Updated: Nov 25, 2019
As I sit and review the year – the experiences I’ve had, the things I’ve accomplished, and most importantly, the things I’ve learned, one lesson sticks out to me. This lesson was, in a way, the theme of my entire year: it was an important, sometimes decisive element in almost every achievement, every failure, every joy, every sorrow, and one very pivotal chance encounter. It was the importance of stillness.
I don’t mean physical stillness. Those of us who work in sedentary jobs already practice too much of that. What I mean is mental stillness: the ability to let go and open yourself completely to whatever you’re experiencing moment-to-moment -- to stop trying to achieve and control, and to simply sit and take in. Josef Pieper called this attitude of mind leisure:
“Leisure is not the attitude of the one who intervenes but of the one who opens himself; not of someone who seizes but of one who lets go, who lets himself go, and ‘go under,’ almost as someone who falls asleep must let himself go…”
This is not something that has ever come naturally to me. In fact, stillness or “leisure” (as Pieper describes it) was something I had not experienced since early childhood. I have always been the type of person who wants to take action, to seize the moment, to grasp and strive after...well, everything: business success, romance, sanctity, even relaxation itself.
I suspect that most people suffer from this to one degree or another, because in the modern world, the active life and its attitude of attack and conquest is strongly preferred to the contemplative life and its attitude of receptivity and quietude. In fact, quietude and acceptance are generally equated with laziness or even moral cowardice. Our heroes are not the ones who sit quietly, they are the ones who go out and “make their voices heard”, who loudly demand their rights, who never take a moment’s rest until they have achieved their objective. If you spend any time in the online entrepreneurial or business sphere, you will hear all kinds of talk about “the hustle” and “the grind”. You’ll be encouraged to be “disruptive,” because “your competition” is out there and they’re probably already ahead of you. In the realm of education (where, of all places, an attitude of stillness should reign), we are nowadays taught not to so much to contemplate truth, as we are to grasp the formulas and seize the facts that will allow us to ace the test, get good grades, enter a good college, and graduate to a good job, where (as the aforementioned gurus have informed us) we will hustle and grind for our daily bread.
Because of this overemphasis on activity, this strange belief in the virtue of constant motion, many people seem to suffer from an inner tension, which they relieve not by turning to stillness and quiet, but by turning to mindless distraction, sometimes to the distractions of sports, or sex, or nihilistic partying; but more often to the mindless distractions of the internet: Netflix, Facebook, Youtube. True leisure is replaced by the voracious consumption of content. And the recently coined term “content consumption” really does capture this activity in its essence. On the internet, we do not read or watch the way we used to: focusing on a single subject, contemplating it, turning it over in our minds, enjoying the full depth of the experience it offers. We quickly wolf down mostly shallow content for the dopamine hit and then look around, like an addict, for the next buzz.
I do not mean, of course, to denigrate hard work, or to create an artificial opposition between the active and contemplative lives. There is a time for action and a time for rest. There is a time to stand up and be heard and a time to sit down and be quiet. There are things against which we should fight, and yes, there are things to which we should surrender. Interior stillness is not, in its essence, a specific set of actions, although specific actions generally flow from it. It is an attitude of mind which informs the way we go about our daily lives. As Pieper says:
“In leisure, there is…something of the serenity of ‘not-being-able-to-grasp,’ of the recognition of the mysterious character of the world, and the confidence of blind faith, which can let things go as they will.”
The man who lacks interior stillness strains constantly in his daily life. He must strive and control outcomes as much as possible, because he believes – subconsciously, if not consciously - that the course of his life depends entirely on his own actions. The man who possesses interior stillness (or the capacity for leisure, as Pieper would say) accepts everything with a deep sense of ease. He never hurries or strains unnecessarily, but lives and works deliberately, knowing that there is a mysterious order to the world of which he and his activities are merely a small part, “that the world is plumb and sound; that everything comes to its appointed goal; that in spite of all appearances, underlying all things is - peace, salvation, Gloria.”
Far from turning you into a beach bum or a couch potato, interior stillness actually gives real dynamism and power to your actions. We all know that when we act from a place of disquiet or tension we are more likely to make poor decisions, to miss the obvious, to think poorly. In fact, some people spend their whole lives and build entire careers out of a decision-making process driven subconsciously by interior disquiet. Though they may not realize it, they work hard because it helps them justify their own existence. These people are often "self-improvement junkies" or workaholics. They are slaves to work. And many of us nowadays fall into this trap of busyness and workaholism, because we confuse it with the pursuit of excellence (as I did early on this year). But when you can “let things go as they will”, you live and work from a place of complete mental freedom. Because you are not running away, the whole world is open to you, and your mental powers are not hemmed in by subconscious fear. Your mind can settle and process information more efficiently. You can sit back and let situations develop before running in and trying to “make things happen” (a personal tendency of my own which resulted in some disappointing mistakes early this year). You become more creative, as it is in those moments when you have no agenda, when you are just daydreaming or gently pondering, that your mind makes those unusual connections that result in sudden insight.
But despite its material benefits, stillness should not be, primarily, a means to material success. It is not, (God forbid) another “life-hack” that you can read about in some inane Business Insider listicle (“click here to read about the 10 Habits All Successful Leaders Have in Common! They’re not what you think!”). Stillness is about opening yourself up to reality. That is why it often has material benefits. But those who attempt to know and accept reality are likely to do something far more important than make good investment decisions, they are likely, if they have the right intentions, to run into the Source of reality: God Himself.
This is the fundamental importance of stillness. It is the only way to break out of our little enclosed lives and experience the radiant fullness of reality. By putting down your phone while you sip your coffee, you might start to notice the human beings around you, and, if you do this often enough, you just might catch a glimpse of what being human is all about. By leaving your headphones behind when you go for a jog, you might notice a blooming flower, and (if you don’t stop to take a picture of it) that flower might tell you something about Heaven, as it did William Blake.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Learning stillness is not easy. We are addicted to our distractions, whether they consist of overwork or Youtube bingeing. But if we practice it often enough, we will slowly be drawn out of what C.S. Lewis called, “the little prison of the self”, and the joy which follows will far surpass those little instances of mere pleasure.
St. Catherine of Siena once said, “I see that the world is rotten because of silence.” She meant, of course, cowardice in the face of evil. While moral cowardice certainly still abounds, St. Catherine might be prompted to say something different were she alive today: that the world is rotten for lack of silence. We are constantly tempted by what Josef Pieper called “tawdry empty stimuli that kill the receptivity of the soul”. We are constantly encouraged to be faster, more efficient, to get more done. But what we need is not more speed, or more efficiency, or more busyness. What we need is stillness. For, as the Introit from the last Sunday of the year reminded us yesterday, God comes to us in stillness:
“While all things were in quiet silence and the night was in the midst of her course, Thine almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down from heaven from thy royal throne.”
So, in 2019, I don’t plan to grind, hustle, or engage in any other such nonsense. I plan to work quietly, without rush, to remember that “all things work together unto good for those that love God”, and to sit in silence and just…listen.