In meditation we discover our inherent restlessness. Sometimes we get up and leave. Sometimes we sit there but our bodies wiggle and squirm and our minds go far away. This can be so uncomfortable that we feel it’s impossible to stay. Yet this feeling can teach us not just about ourselves but also about what it is to be human. All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. it goes against the grain to stay present. The instruction is, Stay…stay…just stay. So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to “stay” and settle down.
Pema Chodron, The Places that Scare you
Today the stage of the Tour de France takes place around Annecy and goes up the Col de Tamié. On last Sunday I was fortunate enough to be in that part of the world as I went to the liturgy in Cistercian Abbey of Tamie, founded in 1132. As always, I was struck by the silence as I sat in the ancient church, as the thick walls keep out most sounds and I was conscious of a depth of stillness. I have visited the place often and I recognized the faces of the monks. They have been there, every day since I last visited, performing the same work in that isolated place, without been seen, repeating the same chants and prayers seven times a day, starting at 4 in the morning until 8 in the evening, in the depth of the cold winter and the relative warmth of the summer. And then on Monday I visited the monastery of Bolton Abbey in Kildare, a place I had not seen for over 10 years. Again, the same monks, the same liturgy, even though years have passed. A continuity across miles and across years.
The founder of Western monasticism, Saint Benedict, placed an emphasis on this capacity to stay put. He saw in the latin word “stabilitas” – to be still, to stop, to persevere – a remedy for the troubles of his age, namely, insecurity, the movements of people, cultural and political upheavals. “Staying put” for Benedict meant that the person resisted the temptation to move from idea to new idea, and instead remained in the monastery where they had entered long enough to put down roots in order to grow and bear fruit. Perhaps he can teach us something today in this similar age, with the added distraction of increased communication and media. Many people today have lost their points of reference, and have little sense of community or family. Commitment is often presented as against personal growth and rituals seen as stifling or boring.
Benedict was drawing attention to a psychological fact, the need to stay put, to not run away or move when we come face to face with our internal restlessness. He echoes the psychological wisdom found in the Desert Fathers who said frequently that the first work we had to do was to learn to stay, and quieten the mind in this manner. As Abba Moses replied simply when a visitor requested some novel, wise words “Go into your room and sit there, and your room will teach you all you need to know”. There is no substitute for learning to befriend ourselves. There is some link between calming the body’s desire for novelty and movement and calming the mind.
These words are not far from those we find in meditation teachers from a different tradition today. The basic practice which we return to each day is taking our seat and staying there. Slowly it settles the mind. Gradually something is transformed in us and an interior peace can grow. We come face to face with our deep interior confusion, but we decide not to run away. It worked in the time of Saint Benedict and for those monks in the quiet valley of Tamie and the plains of Kildare. It can also work for us in our restless age with its desire for novelty and 15 minutes of fame.