The Stillpoint

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

– Wendell Berry

My mom is one of those people who subsumes herself for others, all day, every day. She keeps her needs and longings quietly to herself, tucked away under layers in her heart, out of sight. One morning when she was visiting last fall she shared with me a wish for herself. I can’t recall if it was shared unprovoked, or brought on by me asking her how she was for the umpteenth time.

“I want to go away to one of those sacred healing retreat centers you always wanted to go to when you were in high school,” she announced over breakfast.

I looked at her with surprise a.) that she was sharing, and b.) because I could only vaguely recall this retreat center that had captured the longing of my young spiritual gangster self. Getting curious about her desire to retreat for a while, I asked: “What will that give you?”

“Space,” she said resolutely. “And, peace.”

“What kind of space?” I questioned, for clarity’s sake. “What will the Peace feel like?”

“Space from the constant doing and the constant moving through the lists to take care of all the things I do,” she replied. “I just want space to be me without worrying about others.”

I sat with that greater understanding of where she was coming from and a jolt of empathy. I wondered how hard-wired the need to worry about others must be for her. What might it feel like to be free of that (I’ve been on the receiving end of her concern and attention, as she is my angel mom). I imagined it would feel like having room for yourself, perhaps even feeling like you had a right to exist and take up space. I didn’t have time to ask when or where she had felt space and peace before in her life before the conversation shifted to the inconsistency of fresh organic blueberries.

A lot of people I know have very little white space, as they are very busy. Life is always full and intense. They do too much. They’re overwhelmed. They never stop moving. I used to be one of those people. “You never stop doing,” my rolfer said to me once early on in our bodywork relationship. Up until that point, I don’t think I’d actually considered that as a fact. I was 28 at the time and was, indeed, always moving. At that point, I paused to ask why that was: What was driving that mode of operating through life?

I’m fairly certain I was looking for something at the time, but I couldn’t have articulated what fears I was trying to abate then. I’m not sure I knew, in words, what was operationalizing my life at that point. Shanley Knox, former CEO of Olivia Knox and new mother, shares in this podcast conversation how she kept doing so much, running with an impulse “to save,” and“chasing the feeling for someone to tell me that I am enough,” before she began to feel lost in the mix of it all.  

A lot of folks we know in our lives have programming running deep in their neurology that drives them to set out to save, fix, and help others as a way to feel like they are enough. So often as humans, we forget that “I am.” is a complete sentence. While lost in the whirlwind of things we put our attention on, we rush past asking ourselves: where we are going, and why are we in this handbasket? We forget that we can take up space for ourselves. Instead, we fill that space with everything but ourselves in an attempt to fill up some part of ourselves.

What is there for us when we pause?

“If you are living for an ideal and driving yourself as hard as you can to be perfect – at your job or as a mother or as a perfect wife – you lose the natural, slow rhythm of life,” the late Jungian analyst Marion Woodman notes. “There’s a rushing, trying to attain the idea; the slower pace of the beat of the earth, the state where you simply are, is forgotten.”

My favorite moment in working with a troubled or stressed horse in the round pen happens when their frenetic flee (flight) response stops racing around. Their breathing changes. Something softens in their body, their eyes, their footfalls. Their feet are not rushed by fear. The horse knows he’s OK, nothing is going to eat him, and his whole physiology shifts. At that point, a horse will often stop, turn to face you, and may even walk towards you.

For me, what I see happen in the round pen is a metaphor for what most of us humans do: run around out of old fears and conditioned behavior patterns until our feet stop and we look around for comfort and shelter from our own storms. In that stillpoint moment, maybe we notice our breathing and sense our surroundings with a widening perspective that puts us in connection with the larger landscape. Our feet are grounded. Our fears are softened, though we are still alert. We are with ourselves, and turn to meet our life in a different state of being. Perhaps, a different state of aliveness.

This stillpoint is a place we can return to whenever we need (no spiritual retreat center required). David Wagoner’s poem, Lost, points to this same notion:

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

We are panting towards lost when our lives are driven by outdated fears, wells of unresolved emotions and unsorted psychic baggage. When we take on too much too often that isn’t ours to take on; and when our compulsions to fix and mend others and the world bypass the one thing we can save and mend (that being: our very self), we turn our anxiety into a busy and full calendar that we label “productive,” and it drains us because of how we’re operating through life. Yet, the stillpoint is waiting for us, as Wagoner writes: The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, | I have made this place around you | If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

We may race around, around, around, without ever finding our feet and without ever relaxing enough to see that there is no chase, we don’t need to run, we are safe, we belong, we are loved and lovable. “Here” is the option we have at any moment we choose to not be swallowed up by our own doing. It’s there for us when we choose to not be consumed by the hither and thither of the happenings around us. “Here” is where we rest. Shanley notes that she woke up to a different reality, one steeped in “Here”–that of creating a home (perhaps the thing her soul needed to find).

When you let your tasks lie in their places, and be still, what’s waiting for you, Here?