Stillness

“I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.”

David, Psalm 131:2

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My friend Pete soaking in the stillness at Lake Brannigan

Three weeks ago I was hiking in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park with a group of friends. We put in at Hetch Hetchy reservoir, and hiked past dozens of other day hikers who were out exploring the waterfalls that cascade into the reservoir. At about six miles in, we began seeing fewer hikers and at eight miles in we were alone. We stopped at a place called Rancheria Falls, where we shed our dirty clothing and bathed in water that cascaded down a broad, slopey granite face, while we watched the sunset and felt like little kids again. The next day we hiked about eleven miles and a few thousand vertical feet to reach our destination of Lake Vernon, a pristine remote mountain lake, where we camped, day hiked, and chased off bears for a couple of days. On day four, we decided to leave our bear troubles behind and go off trail a couple miles deeper into the wilderness. Our plan was to get up to Lake Brannigan, which the map suggested was nearly surrounded by steep cliffs. To get there we would have to cross a river and hike up a steep rock mountain side for a thousand vertical feet, and then traverse in about another half mile or so. Our adventure began by hiking to a narrow, windy river etched deep into the rock, a river that had such personality and force I can’t begin to describe it. The group decided to send my friend Riley and I across the river and up a steep cone buttress to scout out possible paths up the rock face, while the group began moving more slowly across the river and up the most obvious path.

After thirty minutes of pushing our bodies very hard, Riley and I summited the cone buttress and caught a view of Lake Brannigan between two peaks. By the time we radioed the group to let them know the potential paths we saw up the rocky face, we learned they had already made good progress up the obvious route.

Let me pause here to tell you that this story’s ending isn’t adventurous or perilous or crazy in any way, so don’t get your hopes up. But I do like the ending.

Knowing that the group was okay behind us, Riley and I began the traverse to Brannigan, enjoying thoughtful discussion, the sunshine, and the lingering feeling of accomplishment that came with having summited the cone buttress. We didn’t notice the edge of the basin approaching at which the lake would open to our view, so when we jumped over the final few boulders and shrubs and Lake Brannigan suddenly and completely dawned on us, I felt an overwhelming sense of awe. The deep blue water of the lake contrasted against dark gray granite cliffs that towered above the lake for hundreds of feet, set off by green mossy foliage covering patches of the rock faces. In addition to the stunning visual appeal of the lake, the most surprising attribute took a minute longer to put my finger on: silence. No birds, no wind, no people, no sounds at all. It was as if the granite walls had stood guard over this lake for eons, creating a little haven of complete and utter stillness. I was surprised to find that I couldn’t really speak. I tried to carry on conversation with Riley but felt inside me that the only appropriate response to what I was experiencing was silence, so I eventually just dropped off conversing altogether for a few minutes so I could wrap my soul around the experience that was unfolding in front of me. The hushed feeling I had stayed with me as we traversed around the lake to find a camping spot for the group, and as my friends and I enjoyed the lake and all it offered us throughout that evening and the next day.

My friends and I were so inspired by the stillness in Yosemite’s backcountry that we committed to take it home with us. I try to backpack a couple weeks each year, and I have learned it’s not easy to take the stillness of the backcountry home with me. As Emerson says, “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Many times over the past three weeks since I’ve been home, when I’ve started to become wound up by the pressures at work, I’ve taken a breath and visualized Lake Brannigan in my mind, and that feeling of stillness has returned, soothing and calming me inside.

This is all just a long way of getting to the point of my post today, which is that our souls need stillness. David gives us some insight into this in Psalm 131:2 “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.”

I like this scripture. David wisely explains that to calm and quiet our souls, we have to wean them from external things, just like a child is weaned from his mother’s milk. It’s so hard to wean our souls of external things that it usually takes some kind of tragedy or life-changing event as a catalyst. At least that’s what triggered this journey for me.

My own search for stillness began in earnest about six years ago when I began experiencing a prolonged personal crisis related to my long-held beliefs about God, religion, truth, and the world. The stuff of which I’d formed my life to that point began to dissolve until I was left feeling utterly vulnerable and like the foundation of my life was in pieces. It was a challenge that I didn’t choose, but that chose me, and I struggled to accept it every hour of every day. It was this intense inner struggle that led me to search for peace and stillness. I loved peace and stillness before this struggle, but I didn’t yearn for it with the same desperation. I am incredibly thankful for my struggle now because it was the catalyst event in what has become a very important and meaningful chapter in my own personal story, a chapter that has occasionally led me to discover silent valleys and quiet rivers, and to begin discovering something within myself of equally profound stillness.

When I say stillness, I am referring to the feeling we have when time seems to stand still, when our senses are overwhelmed and quieted by something bigger than sight, sound, taste, or touch. Some people have described it as a place that we enter between thoughts, when our conscious mind stops spinning and for a brief moment we are not doing anything except existing. Other people describe it as a feeling of being connected to all living things, when it becomes obvious, even for just a little moment, that my little life is just one thread in the tapestry of all living things.

However you define it, stillness has a magical effect on the soul. Probably all of us have experienced stillness at some points in our lives, and can attest that the effects of an experience with stillness can outlast the stillness itself by far, just as I’m still benefitting from the stillness I experienced at Lake Brannigan.

So how can we experience more stillness? I’m not sure what will work for you, but I can share a few things that work for many people.

First, spending time in the wilderness. Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, and Buddha all went into the wilderness frequently, and I believe that one of their primary motives was to experience stillness. Somehow, the stillness in nature appeals to the stillness within our own souls, reminding us who we really are. As one example, I often learn from the mountains. I love mountains because mountains don’t compare themselves to others, they don’t bend to the weather, they don’t change with the season. The snow may cover the mountain, but that doesn’t change the mountain underneath. Mountains just are. I believe there’s a part of each of our souls, deep within, that shares these same qualities, that is beyond the ego, is unconcerned with comparisons, is eternal and unchanging, and just is. And the more we lead our lives from this place deep within, the more peace and joy we will experience, and the less conflict and pain. James Allen says, “A man does not commence to truly live until he finds an immovable center within himself on which to stand, by which to regulate his life, and from which to draw his peace.”

Another way we can find stillness is waking up early in the morning, or staying up late at night after everyone else has gone to bed. I have some introvert tendencies and I renew myself when I’m all alone. I’m at my best when I find some alone time each day to process my thoughts and emotions, unpack and appreciate my daily experiences, and become more aware of myself.

Finally, the most effective technique I’ve found for experiencing stillness is meditation. Many religious texts throughout the world discuss the merits of meditation. I’ve been amazed to discover all of the resources that exist to help people get into this practice, and it would be difficult to overstate the impact a formal meditation practice has had on my life.

It’s not easy to achieve stillness. For David to quiet his soul, he had to wean it, like a child has to be weaned from its mother’s milk. Stillness is the result of weaning our souls from dwelling on the past or future, from being directed by our desires, appetites, or passions, and from seeking meaning from anything external or temporary.

Stillness has a profound effect on the human soul. Our souls, like the ocean, might be tumultuous on the surface, but, like the ocean, if you just go below the surface a ways, you can find an eternal calm. A person who lives on the surface will never discover that calm, but it is always there, waiting for us. I believe that God is inside us, in that calm. I think this is why Emerson said that when we begin exploring our own souls we should take our shoes off because “God is here within.” I think Jesus meant it when he said that the kingdom of Heaven is within us.

One key to discovering the kingdom of Heaven within each of us is stillness. Hopefully we can all seek and find just a little more stillness in our lives.