Could physical stillness be a mechanism and tool which could help heal our suffering?
Every single moment we receive impulses and motivation to act, internally and externally. Feelings, thoughts, memories and situations are driving us to act, either toward positive experience or away from negative. This stream of inputs interacts with the reward pathways in our brain. In doing so, they motivate us to either move toward or away from the incoming stimuli. Like an electric circuit loop, with an input of sensory information and an output of motor action. Sensory input that we receive from our current experience, memories of past experiences, or expectations of future experiences, and motor output that strives to meet our needs in these perceived circumstances. Will we forever remain victims of our sensual experiences, endlessly running toward pleasure and away from pain, or can we learn to direct our actions more intentionally and intelligently, following values and virtues that we choose to honour. Let us break free of our enslavement to the unconscious whims and wishes of our flesh.
Daniel Wolpert, in his TED Talk below, paints a remarkable picture of our brains in which the primary output produced by the brain is “adaptable and complex movement”, from breathing to walking to social interaction, movement of the body is, what Daniel suggests, the purpose for our brains. He explains that besides for sweating, everything we do to engage with the physical world around us happens by some form of muscular contraction directed by the brain, directed by the sum of our sensory experiences; remembered, current, and expected. This electric circuit concept of our nervous system leads to confusion regarding the idea of free will. What space is there for personal will if our experiences determine our actions; if input equals output? Determinism is the philosophical position that events, or actions, are caused by conditions that could have brought about no other result, leaving no space for our will; causes determine effects. Free will is a hard problem in materialistic science. It is difficult to be sentient and believe that our prior experiences predetermine our present actions.
Interestingly, a primary principle of sitting meditation is to achieve physical stillness and serenity, in spite of the deluge of impulses that never cease to present themselves to us. To sit still (no motor output) irrespective of the urges we experience appears to break the flow, or ‘current’, in this circuit of input and output. Even the motivation to sit still may be the product of our learned experiences. However, there is still a difference, as stillness meditation does not provide the stimulation necessary for our reward centres in the brain to register it as pleasurable, albeit indirectly through relaxation. The act of sitting still does not give us any of the input we are hard-wired to seek out. So does developing the will power to sit down, in a physically and mentally relaxed state build the capacity to step outside of the closed-loop existence of input and predetermined output? I think so, and I have felt changes that agree with this.
Some time must be spent every day nurturing the will to remain physically still, even when impulses to act otherwise present themselves. Each moment spent sitting still, is a moment that we develop the ability to override our automatic impulses, free ourselves more and more from physical cravings, and over time create the space for a more conscious part of ourselves to direct our actions.