16 October 2019

Meditation and the two types of stillness

“At times in my meditation, I do experience moments of stillness, but I am not sure what type it is. Can you explain?” This request came up while Ruth and I were leading a day workshop in Adelaide last weekend based upon my new book Blue Sky Mind. It seems many readers find the explanation of the two types of stillness helpful – stillness of the Active Mind, and stillness of the Still Mind; but then are not sure what it is they are experiencing.

Also, if the experience is of the Active Mind – as is common - how to move on to the more profound and transformative stillness of the Still Mind?

Classically, the metaphor of the blue sky being like the Still Mind and the clouds being like the Active Mind has helped many, but this week, it feels useful to share an excerpt from Blue Sky Mind that explains a new metaphor that is helping many, but first

     Thought for the day  

       Sit like a mountain

       Heart like the ocean

       Mind like the sky

                  Sogyal Rinpoche

The sky and cloud metaphor is a very useful one; but maybe for even more clarity we can use a new metaphor : carriages on a train. To elaborate, if a super-fast Bullet train were to fly past us, it may well be we would be unable to notice any gaps between the carriages.

However, if we were close enough to see the carriages of a long train making its way slowly past us, it would be fairly easy to notice the individual carriages and the gaps between them.

In the gaps between the carriages there is a space, and this space is in line with the carriages.

Carriage, space, carriage, space, and so on.

This space is quite finite and it is between the carriages; it is defined by the carriages, it is in close relationship with the carriages.

But now, if we look through the space between the carriages, we may well get the sense that there is much more space on the other side of the carriages. That space is not so dependent upon the carriages. The carriages may come and go, but our sense of that space will not change.

This more ‘distant’ space, is not affected by the train passing by. This more distant space was there before the train came, is there as the train passes by, and it will remain after the train has gone from view. And to be even more complete, there is a space in front of the train as well. And behind it. There is space between us and the train, as well as beyond the train.
Clearly, this space of which we are talking is all pervasive.

This is definitely worth reflecting upon a little until you really understand it; better still, take it in, experience it.

At first in our meditation when we start to notice the gaps between our thoughts it is most often like with the carriages; we are noticing the gap between the thoughts; the stillness between the thoughts. In this gap is what we could call the stillness of the Active Mind.

Now we must be clear. Any experience we have of the stillness of the Active Mind is quite useful. It is deeply peaceful, deeply regenerative. However, during the experience of this particular version of stillness we often have a limited sense of awareness. We can come out of the experience unclear about what happened.

After experiencing some time in the gap between their thoughts, people often say to me things like ‘I am not sure if I was awake or asleep. It did not feel like sleep, but I am not sure what it was’.

Often too, our perception of time becomes distorted in this state. Normally our perception of time is dependent on movement. However, if we are still and there is no movement, then we can be there for a few moments and it can feel like a long time. On another occasion it may feel as if we have been still for many minutes but when we check the clock, it was but a few brief moments.

Most people relate to this version of stillness – the stillness of the Active Mind - as pleasant and comforting, but rather dull and indistinct; a bit like a sleepy version of meditation. But again, to be clear, from the point of view of stress management, coming into our natural balance and the inner peace we have been speaking of along with healing, this state is actually quite useful.

But we do need to be clear that this stillness of the Active Mind is not the deeper state of stillness we have been discussing as the stillness of the Still Mind.

Using our original metaphor once again, the stillness of the Active Mind relates to the clouds; the stillness of the Still Mind has more to do with our experience of ‘the sky’.

However, all thoughts do actually exist within the context of the still mind, just as clouds exist within the context of the sky.

Clouds are dependent upon the sky, and only come into existence because the spaciousness of the sky makes them possible.

The existence of the sky allows for the natural expression of the clouds, but the sky is not affected by the clouds.

The sky is not changed or affected by the clouds; it is not stained or scarred by any particular clouds.

So it is with our own mind. The Still Mind provides the conditions in which thoughts can arise, be experienced, and pass on by. But the Still Mind is not affected by thoughts. It retains its natural qualities whatever type of thoughts we generate. Good thoughts, easy — stable Still Mind. Tough, destructive thoughts — just like a bad storm, blue sky unaffected, stable Still Mind.

So when we experience the stillness of the Active Mind, we remain on the level of our thoughts and emotions. We can experience some respite, even a deep sense of clarity and calmness; but in the fundamental sense, there will be no profound change in us. We are still in the domain of the Active Mind.

However, when we do manage to catch a glimpse of the stillness of the Still Mind, we transcend the Active Mind. Our whole perspective will change, our way of seeing the world will transform and we will View the world in quite a different way.


Blue Sky Mind is available through the Foundation’s website and most other outlets.

If your local bookseller is not stocking it as yet, please do ask…

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