Do You Know What Stillness Is?

BKS Iyengar focused and still in sayanasana.

We’ve all heard references to “stilling, quieting, clearing or bringing peace to the mind,” and as many times as I’ve heard such phrases only recently did someone challenge me to ask myself how well I really understood what it meant. 

You’d think studying yoga for ten years or sitting in a silent meditation for ten days would provide ample time to grasp this most pervasive idea.  No doubt I’ve FELT a still and peaceful mind in sivasana  or Vipasana meditation, whilst surfing or finding a steady forearm balance, but not until I took an 8 week course on the Yoga Sutras with Michael De Manicor did I intellectually look deeper into what stillness really implies.

The second sutra, perhaps the best known of the Yoga Sutras, is often translated as “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” 

In other words, Yoga is stilling the mind.  Influenced by Buddhist philosophy, I, like so many others, took this at face value to mean stopping the mind and thoughts, but De Manicor insists that this is NOT what the sutra means.  Key to his point is realizing that stillness is always relative.  Lets for example look at two people sitting next to each other on an airplane. Relative to each other they are still, but relative to the Earth they are moving hundreds of miles an hour.

As I thought more about this I began to see stillness as synonymous with harmony, cooperation or union (another yoga catch phrase).  When two or more things move in the same direction, at the same rate, toward the same purpose they cooperate or harmonize and generate a sense of stillness between them.  This could apply to people in an airplane, strings on a guitar or thoughts, breath and movement.

When I further applied this idea to myself, or any other individual, I decided that another synonym for stillness was focus (epiphany light bulb: dharana).  I examined the moments when I’d felt a sense of mental stillness and realized that my thoughts didn’t stop but that every part of me was focused on what I was doing; all of my thoughts, movements and breath cooperating and harmonizing.

Dharana or concentration is the 6th of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Dharana leads to dhyana (meditation) which then leads to samadhi (mystic absorption, the highest state of consciousness).

Mental stillness therefore does not mean that the mind or thoughts stop, this would perhaps be death or at least serious stagnation, rather it implies we can choose thoughts and actions that an any given moment cooperate, and by working together create a sense of relative stillness.

So lately in asana practice, in my classes and in life I’m viewing struggle or mental clatter in a slightly different light.  I’m asking what thought or action is out of sync with this moment to cause the internal discord, and what thought or action can I replace it with in order to generate harmony and thus lead me closer to a feeling of stillness.

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