~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

The Still Point Within

May 10, 2011
"Do you know there's a quiet place within each person, a place that stays peaceful and calm no matter how loud and busy outer life grows?" I ask my children one morning. "It's like a beautiful garden in the sun, or a quiet lake where no wind is blowing."

My sons' eyes grow wide as they nestle close to me. Clearly this possibility intrigues them.

"Sometimes it's hard to unearth, but it's always there," I continue. "And there are ways to find our way there. Do you want me to prove it?"

They nod their heads in unison.

I ask them to place their hands on their bellies and watch what happens as they breathe in and then breathe out. And then I ask them to pay close attention to that moment at the end of the exhalation when the body rests in stillness, just before the breath swings the other direction back into the inhalation.

We rest quietly, watching the breath, until I can see by their soft smiles that they've found that moment at the end of the exhalation when the body is perfectly still.

"That is where the still point begins," I tell them. "Each time you breathe out, watch for that moment of perfect stillness. And let the quiet you find there melt into every cell in your body."

Who wouldn't want to know there's a quiet place within, a deep oasis of peace that's always there to soften and settle and remind us what is true? And who - whether age four or forty - wouldn't beg to be taught how to find their way back? It's one thing to know it's there, and it's another thing to be able to venture there whenever life requires.

There are many ways to find our way back to this garden of inner peace, of course. Yoga and meditation have helped me find my way there, and they continue to do so every day. My hope is that the tools offered in these beautiful disciplines can help my children and my students find their way, too.

In yoga class, we explore the possibility of stillness often. My favorite pose for this is crocodile pose, or makarasana. We rest outstretched and belly down on the floor. The front body nestles deeply into the earth, the arms stretch forward beyond the head with the elbows bent, and one wrist stacks on top of the other to form a little pillow for the forehead. We soften, we release. We let the breath grow slow and steady.

We settle during our exhalations, inviting the outbreath to grow easier, steadier, longer. We watch the waistband expand and contract in all directions as we shift toward a more restful and full-bodied way of breathing. And then eventually, as if a veil is lifted, we find that sweet moment of silence at the end of the exhalation, that still point where we're not breathing out and we're not breathing in. We're simply resting at peace with what is, with the body beautifully still.

We don't linger here long at first. Instead, we return to a comfortable and easy pattern of breathing for a few moments, to ensure that the body and brain can remain unfettered and at ease. And then, each in our own time, we sense a wave of exhalation heading our way that just feels like it's ready to guide us back home. We follow that long and smooth exhalation to its endpoint, and then we rest, watch, wait and surrender.

There are times, I must admit, when I drop so deeply into this soul-satisfying gap at the end of the exhalation that I fear I may never emerge. Even though I'm not trying to control or manipulate my breath - I'm just watching the passing show - I feel like I could linger there forever. It is soft and safe and unruffled there, the way I imagine the bottom of the sea might be once we dip below the frenzied waves at the surface. I often have the sense that there is another door there that I haven’t yet found, one that will someday lead me toward blissful and universal presence, some communion with the whole wide world.

It's a beautiful place to rest and I always emerge feeling rinsed clean. I feel like that small still point has somehow shifted my sense of self. Some days I even feel like the peace has spread until my whole body feels like ease incarnate, as if I might just be able to grow into a beacon of peace. I feel at home again - untroubled and faithful and clear. And maybe even a little wiser than when I settled in just a few moments before.

The beautiful quiet at the end of the exhalation is just a physical still point, of course, where the body rests as quietly as a live body can. But it also points us to a metaphorical still point, an oasis of peace that calms and nourishes us. That still point offers us a respite from the windy world, and gives us an opportunity to reconnect within with a deep sense of wellbeing and faithfulness. It's that same feeling a troubled child must feel when she finally climbs into her mother's arms and is instantly set at ease.

My wish for my children, my students and for everyone everywhere, is that we find practices and passions that nurture this still and settled place within. My hope is that, for at least a few moments each day, each of us may find our way back into this soothing oasis of peace. And perhaps that someday that we may feel so settled there that we can stay anchored in faithful ease even when life’s outer weather grows stormy and difficult.

When that day comes, we will know that wherever we may wander and whatever we may face, we will always be yoked to a deeper sense of presence and peace. And that means that no matter what happens, we will always be at home in the world.