What does it mean to find a stillness? Are we talking about an inner stillness? A stillness in the environment around us? Is stillness quietness? Is there any such thing as ultimate, complete stillness? Currently we find ourselves in what the Christians believe as the period of Advent. A period of waiting for the birth of the baby Jesus; a period of stillness if you will. For some Christians this is a time of patience; others experience Advent as a time of preparing for this special event, and for others Advent is a time of wondering.
I have been thinking about Advent and how we are all preparing for a life changing event—the coming of the Covid-19 vaccine. While this is not a divine event—even though it may feel that way to for some of us given the rise in Covid 19 infections and deaths right now--I think many of us are trying to be patient, knowing there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Some of us are preparing for this vaccine; I read Saturday that scientists are researching what we will need to do as we wait for the vaccine. Some are saying that we should check our expectations. If we think that everything will be back to normal, we should probably put that expectation aside. Data from past epidemics indicate it took years before things returned to some semblance of normal. I talked with a member of this congregation, Andie Arthur this week, she wondered if after the vaccine is widely distributed whether the country would celebrate like in the roaring twenties—you know, after World War I and the pandemic of 1918.
But here's the thing I have been wondering during this time of stillness in our homes and waiting for a vaccine, this time of world-wide Advent, what meaning will I assign to this time of personal stillness, so that I can move forward with intention in my life. And what is the meaning I will make from this world-wide stillness so that I can put it into some perspective. And then maybe I can decide how I will fold these meanings into what I may be called to do when this Covid 19 Advent time ends.
I have been thinking back on a time when the experience of stillness was on my heart and mind almost as much as it is now. Several years ago, I decided to literally embrace stillness and silence. Not just the silence of sound, but silence from the sensations of touch, sight, smell, taste, even my kinesthetic sense, my sense of movement. And not just simple bodily stillness, not just environmental stillness, but such profound stillness of body and environment that the only thing I would be aware of would be the activity of my inner self. I decided to submerge myself in a sensory deprivation tank. I remember the attendant telling me "be patient", to have no expectation that I would be calm or relaxed during my first session, that in fact I would probably feel some anxiety and have difficulty remaining in the tank for the full hour. Most people could not make it through their first session. But if I could make it through the anxiety of the first session, the next session would be wonderful, amazing, more peaceful than I had ever experienced, at least that is what the attendant said. I asked if there was anything I could do to prepare, the attendant said to be intentional about staying in the tank and open to whatever I experienced. I wondered if I was making a good decision about doing this sensory deprivation tank thing.
I entered the small, shallow room with the tank, I took my clothes off, opened the tank, and with fear in my heart, I took a deep breath, and stepped in. I felt like I was entering a sacred space, almost like a monastery, one in which you couldn't talk and would be expected to do nothing, but contemplate.
I had always loved the silence and stillness I found in the cavernous Catholic churches when I was an altar boy—especially before those 5 AM services when no one was there and I could fully embrace the responses that the stillness and silence elicited in me, a feeling of connection to something larger than myself and a connection with who I am deep inside. I felt a groundedness and calmness I did not often feel. And I wanted to feel that again as I entered that tank, despite my fears.
So I enclosed myself in a tank with no sound, no smell, in complete darkness. The salt water floated my body. The temperature of my body, the air, and the water were all 98.6. All that I was aware of was the internal workings of my body, the jumble of thoughts in my mind, and my erratic, reactive emotions. For the next hour, I submerged into the stillness, into the silence and into myself.
I invite you to close your eyes for just a moment, and imagine yourself entering a sensory deprivation tank, total darkness, no sense of touch or movement, not even any movement of air against your skin, no sound except those made by your own body or in your own mind; you are completely cut off from all external stimulation. (silence) What did you notice? Was your heart racing at the prospect? Was your mind distracting you or finding reasons why this would not be a good idea? Did you want that time to be over?
Oh, I forgot to tell you that the attendant also told me that the first time that I enclosed myself in the sensory deprivation tank that I would face my worst fears—my out of control thoughts and images, my erratic emotional swings, the minutest physical sensations within my skin. The therapist who owned the sensory deprivation tanks told me that we all use the noise of external stimulation to distract ourselves from what is really going on inside ourselves. They assured me that I would face those things that I, either consciously or unconsciously, was trying desperately to distract myself from. Good grief. I did face my fears very soon after I entered the tank. I saw racing images— Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies—I watched too many of those ‘durn’ movies. I saw myself helpless before people who were stronger and smarter than I am—and realized that sometimes I have irrationally felt that most people were stronger and smarter than me. I saw people trying to hurt me. I heard sounds—like those songs you can’t get out of your head, earworms like Kung foo fighting, fast as lighting. I felt sensations that I could not stop—like itching all over, like feeling dizzy and nauseous, which is something I’ve always dreaded—like feeling suffocated, unable to breath; another deep fear. Yet even as I experienced all these, I stayed in the tank. I came to the realization that I could feel all my fears, see and feel those things that I was most scared of, and not die. I was uncomfortable for a time facing those dreaded memories, images, and internal physical sensations, but I passed through them without letting them control me, without getting out of the tank.
When I finally embraced my fears, accepted all of what I was experiencing, I noticed that I was exhausted, sweaty, and my heart was still beating rapidly. I emerged from the tank just as someone came to the door to get me out. I made it. My first hour in the tank was done. As odd as this may sound, I immediately signed up for another hour, which occurred a couple of days later. I wanted to continue this, sometimes deeply unsettling, yet ultimately enlightening, journey into stillness and silence, and into myself.
Author Barbara Erakko Taylor (Silence) wrote: Silence. A word that evokes images of aloneness, of vulnerability, of having to face one’s inner world. We say we want a deeper spiritual life, yet we deny it by avoiding perhaps one of the most crucial elements—silence. We are afraid of it.” I believe that we all need times of silence in our lives, and –let’s be honest—silence is scary. We avoid it by having the TV on while we are working around the house just for the noise. We avoid it by blaring the radio when we drive. We avoid it by finding whatever stimulation is possible in our world; we embrace noise all the time; you might say we wallow in it. Our world is full of opportunities for noise. Yet we rarely if ever do we seek out times to be still, do nothing, embrace silence.
As a psychotherapist, I often heard from my patients that they were afraid to be still or silent. They were afraid to face the bogeyman that chased them constantly; the bogeyman who grows bigger and more frightening the faster they tried to run. Sometimes in the silence of dreams, the bogeyman can manifest itself. I remember a man who said that he dreamed about running away from a Tyrannosaurus Rex; the faster he tried to run, the slower he seemed to go—like he was running through molasses. He woke from these nightmares heart racing, sweating and deeply afraid. In discussion with this person, he came to realize that he had these nightmares when something was troubling him in his heart—a situation he was afraid to face or guilt over hurting someone else.
When you try to stop and face the bogeyman, your feelings and your fears will encourage you to find noise, to keep moving, to distract yourself from the ever encroaching monster that resides in your heart and mind. I remember a young woman who would sew placemats and napkins in the middle of the night. She was afraid of being still in the silent dark of her home. She tried on many occasions to lie down in the silent darkness of her bedroom, her heart would race, and she would be so afraid and agitated that she had to do something—thus sewing became her noise to keep her fears at bay.
When you finally stay still and silent, when you finally realize that your fears and feelings won’t kill you or damage you, then you realize you can face what is inside you, then you make peace with yourself. I am going to add an addendum here; if a person has a significant psychological problems or needs psychiatric medication, this process of being silent, facing fears, etc. may need to be done with the help of professionals—not alone. Ultimately by embracing stillness and silence, you begin to learn more about yourself, and you begin to experience a startling new connection to mystery, God, to others, to humanity.
Being quarantined in our houses, some of us unable to physically contact another human being, wearing masks that keep us from really seeing the expressions of those around us, masks that sometimes muffles the speaker's words, has somethings in common with being in a sensory deprivation tank. Many of us have looked for ways to distract ourselves from this stillness and silence of this Covid 19 time offers, just to cope. But now my friends there is light at the end of the tunnel. The vaccine is coming. And now is a time we can begin to embrace the stillness with hope that we won't be stuck in our homes for the rest of our lives. This is our Covid-19 Advent time. Now is the time for you to close the lid on your metaphorical sensory deprivation tank, face your fears, and open yourself to wondering about what meaning this time will have for you.
Ohiyesa, an early Sioux author, wrote: “[The Native American] believes profoundly in silence—the sign of a perfect equilibrium. Silence is the absolute poise or balance of body, mind, and spirit…[a person] preserves [their] selfhood...[by remaining] calm and unshaken by the storms of existence—not a leaf, as it were, astir on the tree; not a ripple upon the surface of [a] shining pool--… If you ask [Ohiyesa]: “What is silence?” he will answer “It is the Great Mystery!” “The holy silence is the voice [of the Great Mystery]”.
Silence and stillness can provide us with opportunities to bring ourselves back into balance. The ever-present, ever distracting noise around us obscures our interior lives, makes us oblivious to the changes that go on inside ourselves, distracts us from the changes in ourselves, others and the world, and distances us from our connection to mystery, to God, to our common humanity. Internal noise comes from embracing what is not self and not mystery. We all have to embrace what is not self and not mystery in order to function in the world, to work, to talk, to eat, to drive, to be in relationships. But if we only embrace noise then we lose our true selves. And my concern is that many of us have lost parts of ourselves by resisting the opportunity to embrace stillness and silence during this time when stillness was imposed on us and the future was far from certain.
During this time of expectant waiting for your shot of vaccine, perhaps it is time to have an intentional Advent experience, you might make time to submerge in some stillness and silence. Maybe start out with a few minutes, then gradually stretch it out to twenty or thirty minutes. Let yourself face what has accumulated within you during this last year, discover how you have changed, experience your body-- knowing it has changed too. Then you can make an informed decision about how you will incorporate these learnings to better understand who you are now and what you are called to do when this season ends. Yes, you and I and many others will probably celebrate like it’s the roaring twenties when we get the vaccine, but beyond that we will also need to decide what work calls to us after we celebrate. We don't need another decade of celebration like the roaring twenties. We need a new world. A world where we treat one another with worth and dignity; a world of peace, equity, justice, and compassion; a world with stable democracies; a world where we affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence. Let stillness be your guide to this new world. Find a stillness, hold a stillness, let the stillness carry you.