Still Water, Revisited

In my first meditation class, the instructor employed this example to describe the practice: “At the surface of the ocean, there is always upheaval. The waves rise and roll in with varying force, but beneath the waves, there is always still water. In meditation, we access the stillness beneath our thoughts.”

The stillness I find in meditation is precious. It rapidly clears negative thoughts. It clarifies my perspective and intentions. It renews my commitment to love. Meditation also rewires the brain, quieting fear, negative emotion, and anxiety. Both neurologically and spiritually, meditation facilitates the return to a truer, more focused way of being. Cultivating stillness is sweet because it is juxtaposed with the chaos of daily life. We need refuges that give us space away from tumult to treat our weariness.

It occurred to me recently, though, after I’d spent years using the still water metaphor (espousing the notion that if we could all just connect to stillness on a moment to moment basis, we would collectively heal the world), that water with no movement, if left too long, becomes unhealthy, the breeding ground for disease, bacteria, algae, and mosquitos. Stagnation is not the call of human life. We must find the balance—and the tension—between stillness and activity, retreat and engagement, calm and passion.

Healing ourselves, claiming our shadows, leaning into vulnerability, and increasing our awareness are helpful steps to repairing the chasms in our society, yet meditation is a resting place, not a state within which we can all constantly exist. Human life is not lived in perfect stillness, nor should it be. Stillness does not move humanity towards justice, inclusion, or freedom on its own. We need some friction to spark transformation. We need some conflict to help the world evolve towards love. We need both gentleness and indignation.

Yes, humanity is interconnected. We share the same resources. Our souls are made of the same elusive light. However, we showed up on earth in separate, messy, imperfect packages. We came into the world with different star signs, different intentions, and different lessons to learn, into wildly different circumstances. We each possess individual wills. Conflict is a natural condition of and step towards connection. It’s an invitation and a dare wrapped together.

Many of my friends, mostly women, are afraid of conflict in their relationships. They swallow their feelings and desires to keep the peace. But in the process, they diminish their full vitality and live in fear of fragility. Love is designed to honor and hold the fullness of human experience. My partner’s and my wills are not always aligned. My beliefs do not completely mirror those of my family’s. People ask me for things that I do not feel comfortable giving. Competing desires are baked into relationships. Exclusion, blame, and fear are the negative effects of not negotiating that gap with love. It’s not the gap that is problematic. It is our fear of and response to the gap that can be harmful. Respect, empathy, understanding, and progress are the fruits of navigating difference compassionately.

I look at what is happening now in the world, and it feels so often like the wind has been knocked out of me, or like my soul is shuddering inside my body. When I see the magnitude of human suffering, I feel my throat constrict. When I see some individuals turning away from the realities of injustice, I feel deeply angry.

On a global scale, humans do not know how to navigate conflict with grace, which snowballs and results in senseless violence, war, nationalism, injustice, censorship, and inequality. The brutality that’s born of fear rips at the fabric of the human soul and ravages communities. If we knew how to respect difference and competing interests with wisdom, I believe we would build a more equal, less violent world.

Anger as fuel is needed now more than ever before. The language around resistance and revolution has risen to the surface of our collective consciousness. Complacency – another sort of stillness and stagnation—cannot heal our collective pain. If you’ve ever watched a wound heal, you know it takes the body a great deal of effort to recover. If you’ve watched spring burst in April, you know it takes fierceness to create new life. Compassion, too, is an active process.

Healthy water is water that bubbles, swells, and moves. Look to the ocean to remind you that life is simultaneously tumultuous and graceful. We crave peace and stillness that we find in meditation, poetry, or prayer because connecting to source reminds us of our true nature, love. But while we are on earth, navigating conflict and difference with integrity is going to be part of the work towards justice, towards liberty, towards creating a better, more peaceful world for all humankind.