Most spiritual seekers long for stillness, first for stillness in their surroundings, then increasingly for stillness in their own minds. In our hectic world, flooded by an unending wave of information, constantly requested to have instant recall of millions of names and facts, our minds are hardly able to relax and switch off any more.
That is why meditation is so attractive and so refreshing for many seekers, just as being in nature is. At first stillness is experienced only at those times; however, the more one meditates or stays in nature, the more the mind calms down even if one is not engaged in meditation or walking through mountains and woods. Despite that, again and again there are situations in which one seems to get utterly lost in the disturbed mind and the stillness sorely missed. Why on earth does the stillness not stay? Why don’t I become enlightened and finally find my peace?
Behind these questions is the idea that stillness in the mind and enlightenment are one and the same. As is with all ideas about enlightenment, this too is wrong. Why? Because it arises from an unenlightened mind. Where’s the rub? The rub is the concept of stillness that the unenlightened mind holds. If you take stillness to be an experiencable state, it has nothing to do with enlightenment.
Why not? Because so-called enlightenment is not a state (that comes and goes), but our true nature – that neither comes, nor goes, but was always and always will be. Our true nature is eternity.
But the stillness that we know is a transient state, no matter how ‚deep’ it may be. It reflects what we search for, but is not it otherwise it would stay. It is important to know this, because mistaking experiencable stillness for enlightenment makes the seeker of truth constantly point himself in the wrong direction. He believes that once the stillness he experiences is really deep it will miraculously turn into enlightenment itself.
Thoughts and feelings
Stillness and thoughts or feelings seem to be mutually exclusive. So the seeker tries to switch of the prattling mind as often as possible and hold on to the stillness, whenever it appears. This can be quite frustrating, for the simple reason that in the end it is bound to fail. A state, no matter of what kind, cannot be held. A state is necessarily something that passes. Fortunately there is no need at all to hold onto anything because what we truly are is not a state. It is the one and only that stays without the necessity of doing the slightest thing for it, because we are already it.
By implication everything that passes cannot possibly be what we truly are and what the seeker of truth is seeking. He seeks the everlasting, the eternal. The problem is that we obviously do not recognise this everlasting, eternal, and especially we do not recognise it as our true nature.
However, do we know anything at all that lasts forever? This is exactly one of the most important questions advaita vedanta is asking: What is lasting, what is eternal? To find the answer one initially eliminates everything transient – and quite soon comes to the frustrating conclusion that apparently everything is transient.
What the mind is occupied with, is even more transient, at least more so than gross matter. There is constant coming and going in the mind, constant emerging and submerging of thoughts, feelings, states of all kinds. With a little practise this continuous change comes to a relative rest, and in deep sleep it comes to a complete halt temporarily. This rest is relative, so what is absolute? Deep sleep passes, so what lasts?
There is something that lasts: awareness of these different thoughts, feelings and states. All of them are perceived and Advaita Vedanta calls that which forms the basis of this perception ‘consciousness’. 1 Consciousness is always present along with anything appearing or disappearing in our perception.
Look at a (gross) object, i.e. a thing, a living being or a natural phenomenon (water, star, stone). Focus on it.
Now stop focusing on it, just relax your look. The object is still there but your look has no direction any more, is soft and wide. Percipience, too, is still there, but undirected.
You will realize that focusing on something is a deep-rooted habit: as soon as you stop focusing on one object, attention will instantly shift to another. It may help to close your eyes. If you can let go off all focusing, you will note that the percipience immediately turns to yourself.
Next take a particular (gross) object, namely your own body. Focus on it, feel it. Now you stop that. Again, the object ‘body’ continues to be there as does percipience, but this latter is wide and soft.
Here you may be able to make an interesting discovery, which possibly up till now has not been accessible to you. With focusing stopped, percipience immediately turns to a subtler you: suddenly it is unambiguously clear that this ‘you’ is not the body.
After this you can experiment with a subtle object, for example with a feeling (fear, anger, sadness) or a sensory perception of pain or pleasure. First focus on it intently. Then stop focusing. Again the object may remain, percipience will remain, but it will be wide and soft.
Here, too, you may notice that percipience might turn to yourself – away from the object, towards the subject. This way you may be able to recognise that you are neither feelings, nor thoughts, nor sensory perception.
With this last part of the experiment you have the possibility of making another discovery: even if you are not focused on a particular subtle object, for example a feeling, it does not disappear – at least if the feeling is strong. Yet you may be able to notice that this perceiving is of a different kind than the perceiving you know. It is pure. The usual percipience goes along with an identification with the perceived (feeling, thought, sensation) while pure percipience is free from identification. In pure percipience identification with the perceived is dissolved – even though the perceived may be really strong.
This pure percipience is called witnessing. Witnessing simply has no investment in the witnessed. It is detached from any object of perception. If you lived your life from this position, you would be internally detached from any happening – while continuing to perceive it. You go on thinking, feeling, acting, however, without identification.
Again: without identification does not mean without thinking, without feeling, without acting. It only means that you do not consider thinking, acting and feeling to be expressions of yourself. Thoughts, actions and feelings are mere objects of perception. Percipience again is an expression of consciousness. And consciousness is our true self. The above experiment or meditation may give you a notion of this.
The identification that ordinarily takes place when perceiving something can be reduced to a simple formula: The perceived is considered to be something that ‘I’ have or am, I am angry, I am sad, I feel pain or pleasure. In witnessing, on the other hand, anger, fear, sadness, pain or pleasure are nothing but phenomena appearing in the mind – which does not mean that they lose their respective quality (pain goes on being painful, pleasure pleasurable).
The separate ‘I’ experiences itself as separate from everything else. But in witnessing the separate ‘I’ is absent.
Witnessing is pure subject, without being entangled with an object. In essence witnessing is pure consciousness, without any identification. If you could let go into pure subjectivity – consciousness – and give up any inclination to identify with any objects, then you would be at the end of the spiritual journey because consciousness is what you are all along.
If you know witnessing, yet, do not constantly live in witnessing, you will understand that this, too, is a state. But if witnessing is so ‘close’ to what we truly are, why do we not stay there? The correct question here is „What is it that does not stay there?“ Answer: „ The mind.“ After all we are already consciousness underlying witnessing. It is just that the mind is accustomed from the start to identify with perceived objects as ‘I’; so it is not likely to stop this over night.
Let’s go back to the above experiment; you stop focusing and the percipience turns to yourself. There it actually could remain and everything would be wonderful. But no, as soon as the perception has returned to yourself and you are resting in your true subjectivity, the mind will immediately ‘grab’ and turn the perceiver into an object. Then not you, the Self, will be the subject any longer but the mind, which takes possession of this newly discovered ‘subject’. And instantly the subject has become an object.
The Mind wants to ‘have’ it. The desperate exclamation of one of my students is typical: „But I want to really feel it, sense it!“ We trust what we can feel or sense more than pure being, pure consciousness that we are. The crux is: whatever we can feel or sense, is guaranteed not to be what we are, simply because we feel or sense it. Something felt/sensed is an object of perception, it never is the subject, the true Self that we seek.
So the problem with consciousness is not that it is difficult to find. The problem is that one cannot grab it, but only be it – because it simply is what we are.
How does all of this relate to stillness? And what kind of stillness is which so often is associated with enlightenment? The closest we come to an understanding of it by exploring witnessing, pure perception, and by resting in pure percipience. Whether feelings, thoughts, sensations or even stillness appear in this percipience, is completely irrelevant in this respect.
Whenever percipience focuses on an object, no matter what kind, there is a possibility of identification – which is nothing but the idea of a separate ‘I’. To live as a separate I means to live in strife, in a more or less subtle fight with the other separate ‘I’s.
Only if percipience lets objects be there is a chance of recognising the one, undivided consciousness as the true Self. The knowledge that there is nothing outside mySelf – consciousness – brings peace. This peace can be called stillness.