Psalm 46:10 Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!
So, I was sitting in my backyard the other night staring up at the stars. Sometimes I am struck by the fact that I live in the Southern Hemisphere, in South America, in Bolivia, in the Chaco, in a little town called Charagua. It’s very far from where I have spent the majority of my life, Central Texas. As I was staring into the night sky I was struck by the fact that as I sat still in my chair I was actually hurtling through space in orbit around the sun and as the earth spins.
Maybe meditation and quieting ourselves is really a way to notice the energy of the world around us that we mask by our activity. Crickets chirping, air moving, birds flying, the world is never still. As Heraclitus first posited, It seems that the very nature of existence is change. The underlying elemental force is fire according to Heraclitus. The world is dynamic, alive and buzzing. Yet we barely notice. For modern humans, being still mainly involves turning off the television, taking off the headphones, closing the laptop, and unplugging the phone. This only gets us to the point where we ourselves are still and silent. That is when we begin to notice that the world is not silent. There are engines, motors, cars, people, planes, lights, power lines, computers and lots of machines that constitute a low buzz of man-made noise that fills our lives.
Yet, if we were to find a place where these things were absent we would notice that the world itself is alive with noise, activity and life. There’s a constant flow of change, growth, birth, death, eating, pooping, playing, singing, yelling, fighting, crying and laughing going on all around us. Some of it under our feet, in the soil or the water, where it is invisible to us. Some of it in trees, on the ground, in the air or hidden in holes of caves. One of the most profound moments of my life was on a tiny island in the middle of the Boundary Waters, where engines were not allowed. I spent 45 minutes alone observing, thinking, praying and listening. It was certainly the closest I have felt to nature.
I had a thought on that island that has stuck with me over the years. I suddenly realized that all the activity and life I witnessed around me continued all the time whether or not I, or anyone else was there to pay attention. This is not a philosophical statement about the nature of reality, but a realization about the nature of nature. In our own place of stillness and quiet we are able to feel connected to that which continues without us, without our constant attention, care and maintenance.
In the oft-quoted verse above there is a connection between stillness, knowing God and God’s revelation of Godself through nature. We have a very Greek understanding of what it means to “know” something or someone. In Hebrew the idea of “knowing” something or someone connotes a relational way of knowing. We don’t know the thing in itself. We know it as we relate to it. Knowing God is relating to God and being in relationship. One of the ways we do this is through nature and the kind of stillness that creates an awareness of our connection to the earth, other humans and therefore God.
The purpose of meditation, contemplation, centering prayer or whatever you call it is not to escape from the world and push it away, but to remove all of the obstacles and noise from our lives and minds that keep us from experiencing the world and knowing ourselves. There is no stillness. There is no quiet. We are always hurtling through space around the sun. There is always motion, change, growth, death. What we call stillness and quiet is our attempt to reconnect with this truth and this reality.