Staying Still

When discussing Bhagavad Gita we often hear rhetorical questions like “Can you stop breathing for five minutes? Can you stop thinking for five minutes?” They make perfect sense in the context of the need to engage one’s senses etc etc. This post is not about that.

I would rather argue that “staying still for five minutes” is an oxymoron because “five minutes” in itself is a measurement of change, it’s not a measurement of stillness. This, of course, goes back to fundamental understanding of what time is – it’s a force of change. It’s a force that compels the three gunas to move forward and change the state of the world, of the universe, of each particular atom, and of each particular being. Even in everyday parlance we understand that time is never still. When we say “five minutes” we mean movement of a minute hand on the clock or the number of CPU cycles on electronic clocks, translated into minutes and seconds. Something somewhere has to change in order for us to notice that it’s been five minutes already. It cannot be a measurement of stillness, it will always be a measurement of movement.

Having said that, we understand the meaning of “sit still for five minutes”, so how does it fit? What does it mean exactly. Keeping one’s breath, for example, means that our hearts keeps pumping blood, our cells keep consuming oxygen, our eyes keep tracking the watch, our thoughts race about the brain, our intelligence is busy weighing between “enough” or “a few seconds more”  decisions, whether any of it even makes sense, whether “mind over matter” is a real thing and so on. In fact, it would appear that we get ourselves even busier than usual. Of course we would stop any physical activity to conserve oxygen, but it would take many years of yoga practice to stop our minds from racing around and judging our performance.

The reference to yoga should get us closer to the meaning of “still” because, when perfected, one does not only stop breathing but also stops thinking, and when no bodily activities are going on his heart also stops pumping blood. If the yogi is not looking at the watch then time literally stops – for him. Those observing him would still count minutes and hours, of course. In our scriptures we have many examples of such yogis staying in trance for thousands and thousands of years, with no one watching. There are many of them still in meditation with no one even aware of their existence.

“But time is still going on,” one might object. “Yes – for you. Not for the yogi himself.” In the examples from scriptures we also learn that these yogis often have some goal in mind and so they keep measuring their position in relation to that goal. In ashtanga yoga, for example, there are series of steps – eight, in fact, as the name itself tells us – and so yogi progresses from one step to another and he knows where he is. This means that he has his internal notion of change and, therefore, subjected to his internal flow of time. From the outside perspective he has long stopped breathing and no changes are any longer visible. Internally, however, the yogi might decide to take a tour of the universe before going into final samadhi. At this point he will be visiting the Sun and the Moon and the Mount Meru and observing all the beings living there and their conditions and how they control movements of humans on Earth. And we’d call all of it internal and subjective and keep looking at our clocks – because we think our clocks are the objective reality. Meanwhile, the yogi will see subtle changes that will force us to abandon the observations in a few months from now and how these subtle changes gradually propagate through our “objective reality” and eventually force us to abandon the experiment. And we won’t believe a word of what he says when he returns to our world. To give an example – the yogi might notice political change in the air that will eventually force the lab management to divert funds elsewhere, like to preserving the climate.

Still, there are also examples of yogis who keep track of external changes, especially the demoniac ones, I guess. They know how much power they have accrued at any given moment, they know how long they have to stand on one leg to get to the next stage. They know whether they will have to stop breathing or whether they should allow ants to build a colony out of their bodies. They keep track, but it might not be measured in minutes but in years and decades. If we look closely around us also can notice that some changes take longer than the others, like the seasons or the movement of the second hand on the clock. We usually don’t even look at it and so do not measure our lives in seconds. We rather say “fifteen minutes ago” and even in that case we round the minutes to fives and zeros. A yogi, I would guess, can also keep track only of season changes, not even the days, and so he can be said to “sit still for five minutes” even though he doesn’t know when five minutes start and end. It’s just not a part of his reality. In the same way we don’t count our time by heartbeats. We know they are there, we can count then when we want, but usually we have no idea.

In other words, to sit still for five minutes we have to shift our consciousness from events observable in five minutes frame to changes that take considerably longer. As people get older they sometimes reflect back on their lives and, if we tied it to recorded events, measure it in decades instead. “I got married and then divorced” easily can cover a decade or two. If pressed he might produce minute details of that marriage but nowhere close to five minute intervals, and this ability to zoom in goes away with age, too. “Now I’m just waiting to die” is also a change that can take many many years.

We can apply this principle without waiting to get old, we just have to organize our priorities in proper order. One can measure his life by the time it takes to finish Srimad Bhagavatam, for example – if it’s the only meaningful devotional service he renders. Or one can measure his life by Ratha Yatras if he spends several months preparing for one. We just have to find some engagement for ourselves and focus on it, with the rest our lives simply folding into serving this one big purpose. “I will build a temple” is one such commitment and it usually takes a lot of time to achieve and it keeps oneself busy all the time. Who will even notice “five minutes” when absorbed in such a way?

That could be a nice spiritual solution but it won’t qualify as being still by objective observers. Okay, but it’s not a big deal. We can shift our consciousness deep within ourselves instead and focus on the Lord within our hearts. There will be progress in these pastimes but externally we would be very still by all accounts. Achieving this stage is not easy, of course, and even impossible – considering that bhakti is independent and cannot be obtained by our own efforts, but when it’s granted then stillness becomes the new normal. This has happened to devotees even in our observable and recorded history. Just recently Babhru Prabhu published a book about Akincana Dasa Babaji, Srila Prabhupada’s godborther who was very close to ISKCON. In that book, judging by previews, there were times when Akincana Babaji simply checked out of the external world. There are other examples as well, even with Srila Prabhupada himself, though no one checked the watch few times it happened in public. There were others.

The fully satisfying and achievable answer, however, would be – engage yourself in Krishna’s service completely and then you won’t notice how the time flies, never mind what people with the clocks say about your activities. That would be a real samadhi, as we can learn from even the most cursory reading of Bhagavad Gita. This way we circled back to the beginning of this article but, hopefully, learned something new in the process.

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