Stillness of mind and contemplative inquiry

“Nothing is so bitter that a calm mind cannot find comfort in it.”

Seneca

Virtually all of our spiritual, esoteric, and philosophical traditions teach us one common lesson, that our attention is something like a muscle. They teach us that it is subject to our control, and it ought to be trained, exercised, and strengthened.

Through various forms of meditation, prayer, mantras, or other techniques of inner discpline, we can learn how to grab hold on the mind and increasingly direct our attention properly.

The ability to control and focus the attention consciously becomes of paramount importance when working with more advanced levels of spiritual work, namely with pain, trauma, and other types of psychic suffering. It is an indispensible foundation for all the other types of spiritual work. A mind that is not calm, not disciplined, needlessly magnifies and intensifies the experience of emotional suffering, frustrating much of the goals and efforts of spiritual practice.

When we learn to still the mind, to keep it from running amok, we then become able to focus into the experience of pain (without trying to avoid it, running from it, trying to make it stop, or otherwise spiralling out of control). That’s what allows us to untangle the falsehoods that cause needless suffering, and to let the authentic pain digest through; that is where Seneca’s comfort lies, and where healing, resilience, and wisdom grow.

This may seem like a counter-intuitive instruction; the confrontation of emotional pain is everyone’s least favorite activity. Why would anyone want to turn into the pain?

That’s a perfectly reasonable question; it’s part of our human makeup to want to avoid pain, pretty much at all costs. And yet all the mystics and alchemists have taught us for centuries that the cure for the pain is into and through the pain. Turning into pain, with a focused and calm mind, even when the emotional body is anything but calm, allows us to work through the arising pain, fear, panic, etc. and slowly transmute those things, by discovering the truth and allowing the authentic pain to move through the body.

This holds true in some of the worst experiences of darkness – in the throes of PTSD, persecutory delusions, panic attacks, grief, terrors, hallucinations, etc. Stilling the mind, turning into the experience, confronting the truth and the pain, allowing it to process through properly, is the key to all of healing work, regardless of the type of experience. It is of course momentarily more unpleasant, sometimes very unpleasant, but it is the proper way to address emotional suffering of all sorts.

Below is an excerpt from Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Tolstoy. If you’re wrestling with death, suffering, meaning, truth, deception, loneliness, surrender, toxic spouses, propriety, conformity, and expectations, Tolstoy’s got you covered! The book is honest and funny, and tragic and real, but what’s most profound is that one cannot write this experience, one cannot convey it, without having lived it… And so by writing it so beautifully and authentically, Tolstoy gives us a glimpse of his incredible depth and mysticism.

The excerpt below is specifically relevant to the subject of stillness of mind in the midst of great pain. Tolstoy writes this moment with perfect unsentimental precision, illustrating Seneca’s instructions in practice.

Throughout much of the book we watch Ivan dying a slow and agonizing death, drowning in sorrow, self-pity, despair, loneliness, and obviously the physical pain.

This is a climactic moment when Ivan finally becomes still. Keeping his mind from jumping from one horrific thought to the next, he becomes able to hear the right questions…

He removed his legs from Gerasim’s shoulders, turned sideways onto his arm, and felt sorry for himself.

He only waited till Gerasim had gone into the next room and then restrained himself no longer but wept like a child. He wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God.

“Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me here? Why, why dost Thou torment me so terribly?”

He did not expect an answer and yet wept because there was no answer and could be none. The pain again grew more acute, but he did not stir and did not call.

He said to himself: “Go on! Strike me! But what is it for? What have I done to Thee? What is it for?”

Then he grew quiet and not only ceased weeping but even held his breath and became all attention. It was as though he were listening not to an audible voice but to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts arising within him.

“What is it you want?” was the first clear conception capable of expression in words, that he heard.

“What do you want? What do you want?” he repeated to himself.

“What do I want? To live and not to suffer,” he answered.

And again he listened with such concentrated attention that even his pain did not distract him.

“To live? How?” asked his inner voice.

“Why, to live as I used to—well and pleasantly.”

“As you lived before, well and pleasantly?” the voice repeated.

And in imagination he began to recall the best moments of his pleasant life. But strange to say none of those best moments of his pleasant life now seemed at all what they had then seemed—none of them except the first recollections of childhood. There, in childhood, there had been something really pleasant with which it would be possible to live if it could return. But the child who had experienced that happiness existed no longer, it was like a reminiscence of somebody else.

Getting still enough to hear the right questions (later learning how to ask ourselves those right questions), and engaging with those questions in earnest, offers illuminating liberation from the knots and attachments that create so much of the pain. This is the heart of contemplative inquiry, and the comfort Seneca points to.

That voice, the wise inner mystical inquisitor, is always there in the darkness, ready to help us navigate the experiences correctly. It doesn’t offer “comfort” in the usual tender sense – that voice is rarely compassionate or empathic, but it offers the most relevant questions that reveal the truth. That voice essentially calls out our lies and self-deceptions, which cause us so much unnecessary pain. If we are ready and willing to confront ourselves honestly, those questions pull us into the discovery of real truth (often hidden ugly truths) providing the medicine needed for the soul, and for the cessation of needless suffering.

Having found his false story, his false clinging to a lie, a life that doesn’t exist, Ivan moves through that grief and quickly into illumination, peaceful acceptance, and the revelation that the death he so feared isn’t the end of life.

That is the ultimate, some would say glorious, comfort to be found with a calm mind in the midst of pain.