This winter I have been learning about stillness. After years focused on getting things done, I’ve begun learning about the value and importance of Not-Doing.

From a young age, I was taught to value hard work. I believed that it is only through our striving, motivation and disciplined effort that we will get where we want to be in life. The unspoken assumption that I have when things aren’t going the way I want is that I need to find a way to work harder on making it happen. There are a lot of ways that this approach to life has served me well, and I have, indeed, accomplished a lot. But there are also ways that it is a setup for frustration, depletion and exhaustion. It is fundamentally imbalanced, with an overemphasis on yang expression and a deficit of yin. What is in very short supply in this approach to life is an appreciation for the value of rest or even a tolerance for slowing down or stopping.

I began my new year with the intention to have an experience of rest. On some level I could sense the imbalance in my approach to life and was feeling the resulting exhaustion. Additionally, I want to live aligned with seasonal energies. Winter is about hibernation and rest. It is not easy to instantly go from 60 miles an hour to zero, and my initial attempts to rest met with a lot of internal resistance. When I tried to give myself permission to rest, I was restless. Even if I stopped my body, the work of mental preparation quickly left the station. Ironically, I brought a very driven, ambitious attitude to “doing” this rest. But, the more that I tried to push my body, to force it to relax, the further I ended up from the restorative rest that I craved.

Does this ever happen to you? That your attempts to make something happen in your life end up creating frustration and seem to push you further from your desired intention? I began to realize that this frustration is trying to signal me, to alert me to something important I’ve missed along the way, to a step that I am skipping.

In the midst of my struggle to give myself rest, my greatest teacher – my life – forced me to finally stop. I was diagnosed with cancer and had to drop everything to have surgery, recover from the trauma of the procedure and heal from the wound infection that followed. I had an extended time period when I could not walk, could not take care of business as usual. I literally had no choice but to stop. During this time numerous feelings and interpretations about what I was going through arose. But looking back, I can see how life sent me the perfect learning ground for the lesson I needed and the experience of rest I wanted to explore. I was being given the experience of Becoming Still. If I had been willing to be still internally, perhaps my body wouldn’t have had to stop me in such a dramatic way.

How many of us have this experience of our body using physical illness and disability as a way to apply the brakes in life; to force us to finally stop and experience stillness?

Some of my resistance to stopping comes from knowing that there is so much that needs to get done. I look around my life, and the world, and I am acutely aware of what needs work and what I want to change. From there I quickly launch into action – problem-solving, doing what needs doing, planning and executing. It is fear that drives me to this place of imbalance. Fear that if I do not do something, nothing is going to change. Fear that if I do not figure out the “right” thing to do, I will not be okay. Fear is the distraction, distortion and noise of my life. The season of winter is energetically aligned with the Water element in 5 Element philosophy. The life lesson that the Water element helps us with is transforming fear into wisdom. Fear leads me to keep pushing; trying to force what is not happening. Water (and winter with its hibernation) guides me to get still enough to become clear again. Water gives me the wisdom to set it down for a moment, to hand it over, to shift into the expansive, receptive state of allowing instead of doing. I am beginning to see that my effort is not the only path to getting done what needs doing.

When we stop doing, it does not mean that nothing is happening. Quite the contrary, it is like winter; the world has the appearance of death even as the activity of germination and preparation is happening beneath the surface. Stopping and truly getting still is a doorway into a new kind of being; one in which we stop engaging our will and, in doing so, allow non-will directed activities to take place. These include deeply nourishing activities such as healing, sleep, meditation, and many more – none of which can be forced or accomplished through effort alone and all of which require that we open to allow. Stillness is also what allows us to be contemplative and to reflect on what exists beneath the surface ripples and anxieties of our life; to make contact with what we have inside of us. Being willing to stop, or pause, is what allows our lives to become aligned with our hearts and something bigger. Unless I pause for a moment on the motivated path of getting to where I am going, unless I consciously choose to open to a path of “not doing” for a moment in the midst of all my pursuits, there is little chance for me to hear the course corrections being offered by my heart. There is no space for something else to bubble up. As Lao Tzu taught, “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?”

Tai Chi teaches that in order to turn left, you must first move right. Similarly, in life, the first step on the path to accomplishing what we need or want is to stop doing and to get still. The stopping is essential because it opens us to a place of allowing. It is in this allowing that we can step into flow. And in this flow, the doing that comes next can be an effortless unfolding.

My prayer is that I begin to choose these moments of stillness and stopping for myself more often, so that life does not have to step in and force me to stop. I realize that my internal arts practices are also places where I push myself or habitually put my focus on goal-directed doing. With my new understanding, perhaps I can let that go. I am finding that, with the right intention, my practices can become wonderful places to perch in stillness. I invite you to explore a shift in your practices this month. Instead of working on a form, can you instead intend to let the form work on you? Imagine that you step out of the way and put down all effort. Do your practice from a place of letting go and allowing the Qi to take over from the will. While the Qi flow generates the movements for you, allow yourself to rest in the stillness found within.

Best Good Care, Susan Lucas, M.D.