At an elderly friend’s funeral (he had recently been presented with his first great-grandchild) we sang a popular hymn which was unfamiliar to me. The words which struck me most were the repeated ‘Be still my soul…
Be still my soul, begin the song of praise
On earth, be leaving, to Thy Lord on high
………… …………. ……………..
Be still my soul, The Sun of life divine
Through passing clouds shall but more brightly shine
This eighteenth century, German text, now married to Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia’, makes stillness the nexus between our life and the fullness of reality. This is the stillness of paradise which pervades those sacred cantatas of J S Bach which express the longing for death. The tender central aria of ‘Ich habe genug’ (BWV82) ends
Here I but make misery
but there, there I shall behold
sweetest peace and quiet rest
This is not a comfortable vision today – in the words of a Talking Heads song, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”. Reality for us is unstable. We play with artifice and alienation. Experience is shifting, and stillness tends towards lifelessness for us. But not for J S Bach, though his music is so close to the dance. But the dance is both moving and still – the pause, the form, the pattern.
The image of a still-life painting, a sculpted human form, a thrown bowl all, too, speak of a stillness which can lead to a deep appreciation of life, of activity. We create something formed and still, but the very stillness can reveal the essence of movement.
If we go back to the stillness of the soul, in the sense of untroubled peace, I would ask you to picture the young child embedded in the nurturing environment of the mother, able simply to be and to develop; a state of protected unawareness. Later in childhood, and I’m thinking typically of around the age of nine, will come the confrontation with the world, with a new sense of something being asked or demanded of the child. In this face-to-face meeting a clear distinguishing of self and the world can happen, in particular the now clearer observation of others, comparing oneself with others, developing a personality. I want to suggest that the proper intensity of this developmental encounter emerges out of a kind of stillness within the being of the child, a stillness expressed in a lightness of being, a feeling of integration of mind and body. This buoyant stillness is, I believe, the fruit of the young child’s immersion in a nurturing environment which does not ask her to be in charge, to be aware. In a way that can be appropriate for adults, I think of the Alexander Technique as offering us the restorative power of this inner stillness which promotes both our overcoming of the adult heaviness of the body, and our ability to recognise other people as individuals.
We are creatures who live our lives so firmly rooted in space, as separate entities. Here I am, there you are. We mature into this sense of spatial separateness and it is inherently a lonely state of being. My experience with the Alexander Technique has shown me that, contrary to what one might expect, the cultivation of stillness, which might seem to fix us more firmly to the spot, is a fertile means of moving out of that lonely space.
Some words of Anne Morrow Lindbergh helped me to understand what I was finding. She writes about our need for stillness and to be alone – “The problem is not entirely in finding the room of one’s own, the time alone, difficulty and necessary as this is. The problem is more how to still the soul in the midst of its activities. In fact the problem is how to feed the soul.” I enjoy the surprise of her last sentence: no more inactivity, withdrawal, the issue now is nourishment via stillness in activity. I suggest you work with the idea of stillness in the soul as the body moves, keeping the soul still as the body moves through space. You walk across a room towards a vase of autumn leaves in a window which catch the late sun. Let the tranquillity which belongs to your head be there together with the life of your moving limbs. This new harmony of thinking and doing can be explored in many ways in even this simple journey across a room. We are feeding the soul through cultivating stillness in movement.
I want to take this inner schooling a step further. Rudolf Steiner writes in many different contexts of exercises or practices to help our inner development which one could characterise as requiring our active attention, activity, interest. He also speaks often, as the other side of the pendulum’s swing, of the value of exercises which balance these more active ones, which call for what he often calls ‘devotion’. By devotion he means an active stilling of the will, a giving of oneself up to whatever it is one has opened oneself to. It is a state of being open, receptive, awake. There is something potentially quite frightening in this state of being, I think – I can imagine feeling lost, lonely, afraid, losing touch with the world in the floating vastness of my inner world. However, if we keep in touch with the world, if we walk, if we hold a cold smooth pebble in our hand, then my experience is that we are filled with the life around us in a nourishing but normal, everyday way. The receptive openness, the devotion, the stillness, if we can bring it into our actions, our speaking, our doings, is not then escapist, though it may well help us escape from the confinement of the spot we occupy.