SIMRAN BHARGAVA, Financial Express – New Delhi, India: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” The Irish poet WB Yeats wrote these evocative lines a hundred years ago, and although written in a different context, they are resonant of what life feels like much of the time today. Things fall apart with frightening regularity under the pressure of time shortages, money woes, broken relationships. The unstable centre cannot hold. The result is frustration and despair.
But what, if on the other hand, you were to build a strong centre? One that could withstand the regular breaking down of the world which, of course, will regularly break down. A centre that stays calm even though chaos reigns all around. Then you’d worry less about the storms that come your way because you’d be sailing in a stronger ship.
One way to build this calm centre is through the regular practice of meditation. Another is through the Buddhist way of mindfulness. Meditation is emptying your mind to an inner silence. Mindfulness is living fully in the present. Both bring about the same effect of inner stillness.
Simple as these practices seem, their cumulative effect can be profound. A friend who is an investment banker and a meditation devotee, says not a day passes when he doesn’t meditate, even though he is constantly travelling around the world. He says it keeps him centred against the many fluctuations of his life. His guru first introduced him to the practice in this way: “You start with an illiterate village. Each time you meditate, you bring literacy to one villager. Next time you do it, another villager becomes literate. Bit by bit, the entire village gains literacy. Living in a high-literacy village is very different to living in an illiterate village.” Gradually an inner stillness begins to replace an inner agitation.
Over time these practices really do change the texture of your life. I do them irregularly but even so, I now find it easier and easier to be completely still for longer and longer periods of time. In the beginning this seemed almost impossible to achieve because the rebellious mind was always butting in: “How long have I been sitting? Can’t believe I’m doing this, it doesn’t work. What a waste of time when I have a report to write/ phonecalls to make/errands to do. The phone just rang, wonder who it is. Ouch, my little toe is itching. Someone tell me what the time is. This is dumb, dumb, dumb.”
That inner chattering monkey is more or less gone.
Once you begin to experience stillness, you get addicted to it. It drapes you like cashmere. When you’re still, the muddy waters settle and you can see things that you just couldn’t see when you were all agitated inside. When you’re still, people around you mysteriously calm down as well, as if in synchronistic response. When you’re still, all your senses open up and you discover a world you didn’t even notice before: the slant of the evening sun, the lines on your mother’s hand, the full taste of a ripe orange.
It’s a qualitatively different life.
Anyone can achieve a greater measure of stillness by following some simple ways of being (as against doing). Let me share two that I stumbled upon and found particularly helpful.
The first is from the dearly-loved Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. He was in Delhi a few years ago to spend a day of mindfulness and anyone was free to join. We spent most of the day with him, just sitting, eating and walking.
You could change your life by watching this man walk. I haven’t seen anyone else walk like he does. He walked with full presence, his feet kissing the earth, almost as if he were savouring each step. Nothing else mattered at that moment expect doing what he was doing.
That day of mindfulness got me deeply interested in his work and I subsequently read all his books. In one, he describes how at age four, his mother used to bring him a cookie each time she went to the market. Delighted, he would take his cookie to the front yard, sit down and eat it leisurely, sometime taking half-an-hour to do so. He says: “I would take a small bite and look up at the sky. Then I would touch the dog with my feet and take another small bite. I enjoyed being there, with the sky, the earth, the bamboo thickets…I did not think of the future, I did not regret the past. I was entirely in the present moment.”
Mindfulness is simply doing whatever you’re doing. When you’re eating, eat. When you’re with your kids, be with your kids. When you’re working, work. Be in the moment fully. If you are fully with your “cookie” then you are also likely to be fully with your kids or spouse or co-workers. The way we live one part of our lives is also frequently how we live other parts of our life.
Who would have guessed that a four-year-old eating a cookie in his front yard was already practising one of the most profound principles of Buddhism?
The second “technique” (if you can call it that) is from another well-known teacher called Jon Kabat-Zinn. He is founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre and has trained judges, priests, Olympic athletes and even prison inmates to help bring down their aggression levels.
In one of his meditations called ‘The Mountain Meditation’, he suggests that a good way to centre yourself while meditating is to embody the qualities of a mountain. Mountains are sacred, majestic, symbols of abiding presence and stillness. The sun moves, the seasons change, light and colours on the mountain keep shifting moment by moment. Through it all the mountain just sits. Calmness abiding all change.
Kabat-Zinn suggests you hold these qualities of “mountainness” in your mind’s eye. Imagine yourself as one with the mountain as you sit cross-legged and unmoving. He says: “Invite yourself to become a breathing mountain, unwavering in your stillness. A centred, rooted, unmoving presence.” As we sit holding this image in our mind, we can embody the same unwavering stillness and rootedness in the face of everything that changes in our own lives. Like a central mountain axis that stays still through thick and thin.
The mountain is. You are.
When you practise some of these ways of non-doing you may find that the chaos around you continues but you begin to respond to it differently.
Nothing changes. And yet everything does.