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I first learned about “stillness” as a freshman in college. There are many things I don’t remember about college, but this experience is an exception.
I still remember the instructor's voice. She asked her students to lie down with their backs to the floor; arms alongside the body and the legs straight (Later on in life, I learned this position is called Shavasana, a pose usually done at the end of a yoga practice session). The lights were slightly dimmed as her voice softly and gently guided us, "Zero tension on your eyes, your eyelids are softly touching...zero tension on your jaw, your jaw is relaxed...zero tension on your lips...zero tension on your neck... picture yourself in a relaxing environment.” Of course, I don’t remember word for word everything she said, but I remember how her voice led us to focus on releasing tension throughout our bodies.
Believe it or not, during those minutes of stillness, I could feel the tension being released. As I focused on body-stillness and breathing, I became aware of how tense I was. Tension can manifest as fatigue, pain and other forms. By remaining still, I sensed these manifestations ease. The longer I remained still, the more layers of tension I felt being released. This was not a comfortable experience, but truly renewing. The body renews and restores itself by releasing these energies, when we practice stillness. To culminate the practice, I slowly began to move, which felt like breaking out of a shell to a renewed self. Although she had bestowed upon me a priceless gift, I didn’t realize it until years later.
Subsequently, I continue to practice stillness. I find a place where I can sit or lie down (and not fall asleep) and focus on restoring myself through stillness. I remain still for 10 - 30 minutes or more, depending on two variables: the time available and my tolerance for stillness. Yes, I sometimes struggle to be still and I know many of you can relate. For those of us who are constantly doing something, and always on the move, it’s not easy to remain still.
Stillness and the Brain
Scientific studies confirm that when you spend time in stillness every day, it will dramatically change how your brain operates— for the better. A few years ago, I completed a Certificate Program in Integrative Trauma Studies at the National Institute for Psychotherapies. Daniel Hill, the author of Affect Regulation Theory: A Clinical Model, was one of the instructors. His research and teachings are phenomenal. In his book, he describes “affect” as a sensorimotor; a psychological representation that generates a felt sense. Hill states that tolerance for “affect” is crucial and is linked to the capacity to modulate the intensity of “affect”. In other words, when we are able to tolerate intense “affects” (feelings), we can have high and low emotions or feelings without becoming dysregulated. For example: we can be angry without losing our temper, worry without becoming constantly anxious, experience sadness without becoming depressed.
Many studies have shown how meditation increases tolerance over high and low “affects” intensities. The limbic system supports a variety of functions including emotion and behavior. Within our limbic system, we have the amygdala or hypothalamus, which detects and responds to threats (Greenberg, 2011). The amygdala generates an immediate "fight or flight" response to increase the odds of survival but it can become hypersensitive; interfering with our ability to experience the present moment in an open and relaxed way. According to studies, we are less likely to overreact when we practice meditation. These studies also report that meditation helps increase grey matter in the hippocampus, which is responsible for the recording and retrieval of memories and decreased grey matter in the amygdala— which is the initiator of the brain's pre-cortical fight or flight alarm system (Greenberg, 2011).
Take time away from doing
Our bodies are not meant to run ragged, to always be on the go. Since when did saying “busy” become the meaning for “successful?” In his book, The Rhythm of Life, Matthew Kelly includes two chapters that relate to this discussion: “Why are we all so busy?” and “Priorities.” One striking sentence in the chapter, “Priorities” reads: “So many of us are completely unaware of what we have lost or are missing,” (when we are so busy). Matthew Kelly adds that, “Many people judge others, and judge themselves, by how busy they are and how much money they earn. The cost of this type of success is often the loss or failure to find one’s very self- our truest and deepest desires, talents, dreams, needs and the necessary pursuit of these.” I remember when I first heard someone say, “I struggle with FOMO.” I’ve never heard of FOMO before. It stands for “Fear of Missing Out.” The reality is that we cannot be everywhere, nor do everything.
Not only does the practice of stillness renew, it also heals the body naturally. Have you ever been so sick and need to stay in bed resting? Ever heard of bed rest or rest-cure? Bed rest has been proven to be beneficial for many conditions. Stillness, is not bed rest, it's simply a break away from moving around. Sometimes, periods of prolonged stillness have relieved physical pain in my knees; other times, stillness has been more restorative to me than a vacation.
I often hear people say, “I can’t meditate, because my brain doesn’t stop thinking.” Meditation does not mean the absence of thoughts— It’s neither a prayerful nor a hypnotic state. While there may be external silence, your brain may continue a dialogue and over time, be more present.
I’m not writing about this because I’ve read books on meditation or attended mediation practices; I’m writing about it because I’ve experienced its value. The continuous practice of stillness not only restores you physically— it becomes an internalized experience. What do I mean? It means being comfortable in your own skin; not filled with self-judgments or judging others. Practicing stillness over time can provide an inner sense of self-acceptance.
In conclusion, practicing stillness is restorative— healing for both mind and body. Your intentions can vary: from releasing tensions, to being present; seeking restoration or other goals. Over time, this stillness becomes an inner, consistent experience. Stillness can be practiced in a supine (lying horizontally with the face and torso facing up), seated position and other countless positions. Some people have walking or running approaches to meditation. Sometimes, during a train ride to work, I decide to focus on stillness despite the outward noise. So, take time to be “still.”
Kelly, M. (1999). The Rhythm of Life: An Antidote for Our Busy Age. Beacon Publishing,
Moyer, C. A.et al. (2011). Frontal Electroencephalographic Asymmetry Associated With Positive Emotion Is Produced by Very Brief Meditation Training. Psychological Science. Vol 22, Issue 10, pp. 1277 – 1279 Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.117/0956797611418985?journalCode=pssa#articleCitationDownloadContainer
Simmons, R and Morrow, C. (2014). Success Through Stillness: Meditation Made Simple. Penguin Random House Company. Gotham Books
Barbor, Cary. (2016, June 9). The Science of Meditation: Meditation may help squash anxiety. The practice brings about dramatic effects in as little as a 10-minute session. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200105/the-science-meditation.
Greenberg, Melanie. (2011, September 25). Changing Your Brain By Changing Your Mind How meditation rewires your brain to be more positive. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201109/changing-your-brain-changing-your-mind