It’s not about sitting still.
Recently a newcomer said to a group of Quakers I was with ‘Everyone in the meeting sits so still and I can’t, I don’t feel I can come any more because I can’t sit that still.’
We tried to assure her that we don’t actually sit still; that we are all aware of how much we fidget; that we don’t notice and aren’t disturbed by other people’s movements; that it’s inner stillness we are actually seeking. We don’t think we convinced her.
Similarly I have heard people say ‘I couldn’t be a Buddhist, I can’t sit still.’ But again it isn’t essential to sit still (or to sit on the floor), though it can be a helpful exercise. Thich Nhat Hanh specifically advises that if one needs to move during sitting meditation then one should, though one should aim to move mindfully. In other forms of meditation moving is encouraged, eg walking meditation, working meditation and practising the ten mindful movements.
So what is it about?
As a Quaker, it’s about listening to God; hearing that still, small voice; being aware of our inward teacher.
As a Buddhist, it’s about being aware; seeing how things really are; letting go of attachments to body and thought.
In both instances, the being physically still is a tool to an inner stillness, which is itself a tool to an awareness of something that is otherwise blocked or hidden by the constant activity and busyness of my mind and body. If I try too hard to keep my body still that effort is in itself a distraction and defeats the purpose.
Silence, likewise, is a tool – not an end in itself. Outer quiet helps us to settle, but we need to be able to live in the world carrying that inner silence with us.
The practice begins when we leave the meditation hall.
The service begins when the meeting has ended.