Written by Sharon Brooke Uy
There’s a meditation class that goes on after Wednesday night yoga. During one particular meditation class, halfway through, I found myself struggling deeply to sit still. Numbness in my foot was traveling up my leg, and I wanted so badly to change my position. Inside churned a battle between two voices – one said, “Move! Why not? Meditation may come more easily if you’re more comfortable.” The other said that there just might be something on the other side of sitting still with the physical discomfort – something to be gained, something to be learned from refraining.
Perhaps you remember as a child being told to “sit still” (it may have sounded more like, “SIT STILL!!!!” – the key tone being desperation rather than patience), whether at the dining table or in the classroom, maybe in the dressing room or the check-out line while your mother brought you along for the day’s errands. I’d never really thought about why children are told to sit still, but in a very quick and informal survey of the closest women in my life who are parents, the answers vary quite widely, and are generally dependent on the age of the child.
The newest mothers cited a desire for their infants to grow into the ability to relax and not be reliant on the overstimulation that is so pervasive in our present society. Mothers of toddler or preschool age children discussed safety concerns and societal expectations, and not surprisingly, respite from having to chase after their young. The mothers of teenage children recalled manners and obedience as the impetus for sitting still in public. Generally, most recognized that “sitting still” for children was not something taught to better their spiritual practice, but out of necessity to benefit others’ personal convenience.
The reasons we’ve long told our children to sit still may often be societally based, but there are spiritually beneficial incentives. Asking children to sit still is more often than not asking them to keep their bodies still. When we as adults ask ourselves to sit still, we are usually referring to the mind. But the body and the mind are connected, and in some ways, what we ask of the children is the same as what we ask of ourselves. When we are still in the body, we can learn to become still in the mind. The body acts as a physical metaphor for the abstract concept of the mind. What we are really asking of the children and of ourselves is to meditate. The Dalai Lama has said, “If every eight-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” Schools in the United States are beginning to incorporate yoga and meditation into their curriculum. It’s catching on that there’s more to “sitting still” than simply not moving – there’s mindfulness and focus, less stress, more compassion and kindness.
I knew that my desire to switch the positioning of my legs in meditation was ultimately a physical manifestation of my desire to escape the sensation of pain. It prompted me to ask myself: In what other ways do I “move” in order to run away from uncomfortable sensations? After all, such is the product of meditation and yoga – things come up (in both the body and the mind) for us to face and accept, not to escape.
Suzuki Roshi used to teach in his meditation that trying to escape sensations resulted in suffering. Sitting still can be painful. But it is through sitting still rather than shutting down that we expand rather than narrow the limitations of our self, that we break away from habitual patterns that keep us in a state of suffering. He also taught that those who had the most difficulty sitting still, but who were able to do so, would see the most benefit. Eckhart Tolle discusses how you are never more essentially yourself than when you are still. In being still, we begin to remove repetitive and useless thinking, and begin to access fundamental life and feeling. And that can become the anchor for being present, throughout any stress or pain.
So I sat through the numbness and the pain, with acceptance and nonattachment. I let go, and I opened up, and after the bowl chimed, I realized the benefit – bliss.