Note to Former Self: It's Okay to be Still.
About ten years ago I was being treated by a physical therapist for a tight hamstring I had developed due to running.
“Have you ever tried yoga?” She asked. “There are lots of great stretches that would be really good for you.”
Intrigued, I went home, found a yoga class at my gym, and dutifully walked through the door.
we reclined on the ground on thin mats, closed our eyes, directed to be still and listen to our breaths for several minutes. “Where’s the stretching?” I thought. After what seemed like forever in doing nothing but inhaling and exhaling, I got too fidgety and had to leave. There was a reason running appealed to me after all; I could measure time, distance and heart rate. And I could move. A lot. And fast.
A few days later I returned to p/t.
“Did you try yoga?” My doctor asked.
“Yes,” I said, ever the obedient patient. “She had us on the ground, telling us to clear our heads, listening to our breath. All I could think about were the things I needed to do.”
At the time I had three busy children at home, an overworked husband, and a house where something was always broken. “After a few minutes, thinking I was going to jump out of my skin, I left.”
This wise health practitioner smiled. “Don’t rule yoga out forever. Someday you may really enjoy it.”
Really? At the time my former self didn’t think so. I could quantify progress with my running stats and didn’t see any measure in reclining on a mat and breathing.
Fast forward a few years, two of my three children in college, and many running injuries later, I was at the gym. I overheard someone say the yoga instructor was going to give a special class for relaxation. It was Christmas time, and, gosh, if I could exercise and relax at the same time, that was two birds, right? Sounded like a useful and valuable activity to me.
Sure enough, the instructor walked in and said she had a gift for us, “I’m going to direct you to a yoga pose, and you’re to remain perfectly still as I read each page of this Christmas book. I will tell you exactly what to do and when to move.”
I thought this was the strangest proposition ever. Although skeptical, I obeyed. I loved children’s books, and Christmas, so I was intrigued. Following her instructions, I plopped down on the mat, breathed in and out, trying to empty my monkey mind. Thoughts she said, were to be tossed like a monkey tossing out an old banana peel. Each new thought was another banana. She said it didn’t matter how many virtual banana’s we tossed as we were breathing, but to toss all banana peels aside.
Expertly, she directed each pose, while reading a silly book about a mouse. The fact that the gym was filled with grown men and women made me pause, so I told myself this was okay; this had value.
The hour disappeared quickly. And when I was done, and relaxed, my aching body better, I had a smile on my face. Wow. I did enjoy that.
Somewhere in my formation, I was programmed to believe every minute of my time had to be fruitful (although maybe not a banana) and propel towards a measurable goal. The most ironic nugget I took away that day was how productive I was in the following days, and how clear and balanced I felt inside. Soon I realized I needed to go back to yoga and experience that inner peace; even with no concrete measures of time, distance and heart rate. I ached for that complete feeling I had.
In his 1962 book called The Decline of Pleasure, Walter Kerr mourned the loss of respect for doing nothing, questioning the spartan value of the twentieth century notion that “Only useful activity is valuable.” 1
In the present time do we enjoy a special freedom of doing nothing but counting our breath? Do we give ourselves permission to be still? Do we need reminders?
The other day I saw the above sign, “PLEASE SLOW DOWN” for the first time. Mind you, I probably had driven past it hundreds of times, and my eyes probably even read the words. But this day I stopped, got out of the car, and clicked a picture with my phone, because I understood.
There are times the world is telling you something, in so many different ways, that you must slow down and pay attention. I realized my former self had been sneaking herself back into my life. I was losing the benefit of being present and mindful.
Mindfulness seems to be a big craze these days. “We must be mindful,” “Please center yourself,” “Contemplation before action”. “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out,” the famous Thich Nhat Hanh tells us.2
There’s a good reason we need this reminder to be still and perceive. Our desert forefathers and mothers called us to prayer, but more of us are abandoning such a mystical and healthy habit.
In an article in Scientific American dated October 20, 2017, Allen Downing’s title says it all: “The U.S. Is Retreating from Religion; By 2030, say projections, a third of Americans will have no religious preference.”3
The ‘none’s’ will be the largest religious preference group. If Walter Kerr were here today, what would he say? Would he had predicted such, given our idea only useful activities have value?
In the American Magazine article, “The Art of Prayer” Jesuit priest Timothy O’Brien, S.J. shares how meditative and contemplative exercises entered his life.4 As a first-year college student, to fulfill a distribution requirement, he registered in an art history class. His first assignment was to go to the local art museum, look at three pre-assigned paintings, pick a favorite, then come back to class.
This young man completed his homework, went to his next class where he was told the purpose. For the next 13 weeks he was to go to the art museum and spend an hour making observations about the piece of art.
He chose Pieter Jansz Saenredam’s “Interior of the Choir of St. Bavo’s Church.” What he learned after those 13 hours is that what he noted at first glance was only a fraction of the content. He says, “I learned that this was precisely the point… how art intersected with contemplation, revelation and mystery… art history involved our learning how to see, understood as both a spiritual and physical activity. We learned, or tried at least, to be attentive and heedful, to wonder at something beautiful. Our teacher had asked us to become contemplatives.” 5
My former self asks what the measurable benefit of a contemplative is. And I tell her, with love, to be a contemplative is to notice the full content of the gifts we have been given; to slow down and experience the beauty of something small, to give full attention to the people put in our paths and help them see the light and loveliness they possess. To truly live and move with action that makes our world a bigger place, and to add a dimension of life you forgot to acknowledge and enjoy. In that way, being still and doing nothing has great value.
It’s okay, former self, we can engage in silly activities like watching a snail move, observing a bee pollinate a flower, folding paper into odd images, or just being still on your front porch, noting the beauty of the trees. Father O’Brien quotes another Jesuit priest, Walther Burghardt, S.J. defining prayer as “a long, loving look at the real.” 6
Can you name the moments you have been asked to slow down, when you didn’t want to, but found a nice surprise by doing so? Have you have stopped and contemplated a long, loving look at the real and discovered wonder?
And, if you’ve ever felt sorry for your former self, what helped change you to who you are today? What would you tell your former self about the benefits of being still? I’d love to hear your stories. I will be still and listen at sevcik.brenda@ gmail.com
1. Kerr, Walter. The Decline of Pleasure. Simon, Schuster, 1962, page 48.
2. Hanh, Thich Nhat. You Are Here. Shambhala, 2001, page 2.
3. Downing, Allen. “The U.S. Is Retreating from Religion; By 2030, say projections, a third of Americans will have no religious preference”. Scientific America. 20 October 2017. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-u-s-is-retreating-from-religion/, 3 September 2018.
4. O’Brien, Timothy. “The Art of Prayer”. American Magazine. 13 February 2012. https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/5128/faith-focus/art-prayer, 3 September 2018.