27 - The Practice of Stillness - Part 1: Shalom
I don’t know if you’ve ever washed dishes by hand. In an age of dishwashers, perhaps that’s a lost art. We moved about eight months ago into a 1940’s brick craftsman with a 1970’s kitchen that had no dishwasher. Our previous apartment had one. So, I’ve had to go back to washing dishes by hand, and I’ve kinda enjoyed it. There’s something about getting your hands dirty, and doing something yourself that feels satisfying. In an age where technology promises to do everything for us, it’s good to go back to the basics of simple work with simple rewards. It’s also, partly, why I became a carpenter, because it enabled me to doing something with my hands, something I could see and touch. I tend to be too much in my head. It’s grounding for me to do things outside that space, things purely or mostly in the body, that don’t require the mind. It’s those things which, in a way, entail the practice of stillness. Stillness is kinda like washing dishes. Have you ever had that dish, so caked with dried on grime that scrubbing just didn’t seem to be doing any good? So, you’re left with the choice of getting a jackhammer to chip it off, or just letting it soak a while till all the hard grim softens up and comes off with hardly any effort. Mashed potatoes seem to be one of the worst for this. It’s like concrete sometimes. But leave it to soak for ten minutes, and there's nothing to it. It just melts away in the water, and down the drain. The practice of stillness is kind of like that. It’s about the work of doing nothing in order to accomplish a kind of inner cleansing that no amount of self-willed effort or moral scrubbing can produce. It’s about surrendering to a process much bigger than ourselves, which brings the rest and peace we’ve be struggling to get, but seems to be getting nowhere in our own efforts. This is the point of good religion, to teach us how to be still enough to let God do the work of reconnecting us to our whole being. And it comes through stillness. It comes through the end of our attempts to be good people by doing good things, and letting God reveal the goodness that is already inherent at the center of our being. It is an approach that requires stripping down and removing, instead of adding on and acquiring. We tend to think of this process in terms of getting more and more right rules and morals through which we can produce more and more right behaviors and good acts. But God views it as the end of such attempts, which only tend to wear us out and leave us feeling less good rather than more. It is in giving up our attempts to be or do good that brings us back to the reality that we already are, and always have been. We were made good from the beginning by a God who doesn’t make anything bad. Stillness allows for the space to better see who we are, in light of seeing who God is. The result of this process is peace. And peace is something other than what we often think. We often think peace as an absence. Peace, we think, is the absence of noise or conflict, but the process of stillness brings a peace that sustains in the midst of this busy, noisy, violent, data driven world without needing to remove us from it. That peace is not achieved by quieting the world around us, but by quieting the world within us, and is better described by the ancient Jewish idea of peace, called Shalom. But what is this Shalom, and how does the practice of stillness help us get there? Good question. Let’s get into it.
Shalom is simply things as they ought to be. It is a state of being which entails the reality that everything is right, everything is good, and everything is operating as it was meant to be. It can be reflected in the absence of conflict, the enjoyment of a felt peace, the calm of joy where nothing around us seems wrong, and the absence of violent oppression or constrained freedom, but that is not at the heart of Shalom. Shalom is a state of existence. It is a state of being, and it is completely self-contained. It is not external, or based on outside circumstances. It speaks to the reality that we can be at peace even when everything around us is not, because Shalom is a state, when properly achieved and maintained, that nothing from the outside can diminish. Shalom is a deep satisfaction with no tinge of fearing it’s loss. It can only be achieved as an inner state, and only as we understand it in the deepest sense as a result of living fully in and out of our fullest state of being. It is, in a way, the pure state of being, where being is understood as something completely untethered to and unhindered by any outward, external circumstance. It is, in fact, our attachment to peace through outward circumstances that actually hinders Shalom. This is what the 16th century spiritual master and Jesuit priest, Ignatius, called disordered attachment. In other words, what we attach our peace to will produce the measure of peace we get back. If we attempt to produce peace through the absence of conflict in the external world, we will only experience peace sporadically, as the absence of conflict is also experienced only sporadically in the external world. Then, we will also find that we must be in certain places to achieve peace, and must avoid certain spaces which will likely prevent our sense of external peace. What stillness seeks to instill is the reality of a peace that remains inwardly even when it is not manifest in our circumstances outwardly. It’s why Jesus talked about a different kind of peace than the kind found in the external world, a peace that could transcend the troubles of the world without removing us from a troubled world. Jesus taught about a peace for the hear-and-now, not some far removed state only available in an afterlife. Jesus kind of peace was internal, consistent, and stronger than the external effects of a peace-deprived world because it was based on being, not doing. Put another way, true peace is not a disconnection from the life-energy moving all around us, it is a different kind of connection that allows us to experience that data, in all it’s raw form, and yet not be overcome, overwhelmed, or disturbed by it. Shalom grounds us in our being in a way that can’t be shaken by the experience of a dysfunctional, disturbed, and broken world. But how does stillness help us achieve that internal space of Shalom?
To a mind overburdened by too many unanswerable questions, silence is the best response. What Shalom offers is something more than answers to questions, or solutions to problems. It offers a space where we can find rest for our souls even when nothing makes sense, and nothing seems to be going the way we wanted or wished. Life is full of conundrum and paradox. Life is full of disappointment and unmet expectations. There is a place in our hearts where peace and contentment can exist independent of all of that, where we know who we are and who is holding us, no matter what's going on in the world around us. We’ve been sold the idea of external fulfillment, and built the foundation of our happiness, security, and peace on things which do not last, which seem to be going more than coming. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those external things. Everything God has made is good. But there is something inherently unstable about building the foundation of our contentment on things that come and go. When we do that, our contentment and peace come and go with them, and isn’t that what we see in our lives, and the world at large. People do not have what they want, and they are dissatisfied and down. People do have what they want, and they are fearful and anxious that they might lose it. But when the foundation of our lives is built on things that last, then we can know we need never be dissatisfied or anxious. We have built our lives on the supply of what is never ending, what is abundant, what is eternal, and what can never be taken away. Jesus talked about this kind of abundant life. He said it was a like a well spring that never ran dry, or a house built on a large, immovable rock. Every spiritual teacher is pointing to the same thing, to a life of peace and contentment built on an inner reality of being, centered on the cultivation of inner stillness. This stillness is something we must be continually moving towards. No matter how close we get to it, it can increase or decrease based on our daily practice of it. It’s not a one time purchase we make. It’s a spiritual journey we take towards greater connectedness to God. God is actually the source of this peace. The closer we grow in relationship to God, through stillness, the more we will experience this peace. God lives in that space of Shalom, and brings that Shalom to us every day, right where we are. The more we move into that space with God, and surrender to the reality of who God is, the more we will experience his/her reality of all things as they ought to be. This can sound like something we have to earn, achieve, or be good enough to get. It’s not about rewards for good behavior, it’s about resistance. Are we giving in to the good things God already has for us, or are we resisting that through our own efforts to get what we think is good? The Shalom God has is actually gained through the opposite of work, by no longer trying to get it at all. We don’t have to convince God to give us what is good. No good father or mother loves their children only when they are acting appropriately. Likewise, the love of our heavenly parents is always flowing to us. But we do have to stop running in the opposite direction, settle down where we are, and let it come to us. This is a hard concept for us to grasp. It’s hard to imagine getting anything we did not work for. The world we live in is designed to work only as we work for it. But remember, that is a world distorted by the dysfunction of our own pursuit of fulfillment, in external things. When we become the makers of meaning and purpose, we automatically default on God’s reality and begin pursuing our own. Our reality is self-created, something we must make for ourselves, and thus always requires us to work at it, work for it, work to get it, and work to keep it. But God’s reality is that which exists naturally, through no effort of our own, and requires that we do nothing but give in to get it. Our human born reality is unstable, always in danger of falling apart if we do not maintain it. Everything God makes is self-renewing. But it’s hard for us, having grown up largely in a human-born world, to transition to a world where everything is given by God. That’s why the practice of stillness is so important, because it begins where our efforts end, with the recognition that we can do nothing to get what God has for us.
Jesus once told the religious rulers of his day that the worst “sinners” were getting into God’s kingdom ahead of them. In his day the worst sinners were the prostitutes and tax collectors. In our day many Christians would identify those as atheists and homosexuals. What Jesus was talking about, and what is still true, is that those caught up in a religious system of good works and right rules are actually behind those most hated by that same religious system for not being “good enough.” That’s hard to hear, for the religious, but good news for everyone who truly knows they can’t earn God’s favor, and have actually stopped trying. What Jesus is saying, and what stillness is about, is that we can only come back to God by giving up, and that those who have already given up on trying to be good enough through keeping the right religious rules already have a head start. Nothing against church people, or the religious (I’m still a church person and religious). But the good news Jesus preached was not about being right, or earning the good things of God. It was about getting to a place of understanding that we never could, and we were never meant to, in order to give up and give in to the flow of God’s energy already flowing to us. Stillness is the process of letting go of our good efforts and learning to simply receive everything from God which is already ours. But it requires we stop trying to get what we think we want, in order to receive what God knows is best for us. That’s why surrender is important. Surrender means we give up, not only trying to be good or get good things, but that we also accept whatever comes to us as from God, even the struggle and pain. When we truly trust in the reality that God is always flowing to us, we can give up and learn to submit to all things, even when they don’t feel good. Remember, suffering is essential to burn away the cause of our suffering, which is this self-reliant, self-referential system of remaking the world according to our individual preferences. The ego-self must die in the process of learning to surrender to God, and that will not feel good. Therefore, we must learn to accept that the way to this greater peace is paved by the ashes of our ego burning away, piece by piece. Our ego must suffer a million defeats, insults, and injuries to see just how destructive and divisive it is, in order to even get to the place where we are ready to learn how to be still before God. Any effort of our own, towards what we see as good, will always be a countermovement away from God, and what he/she knows is good for us. We will always see feeding the ego as good. God knows killing the ego is truly good. So, until we are ready to sit still and endure the death of what is killing us, we will continue to run in the opposite direction of the painful path that leads to Shalom. Even the most devout Christians can still be running from this death through an ego-centric religion which only affirms their desire to be right, instead bringing them back to a right connection with God. It’s only when we give up on being right, and understand that our own self-referential sense of right is wrong, that we will surrender to the mystery of this eternal energy of God. That’s why those who already know they cannot earn what God has are ahead of those still trying to, or as Jesus would put it today, why atheist and homosexuals are often in a better position than many Christians to reconnect with God.
I’m still a Christian. I’ve just learned the difference between following “Christianity” and following Christ. And Christ has led me out of many un-Christ-like, Christian values. But I used to live in that warped, closed system of certainty which taught me that if I followed the right rules, then I’d be right with God. And that’s all I knew of God. So, I understand what it’s like to be there, and how hard it can be to see past that to something bigger. It’s taken me a long time to unpack all the harmful ideas within Christianity that are actually counter to Christ. What I’m saying to the Christian is, wake up to who Christ really is, and what he really taught concerning this connection to God. What I’m saying to the non-Christian is, you don’t have to go through the messed up Christian system in order to do what Christ taught. What Christ taught was simple. It’s taken me a long time to clear away all the confusion and baggage of that messed up Christian system in order to see that. My hope is that we all, Christian and non-Christian alike, can start walking together towards the same goal, even if from completely different directions. The center is God, and the connection he/she already has with all of us. There is nothing to earn here, there is only the baggage of any mentality which tells us we must work hard to earn something we already have. If Christ taught anything, it was more about unlearning than learning, which is why stillness is the central idea of contemplation. In order to reconnect to God, we must learn to get away and get quiet enough to see, hear, taste, and feel the deeper energy which is already oversaturating the world all around us. It’s already in us. There is nothing we need do to earn it. But we do need to learn how to cooperate with it. To do that, we need to begin to learn what this God energy is like. The space we create for that learning is stillness.
This is only an introduction to what that looks like, and how it can lead to Shalom. Next, we’ll talk about how we can begin to strip away the things blocking this flow in order to enter more fully into it. For now, I hope we’ve all at least got a taste for a different way of being in the world which requires giving up, and giving in, more than giving our pound of flesh to earn something. Any idea of earning creates a stingy, tyrannical God who doles out goodness only to those willing to jump through all the right hoops, like training a dog to do tricks. It’s no wonder so many people have rejected that kind of God. To disbelieve in the warped version of God so often displayed by petty, self-interested religion is actually a step closer to who God really is. That’s why I can identify more with the view of atheists and homosexuals when it comes to rejecting this kind of God. We all need to reconsider what we think about God, in a space where all our preconceived notions can fall to the side. A space where we can start over with a blank slate, in a way that allows God him/herself to teach us by experience what life with God is about. The Buddhists call this “the beginners mind,” that is, to start from a place where we are able to learn as if we really knew nothing, and where we may actually find out that what we thought we knew of God was completely wrong. I’ve been to that place. It’s not a vacation we take, it’s a place we come to live, in order to continue experiencing the mystery and newness of God every day. That place is stillness, and it does lead to Shalom. Let’s walk that way together, and continue learning together how we can all experience greater peace, contentment, and joy in the process. Don’t give up, and don’t give in to the darkness of that distorted view of God. There is a bigger view of God over the horizon. We’ve got to keep moving forward to get there. And we will get there, given enough time. It’s worth the time it takes. I hope you can trust that idea enough to keep letting go, every day, and learning that God, and life are much better than any of us has imagined. Shalom.