No Shame in Stillness

by Jenni

Today I did something shocking, socially unacceptable and so counter-cultural, it’s downright rebellious: I was still. To be specific, I put my feet up on the porch rail, leaned back in a deep chair, and sat in the afternoon sunshine for a while, accomplishing absolutely nothing.

Not exactly the picture of a revolutionary, is it? I know, but if you look a bit deeper, you might recognize that one action as essentially giving the finger to a powerful and ruthless dictator: the dogma that my busyness reflects my value.

Does the idea of sitting quietly, alone with your thoughts for a while make you sigh wistfully or squirm uncomfortably? Probably a mixture of both.

In my experience as a modern woman, we simultaneously long for and fear the idea of stillness. We tend to pride ourselves on how much we accomplish in a day, and so stepping away from productivity is a risk, as though we must prove the worth of our existence by never slowing down to pause. And yet, we long for peace and rest, to step off the treadmill of life occasionally and catch our breath. And so we allow ourselves an occasional “indulgence” in a piece of Dove Chocolate or an extra creamy Yoplait yogurt because their advertising gurus convinced us that it’s okay, you deserve it. And we’ll take our  annual vacation, hoping to cram in all the R&R we’ve denied ourselves all year. But even those “treats” are usually accompanied by guilt, shame, and pressure to “maximize” the time.

And there’s another reason we don’t have time for stillness: I believe we avoid it because we are afraid of what we would find there. If I slowed down enough to really listen (to my spirit, my body, my mind), I might not like what it tells me. Or if I sat down to listen for the voice of God and sit with Him in the vulnerability of who I really am, what might He say to me? And so it is safer to fill my schedule with more work, more Facebook time, more music, more accomplishments than to slow down and be still.

But what if we weren’t meant to “make the most” of every day? To fit in the most activities, run the fastest and most efficient household, grow our business as big as possible, get the best we can afford, and achieve our utmost potential in every realm? Maybe doing more, faster won’t actually get us where we want to be…or where we need to be.

I am coming to believe that, if we want to truly live life, creating space for stillness is crucial. In spite of–and because of–all the pressures on our time, we have a built-in need for periods of quiet, rest and reflection. Although this may seem like just one more thing to fit in, I believe that if we will find a way to make space for stillness and reflection, it will reshape our lives. Just as the human body needs to inhale and exhale, we need times of work and times of rest, times to act and times to reflect. There is no shame in that. Many cultures have retained this rhythm in life, but looking at myself and around at our society, we seem to have forgotten the value in rest and reflection, condemning them instead as laziness, self-indulgence or worthless “navel gazing”. And I think we’re suffering for it. We don’t know how to just be with ourselves. And how can we offer much to others and this world if we aren’t even connected to our own selves?

So what are some ways we can reclaim stillness and rest in the midst of real life this week? It will look differently for everyone, and remember that it’s not about “what you do” but opening the posture of your heart and mind. In the stillness, you may find your mind racing to process thoughts that you haven’t been able to give your attention to, and that’s fine. Or you might want to acknowledge what you’ve been feeling lately and just sit honestly in that. Don’t try to solve every problem or reach a great conclusion during this time. If you aren’t sure what to think about and you want to connect to God, I encourage you to meditate on a favorite song or scripture that brings you peace and to rest in the knowledge that you are a beloved child of God (even if you don’t feel that you are).  Here are a few ideas I’ve been implementing lately, during my experiment in living more slowly:

  • Sit or lie in a comfortable space for a while; even if you only have 5 or 15 minutes to spare, set a timer and enjoy simply being there.
  • If you’re waiting in line at the bank, store, or on the phone, reclaim that time as an opportunity to be still in your heart.
  • While at your job, work hard and focused for an extended period and then step away from your computer for a few minutes (such as 55 minutes on, 5 minutes off); studies have shown this actually increases productivity and decreases overuse injuries such as eye strain, back and neck pain, etc. If you can walk a lap around the building outside or go look out a window for a few minutes, you may find yourself rejuvenated and ready for the next big push.
  • Eat sitting down at a table; turn off your technology and taste your food; be aware of it pleasing your taste buds and nourishing your body.
  • Take a walk or jog outside and observe your surroundings; leave the iPod at home and listen; what do you see, smell, or feel?
  • Leave your car radio off on your next drive; is the silence uncomfortable for you? That’s okay; don’t try to fill it.
  • Do something the slow way; it’s far more convenient to buy bread from a store, but sometimes I like to take a few hours to bake a loaf of bread, kneading it by hand, letting it fill our house with its scent, and then eating it while still warm from the oven. Whether it’s baking bread, washing dishes by hand, or driving the scenic route, allow yourself to choose the slow way sometimes if it is more enjoyable and meditative for you.
  • Spend time just being with your child or pet. Ponder the simple wonder of a little one, pet your dog or cat for a few minutes, take a nap with your child. If you don’t have a chld or pet at home, observe the birds outside your window. The little ones have much to teach us.
  • Find healthy boundaries for “screen time”. I’ve found that if I’m still on my computer after 9pm, I go to bed later and grumpier than usual. So I try to shut down by 9 and spend the remainder of the evening in a more relaxing way. However that applies for you, pay attention to your patterns and find something that leaves you feeling more rested and centered.
  • Observe Sabbath. Dedicating one day a week to step back from your work really flies in the face of our “non-stop” culture. Though we don’t do this every week, Seth and I try to accomplish our errands and household chores on Saturdays so that we can have a day of rest together on Sunday. It takes some coordinating, but has always felt like an incredible gift when we actually have a full day for rest and reflection.

I offer these up as ideas. But I’d love to hear from you:

What helps you to be still and what have you found to be the biggest challenges in creating that space for yourself?

Note: If this concept resonated with you, you might also enjoy my follow-up blog post with inspirational quotes and an ironic parody: More on Stillness.

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