Clarity from stillness

A snapshot of serenity at the Montreal Botanical Garden, May 2009

A snapshot of serenity at the Montreal Botanical Garden, May 2009

“If water derives clarity from stillness, how much more so does the mind!”Zhuangzi

In a recent post, I discussed the fascination of watching moving waters.  But still waters are captivating as well, particularly when they mirror beautiful scenery.

Stillness is a trait that doesn’t come naturally to me.  Even when my body is not in motion (which is rare during waking hours) my mind is churning endlessly.  I can’t count the number of times, mostly late at night, when I wished my conscious mind had an off/on switch such as Jeff seems to have.  I’ve learned more than a few coping mechanisms to deal with insomnia, but nothing ever chases it away permanently.

It wouldn’t be so bad if my mind accomplished anything useful when my thoughts are scattered or distracting.  An active mind can be an advantage, after all.  But I think my frequent inability to concentrate is often the result of all this perpetual motion in my brain, and it’s not a recipe for clarity inside or outside.  It drives Jeff crazy when I interrupt my own sentences with tangential thoughts!

As one strategy to still my mind, I’m working on dialing back this societal fixation with what is called “multi-tasking” but all too often means “partial and interrupted tasking.”  I could use a little more mental clarity, especially as I age!  Do you have any “stillness secrets” to share with me?  Please post them in the comments, and HURRY, before my mind wanders to a different topic!


  1. yes amiga. get a pencil and paper and draw squares, ovals, parallel lines, tornadoes and just start shading.. slower and slower… your left brain will get bored and go to sleep, and your mind will calm.

    • Wow, that’s a great idea! I wonder if that’s why I used to get sleepy in class?! 🙂

  2. Julia, you will have to let me be alone, on a mountain for a few days, while I think of an answerr to what you’ve asked.

    • Sounds good to me! Is the cool of autumn already in the air up there?

      • Yes! Just today – 62 degrees!!

        • Isn’t that first touch of fall in the air a magical feeling?

  3. Judy in Pennsylvania

    Meditative music is a huge help to me when I need to calm down all the interior chatter and bouncy-bouncy thoughts if I especially need to focus on doing a type of detailed artwork that I like to do. I also learned that the kind of music I listen to greatly affects my ability to produce flowing lines and images. Gentle music gives gentle images. But that “old time rock ‘n roll” and a session of dancing around the kitchen also clears out the chatter for a few moments of just plain fun!

    • I think music is a great solution. I tend to use it mostly to energize myself (for exercise or as you say, just some fun dancing around the house) but I probably should use it for stillness. I have some lovely flute music that feels very serene. Years ago a friend gave me a CD of very soft music that was meant to induce sleep, and it really did help with the insomnia. I need to dig that out and try it again next time I’m wakeful. Thanks for the tips, and for your visit here!

  4. Joyce McGirr

    I agree, music is a huge help. The other thing that I do is to get up and write all my thoughts down in my journal. It relieves me and then it is there the next day if I need it. Another relief is to imagine a place that you love and go there in your imagination with all of your senses. Joyce

    • Thank you, Joyce! I do find writing therapeutic (it’s why I started this blog) but I think I should do what you mention and practice writing things down when I can’t get my mind to settle. Once or twice when I lay awake thinking of all the things I needed to do the next day, I have gotten up and made a list, and I do think it helped. I used to use your second suggestion (going to an imaginary place I loved) fairly often when I was a young girl, but haven’t tried that one lately. Sometimes I used to imagine lying on an air mattress in the Pacific Ocean, near a beach, as I used to do in Hawaii. The rocking of the waves was so soothing. I had to be careful not to fall asleep and drift away, though – that happened once and it was very frightening when I woke up to see a boat humming past me and the shore a LONG ways off! 🙂 I appreciate your visit here, and your comment!

  5. Gary

    My brain tends to race, particularly when I want to sleep. This can interfere with prayer as well. I have been visiting your blog for a few months & enjoy what you show us & what you write. Today’s Upper Room devotion, “Are We Listening” (8-15-13) reminds me my lack of focus may have something to do with too much preoccupation with personal concerns…Have prayed for you & all your family. Your writing encourages me & others.

    • Gary, thanks so much! I haven’t been to UR today but I’ll be sure to go; that sounds like a message I need. I’ve always had a hard time staying focused in public prayer. I find it somewhat easier with a prayer book or written prayer to help me focus, because it’s sometimes difficult for me to follow the words of a spoken prayer, and I do tend to be distracted by tangential thoughts. I used to feel guilty that I would fall asleep praying, but when I had problems with insomnia I realized that prayer helped me sleep because it eased my anxieties, so that didn’t seem like such a bad thing. I’m so happy you enjoy the blog, and we really appreciate your prayers!

  6. Susan Brown

    One of the techniques I have learned to use, when my mind is like a hamster on a wheel, is to feel my back on the chair, hands on the steering wheel, my breath going in and out, it brings me home to me.

    • That’s a good suggestion, and the part about becoming aware of the back, hands, etc. is a centering exercise that I haven’t heard before. It reminds me of some of the therapeutic activities Matt’s occupational therapist used to do with him, to help develop his proprioceptive system. She explained to me that we are usually unaware of the continual signals our body sends us, that tell us when we are in balance, sitting or standing, not in danger of falling, etc. and with Matt, his system for receiving and interpreting that input was impaired. So what you suggest is basically taking a peek at what our body is doing that we seldom pay attention to. I can imagine that would be calming, to listen to one’s body sending neurological signals that all is well.

  7. I took a mindfulness based workshop on meditation to learn how to do just that: calm the mind. I also have a meditation app on my iphone that I can put next to my pillow at night. You would be amazed what a guided 5 – 15 minute mediation can do to calm the brain and relax the body. There was a gentlemen in my class, well into his sixties if not older, who struggled his entire life with horrible feelings stemming from repeated sexual abuse at the hands of an uncle. He credited our class with helping him deal with these awful feelings for the first time in his long life. He practiced his meditation for twenty minutes, twice a day. His story was gut-wrenching to hear, but what I remember more is that this poor man finally found relief from all those thoughts and feelings through mediation.

    • Thanks Alys, it is always so encouraging to hear of people who overcome such difficulties and find a happy ending. Years ago my mother had some guided imagery tapes to use with meditation that sound very similar to the ones you are describing. I remember taking them to college to help me relax – living in the dorm was NOT an environment conducive to stillness! I do remember that they helped me.

      • I have to recommit to the good habits, but find the easier the better. I also exercise most days doing a variety of things so it helps with the sleep too.

        • I think exercise is a huge help to sleep. My problems with insomnia became much less frequent when I started walking at least 2 miles a day. I think it was partly the calming effect of being outdoors, but mostly just the physical activity. Now when I go a day without walking, I really do feel the difference.

          • You are so right! I think both are beneficial: the exercise and the outdoors. I sure sleep well after a big day in the garden.

            • That’s my favorite kind of tired, the way I feel after spending a day working outside. So therapeutic!

    • Thanks Alys! I noticed one of the videos mentioned Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work. One of Matt’s doctors recommended his book Full Catastrophe Living to parents of children with disabilities, and though I never read the whole thing, I did find it interesting. I was especially intrigued to notice the classes on mindful eating. Brian Wansink’s book Mindless Eating is one of the most helpful books on that topic that I’ve ever read. It’s amazing how much goes on in our brains that we are not even aware of!

      • Yes! Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work is exactly what this is.

        I’ve also read Mindless Eating!!! My brain is my worst enemy in the food department. I try to revisit these concepts often.

        We were very poor growing up after my dad died, so soda pop and chips or a chocolate bar were a huge treat. I swore that as an adult I would be able to buy and have all I wanted. Then I did…and it backfired. I’ve tried to raise my boys with an “all foods are created equal” mentality and it seems to have worked. They can have Halloween candy sitting around for weeks before I finally toss it. It’s not willpower, they just don’t see it as ‘loaded’ the way I once did.

        • When our kids were growing up we never kept sodas, junk food and such things around, but they were allowed to have it at parties and out with friends and other special occasions. I think when kids eat mostly “real” food they often lose their taste for most of what is junky, although we all have our favorite treats (Jeff and I love ice cream) and I think it’s OK to have such treats in moderation. So many of the things recommended in Mindless Eating have really proven helpful for me; it really is true that I eat less if I use a smaller plate, for example, even though I allow myself to go back and get more whenever I want to. I learned a lot from that book and I thought it was really interesting, too.

          • You are a model parent, Julia. I admire your perspectives.

            • Thanks Alys, you are very kind. As with so many things in life, we just step up to the plate when we have no other choice. When Matt was very young it became obvious to me that there were changes in his behavior that consistently followed what he ate or drank. We first started restricting our diets for his sake, but we all got accustomed to natural foods and it turned out to be a blessing for all of us. Whenever people tell me “I couldn’t do what you are doing” I tell them “you would if you had to.” I see so many resilient, brave and heroic people who refuse to give up, and find creative ways to make things better. It’s a great inspiration.

  8. MaryAnn

    Ah! Once again, you delight! There are many things in this post that identify me. You stated that waking hours are “in motion”. Shane tells people that I am like the Energizer Bunny, so I am looking for ways to be still. Brings to mind the great verse: “God says, Be still and know that I am God” Psalms 46:10. Wishing you the joy of a little stillness today.

    • MaryAnn

      Years ago, Truman Scott said what better place to fall asleep, while praying, than IN the arms of Jesus?!

      • I have learned to think of it that way – I surely hope it’s not rude of me! 🙂

    • Thank you, Mary Ann! Maybe that’s why we “clicked” when we met!

      • MaryAnn

        My thoughts exactly! Praising our Lord for putting us together!

  9. Dear Sister,
    “Being still and knowing that God is God” , and that we must “wait on Him” is the only way to handle the trials. I know that is not always easy but it is the only answer.

    • Carla, I agree that we have to let go of the illusion that we are in control. I think my problem often comes from being naturally active, and from the fact that there are times when being passive is not only harmful, but wrong. The trick for me lies in keeping my mind calm while still doing what I can and should be doing — AND realizing that it’s good sometimes not to do anything at all. We expect our minds to handle so much now, and there seems to be more to deal with every day. I wonder whether our grandmothers would have thought it impossible to process all that we do — phones, email, voicemail, regular mail and being available all our waking hours to multiple people via any of the above.

      • I do not believe the scriptures eluded to in my comment encourage passivity but rather a calm and peace that passes all understanding.

        • Yes, that peace is more of an underlying foundation to all that we do, not just another item on our “to-do” list – as Eric made reference awhile back to a man who had scheduled “relax” as a task for a specific period of time. I think if I could master an inner calm and peace, I would actually get MORE done because I’d waste less time flitting from one thing to another. Dealing with the medical challenges that confront Jeff and Matt, it’s ironically easier to feel that peace, perhaps since we have so little ultimate control there. But the daily urgent tasks, time crunch, forgotten details etc. are what threaten to de-rail me.

  10. You and I are the same in this manner, go-go-go. I don’t find stillness comes easy at all. I do like to just sit in the park and people watch. Sometimes when a tattooed, big guy goes by with a cute little dog, I have to smile because it’s a happy, unexpected moment. I found gardening at the lake provided moments of stillness. I’d stop to enjoy the Pelicans floating by, or Bumble Bee’s working on the roses or cuddle with Buddy on the grass. It’s nice to just roll over and look up at blue sky sometimes.

    • Yes, and how often do I actually make time to look up at the sky? Not often enough! I do think it helps for those of us with active minds to focus on something such as the sky or gardening or other non-electronic sights.

      • Sheila

        Julia, we traveled to Bristol Thursday and although I posted a few thoughts after we settled in, they didn’t make it over the mountain to you. “La-La Land”, where texts, faxes, and emails go, instead of the proper place. I thought of you as we passed Smith Reynolds Airport. I like to think of family, friends or even special people from my day, say my prayers and listen to the sounds of our house and usually go right to sleep. I guess I’m blessed that way. Thinking of you and how much you love this area. Tell Jeff that I’ll put my hand over my heart and say a prayer. I’m in Tennessee! Sheila

        • Sheila, I hope you will enjoy that pretty countryside for us. Thanks for making time to “visit” here on your travels! As always, we appreciate your prayers!

  11. Once on a trip to Canada we went to a lovely garden very similar to this. It was very hot so Aaron and I took off our shoes and sat down by a pond where the sign stated it was ok. We only sat a minute but when we got up our feet were covered with itty bitty leeches. It grossed me out. I haven’t put my feet in still water since then. I also hate that mosquitoes like still water. Hmmm guess I will be loving the moving water. I do try to be still sometimes.

    • EEEEWWWWW. Brought back memories of when I first learned was leeches were, reading one of the Little House books (I can’t remember which one, but probably Plum Creek?) where Laura comes out of the water covered with them. That would certainly cure me of putting my feet in a pond. The water was pretty still at Lake Louise, (see “Go Jump in the Lake”) but it was not the same as standing water where mosquitoes breed. I wonder if they even have mosquitoes that far north? Someone from one of the southern states (I don’t remember which one it was, either; do you see a pattern here?) told me that they were thinking of naming the mosquito as their state bird. Or maybe that was Dave Barry who said that.

  12. I know exactly what you mean about your mind churning endlessly ay night. I spend many nights trying to quiet my mind so that I can get to sleep, but it just seems to go into overdrive. Sometimes sitting up and reading for a while helps.

    • Yes, I think if it wasn’t for reading at night, I would never fall asleep. I read myself to sleep each night (something rather dry, never a thriller or mystery). I do find that walking during the day helps me calm down as well. Now that I am walking alone (since Pasha died on June 30) I love to take “virtual walks” with your Max and Jez at your blog! I haven’t found any other blog online that lets me take a virtual dog walk. It’s such a joy to be on walks with dogs and watch their reactions to the world around them. Whether they are enthusiastic or relaxed and a bit lazy, I find their moods can be contagious! Thanks for your visits here, and for your comments.

      • I had missed the fact that you had lost Pasha. I’m so sorry. I’m pleased that you like our walks though. Since we normally go to the same places I always worry that they are a little bit boring.

        • I guess I just enjoy hearing about what the dogs do, and seeing the English countryside. My friend who lived in Exning for three years used to take her dog to the fens, and when I visited her there, that was my first time ever hearing the word “fen.” I love England so it would never bore me!


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