The world is sometimes a hard and painful place. Where can we go for refuge? Is there a safe harbor where we can feel our own validity, our own significance, our own sanctity?
In all the world’s spiritual literature, there is nothing quite like the Psalms. Tradition has it that most of them were written by David (1040-970 B.C.E.), the first ruler to unite a smattering of warring tribes into a unified kingdom called Israel. His son Solomon would go on to build the First Temple, concretizing the empire. Scholars believe that it was during this prolific time that most of the Torah and other significant sections of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) were written, including the Torah and the Psalms. And like the books of the Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—the Psalms are forged in the fire of battle. There are many significant themes in these early Biblical books, but foremost among them is this – how to live a peaceful life in the face of conflict, war, and death.
As Jewish texts, the Psalms naturally center on the God of Abraham, though spiritual people of all faith traditions resonate with these ancient Semitic poems. Suffering is universal—no religious tradition has cornered the market on misery. But these world-weary songs sing out across the plains of Jordan and down through the ages with universal authority. Anyone with a heart feels at home in their seasoned knowledge of the human condition, even if the monotheistic God is not quite your thing.
No one knows who wrote the 46th Psalm, but like most of the Psalms it appears to have been inspired by dark and chaotic events. And like the other Psalms, it sings of a God who stands by us while all else falls at our feet in rubble. For 3,000 years people have turned to the Psalms for solace, for in all the world’s spiritual literature there are few passages that soar this high, flow this deep, and speak with such intimate knowledge of the fragility of our lives.
In the 46th Psalm, the unknown author paints a bleak picture of a world at war where “nations are in uproar” and “kingdoms fail.” Yet despite the “desolation,” God “makes war cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.”
But it’s the next line everyone remembers. In the midst of all this chaos, as God is wresting peace from the jaws of war, he says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Here the Psalmist captures our longing for the end of conflict and the coming of peace, and anchors it all to the condition of consciousness known as stillness.
What does it mean to “be still?” Stillness means coming out of the field of action and leaving the world to its own processes for a while. It means non-interference. It means no words – no talking, no writing, no singing. It means slipping out of the noose of the busy-mind. It means sliding into the stillness that lies just beneath the agitated waves of surface consciousness. In his classic of Vedanta philosophy The Yoga Sutra, Patanjali (c. 400 C.E.) defined yoga as “The cessation of the thought-waves of the mind.” At the core of the Indian tradition is this shift—learning to cease identifying with the endless thought-forms that crowd the surface mind. Buddha called this mindfulness.
The Bhagavad Gita also points to the ever-present stillness always accessible within. In the non-dualistic philosophy of Advaita Vedanta we are at core Brahman-Atman, the one underlying, formless reality from which all forms arise and to which all forms return. We lose touch with our own essential stillness to the extent that we turn outward, caught by the machinations of the world and the machinations of our own conceptual thoughts, cravings, fears, and judgments. We regain our footing when we turn toward the stillness within.
Hinduism and Judaism may posit different theological constructs regarding the nature of ultimate reality, but both traditions agree that stillness is what ultimate reality feels like.
In the 23rd Psalm, the most famous of all, we find another example of the longing for peace in the midst of conflict. “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint by head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever.”
Here David celebrates the restorative, therapeutic qualities of natural beauty and the infinite abundance of a universe that by its very nature cannot stop sustaining us. As you would expect from a writer who is the king of a herding culture, the central metaphor is the relationship between a sheep and its shepherd. Our simple needs are met, we are safe, the grass is green, and our shepherd is sure. And even though there are threats and enemies in the world, a table has been prepared for us in their presence. There may always be strife, but we’re safe right here, right now. Conflict in some form will always be with us, so the best we can hope for is temporary respite, and a feast where we break bread together to celebrate our common humanity.
It is in stillness that our heart grows calm. It is from stillness that our wisdom comes. And it is through stillness that the order of our life is restored.
In Buddhism this stillness is known as nirvana, a Sanskrit word meaning “no wind.” When we leave behind the agitation of craving and fear, the Buddha taught, we arrive at a place of serenity and peace where empathy, loving-kindness, and generosity of spirit replace the miserly competitiveness that used to characterize our lives. We are able to weather “the presence of our enemies” because we have transcended the consciousness that divides the wholeness of humanity into friends and enemies. So, too, Jesus commands us not to judge and to “love our enemies.” He points to a field out past all concepts of wrong-doing and right-doing where people with different understandings of the world, temporarily in conflict with one another, meet and move into a mode of living that recognizes differences, but is not limited to or bound by them.
None of this enlightened consciousness is available to the agitated mind. There is just too much adrenalin pumping through our veins most of the time. Only through stillness and serenity is our adrenalin reabsorbed, allowing us to shift into the quietude that is our sacred birthright. No matter which wisdom tradition you ascribe to, or none at all, this primal ocean of peaceful insight is nearer to us than our jugular vein. We have only to slow down, step out of the stream, and gather our wits into a pool of stillness.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.peterbolland.com