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Settling into the stillness

While I was a student at MIT I forgot how to be still.

I was so madly busy, so go-go-go that every time I came up for breath, I twitched restlessly, sure I must be missing or forgetting something.

I would go home for Christmas, and in the days that followed my arrival I was relentless. I fidgeted. I poked and prodded. I asked “What’s up?” over and over, helplessly, of anyone afflicted with my presence.

One year, in a fit of desperation I sat down to my mother’s piano (an instrument I do not play) and proceeded to teach myself Bach, one agonized note at a time. I played the same piece over and over and over for hours, for days until my fingers flew almost gracefully over the keys.

I played until every nerve in the house was frayed just like mine were and — in the moment when my sister finally yelled at me to stop — I thought that in their annoyance my family at last shared a trace of my pain.

This affliction was usually (thankfully) short-lived. Within a handful of days my anxiety dimmed from a pitched fervor to a disquieting buzz that settled in my bones and could be mistaken for “normal”. I could come to accept that for a few short weeks there might be nothing I needed to do — no imminent crisis that needed thwarting, no pending deadline I had somehow forgotten.

But I could not settle into stillness.

The first time I tried in earnest to meditate was the winter after I graduated with my Master’s degree.

I settled down on a cushion and dutifully crossed my legs. I set my timer for the recommended 20 minutes. I closed my eyes and focused my attention on my breathing. I pressed “start” on my cell phone timer.

I think I lasted all of 30 seconds before I was shifting again — my hand reaching instinctively to kill the timer as I rose to my feet and settled myself back at the computer.

Sitting in stillness with my thoughts was unbearable.

I tried again in the following days — setting my timer. I never made it the full 20 minutes, but sometimes I counted myself lucky to endure five as my thoughts raced in tight, anxious circles and I struggled to remember my breath.

I gave up eventually. I quit.

I decided meditation wasn’t for me; the way I’d decided it wasn’t at age 10 when I’d read about it in a book, sat down to try it out, and remained still for a (very patient) three minutes before deciding I must not be doing it right.

I guess I’d expected some kind of a mystical experience, but all I got was me — concentrated and intensified and uncomfortably near as I struggled to follow, not dictate, the rhythm of my breath.

But as we enter this particular winter — as we enter into the liminal space between winter’s first chill and the snowy onset of winter’s depths — I’ve noticed something in me has shifted.

No longer am I the girl who can’t sit still.

No longer am I the girl who found a 20 minute meditation stretched out like an infinite, bridgeless crevasse I was unable to cross.

No.

These days I find myself sitting in stillness more often than not, in vast stretches of empty hours spent on the bus to and from work or on airplanes as I criss-cross the country with the alacrity of a hockey puck.

I used to fill these spaces with noise, with words, with pages and pages of the books I voraciously consumed — stuffing my head to the brim with thoughts and ideas. But these days, more and more, I find I’d rather just sit down where I am and watch and breathe and contemplate the world as it slips silently by out my window.

On the eve of this particular winter I’m finding myself settling into a new and yet familiar stillness, settling into the moments of soft introspection as my attention draws inward even as the trees draw in their sap.

I find myself welcoming, not dreading, the impending cold that will keep me hunkered down. No longer does the threat of this seem anything other than delicious as I settle myself down for a kind of inward-turning hibernation.

I find myself feeling, for perhaps the first time since I arrived at MIT, like I’m incubating the seeds of something entirely new.

I find myself returning to the oft-quoted passage from T.S. Eliot:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

I’m sinking myself into the stillness now, I’m waiting into the winter.

Because I do not yet feel ready for thought as I settle, ever more deeply, into the person I find I’m busy becoming.

What about you — who might you be becoming? Let me know in the comments.

 

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