Meditation, Stillness, Time, Eternity
Posted by Bill Miller on Feb 18, 2017
If you’ve been at all involved in the meditation community, you have likely noticed how often the concept of “stillness” comes up in the philosophy of the practice. Many common meditation-related memes (stillness, emptiness, search within, inner work) can be a little vexing because they are hard to pin down objectively. What is stillness about for example? … and why would it be so essential?
An intriguing, speculative explanation emerged from a different domain while considering the dimension of ‘time’ in the physics of cosmology.
Nineteenth Century physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach once observed that ‘time’ is not a phenomenon in itself but rather is a conceptual abstraction derived from observing the “changes in things” (i.e. movement of matter or energy). In other words, without motion and change, time becomes ambiguous. This further implies that, in the absence of matter and energy, the concept of time itself becomes meaningless.
On first hearing, this may be hard to “grok” because the linear passage of time feels like such a fundamental part of our daily experience. Yet if you can imagine a time (no pun intended) before clocks and sundials were invented, the concept of time becomes a bit more vague – being more about movement of the sun and stars, change in the seasons, and the like.
If, as current science maintains, time/motion/change is a fundamental component of our space-time universe, then perhaps complete stoppage on this dimension would push us against the boundary of our experienced reality.
What lies beyond the time boundary? The best that we can currently estimate is “eternity”. In popular use, eternity is often thought of as an extremely long time, yet more accurately, it is “beyond time” or “all time” – a persistent “Now”.
This is the point where one’s religious or philosophical leanings come into play. To the materialist, being outside of time may simply mean nonexistence. To the spiritualist, it may mean leaving the mortal realm and entering some sort of supranormal, transcendental, ideal realm or divine state.
From a meditative perspective then, perhaps as one approaches complete physical and psychic motionlessness – “stillness”-- one is to some degree leaving behind the conventional space-time world and peering into a superordinate realm. (I can think of no better image for this than the 19th Century Flammarion engraving of the traveler.)
With a view to the Eastern tradition, meditators commonly seek “enlightenment”. The most succinct definition I’ve heard for this term is simply the ability to distinguish between the world and our story about what the world is. This is more challenging that it may first appear – everything we know about the world, we “know” as a set of mental images and verbal descriptions stored in memory – essentially a “story”. If an experienced event or phenomenon does not match one of these stored patterns, sometimes we cannot even perceive it.
So, what happens when physical experience (motion and change) is turned down to a minimum, and at the same time we momentarily set aside our reality-story? In a sensory-deprivation flotation tank, people commonly dream or hallucinate. At the deepest levels of restorative sleep, the body undergoes “sleep paralysis”, a state where muscular movement is inhibited – presumably so that we can dream without acting out the dream-motions. Perhaps this is the point where we are on the boundary of conventional reality.
Apart from any set of metaphysical beliefs, it appears that the visible world of experience emerges out of a more subtle context – “Source”, “dark energy”, “quantum foam”, “divine realm” – whatever you may call it. As we approach complete motionlessness, complete stillness, perhaps we approach the threshold between worlds and have a rudimentary connection to something grander. Perhaps there even exists a sort of cosmic “respiration” whereby our living essence emerges during moments of stillness, then is expended during the activity of life.
Meditators often practice for years or decades and still feel they have not yet quite “got it”. Perhaps this indicates a lack of clarity about what one is hoping for, and the conditions by which it may occur. I offer the above as one possible handle on the practice. Perhaps a clearer connection with the source from which we emerge would catalyze the emergence of new evolutionary capacities and experiences. Who knows? … but it is probably worth exploring!