This is the simple technique of bringing the attention to the natural flow of the breath, as described in Lesson One. It doesn’t involve trying to breathe in any special fashion, to breathe deeply or slowly or quickly, or to manipulate the breath in any way. As the body breathes naturally, one uses the rhythm of the breath as a focal point for attention. The breath is used principally to help train the mind, to train the attention to remain in the present moment, because the breath and the body only exist in the present moment. The mind can create an imaginary future or fabricate the past, it can become preoccupied with vivid memories. But the body does not follow along. The body is always sitting here, in the present, while the mind is involved in thoughts of the past and of the future. And the body is still here when the mind comes back into the present moment.
The body and the body’s functions – like the breath – are a natural, easy, and reliable way of keying in to the present moment. The more one can keep the attention with the present, then the more the heart can be trained not to create problems, not to get lost in anxieties, fears, or obsessions, or in the ten thousand distractions the mind can create.
The practice of mindfulness of breathing brings the attention to the natural flow of the breath. Focusing on the simple aggregation of feelings and sensations of the breath is similar to focusing on the centre of a mandala or the centre of a beautiful rose. The eye naturally goes to the centre – the heart of the rose. With the mindfulness of breathing practice, the breath is similar to the very heart of the mandala, of the flower. With the attention resting on that particular spot, other experiences or perceptions, such as sounds in the street, feelings in the body, stray thoughts, etc., remain around the periphery. Keep bringing the attention to the breath, the centre, the balancing point. That is the axis of the attention.
Bringing attention to the breath is a very good way of getting a sense of the relationship between movement and stillness, and is one way of working with or looking at that relationship. One brings attention to the breath and becomes aware of how it moves in and out of the body. One then begins to notice that there is a pause after the out-breath, for a few seconds, before the in-breath begins. At the end of the in-breath, there is another pause. And then the breath turns.
At first, the attention is on the movement of the breath. As that develops, one also begins to keep the attention steady when the breath reaches the end of its cycle. At the end of the in-breath, one keeps the attention on the breath, even though the breath is not moving. The attention stays with the still point at the end of the in-breath. Then the attention follows the breath as it moves again, with the out-breath. Then again, the attention stays with the still point at the end of the out-breath.
The Wandering Mind
It’s important to keep in mind that the still point between the in-breath and the out-breath, and between the out-breath and the next in-breath, is a point where the wandering mind can be activated very easily. When I was in the early years of my spiritual search, I walked into a forest monastery in northeast Thailand never having meditated before. After being instructed in mindfulness of breathing, I found that my mind was eager to wander, to go off and play in various places. Even though I could keep my attention on the breath for brief periods by sheer will-power, I would get to the end of the inhalation and then my mind would take a quick trip to India and back, before the next cycle of breathing began. At the end of the out-breath, I found the pause was a little bit longer so I could get all the way to Europe and back home to the breath again before the next cycle started.
Sustaining Attention and Experiencing Stillness of Mind
As one trains the mind in sustaining attention, one will find that, as the breath reaches the end of its cycle, the attention can stay with the quality of stillness. These are the moments when one starts to experience the natural stillness of the mind. This stillness is like the space in a room. When a room is empty of people, the emptiness or space in the room can be obvious. If there is a crowd of people, we generally don’t notice the space. We notice each other, our friends, the furniture, etc. – the attention goes to the objects in the room.
Similarly, when following the breath, the attention will stay with the breath, with that complex of feelings, using that as its object. One doesn’t notice the space within which the breath is moving. At the ends of the in-breath and the out-breath, the point at which the breath stops, when it reaches the turning points, one can notice the stillness of the mind for those few seconds, the space through which the breath is moving. The breath reaches its end, and there’s stillness. Then the movement begins again.
At the moments of stillness, there is a great peacefulness, just as when the wind blows through the trees, rustling all the leaves – it makes a noise, then it subsides and there is quiet. This peacefulness is also like the silence when a refrigerator turns off. You didn’t notice the noise of the refrigerator until it switches off. Suddenly, you notice the quiet and may even notice that you were subconsciously irritated until it switched off. Similarly, reaching the end of the breath, noticing the stillness of the mind, brings a gentle feeling of release.
Stillness and Movement
In the beginning, one notices movement and stillness in direct contrast to each other, like noticing the people in the room, and then the space in the room. Then, as the meditation deepens and the attention is trained to stay with the breath, one finds that the mind does not rush off to a distraction and can just stay with the still quality. As the mind is trained to stay with the spaces between the inhalation and exhalation and with the stillness of the mind, one begins to notice that the stillness in the mind is not completely obstructed or occluded by the movement of the breath. One begins to notice the space around the breath and the quality of stillness in the mind – which is always there – underlying the movement of the breath. As physicists tell us, atoms are mostly space, our bodies are mostly space, empty space constitutes the largest proportion of any object.
There is the movement of the breath, the movement of changing perceptions. Simultaneously, there is stillness within and around the movement, in the same way a tree has the qualities of flexibility and firmness, existing together. There is both stillness of mind and heart, and movement, and they don’t obstruct each other. Over time, one develops more steady and keen attention. One doesn’t try to find stillness or peace by making everything stop, or by zoning out or getting away. One learns to find peace not only when the refrigerator stops or the breath ends, but by being able to tap into that fundamental spaciousness and peace, even while there is activity – even thought – going on.
Beginning with Sound and Moving to Thought
At first, it is easier to find the stillness and peace by using an external sound, like the rustling of the leaves. It’s more difficult with thinking, because thought is so full of interesting content – interesting in good, bad, painful, frightening, and exciting ways. The attention is drawn into the stories created by thought. But as the meditation develops, one is able to listen to thoughts without being drawn into them. One can listen to the internal committee and let all these voices meet in the space, in the crucible of the heart.
Allowing the World to Be
The final aspect of the blending of movement and stillness involves looking at that which is the most stable, at its most refined level – to look beyond the concept of stillness as merely external quietude or even the absence of thought. This supremely stable element is the quality of one’s own awareness or knowing – wisdom. All of these concepts are used in the Buddhist tradition.
This means that one simply allows the experience of reality to take shape in whatever way it happens, whether the feelings that arise are pleasant or painful, whether the thoughts are beautiful or ugly. Rather than trying to find any kind of still or stable element within that which is arising, one finds that the stillness, or stability, is in training the heart to rest in the quality of awareness. These three levels cover every aspect of this spaciousness: the space between objects, the space within objects, and the spaciousness of awareness itself.
Ajahn Chah and Still, Flowing Water
My teacher, Ajahn Chah, had a habit of using a particular theme for a few months at a time, taking a particular question or conundrum and using it with whoever came to visit or whomever he was teaching. The last theme he used before he had a stroke and was no longer able to speak, in 1981, was: “Do you know what still water is? Have you ever seen still water?” The visitors or students generally answered that they knew what still water was. Then Ajahn Chah would ask: “Do you know what flowing water is like? Did you ever see flowing water?” And those there would answer that they did. Finally Ajahn Chah would ask, “Did you ever see still, flowing water?” The answer was always that they had never seen still, flowing water.
Ajahn Chah would then instruct them that the mind is essentially like still, flowing water. What we perceive, what we think, what we feel – our moods, our emotions – flow and change. It’s their intrinsic nature to arise, take shape, change and disappear. That is their character, that’s what they’re supposed to do. This flow of perception and feeling is what is called the conditioned mind. But that which knows, that which is aware of the perceptions and moods and thoughts, is perfectly still. It is like a mirror, reflecting beautiful, ugly, pleasant, or painful. The mirror does not get excited by the beautiful, threatened by the violent, or disgusted by the ugly. It impartially reflects whatever image is presented to it.
Being the Knowing Heart
Similarly, according to Buddhist understanding, the quality of awareness or of knowing, the quality of wisdom, utterly fills the heart. It is like a place of stability, or, in Buddhist terminology, a place of refuge. With meditation, particularly with vipassanā practice, which is part of the guided meditation below, the meditator progresses through the different levels to establish that solid basis of knowing in the heart. One is training the heart to rest in that quality of wisdom so that one can listen to the inner committee – the internal dialogue of feelings, thoughts, perceptions – or to the external committee – the people outside – and develop the ability to watch it all arise, abide, and then fade away. One cultivates the heart that is embracing it all and remains unconfused by it.
It may seem that this would have all the emotional appeal of turning oneself into a video camera, that one becomes simply a data reception unit, registering sights and thoughts and feelings and not becoming involved with them. This might sound like dissociation from the world in a cold, clinical way. But rather, by doing this, one is simply eliminating one’s confusion. One is attuning the heart to the reality of the way things are – and that is the richest and most beautiful of experiences.
When we establish the heart in this unattached, non-possessive quality of knowing or wisdom, then our actions and our attitudes are guided by this wisdom and by loving-kindness, not by reactivity or greed or fear, not by our judgements or self-centredness. When we see a way to help someone, instantly we help. When we need to be strong, we’re strong. When we need to yield, we can yield. When it’s necessary to just shut up and do nothing, we shut up. When nothing can be done in a certain situation, we leave matters alone without feeling like we should be doing something. We experience a complete detachment that is wedded to complete attunement, so that what guides our actions is sensitivity to time and place. We are not guided by habit or opinion or the dictates of what people around us expect.
These simple elements of movement and stillness chart the transition from the ordinary sensory experiences of hearing, feeling, thinking, and acting, to establishing the basis of awareness and knowing. The point of meditation is not just to be able to sit still for a long period of time, unconcerned with sore knees, or to make the breath sacred, even though the breath is central and significant to our lives. The point is to live as a harmonious human being, as a blessing for oneself and others, to make one’s life as meaningful as possible.»


vikram said...

Great Article from the master. Stillness and Motion made clear!

Unknown said...

This is an amazing article, thank you for providing this perspective. It's very helpful in framing my meditation practice and the practice I try to come back to throughout my day.