By Thomas McConkie, adapted from an episode of the Mindfulness+ podcast.
As we’ve explored on this blog and on Mindfulness+, there are many ways to practice mindfulness. But there’s one practice in particular that I might call the practice of practices, and that’s still point meditation.
In order to understand the still point it's helpful to first say a word about polarities. When I say polarities I mean a pair of interdependent opposites — opposites that rely on one another to express the fulness of their qualities. A classic polarity, for instance, is masculine-feminine, and if you think of the Yin Yang symbol from Taoism, you can get a feel for the way that masculine and feminine are in this eternal interwoven dance. The quality of the masculine is in the feminine, and the quality of the feminine is in the masculine.
We all tend to favor one side of a pole over another. When it comes to the polarity of masculine and feminine, for instance, think about your own life, your own self, your own mode of expression. Think if you tend to exhibit more masculine qualities in a given moment or more feminine qualities. The masculine is associated with more hardness, more directness, more agency, more assertion, more structure, more hierarchy, for example. The feminine associated with softness, with yielding, with receptivity, more relational than hierarchical. You can just notice where you find yourself in a given moment in a given day. Maybe more one or the other. Maybe more a balance of both, maybe you're not sure — it depends on the moment and situation. The point is that we all have certain habits. We all show up in the world in a certain way, and reflecting on polarities can help us see which side we favor and which qualities we're neglecting, or not manifesting as fully as we could.
Another classic polarity is agency and communion. Some people really like to feel their own agency, their own autonomy, their own individuality. I personally relate to this one. I feel like often times I'm kind of a lone wolf hanging out in my meditation cave, writing books, avoiding contacting the world. When I get into a rut, I can really get into the agency side of things. On the other side of the street, however, there's communion. This is the side that is relational, that knows itself through community, through relationship, through being in service, through being accountable to others.
One more classic polarity I could name is control and submission. Maybe you feel more comfortable when you're in control and you can steer the outcome of your situation, or maybe you have a personality where you like to align with a strong leader — somebody or something you can trust and just submit to that. Some of us tend more towards control, some of us tend more towards submission.
At the deepest level, we need all of these qualities. None of them are better than the other. It's the masculine that animates the feminine and brings it more fully to life and vice versa. Without communion there's not meaningful agency, we're just in isolation. And if all I do is control, I become a control freak. I'm a tyrant. But if all I do is submit, then I'm a groveler. I'm spineless.
In other words, the poles represent extreme qualities that when left to their own devices become pathological, they become problematic.
So, how do we avoid spilling over into pathology?
That’s where the still point practice comes in. When we're in the still point — when we're resting in a quality of open spaciousness, pure potential — our lives become intuitive. We can be receptive to exactly what the moment calls for. For example I have a tendency towards agency, towards wanting to express my individuality. But If I'm perfectly centered, if I'm at the still point in this meditative space, I might be present enough to recognize that what the situation really calls for is communion. Maybe at the level of personality and habit I want to just be alone and spend the afternoon reading and writing, but when I open up my awareness and I move into the still point I recognize that my brother needs my help, that he needs someone to be present with him, to listen to him. And so it draws the communion out of me.
What does this process look like in practice?
Let’s explore. As you read the meditation below, to yourself or with a group, you can intuit which qualities could be of most benefit to you in raising the quality of your life, improving the quality of your presence, and showing up in increasingly skillful and appropriate ways in the world. Like a chocolate connoisseur could point out the different flavors — the different subtle notes of fruitiness or a smoky quality in the chocolate — I’ll point out different qualities in your awareness. These qualities are already there, so you don't have to try and imagine them or stretch for them. You can just relax and enjoy who you already are at the deepest level.
Still Point Meditation Script
Take a moment to settle in, letting the body organize in a way that feels effortless, allowing you to relax, but also to be alert and present.
You can start by bringing awareness to the entire physical body, noticing the shape of the body, the posture. And you can bring awareness to the breath, noticing the in-breath and the out-breath, noticing particularly on the out-breath the way the body softens, lets go. With each out-breath the shoulders fall, the chest sinks, the belly softens.
And notice in this moment that you can notice. Notice that you're aware. You may be aware of many things, but the fact is that at the heart of this moment and this experience, you're aware. Moment to moment the objects of your awareness will change. One moment aware of a thought, the next moment aware of sensation in the body, then a sound. But notice that while the objects of awareness will change, the prior fact of awareness does not. You're always aware and you can be aware that you're aware. Just take a moment to rest in this quality of presence.
When you're concentrated, your awareness is focused. When your mind wanders, your awareness opens up and expands. But in any event, you're still just aware. You're always present to something. Presence is at the heart of who you are.
And the mind can endlessly evaluate how things are going in this moment. How my life is going, am I doing well, how this meditation is going, am I doing it right? Notice that beneath the level of these distinctions, these appraisals that the thinking mind makes, there’s a quality of profound trust in our experience. You can trust yourself. You can trust the very ground of being in this moment. Trust that whatever's happening in life in this very moment that you can meet the moment just as you need to. Notice any resistance to this quality of trust. This can be a more challenging aspect of the still point to access. Notice any tightness, any distrust, any mistrust, any fear — and you can trust all of that, too. Trust all of that response is exactly what needs to come up in this moment and to be felt, to be experienced.
Notice at a subtle level in this moment a tendency to want to control how the meditation is going, to steer it to arrive in a certain place. And notice a part of you that's willing to submit to exactly what's happening, a part of you that doesn't need to steer, doesn't need to exert. And at the still point between control and submission you can sense a quality of deep peace. Profound peace. A peace beyond any description, a peace that passes understanding.
And notice a quality of rest that naturally comes forward. What I like to say about the still point is that it's not something we're reaching for. It's not something artificial to us that we're grafting on, but rather the still point is who we are at the deepest level. In this case you can notice the quality of rest. You can allow the physical body to rest and to be soft. Allow the mind to rest. You can allow thoughts to flow in a calm stream.
Whatever the conditions of the body in this moment, whether you're incredibly comfortable or incredibly uncomfortable, whatever the conditions of the mind, whether your mind is empty and peaceful or full of different thoughts and agitated, or a little of both, notice the quality of stillness, of spaciousness, beyond push and pull, beyond what's pleasant and unpleasant. Notice at the deepest level of who you are in this moment, there's a natural quality of contentment. You can just rest in this moment and allow yourself to be deeply satisfied, calling off the search. No seeking.
And notice that the more deeply you touch into this quality of rest, the more able you are to just accept this moment and all of its rewards and gifts, all of its challenges. This quality of acceptance, the ability to just be present, naturally arises. Just take a moment here. Totally at rest, fully present, to everything this moment is, exactly as it is.
Allow yourself a final moment to experience all of these flavors together, like a fine banquet. A quality of presence. A quality of rest, profound rest. Contentment independent of any conditions. A deep sense of contentment, of "everything is okay.” Transcendent trust. Whatever the conditions of life in this immediate moment and beyond, you can trust yourself to respond. Trust the ground of being. Trust your own basic goodness and the basic goodness of life. Notice how new these qualities feel in the moment, endlessly refreshing themselves, and at the same time notice how familiar they are. Feel how in a sense they've always been with you, always been right here at the heart of all experience.
As we close the meditation you can leave a door open for yourself to come back to this place, to access these qualities in the still point as often as you need to, as often as you remember to.
To learn to really embody and express these qualities is infinitely subtle. It requires our steady intention to come back to it again and again and again.