Another fabulous lesson we can learn from our dogs.
Stillness. It is a very simple, single word yet, somehow, it sounds as though it belongs to a different age. As though stillness is a very long way from the modern society that millions and millions of us subscribe to.
The dog is the master of being still. Being still, either from just laying quietly watching the world go by, or being still from being fast asleep. The ease at which they can find a space on a settee, a carpeted corner of a room, the covers of a made-up bed, and stretch out and be still, simply beggars belief. Dogs offer us humans the most wonderful quality of stillness that we should all practice. Dogs reveal their wonderful relationship with stillness.
Now watch this entrancing talk from Pico Iyer.
Published on Nov 26, 2014
The place that travel writer Pico Iyer would most like to go? Nowhere. In a counterintuitive and lyrical meditation, Iyer takes a look at the incredible insight that comes with taking time for stillness. In our world of constant movement and distraction, he teases out strategies we all can use to take back a few minutes out of every day, or a few days out of every season. It’s the talk for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the demands for our world.
Why you should listen.
Acclaimed travel writer Pico Iyer began his career documenting a neglected aspect of travel — the sometimes surreal disconnect between local tradition and imported global pop culture. Since then, he has written ten books, exploring also the cultural consequences of isolation, whether writing about the exiled spiritual leaders of Tibet or the embargoed society of Cuba.
Iyer’s latest focus is on yet another overlooked aspect of travel: how can it help us regain our sense of stillness and focus in a world where our devices and digital networks increasing distract us? As he says: “Almost everybody I know has this sense of overdosing on information and getting dizzy living at post-human speeds. Nearly everybody I know does something to try to remove herself to clear her head and to have enough time and space to think. … All of us instinctively feel that something inside us is crying out for more spaciousness and stillness to offset the exhilarations of this movement and the fun and diversion of the modern world.”
What others say
“[Iyer] writes the kind of lyrical, flowing prose that could make Des Moines sound beguiling.” — Los Angeles Times
The last quality that I want to write about, as in the last quality that I see in our dogs that we humans should learn, is about stillness. There was a very deliberate reason to make it the last one. But, if you will forgive me, I’m not going to explain why until near the end.
Stillness! The dog is the master of being still. Being still, either from just laying quietly watching the world go by, so to speak, or being still from being fast asleep. The ease at which they can find a space on a settee, a carpeted corner of a room, the covers of a made-up bed, and stretch out and be still, simply beggars belief. Dogs offer us humans the most wonderful quality of stillness that we should all practice. Dogs reveal their wonderful relationship with stillness.
In the August of 2014, TED Talks published a talk by Pico Iyer. Despite the uncommon name, Pico Iyer was not a person I had heard of before. A quick search revealed that he was a British-born essayist and novelist of Indian origin. Apparently, Pico is the author of a number of books on crossing cultures and has been an essayist for Time Magazine since 1986. Pico Iyer’s TED Talk was called: The art of stillness.
It was utterly riveting. In a little over fifteen minutes, Pico’s talk touched on something that so many of us feel, probably even yearn for: the need for space and stillness in our minds. Stillness to offset the increasingly excessive movement and distractions of our modern world. Or to use Pico’s words:”Almost everybody I know has this sense of overdosing on information and getting dizzy living at post-human speeds.”
Now Pico has clearly been a great traveller and the list of countries and places he has visited was impressive. From Kyoto to Tibet, from Cuba to North Korea, from Bhutan to Easter Island; a man having grown up both being a part of, and yet apart from, the English, American and Indian cultures. Yet of all the places this man has been to he tops them all with what he discovers in stillness: “… that going nowhere was at least as exciting as going to Tibet or to Cuba.”
Here are Pico Iyer’s own words from that TED Talk. Firstly:
And by going nowhere, I mean nothing more intimidating than taking a few minutes out of every day or a few days out of every season, or even, as some people do, a few years out of a life in order to sit still long enough to find out what moves you most, to recall where your truest happiness lies and to remember that sometimes making a living and making a life point in opposite directions.
Then a few moments later, him saying:
And of course, this is what wise beings through the centuries from every tradition have been telling us. It’s an old idea. More than 2,000 years ago, the Stoics were reminding us it’s not our experience that makes our lives, it’s what we do with it.
And this has certainly been my experience as a traveler. Twenty-four years ago I took the most mind-bending trip across North Korea. But the trip lasted a few days. What I’ve done with it sitting still, going back to it in my head, trying to understand it, finding a place for it in my thinking, that’s lasted 24 years already and will probably last a lifetime. The trip, in other words, gave me some amazing sights, but it’s only sitting still that allows me to turn those into lasting insights. And I sometimes think that so much of our life takes place inside our heads, in memory or imagination or interpretation or speculation, that if I really want to change my life I might best begin by changing my mind.
Emails, ‘smartphones’, telephone handsets all around the house, television, junk mail on an almost daily basis, advertising in all its many forms, always lists of things to do; and on and on. It’s as if in this modern life, with the so many wonderful ways of doing stuff, connecting, being entertained, and more, that we have forgotten how to do the most basic and fundamental of things: Nothing! It’s as if so many of us have lost sight of the greatest luxury of all: immersing ourselves in that empty space of doing nothing.
Thus it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that more and more people are taking conscious and deliberate measures to open up a space inside their lives. Whether it is something as simple as listening to some music just before they go to sleep, because those that do notice that they sleep much better and wake up much refreshed, or taking technology ‘holidays’ during the week, or attending Yoga classes or enrolling on a course to learn Transcendental Meditation, there is a growing awareness that something in us is crying out for the sense of intimacy and depth that we get from people who take the time and trouble to sit still, to go nowhere.
Even science supports the benefits of slowing down the brain. In an article posted on the Big Think blogsite, author Steven Kottler explains what are called ‘flow states’: “a person in flow obtains the ability to keenly hone their focus on the task at hand so that everything else disappears.”
Elaborating in the next paragraph, as follows:
“So our sense of self, our sense of self-consciousness, they vanish. Time dilates which means sometimes it slows down. You get that freeze frame effect familiar to any of you who have seen The Matrix or been in a car crash. Sometimes it speeds up and five hours will pass by in like five minutes. And throughout all aspects of performance, mental and physical, go through the roof.”
The part of our brain known as the prefrontal cortex houses our higher cognitive functions such as our sense of morality, our sense of will, and our sense of self. It is also that part of our brain that calculates time. When we experience flow states or what is technically known as ‘transient hypofrontality’, we lose track of time, lose our grip on assessing the past, present, and future. As Kotler explains it, “we’re plunged into what researchers call the deep now.”
Steven Kotler then goes on to say:
“So what causes transient hypofrontality? It was once assumed that flow states are an affliction reserved only for schizophrenics and drug addicts, but in the early 2000s a researcher named Aaron Dietrich realized that transient hypofrontality underpins every altered state — from dreaming to mindfulness to psychedelic trips and everything in between. Sometimes these altered states involve other parts of the brain shutting down. For example, when the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex disconnects, your sense of self-doubt and the brain’s inner critic get silenced. This results in boosted states of confidence and creativity.”
Don’t worry about the technical terms, just go back and re-read those last two sentences, “For example, when the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex disconnects, your sense of self-doubt and the brain’s inner critic get silenced. This results in boosted states of confidence and creativity.”
All from stillness!
Back to Pico Iyer’s talk and his concluding words:
So, in an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. And in an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still. So you can go on your next vacation to Paris or Hawaii, or New Orleans; I bet you’ll have a wonderful time. But, if you want to come back home alive and full of fresh hope, in love with the world, I think you might want to try considering going nowhere. Thank you.
At the start of this chapter, I mentioned that I would leave it until the end to explain why I deliberately made this one on stillness the last one in the series of dog qualities we humans have to learn.
Here’s why. For the fundamental reason that it is only through the stillness of mind, the stillness of mind that we so beautifully experience when we hug our dog, or close our eyes and bury our face in our dog’s warm fur; it is that stillness of mind, that like any profound spiritual experience, that has the power to transform our mind from negative to positive, from disturbed to peaceful, from unhappy to happy.
The power of overcoming negative minds and cultivating constructive thoughts, of experiencing transforming meditations is right next to us in the souls of our dogs.
“Sanctuary is where you go to cherish your life. It’s where you practice being present. And it may not be that many steps from where you are, right now.” The Rev. Terry Hershey.
So I was wondering what to write for today and wandering around the web looking for inspiration and, serendipitously, came across the blogsite The Commoner Princess. I had never heard of it before but there on the home page was a post published on the 21st October: Unlocking inner peace: forgiveness.
Here’s a flavour of that post.
Unlocking inner peace: forgiveness
POSTED ON 21 OCTOBER 2014
What hurts the most in life? Trying to make everybody happy. I think this is one of the ultimate life lessons. I remember having a specific unease when someone close to me wasn’t happy for some reason. Things got even more dramatic when I knew I was the cause in one way or another. Time taught me that this perspective wasn’t exactly the healthier approach to life. It is more than normal to care for the wellbeing of your loved ones, to stand by them in need or to try to have a zen relationship with them at all times. But oh boy, this is one of the hardest things to achieve. Detachment is hard enough when you are not directly involved, but when there are emotional ties, becoming the observer takes a lot of mindfulness, awareness, compassion and most importantly, a loooooot of restraint.
Even better, the post concluded like this:
Here is a beautiful meditation to send love and peace to the entire world. Sit in easy pose or any comfortable position of your choosing. Place your arms against your ribs, forearms in horizontal position, palms facing upwards. Start by taking long deep breaths. Breath in through the nose, exhale through your mouth. You can try the 5-5-5 technique as I call in. 5 seconds breathing in, 5 seconds holding, 5 seconds breathing out. Keep this cycle of breath for as long as you feel comfortable with it or until the end of the meditation.Thank you gabbyb.tv for your teachings.
May this be of service to you all!
Then closed with this video that you have to play in the background as you just think of stillness.
Like many who read yesterday’s post about this possibly being an age of loneliness I was struck by a terrible sense of sadness in George Monbiot’s words. Take these sentences:
Three months ago we read that loneliness has become an epidemic among young adults. Now we learn that it is just as great an affliction of older people. A study by Independent Age shows that severe loneliness in England blights the lives of 700,000 men and 1.1m women over 50, and is rising with astonishing speed.
Ebola is unlikely ever to kill as many people as this disease strikes down. Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.
It’s my proposition that not being able to cope with being alone derives from being unable to be fully at peace with oneself.
Yet, as dogs remind us so incredibly well, the ability to be on one’s own, to allow the brain to quieten down, to meditate in other words, is essential to our mental well-being. It is an essential part of the journey to find and like oneself. (I hasten to add that I write this without the benefit of any relevant professional knowledge!)
I am a neuropsychologist and have written and taught about the essential inner skills of personal well-being, psychological growth, and contemplative practice – as well as about relationships, family life, and raising children.Probably like you, there’s been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in my life these days. Change can be interesting, exciting, and fun – but after awhile you start to long for something quieter, more stable.
A couple of weeks ago, the Just One Thing newsletter was all about stillness. It is republished below.
Just One Thing (JOT) is the free newsletter that suggests a simple practice each week for more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind.
A small thing repeated routinely adds up over time to produce big results.
Things keep changing. The clock ticks, the day unfolds, trees grow, leaves turn brown, hair turns gray, children grow up and leave home, attention skitters from this to that, the cookie is delicious but then it’s all gone, you’re mad about something for awhile and then get over it, consciousness streams on and on and on.
Many changes are certainly good. Most people are glad to put middle school behind them. I’m still happy about shifting thirty years ago from single to married. Painkillers, flush toilets, and the internet seem like pretty good ideas. It’s lovely to watch grass waving in the wind or a river passing. Fundamentally, if there were no change, nothing could happen, reality would be frozen forever. I once asked my friend Tom what he thought God was and he said “possibility.”
On the other hand, many changes are uncomfortable, even awful. The body gets creaky, and worse. We lose those we love and eventually lose life itself. Families drift apart, companies fail, dictators tighten their grip, nations go to war. The planet warms at human hands, as each day we pour nearly a billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Countless species go extinct. As William Yeats wrote: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
And change itself is often – maybe innately – stressful. When you really open to the fact always in front of our noses that each moment of now decays and disappears in the instant it arises – it can feel rather alarming. Life and time sweep us along. As soon as something pleasant occurs in the mind’s flow we reach for it but whoosh it passes away right through our fingers leaving disappointment behind. Inherently, anything that changes is not a reliable basis for enduring contentment and fulfillment.
Yet it is also true that some things remain always the same. In their stillness you can find a refuge, an island in the stream of changes, a place to stand for perspective and wisdom about events and your reactions to them, a respite from the race, quiet amidst the noise. Perhaps even find a sense of something transcendental, outside the frame of passing phenomena.
Stillness, a sense of the unchanging, is all around, and at different levels. Look for it, explore its effects on you, and let it sink in.
For example, it’s not the ultimate stillness, but there is that lovely feeling when the house is quiet and you’re sitting in peace, the dishes are done and the kids are fine (or the equivalent), and you can really let down and let go. In your character, you have enduring strengths and virtues and values; situations change, but your good intentions persist. In relationships, love abides – even for people who drive you crazy!
More subtly, there is the moment at the very top of a tossed ball’s trajectory when it’s neither rising nor falling, the pause before the first stroke of the brush, that space between exhalation and inhalation, the silence in which sounds occur, or the discernible gap between thoughts when your mind is quiet.
In your mind there is always an underlying calm and well-being that contains emotional reactions, like a riverbed that is still even as the flood rushes over it (if you’re not aware of this, truly, with practice you can find and stabilize a sense of it). There is also the unchanging field of awareness, itself never altered by the thoughts passing through it.
More abstractly, 2+2=4 forever; the area of a circle will always be pi times the radius squared; etc. The fact that something has occurred will never change. The people who have loved you will always have loved you; they will always have found you lovable. Whatever is fundamentally true – including, ironically, the truth of impermanence – has an unchanging stillness at its heart. Things change, but the nature of things – emergent, interdependent, transient – does not.
Moving toward ultimate matters, and where language fails, you may have a sense of something unchangingly transcendental, divine. Or, perhaps related, an intuition of that which is unconditioned always just prior to the emergence of conditioned phenomena.
Wherever you find it, enjoy stillness and let it feed you. It’s a relief from the noise and bustle, a source of clarity and peace. Give yourself the space, the permission, to be still – at least in your mind – amidst those who are busy. To use a traditional saying:
May that which is still be that in which your mind delights.