Stillness (1992)

Many myths, sacred stories, and rituals are attempts to recreate a sense of stillness. This is their essence. Indeed, without some awareness of stillness, ritual takes on only its external approximation, becoming heavy and solemn. On the other hand, ritual that arises out of the experience of stillness is a light and joyful thing.

It is not inertia, but the dynamic stillness of the Self, which Abhinavagupta, the thirteenth-century master of the Kashmir Shaivite tradition of India, described as pure consciousness. It is from here that our notion of "I" as an individual self coalesces and reveals the multiplicity of the universe. Stillness is not the same thing as silence, nor is it like quieting the mind. It does not operate on a simply personal level. The stillness we are interested in knowing is always within us, even as we are within it, and we find freedom through our contact with it. As we become established in our contact with its power, we recognize that all our desires, wants, needs, insecurities, and tensions are nothing. Underlying every pursuit, and even our quest for meaning as a whole, is the longing for contact with stillness. When we have this, what more is needed?

Copper image of BuddhaWe see this in the story of the Buddha when he sat down and resolved not to move until he had achieved enlightenment. Once he had made this commitment, all kinds of terrors and temptations overtook him. It was his ability to abide in stillness, even as everything within him intensified, that allowed for his awakening. The great stillness he discovered was the source of his enlightenment and liberation, and of all the Buddhist teachings.

Our mind does have a connection to this reality, but not one that the mind itself can recognize. Through stillness, we discover over and over again that this reality is not what we thought it was. What we learn about it has nothing to do with accumulated knowledge.

So, what is the knowledge being conveyed by the different oral traditions? It is not spiritual knowledge because, practically speaking, this is useless. Rather, it is spiritual experience, ­ an experience of stillness.

We are reaching for something deeper within us. When we come into its presence, our ordinary minds and capacity for language are useless. The transmission of the knowledge we seek occurs only obliquely through the spoken word, and more directly through silence, both of which constitute aspects of an oral tradition.

In India, the two kinds of transmission are reflected in two terms for "teacher." One is acharya; the other is guru. Acharya means "instructor," or"transmitter of information," while guru is the "dispeller of darkness" or "giver of the light." To interact with a guru is to participate in a shared learning experience of a different order.

It is the teacher, in this second sense, who is the locus of our contact with stillness. In Sufism, for example-and particularly among the Mevlevi dervishes--the teacher is referred to as "the post." In the rituals, he takes on the role of the still point at the center around which the students whirl and turn.

In many of the teaching traditions of India, awareness of the sacred is transmitted through the oral tradition of mantra. Usually this is taken to be a system of practices based on sound, but this is somewhat misleading. The knowledge that the master transmits is more subtle than verbal instruction about mantra or even the experience of sound itself.

When one receives a mantra in direct transmission from a teacher, it is the resonance of the teacher's awareness-his or her direct contact with dynamic stillness-that is being conveyed, not simply a word or syllable to repeat. This is why the explanation of the mantra must be oral and direct.

In the Kashmir Shaivite tradition, what is truly significant about a mantra is not its actual syllables, but what is always present and unchanging between them. The syllables--their cadence, rhythm and pitch--are all changeable, just as every breath we take is different. What is never different, however, is what lies between the syllables: that stillness which is beyond time and space, and beyond any kind of classification.

In the beginning, we practice speaking and breathing the mantra. In the end, the breath of the mantra practices us.