The Transformative Power of Stillness

My mother always joked that I was the vagabond of the family. She learned not to be surprised when I pulled up stakes and headed off on a new adventure (I’ve lived in eleven U.S. states). I believed that life would be boring, static if I slowed down and wasn’t in a mode of constantly tackling new experiences. But recently have I begun to understand the benefits and the necessity of stopping and making space to get quiet in a substantive way. I’ve started realizing that stillness and quietude (internally and externally) can be where the real juicy stuff of life gets going.

My ideal of life in Italy has transformed significantly.

First, I’m dispensing with the word “ideal” since I’m convinced, more and more, that when we live for ideals we’re setting ourselves up for a world of hurt. In my experience, my ideals have always remained out of reach. They’ve been fantasies based on conditioned, flawed beliefs of what constitutes happiness.

I came to Italy with my picture of idyllic life nicely painted. I did the New Age thing of creating a vision board. I was certain it would be magical and that everything would just fall into place and the happily-ever-after credits would start rolling.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the dream has indeed materialized, but the reality of the hard work of navigating the bureaucracy and having to “connect the dots” on my own of what was required took some of the shine off my new reality. It was as though life was saying “Not so fast.”

The rough patches that came with the hard work revealed to me that I had been striving to create magical experiences that would sustain me for the rest of my life. I was working to eliminate any metaphorical bumps potholes in the road.

Then, it really hit me. My coming to Italy contained an underlying element of avoidance. I was attempting to down happy pills in order to not address deeper, unconscious beliefs that had been holding me back and not letting me live more expansively. A new life in Italy wasn’t going to be the solution that would let me off the hook for important personal growth.

Ouch!

This hasn’t been a recent parting-of-the-clouds revelation. Thankfully I’ve been slowly but surely waking up to this and welcoming the stuff that doesn’t feel so good as invitations to go deeper.

Stepping back and inviting stillness in.

Last week I took a break from doing a weekly blog post. The primary reason was that my energy was at low ebb. I’d been on the go, first down to our house in Umbria to do two sweaty days of yard work and driveway repairs. Then we were off to Liguria for four days for our nephew’s baptism. All good and productive stuff, but when I started to force myself, in the midst of all this, to sit down and come up with a topic and write, something inside me dug in its heels. In retrospect, I believe the wiser part of me, the part that doesn’t speak through logical, linear reasoning, was telling me it was time to go inside and get clarity. It told me I was falling back into an old groove of doing, doing, doing.

First, I pouted for a couple of days.

I didn’t like feeling that the ideas weren’t flowing out of me on demand. I was acting a bit like a petulant child, shaking my fist at the universe for shutting down the faucet of energy and creativity.

After a small internal temper tantrum, I decided to be let stillness be the place to quietly ask some questions and then let them go. I decided to trust that stillness would allow the answers to percolate up to the surface without coercion.

I’ve given a lot of lip service to stillness.

That’s what emerged. I realized that I’d deluded myself into believing that through my intellectual understanding I could implement stillness into my life as an underling to take orders and deliver peace of mind. I realized my concepts and expectations about stillness were barriers to actually experiencing it, save the occasions when my psychic throttle was so burned out that my mind was too exhausted to get in the way.

Self-inquiry to the rescue.

The first question I asked was “What is the underlying belief that is tripping me up?”.

The answer took a day or two, but it came pretty clearly. Long ago I’d adopted the belief that true happiness, the idyllic state of being, would be to string together enough feel-good experiences so that negativity, anything “bad” would fall by the wayside. I realized I’d been spending a lot of my life chasing happy experiences and feelings. And, much like a dog who stubbornly chases that car he can never catch, I was locked into a perpetual state of futility.

Two other things became clear:

1) I believed any negative feelings and experiences were to be avoided and shoved aside at all costs. Simply put, I’d come to believe there was no value in them, and they were an indication that I was paying the price for having done something wrong, and for being a flawed, sinful human being (there goes that Southern-Baptist upbringing again).

2) I believed stillness was being lazy, and that if I wasn’t in the constant process of doing, achieving, and accumulating, life wouldn’t deliver.

Slow down, stop being in the constant process of movement. Embrace stillness.

That was the final “message from the interior” I received. I’ve come to better understand how I’m wired to be an experience junkie and to keep achieving. I know I’ve been out of balance and haven’t really embraced stillness as an essential part of establishing health and equilibrium.

I’m also understanding that stillness is anything but empty. I’m realizing that it’s full of creative potential and energy. I’m learning that surprising stuff emerges when I take a break from the incessant chatter of my analytical, achieving left brain.

Being willing to step into stillness, while releasing one’s hands from the steering wheel of life can result in surprising things.

I believe the creative power of the universe is waiting for us to get out the way, to provide space through stillness for wisdom and ideas to present themselves. How often do we hear stories of people who spin their mental wheels trying to muscle their way through a problem or an impasse? How often do these same people finally give up, relax, and have the solution materialize?

I’m a big believer in sleep. For me, it’s another way to quiet down the mind and let the unconscious have a crack at righting the ship. Check out this link from Mental Floss about 11 Creative Breakthroughs People Had In Their Dreams. My favorite is about Elias Howe and the modern sewing machine.

Italy invites stillness.

I think I really missed the boat with my earlier visions of life in Italy, not considering that the richest opportunity for me would indeed lie in dispensing with lopsided romantic notions of non-stop Italian cultural adventures and shifting to creating and integrating stillness into my life. I’m understanding that this new vision of life balance upends my lifelong belief in going, doing and achieving. I’m understanding that stillness is waiting, always, to give abundantly.

“Wisdom comes with the ability to be still. Just look and just listen. No more is needed. Being still, looking, and listening activates the non-conceptual intelligence within you. Let stillness direct your words and actions.” – Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks (buy it at Amazon.com)

By |2019-03-06T10:29:29+01:00May 29th, 2018|Personal musings|12 Comments

About the Author:

I’m an American expat living in Italy!

12 Comments

  1. Greg May 30, 2018 at 12:17 pm - Reply

    Thanks Jed for your continued notes on your inner journey. After a while, the “gee whiz, look at this!” reports aren’t the big news. The consequence, and the gift, of stepping into a new culture is the erosion of identity. The rush of excitement and stimulation that comes from the beauty and newness of Italy begins to be overshadowed by the slow collapse of our inner foundation of thoughts, beliefs, and stories. The context of where we live becomes a crucible in which all is burned away, leaving only stillness and naked awareness.

    • Jed May 30, 2018 at 3:42 pm - Reply

      Hi Greg, I couldn’t have put it more eloquently than you have. I especially like “the erosion of identity.” Most people freak out when they approach the idea of the disintegration of me, not knowing the me they know so well is the conditioned and illusory self. “Stillness and naked and awareness.” So beautiful. Thanks!

  2. Amy May 29, 2018 at 8:35 pm - Reply

    I really enjoyed this particular post. I relate to so many of these thoughts. Thanks for sharing so much of your internal dialogue, it really draws me in and I appreciate your vulnerability.

    • Jed May 29, 2018 at 9:25 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Amy. Your supportive words remind me of the importance of putting my story “out there.” Knowing others have similar musings helps us to keep asking questions and challenging the status quo!

  3. Kevin May 29, 2018 at 8:07 pm - Reply

    Hi Jed, As always, you challenge my thinking about why I have the desire to move abroad. I especially identify with your mention of avoidance… via the downing of proverbial “happy pills”! I suspect that many people hold on to the Italian dream for this very reason. I’m sure it’s more complex too….but the element is there for all of us. I really enjoy your experience and how you choose to process what you’ve learned in this time. It occurs to me that this is a balancing act…a challenge to accept things that are not ideal…. to see the possibility in all things that come our way….to see the opportunity in both. From what you write I think that Italy can be many things….but I no longer see it in the same way. Deep stuff man! 🙂

    • Jed May 29, 2018 at 9:22 pm - Reply

      Kevin, your comments are so appreciated! As I read your words I’m reminded of “the middle way” often spoken of in Buddhism. Yes, it’s all about balance, though we as humans, all too often, run to the side of the ship where we believe all the good experiences wait. I hope that life keeps pushing me to integrate the entire experience and find value, too, in the things that don’t always feel so good! So much to learn. Let’s keep the conversation going…

  4. mark wholey May 29, 2018 at 2:30 pm - Reply

    Nice insightful piece. I did a few marble sculptures while living in Umbria and after the initial form was made the very slow process of bringing up the shine took place using diamond pads. The process became a active/passive experience. The long way home, but home would be there eventually .
    The reward was the beauty of the stone being revealed and you could look into the surface and see the lovely crystals that made up its skin.
    I am also hard wired to experience and need that no brain in use period to recharge.
    /\/\/

    • Jed May 29, 2018 at 9:17 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Mark, for sharing your perspective and experience. I love reading about your finishing of the marble sculptures. What a beautiful example of how the meditative parts of our lives complement the more active parts.
      I’m still struck by how we, as a species, mostly resist a quiet mind, not understanding the restorative power of true repose.

  5. Susan P May 29, 2018 at 11:53 am - Reply

    I am enjoying your journey. We are so conditioned to busyness and away from stillness.. It’s very hard to break these habits of mind. I always loved the Mary and Martha story, although I was always the Martha character not Mary.

    • Jed May 29, 2018 at 9:14 pm - Reply

      Hi Susan, I think we’d have quite a conversation about this topic with a freshly uncorked bottle of wine sitting close by. Thanks for reminding me of the story of Mary and Martha. My mom loved that one, and it’s a good reminder to not get lost in busyness. Miss you!

  6. Chip Meeks May 29, 2018 at 11:51 am - Reply

    Thanks Jed, excellent read! Sometime life has a “redneck” bend to it that says “Hey! Watch this!” The best laid plans of mice and men! Sounds to me like the Universe hasn’t lost track of you and allowed all of the “think, be,do!” energy out when you arrived until… you were ready. Both mentally and physically. Then, you have this epiphany! Go back and look at your vision board, it might surprise you! I always appreciate reading your insight! So often, it’s like my weekly confirmation! Have a great rest of your week!

    • Jed May 29, 2018 at 9:12 pm - Reply

      As always, thanks for you support and feedback, Chip! I love your redneck analogy. I’m reminded daily that it’s pretty egotistical of me to think I know how things are supposed to play out. Then life thumbs it’s nose at me. Stillness helps me to reset. Thank goodness I’m learning the importance of stepping back and getting out of the way, even it feels a bit late in coming. Have a great week yourself!

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