Finding Inner Stillness

9th January 2024

To say that Quakers hold silent meetings may be misleading. We don't just sit there keeping shtum – the absence of noise has to go much deeper.

Before we can be open to receiving new insights, inspiration, a renewed vision of what life and our part in it is about – call it what you will – there needs to be an inner stillness. We need to get away from endlessly producing thoughts, memories, worries, plans, doubts, internal arguments...chatter, chatter, chatter. It's 'receiver mode' we need to switch our minds to. But how?

Calming your mind, emptying it? Easier said than done. It may not even need that, though. Here's an example of the sort of exercise that helps me get closer to achieving inner calm: imagine your endlessly rabbiting thoughts as an ocean surface full of choppy waves. Now picture yourself slowly sinking to the bottom of this ocean. The chattery waves are still agitating away up there...let them! Instead, shift your focus downward, to the stillness at the very bottom of the sea, where no disturbance can reach. Even the toot of a passing car outside is now only a far-off thing of no consequence. Turns out you haven't calmed or emptied anything, only shifted your mental focus to a place of stillness that was sitting inside you already, always is.

We can access that place at any time, in all sorts of circumstances. Mindfulness is often mentioned as a route to it. Mindfully doing the dishes, feeling you're in the flow, in the Now. And being fully conscious of your breathing, controlling it even, is often part of reaching a different state of awareness: calm, peaceful, composed. There are many different physical practices to aid contemplation or meditation.

So what is happening there? How is concentrating on the physical, the body, the dishes (!) going to help you find an inner space of calm? Try it: concentrate on some repetitive work or exercise and soon it becomes pretty...mindless. Literally, you leave the more thought-ful part of your mind behind, stand aside from it, distance yourself. The same happens if you gaze at a stunning view or a beautiful object long enough, or intensely enough. Vibrant flowers, field of waving corn, sky at sunrise, a wide vista of sea. Maybe that is why so many of us find nature 'inspiring'?

It clearly works, but it's still a mystery to me how the mind's innermost place of calm can somehow be the same one, in effect, that we delve into when we concentrate deeply on something out there. I suspect it may have something to do with simplicity. Both the mind's imagined 'sea bed' and the inspiring night sky up there seem to have that in common. Or maybe it's something like purity, essence, getting away from all distraction, superficialities, 'the wrapping'...drilling down to the core of. That kind of mental decluttering can be both internal and external. I'm speculating. I'll leave you to experiment to maybe find answers that make sense to you.

There are other situations where accessing inner stillness can be of real benefit, especially if you can 'find the switch' at short notice. Say an argument is brewing, a fight is about to break out, you are faced with a distraught person needing you to really listen. Deep breath. And suddenly you are both totally 'present' to what is happening around you, and in a state of detached mental stillness, the sort that'll stop you firing off opinions of your own (not helpful) and has you in receiving mode instead: processing without your personal desire to take this side or that, maybe able to transmit your own calmness, or advise from a position of neutrality. Genuinely helpful.

Genuine – truth, core, essence? And all that coming out of 'simply' being still inside yourself? I'd invite you to experiment with finding your own individual route to this place of tranquility, composure, spiritual centre, transcendence even, in a sense. As they say in interfaith circles: there are many ways to the mountain top.

This may take time and practice and may also change over time, as your spiritual path takes its twists and turns. But when we meet together in the communal stillness of a gathered meeting, I find that some transformation into a different mind state just seems to happen, without having to do all that much, beyond the initial effort to 'centre down': letting go, or even getting lost (telling phrase!) in contemplation of the shadow patterns on the carpet.

Angela Arnold – Oswestry Quaker Meeting and North Wales Area Meeting