How You Can Build Capacity for a Still Mind

To the mind that is still the whole universe surrenders.
— Lao Tzu

I remember hitting a tennis ball against a back board with intensity as a young teen, all alone. I hit the ball whack on the backboard, smack on the racket and ran around reaching for each shot with focus. Then I began to hit wildly. One ball went soaring over the fence. Then another plopped right into a hole in the backboard and disappeared. In a burst of frustration I flung my racket towards the backboard. It hit hard and fell to the ground. Suddenly embarrassed, I looked around to see if anyone saw me. Then I sheepishly picked up my racket and began to hit the ball again.

I love and resist practice all at once. That experience remains vivid in my mind. I had to regain my composure and continue to play or drive myself crazy. Practice is vital, but it can be frustrating at times.

I wake up slowly to the sound of birds outside. My eyes flutter open, and I sigh as the mind kicks in. Blah blah blah, it sounds like, as I roll along on an old theme from yesterday. How quickly the chatter begins. I grab onto several options for the morning, a weekend day. Ahh, now I’m in trouble. Too many choices.

I stretch out, pick up the bedroom, then sit to meditate. Actually, to pick up the bedroom, something concrete, is a strategy that grounds me, much as I resist. Chores are often at the bottom of my priority list. When I can just do some, they act like medicine to my possibility of clarity. I sit to meditate in a spot in the bedroom with a view of the trees out the window. Birds chirp, the warm breeze rustles the leaves and slowly my mind begins to turn inward. The stillness is right there. Can you feel it? So illusive is that quiet stillness that you could swear it is not possible. Try it now. Take a breath. If there is a window, look out the window with soft focus. Without effort relax into yourself. Feel your body sitting, breathing.

To practice is to refine a skill. Athletes practice. They do the same moves over and over in preparation for the moment during the game. Musicians practice. Meditation is a practice, a practice to be present to ourselves, to be in the flow, to embrace our lives in the present moment.

The great thing about the still mind, the practice of meditation, is that it is a mystery. And it is a paradox. How can it be that in order to take clear action in life we need to seek quiet and stillness inside? Yet it is true. It is almost too simple. To take time, really take time to be quiet and meditate and turn inward each day creates space for creativity and clear action. Think about it. Have you experienced this?

Practice is vital to athletes and musicians and for many skills. Musicians practice over and over: scales and chords, the same little challenging line within a piece. Have you done this? Do you know what I’m talking about? Practice itself stills the mind. Have you experienced that? To practice intently can provide a focus which quiets the mind.

Meditation is an inward focus and like any skill requires practice to provide access to the still mind that is always there.

Why meditate? The essential question of life, from youth to old age is, What am I doing here? What is my purpose? How can we feel or know it if we don’t get quiet within ourselves?

I sit for meditation on this morning. I feel myself slow down. It is subtle and quiet and I breathe a deep sigh. In fact, after twenty minutes I slowly open my eyes and know I don’t want to do either of the possible things I considered earlier. I will write for three hours. It is a defined amount of time within which I have the space to explore. I smile at myself, at the simplicity of that insight and am grateful I did not force myself to decide earlier.

There is another thing about meditation. It taps into love. Yes, love in the largest sense. In a meditation intensive many years ago, I experienced a blasting open of my heart. But first I was frightened. There was a long meditation session and my mind sped up. I felt fear and intense images of myself as a small child who missed my daddy. My mind went so fast that it was almost comical. Suddenly, it was like that speeding mind blew itself out and a wave of love burst from my heart. Tears of relief spilled from my eyes as I was transformed to a light and open place like nothing I had experienced before.

Here is a paradox. We do meditation practice for many reasons. One is to reduce stress and to be clear- minded and centered. To take it a step further, meditation can transform us to be more loving, understanding people living in the moment.

The paradox is simple and not simple, easy and not easy. Trying too hard will backfire. It is not about trying but about being. Meditation practice is truly practice for transcendence and in the big picture contributes to our transformation as fully realized human beings. This is the work of the second half of life, the time to refine our self awareness and digest our life experience.

The gift of the quiet mind is that it reflects and helps us absorb the depths of realization and insight. This is not accomplished in a few sessions and done. The practice itself is the point and to engage in it day by day works the mystery more deeply into us so that when we are finished with our time on earth, this place of stillness is very familiar.

Thus the words of Lao Tzu, spoken long ago, echo this simple, paradoxical truth.


To the mind that is still the whole universe surrenders.
— Lao Tzu