I recently found myself in an epic struggle with my writing. My draft folder was growing as I kept on writing articles that felt too controversial to submit. At the same time, I wasn’t able to write new (and presumably tamer) articles.
While going through an article for the dozenth time, I realized that I was trying to find a solution on the outside. Unconsciously, I seemed to think that I would be able to move on if I just got all the words right in this article in front of me.
At that moment I realized I was trying to solve the problem in the wrong place. I assumed the problem was outside of me, that there was something wrong with the article. In reality, the struggle was within me… between the part of me that felt good about sharing controversial articles and the part that didn’t want to rock the boat.
But instead of doing the hard work of figuring out how to move forward, I was trying to resolve the minutia.
In my observation, us humans tend to do this. We try to treat the symptom, not the cause. We’re looking to change the external because we think that’s easier to do.
Albert Einstein famously said that:
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
That’s why I failed when tried to solve my dilemma by doing grammar edits! I was attempting to solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that created it. A level of consciousness that believes the external and internal are fully separate and that salvation can be found in the external if I just try hard enough.
What I realized at that moment is that we can never solve a problem on the outside that originates on the inside. I realized that I had to stopped doctoring with my article. It was time to turn inside.
Our Inner Oasis
I had to focus on the stillness within.
So that’s what I tried to do while sitting in a coffee shop with a blabbering human on the phone on the next table over. At first, I noticed myself getting irritated about being forced to listen to his (in my view) inane conversation. Then I realized that the external world was once again mirroring my internal experience… where a part of me just wouldn’t shut up about things that didn’t really matter.
The moment I had that realization, the guy ended his phone call. Blessed silence followed. My (relative) stillness within was now matched by (relative) stillness outside.
This experience is not unique. We all have an oasis inside, a fountain of strength. A place of peace and tranquility that’s accessible to us at all times. We can find refuge there.
One of my all-time favorite quotes by French existentialist Albert Camus speaks to this: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” Sitting in the middle of a noisy coffee shop, I found that inner spring, that inner summer.
I’d wager that few things are more important than having a connection with that oasis within. Feeling connected to a deeper sense of peace builds trust in life. It empowers us to take risks. To live life vicariously and full of hope. To try harder than we ever have.
As Jared Brock put it:
“Inner stillness is the key to outer strength.”
The Evidence that This Works
Perhaps you find yourself asking for proof that what I’m sharing works. While all of it sounds nice, where is the evidence that inner stillness is so powerful?
I could point out that mindfulness training has long been used to help people with chronic pain. Or mention research on the benefits of preparing for childbirth with mindfulness training. Or share that fMRI scans have revealed lower levels of felt pain and pain intensity in meditators.
But there’s a more visceral example: We have probably all seen the cover image of Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled 1992 album —a monk in a lotus pose who is half-consumed by flames.
The story behind that cover image is both powerful and heartbreaking: On June 11, 1963, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire at a busy intersection in Saigon to protest against his government’s oppression against the nation’s Buddhist majority. What preceded this was a Buddhist celebration that ended in bloodshed and the death of nine people.
As Mark Oliver puts it:
“… his death has been reduced to a symbol — but it was far more than that. It was an act of defiance against a corrupt government that had killed nine of its own people. It fueled a revolution, toppled a regime, and may even be the reason that American [sic] entered the Vietnam War.”
The world-famous image of Duc’s death is the strangest juxtaposition of violence and peace I have ever seen. While burning alive in political protest, he looks as peaceful as if he were meditating in a quiet garden.
Even the final note he left is composed and calm:
“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngô Đình Diệm to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally.”
New York Times journalist David Halberstam who was present at the time confirms that Duc was as calm as he appears on the image and in his final note:
“As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”
This is echoed by photographer Malcolm Brown who shot the Pulitzer-prize winning image of Duc:
“I don’t know exactly when he died because you couldn’t tell from his features or voice or anything. He never yelled out in pain.”
While we don’t know what exactly Duc experienced just before his death, we do know that he took his samanera (novice) vows at age 15. At the time of death, he had spent at least half a century on his spiritual path. As a highly experienced meditator, Duc was used to going to a place of stillness. It stands to reason that that helped him have such extraordinary composure in death.
He didn’t just visit inner stillness. He probably lived there.
While hopefully nobody reading this will ever face a similar situation to Duc, we all experience pain and challenges in life. It’s part of being human.
And one thing we learn from Duc’s composure in death is that humans have more resources inside of themselves than they can imagine. Unlocking those resources can help soften the blows of life.
Even though Duc was a highly experienced meditator and even though the studies I mentioned focus on mindfulness or meditation, we shouldn’t confuse these practices with the experience of inner stillness itself.
Inner stillness is the location. Meditation is the vehicle… but it isn’t the only vehicle to get you to where you want to go.
All you have to do is stop and listen. Your inner oasis is within you at all times. It cannot be lost, only buried underneath chatter. I found my internal refuge once I stopped searching for solutions on the outside —only to find that retreating to my inner oasis helped solve my writing-related challenges.
The same might be true for your problems. In the words of German author Herman Hesse:
“Within yourself is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.”
All you have to do is… stop… and listen.
Can you feel your inner stillness?
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