How to Write About Stillness
by John Miguel Shakespear
First: wake up, check your socials, and hit snooze. Wake up again ten minutes later; hit snooze again. Now haul yourself out of bed. You better stretch, bucko. Today’s the day you’re going to write an essay about stillness.
Look, it’s right there in your Google calendar: “Consider benefits of stillness and introspection, September 4, 8 a.m.-5p.m.”
It’s 8:37 a.m. Already behind.
Here’s the plan: you’re going to write a snappy diagnosis of the central malady of your era, the spiritual malady underneath all the less-spiritual maladies, and then you’re going to offer up a cure—stillness. Where, you will ask (rhetorically), can contemplation have gone in the age of information and imperial decline? And what, oh, what have we lost? In less than 1,000 words, you’re going to show everybody how to get back to the mystery at the center of life. The prose is going to be so clean and bell-like that people everywhere, even people who couldn’t care less about essays, will turn their heads, open their browsers, and be wowed by just how good and still and wise you are.
Start by glancing at your phone, just to make sure you don’t have any emails or text messages or DMs or Facebook messages or new likes or friend requests or urgent tweets or culturally relevant articles or music recommendations or doctor’s notes or spam blasts. Attend to those that arise quickly and efficiently. The writer William Gibson called these his daily “internet ablutions,” and he’s famous, so send an email, retweet a picture of a melting glacier (with urgent caption), consciously ignore a conciliatory email from your ex-girlfriend, and text your friend a photo of a sleepy cat. Feel clean and faintly virtuous. Now, feel an incipient twinge of emptiness. Well done.
Now that you’ve completed your internet ablutions, you’re primed for maximum stillness. But first, you need coffee. Put some water on. Do a few pushups and stretches on the cold kitchen floor to ease your nerves while you wait for the kettle to boil. Pour beans into the grinder and grind until that earthy, noble smell fills your ratty kitchen. As somebody famous said (was it Patti Smith?), toast is the other essential component of a pre-stillness breakfast, so toss a couple slices in the toaster and go back to your push-ups.
Up, down, up, down—that’s it.
While you breathe, consider stillness. Sri Ramana Maharshi said, “All that is required to realize the Self to be still.” You don’t know who Sri Ramana Maharshi is, but you found the quote while Googling “stillness” and copied it into your iPhone’s Notes, below a similar quote by Morgan Freeman. It’s important to do your research.
When you’ve finished five sets, lie back on the linoleum tile and regard your ceiling fan.
Pour the water over the beans and take the coffee cup into the living room. Take a seat, grab a book, go for it. Indulge. The best feeling is when you sit down, open a book, and descend into another world. The day around you recedes—the hum of a nearby lawnmower, for instance, is gone; and the laughter of schoolchildren; and the nagging feeling that you now live in exactly the sort of suburb you used to mock. Bathed in the flow of words, your attention to the mystery at the heart of life is heightened. A broad plain of possibilities expands in front of you. On the best days, you start to remember what is good and noble about people, even navel-gazey people like yourself.
But that is not what happens today, because as soon you settle into the couch, you remember that today is recycling day, and you have not taken the recycling out. Congratulations: you are the Problem with Our Country. Soon the world will end, and it will be your fault. It will be your picture plastered on the front page of the last newspapers ever, grimacing like an arraigned dictator at a tribunal. Local Man Too Consumed with Petty Project and Breakfast to Save Earth, p. 1-25.
If you don’t act now, all will soon be stillness, whether you like it or not.
(Actually, all will not be stillness, not at first. All will be a miasmic churning of sea and burning atmosphere, and maybe some lava, witnessed by nobody but the most resilient bacteria, who will one day evolve into some new species, which will eventually develop the same useless habits and mechanisms that destroyed the humans, wander blindly around the techno-spiritual mess they’ve created for a few millennia, and take up anew the futile longing for stillness.)
So—get on it. Gather the soda cans and the cardboard, go out to the alley, and open the recycling bin. Oh look, a hornets’ nest.
Consider, for an agonizing instant, the hornet’s ability to sting multiple times in quick succession without dying, which differentiates it from the feeble honey bee. Consider the hornet while it does precisely this to your nose—once, twice, three times. A burning pain spreads like spilled firewater across your helpless face, your arraigned-dictator face. The hornet’s body retracts and then deploys towards your nose, four times, five. Drop all the soda cans onto the concrete (unsatisfying clack) and run screaming into the house.
Calm down. Jesus, it’s okay. Apply aloe to your nose and convalesce on the couch. Try to consider stillness through the throbbing pain. Sri Ramana Maharshi said something or other.
Smell that? Your toast is burning. It has already burned.
Congratulations: you are out of toast.
Don’t go to the supermarket; that would take too long. Instead, feel paralyzed by the thought of how much precious time and mental energy the supermarket would rob you of, on this day that was meant to be dedicated to contemplation. The searching through the aisles! The purchasing and retoasting of the toast!
Pity yourself. Realize you have no choice but to pay someone else to give you breakfast.
Bike to that tea shop, the one with the clever tea drinks. Consider today’s chalkboard menu: Should you order the Zentropy (green tea with two shots espresso, $6)? The Peace Juice (peach tea with CBD extract, $9)? The Max Relax (no description, $12)? Pick whatever, plus a blueberry muffin. Sit in your favorite chair on the patio, with the view of the manmade pond. Settle into your seat, open your notebook, and think about just how much your nose hurts.
Behold, there’s your friend Dave, on his way home from the yoga studio!
See Dave’s Lululemon track sweats gleaming in the morning light. See his pricy duffel.
Wave to Dave. Say hey, Dave!
Watch Dave’s trendy fade cut bob majestically your way. Tell him there’s nothing wrong with your nose, in case he’s wondering. Listen to Dave as he tells you about a new book he is reading called How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. We are more than our value in a system of capitalist production, you know? Dave says. Consider that all your friends are reading this book, but you have not read it. Feel anxious about your cultural illiteracy and general degeneracy. You have not read enough of the Books or the Articles. You are falling behind your friends in the pursuit of stillness. There are so many things you haven’t done, like the recycling, or getting famous for your wisdom.
Tell Dave actually, you’re writing an essay about stillness yourself.
Hear Dave: Nice, man. Tight. Is that the Max Relax, by the way?
Say you love it, though the drink tastes like an actual piece of bark.
Hear Dave: The Max Relax is pretty tight for sure. Are you going to the rally later?
You almost forgot about the rally, you bourgeois bastard! You problematic, privileged, retrograde, self-centered, $12-tea-drink-sipping ingrate! You were going to spend this whole day writing about stillness, of all toothless, prelapsarian things, while all your friends were out actually doing something about the Problem(s) with Our Country! So when Dave says, A few of us are going to pregame the rally at my place, you better tell him you’ll be there.
Bid farewell to Dave via fist-bump. Close your computer, chug the rest of the Max Relax. Order a double espresso ($6) to get revved up for the rally. How can you think about stillness, at a time like this? You need to look outward. You need to read the Articles. Bike back to your house and open seventeen tabs in your browser. Consider the wage gap(s). Consider the wall. Consider structural oppression and your role(s) therein. Consider the guns and the diet of stylized violence and casual sexism you grew up on. Consider your ex-girlfriend, Annelise, whom you loved with a helplessness nearly tidal enough to drag you out of the morass of your own cycling concerns and into the living, breathing world. Remember how, faced with this possibility, you totally freaked and doubled down on your I-need-to-work-on-my-writing shtick. You missed Annelise’s brother’s graduation, her pointed comments about wanting you to be more present, and, crucially, her twenty-fifth birthday, which you spent alone, in a haze of marijuana smoke, wondering if you were a Great Artist, and whether any other Great Artists had ever consumed four packs of Hostess Cupcakes in an afternoon.
Go buy cigarettes from the gas station. Smoke two in quick succession under your porch, so the neighbors won’t see. Flick ash onto the all-giving, beleaguered earth. Feel instantaneous relief, then crushing guilt. Go back inside and consider which articles to retweet, what urgent captions might make them sing. Retweet three, then wait anxiously for likes. Smoke another cigarette. Check for likes again. Refresh, refresh: nothing. You have retweeted the wrong articles, with the wrong captions, you problematic ingrate. Next, consider the supreme self-centeredness of trawling for likes at a time like this. Consider the fundamental uselessness of everything you are doing, everything you have ever done. Consider (if you will) the considerable privilege required to consider anything other than one’s food and shelter and the safety of one’s body and family. Next, wonder if checking your privilege aloud is really just a rhetorical dodge, a feeble, post-facto apology for millennia of inherited selfishness. Wonder if it is just another way for white people to show off for their friends. Feel actually sick. Smoke another cigarette to fight the nausea. Feel even sicker. Forget to eat your muffin; forget to take the burnt toast out of the toaster. Watch the morning turn to afternoon and the afternoon tilt toward evening and the deepening green of your unmowed lawn, above which hornets patrol the pinkish sky like drones.
Okay, okay, relax. Open your browser and read about Eckhart Tolle. Look, he said, “Seek out a tree and let it teach you stillness.” Isn’t that nice? Eckhart Tolle is a German-born spiritual teacher currently living in Germany, according to Wikipedia.
But the only tree in your yard is right next to the bin where the hornets live.
Open Microsoft Word; stare at the blinking cursor. Type the word STILLNESS, in all caps. Delete NESS so it just says STILL, and then put NESS back, and then delete the whole word and slam your laptop shut.
You are late for the rally. Long for stillness, then push the longing away and get moving.
Don’t park in Dave’s driveway, dummy, it’s full of Teslas. Park instead in the paid lot three streets over. Feel momentarily pissed at Dave for living in such a gentrifying part of the city, the kombucha-chugging hypocrite. Next, feel ashamed of your own pettiness. You could easily have walked, and you also live in a gentrifying part of the city, just like Dave; the only difference is that yours is being repopulated by the latté-loving children of the rich, while Dave’s is being repopulated by the Tesla-loving actually-rich. Ring Dave’s touch-sensor doorbell.
Your nose feels like an AirBnB rented out to an entire extended family of fire ants.
Look, it’s all your friends and acquaintances!
Everyone is drinking alcoholic seltzer and talking about the Problem(s) with Our Country. You are late, and no one is happy to see you, especially not your ex-girlfriend, Annelise. Annelise’s statuesque new boyfriend has made many beautiful signs addressing the the Problem(s) with Our Country, which everyone loves. You have no signs, except for the shirt you woke up in, which you are still wearing, and which reads, horrifyingly, I <3 New York.
When Annelise comes over (in that dress you bought for her last Christmas) and asks you if everything is all right with your face, feel a twinge of vestigial longing at the concern in her voice, which for nearly four years was the voice that most frequently expressed concern about you and your problems. Then say: What do you mean my face?
Feel a small, mean satisfaction as Annelise looks at your throbbing nose and fumbles for the words: Ah, it’s just—well, it must be nothing.
Drink the drinks, talk about the Problems, and then go to the rally.
Out in the dusky streets, slide into step with the phalanxes of protesters. Accept a passed flask from Annelise’s boyfriend, whose name (shocker) turns out to be Dieter. Find him maddeningly likeable and handsome. Consider his precipitous cheekbones, which remind you vaguely of the cliffs in Big Sur, where you’ve always wanted to go. Reconsider, briefly, long-held assumptions about your own sexuality. Cross the major thoroughfare into the gloaming of the park, where hundreds of bodies are yelling in front of a tall bandstand. Yell things with them: hell no, you will not go. Say it loud. Demand to be shown what Democracy looks like. Feel useful, for the first time all day. Feel that the people, united, will not be defeated. Really mean the words you say for once.
Long, in the middle of the screaming crowd, for the clear and empty plain of solitude.
Feel immediately selfish; chant louder. Take another sip from Dieter’s flask, feel his hand brush roughly against yours as he passes it to you. Consider the boundaries between effective activism and hanging out with your friends in a park and find them porous. Note the overwhelming whiteness of the crowd. Note the homeless man whose rattling cup the white crowd surges blithely by on its march toward righteousness and right-thinking. Now that you’re sufficiently wracked with guilt, split off from your friends and backtrack through the sea of bodies to drop three quarters in the man’s extra-large cup. Look momentarily into the man’s eyes and find neither the affirmation you crave nor the gratitude you hoped might make you whole. Hate yourself for wanting those things from him, for the inadequacy of your gesture. Realize, as the man on the bench turns away from you and opens a paperback novel, whether the only substantial question of your time is how much people like you are willing to give up. You aren’t willing to give up that much—a few coins, sure, but not your house, not airplane flights, not even your ability to buy $12 teas. Feel helpless in the face of the Problem(s) with Our Country.
You already know what comes next: turn away from the man and your helplessness, because this is what your country has trained you to do. Go find your friends by the bandstand.
They can smell the cigarettes on you, and they want to bum them, the kombucha-chugging hypocrites. Pass the pack around and get back to chanting. Show me what democracy looks like. As the smoke and slogans pour through your tar-stained teeth, yell those words over and over again. See the president’s face crossed out and cartoonish on a hundred waving banners—his awful, giant, reality-TV head that has never known a thing about stillness. Is this what democracy looks like?
Realize you need to go home.
But first, as you make your way back through the cheering, neon crowds, consider the evening sky. No, not the constellations, idiot! The constellations are not visible through your city’s second skin of manmade light and fumes. This is not the time for some cozy revelation about the vastness of the heavens and the tiny size of your body and the endless possibilities contained in a human life. This is the time to watch the clouds, death-grey and wall-like, as they slide with improbable speed from the edges of the horizon to a new post directly above the park, and the magnolias and oaks as they begin to dance wildly in a sudden wind that seems to come from all directions at once, blowing pink hats off protestors’ heads and ripping signs out of their unprepared hands. Look, the clouds are opening with all the violence of a burst dam, and the air around you has turned to white, wet, roaring static. Hear the crowd’s scream go up. Hear it hover on the border between euphoria and terror. Recall, for the briefest instant, the death-wish feeling of swimming directly under a waterfall, back when you were 16. The pressure of water on all your senses at once, the closest thing you have known to oblivion.
Then run, idiot.
Run with all the other bodies toward the gates of the park, past the ketchup that spills like fake blood from the overturned hot-dog stands, past the bench where the homeless man no longer sits, past the president’s face torn clean in half and plastered by the force of the gale to the trunk of a vast oak. Forget your essay on stillness. Forget your name. As you turn at the gate onto the street that leads back to Dave’s condo, hear the wind rip the branches from that oak; watch the whole upper canopy disappear click into nothingness like a blown dandelion. With a great rending sound, watch as one of the tree’s massive, sinewy lower limbs is torn from its socket and whipped at the velocity of a major-league fastball into the windshield of a parked car only yards behind you. Hear the shattering glass and the wah-wah of the alarm, but do not turn to look. Run, run, remembering nothing but the survival instinct buried deep in your DNA. Run miles without thinking, though you haven’t run a mile in years, down alleys and main roads, turning left and right at random, hugging the walls of the city whenever you can. Do not think of Anneliese, or Dieter, or stillness, or the smallness of your own pride and shame. Forget Dave’s house, forget the car, forget the Problem with Your Country. Run until you find yourself, miracle of miracles, on the edge of your own backyard, where the trash and recycling bins all lie on their sides like beached whales with their mouths wide open, and the detritus of your daily consumption—wrappers, cans, cereal boxes, take-out cartons, solo cups, whole discarded bags of past-date meat—is strewn across the grass. Bound over the piles of trash and climb the stairs to the back door. Fumble for the key, drop it on the deck, say fuck fuck fuck fuck, pick it up, turn it in the door.
Now breathe. Breathe.
You are back in your familiar mustiness.
Crumple on the couch. Wonder, as you catch your pale, exhausted reflection in the blank TV screen, what became of the man with the cup on the park bench. Wonder if he, like you, had someplace to go. Consider the wrongheadedness of your essay about stillness, the false universality of the word you. You’ll have to start over, tomorrow morning, from the beginning. Tomorrow, you’ll write the best, the most thoughtful, the most…
This is when the power cuts out and the world goes black. Hear the various machines that keep your house running whir gently to a stop. Realize you’ve never noticed them before. Realize you are wet, and also freezing. In the new darkness of your living room, where the smell of burnt toast still lingers, pull off your soaked t-shirt, your heavy jeans, your freezing boxers. Get a towel and dry yourself as best you can with your shivering hands. Now wrap the towel around you and go to the window. Look, the streetlights have gone dark too, and the lights are off in all the neighbors’ houses. As far as you can see through the slowing rain, there is no light. Rarely in your life have you seen such darkness. Consider the sudden absence of the rain, which has moved on to ravage other cities. Crawl into bed, naked, shaking all over. Finally, the world is still. Finally, it’s quiet enough for you to understand that you are afraid, and you have been afraid for a long time. Glimpse, through the cracks in the blinds, all the ambivalent stars.
John Miguel Shakespear bears no known relation to William Shakespeare, but he likes the guy. His fiction has appeared in publications such as Gulf Coast, Cincinnati Review, and Wigleaf, and his music has been featured by NPR, PopMatters, and American Songwriter. A 2019 Pushcart Prize nominee and a graduate of Vanderbilt’s MFA program, he currently serves as prose editor for Bull City Press’s INCH series. He is at work on his first novel and his second record, and you can find him at johnshakespear.com or @johnshakespear.
Image source: Sergi Kabrera/Unsplash