Encore Post – Avoidance vs. Stillness

Michael McAlister Blog Leave a Comment

This post was originally offered in June of 2008 as part of the book, Awake in This Life.

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There is a difference between consciously aligning our lives from stillness and not feeling any need to get out of bed in the morning. A commitment to stillness doesn’t mean that we should absolve ourselves of any directed activity. This is simple laziness, which is nothing other than avoidance, and avoidance is an attachment to something other than what is arising in the present moment. All practitioners can fall prey to their attachment to nonattachment. This clinging to nonclinging impedes Awakening as well as anything else on the Path and is quite a common ailment among even the most experienced of those who meditate. It is possible for any of us to grasp at our sense of the Absolute. Even those of us teaching can find ourselves attached to our teaching. Instead of still seeing ourselves a students of the Dharma who happen to be a little further along the Path than the people who see us as teachers, we can begin to think of ourselves as being beyond the need to practice. Being wary of this hazard deepens our practice as well as our approach to expressing ourselves fully through conscious living. But the fact remains, whether we are attaching to the Absolute or to the world, we are still locked into, and caught by, the cause of all suffering—attachment. In the end, these and all other forms of clinging are what force us off the summit and back down the slopes that we’ve previously climbed, thus preventing the unfolding of Awakening.

One of the most important conversations I have ever had with any of my teachers involved this issue. During a silent retreat, I had an experience in meditation that left me in a state that still, even after all these years, leaves me breathless. It was like I’d just melted away, and what was left was just the shimmer of life and the Knowing that this shimmer was, for lack of a better term, me. It was an experience similar to ones I’d had years before I ever started to meditate, but this event left me even more off-balance. All things in my awareness seemed to exist in a certain poignant disarray. All that I witnessed was within my Awareness, which was nothing other than me. Paradoxically, it was as if nothing mattered since all things were imbued with beautiful and boundless grace and yet all things were filled with meaning. For several days, this state of deep, silent awareness carried itself through my sleep, my eating, and my sitting. The chores that I did around the meditation hall each morning became less of a concern, and I started to miss areas that I normally swept clean. But I didn’t care. At one point I even chose to sleep through morning meditation since nothing really mattered to me. I was filled with a certain feeling of open completion; nothing needed to be done. Everything was forever finished.

I lingered in this spaciousness as I approached the door to my teacher’s sitting room before one of our meetings. There was the distinct sense arising within me that, for the first time, there were no questions to ask him. There was only the shimmer. I felt nicely stuck in this expansive state of consciousness. I entered his room, bowed to the alter and then stepped sideways, positioning myself directly in front of him. I looked into his eyes and was amazed at how I felt totally anaesthetized to any gain or loss, honor or disgrace, praise or blame, pain or pleasure—there was no ego to be found. Returning his stare, I paused for a moment. I then bowed deeply to my teacher, who sat perfectly upright in full lotus. After my bow, I adjusted myself into a position that awkwardly mirrored his while his eyes kept staring through me. I didn’t feel scared or on edge like usual. I didn’t worry about appearing like I was progressing along the Path. I just sat, reflecting my teacher’s presence, quietly wondering what could be better than for me to stay like this. How remarkable it seemed that I was so unattached, unbothered, uncaring, and unmoved by this life. Surely this must be it, I thought. I must be done.

“Not if you’re looking to awaken beyond name and form,” my teacher said. I’d either accidentally lost control of my inner-dialog, or he had just read my mind. Both seemed equally plausible. Suddenly, all my bliss started to drain from me like water out of a bathtub. I started to get apprehensive and more than a little bit fearful. Where was all of my openness going? Within a few seconds, it felt like a balloon had popped and all of my hard-won freedom was gone.

“You can’t stay there,” he smiled.

“Why not?” I asked. “Isn’t that the whole point?”

“Living from deep stillness is not the same as clinging to deep stillness.” Then he smiled, and as usual, it felt like I was totally exposed in his presence. “We call this attachment to nonattachment ‘Zen sickness,'” he said. “And there is a cure for it.” I was amazed. No words. Then, just like the moment before when I thought he’d read my mind, he said, “Get to the zendo on time each morning, and make sure that your sweeping improves. Do all of this with your full awareness and don’t get distracted by the feeling of stillness. It will make a difference to everyone.”

I remember humbly bowing to him. I felt so much gratitude knowing that he’d helped push me back on the Path just when I was about to get lost. He showed me that having no ego is not the goal of my meditation. Rather, using ego as a tool, instead of always getting tooled by it, is the result of a committed practice. No matter what, we continue to practice nonattachment in order to awaken for the sake of the whole. Practicing stillness means that we must take the experience of a still mind, which is the same thing as a witnessing awareness, and infuse it into and through every bit of activity that we do, no matter how we might feel about it. We simply, and consistently, let go of all things that show up. We don’t grasp experiences because they feel like Enlightenment, nor do we avoid them because they don’t. We just practice nonattachment.

Any one of us can practice this kind of letting go when we do anything that turns off the chattering mind. I’ve noticed this to be particularly true in those individuals involved with extreme sports, since the excitement of their activity takes them, for a little bit of time at least, out of their habitual identification with thinking. Other kinds of athletes also know the importance of stillness when they are in the midst of intense activity. Put simply, their experience of being in “the Zone,” as they say, is the same open stillness that we experience in meditation. In this openness there is no longer an identification with the mind’s activity. A mind that isn’t caught by habitual activity is one that is still. Mental silence arises spontaneously as we practice any activity where we are totally present with what is happening. In these moments we can recognize a depth and beauty of experience that is entirely quiet, void of any articulation, absent of any movement. No movement means no time. No time means no thought. No thought means stillness. Stillness means no ego. When the ego perceives a loss of its voice it predictably will fight the stillness since it will equate stillness and the silence that it brings with its own death.

Yet there are three things we can do in order to keep the ego’s fear from pushing us back down the Mountain of Spirit. First, it helps to commit and recommit to a disciplined stillness practice in order to break the massive inertia of ego. Whether you want to sit or not, you just do it. Whether it makes you happy or tense isn’t the point, you just do it. Second, it helps to have a deeply realized practitioner to add structure, focus, and guidance to your practice. Find a teacher who knows what they are doing and whose words and actions correspond with your internal sense of integrity. Third, it helps to associate with a community of individuals who are also committed to the intention of Awakening. Meditating with a group is an amazing way to ground a stillness practice since everyone is there for everyone. This togetherness amplifies what resonates most deeply for all participants, and if those involved are climbing the Mountain, its beauty can’t help but be revealed.

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