Can stillness be the mechanism and tool by which cycles of suffering can be broken?
Every single moment we receive impulses and motivation to act, internally and externally. Feelings, thoughts, memories and situations driving us to act, either toward positive experience or away from negative. This stream of input interacts with the reward pathways in our brain and in doing so, provides us with the impetus to act toward or away from the incoming stimulis. An electric circuit type loop, comprised of sensory input and motor output. Sensory input that we receive from our current experience, memories of past experiences, or predictions of future experiences, and motor output that aims 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? In accordance with values and virtues that we choose to honor? Breaking 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; past, present and predicted future. This electric circuit concept of our nervous system creates much doubt around our perceptions of free will. What space is there for our will if our actions are determined by our experiences? 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. This is a hard problem in science. How enslaving is it to believe that every action of ours is predetermined by our accumulated experiences?
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 receive appears to break the flow, or ‘current’, in this circuit of input and output. It is possible that even the motivation to sit still is the product of our learned experiences. However, it remains different since stillness meditation does not provide the stimulation necessary for our reward centers in the brain to register it as pleasurable, albeit indirectly through relaxation. The act of sitting still does not provide 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 develop 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.