A Research Paper By Emily Cornell, Life Coach, UNITED STATES
Where I’m Writing From:
Stillness as a topic surprised me. I think of myself as a woman of action, driven by strategic plans, and I can sometimes find myself filled with busyness that, by even my admission, isn’t always the most productive.
It was only through reflection about what had and still does help me make the biggest (and often somewhat scary) growth spurts in my own life, that I realized there was a precursor step to movement and momentum: taking a beat of stillness.
From there, I got curious. As I started working with my inkling – that there was something mighty powerful to be found in stillness – I found myself heading down delightful research rabbit holes with some of my favorites: Dr. Brené Brown, Glennon Doyle, Pema Chödrön, and more…
It came as only half a surprise that my claim (found below) was synthesized in a flash during a moment of early morning meditation.
What I Believe to Be True:
Stillness is a counterintuitive, countercultural tool that can be effective in facilitating growth in women.
But What Does That Even Mean?
Let’s parse it out.
I have found Dr. Brown’s definition of stillness, based on her research leading up to the book The Gifts of Imperfection, to be the closest to what I have experienced as stillness in my own life:
Stillness is not about focusing on nothingness; it’s about creating a clearing. It’s opening up an emotionally clutter-free space and allowing ourselves to feel and think and dream and question. (The Gifts of Imperfection, p 108).
This is the definition that I will use for the remainder of this paper (although I would encourage both my clients and my readers to find both a definition and a stillness that best works for them).
I found Oxford’s Languages’ definitions, as accessed via Google, to be sufficient in defining “counterintuitive” (contrary to intuition or common-sense expectation) and “countercultural” (set of attitudes opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm).
By “growth,” I mean the type of change and continued forward momentum that leads to a more fulfilled life (or at least one aspect of it). This will vary depending on the individual and is then, necessarily, a “you’ll know it when you see it” sort of thing.
And, finally, my research focused on cultivating stillness as a growth tool for women partially due to my own identity and interests as a coach. By “women,” I mean anybody identifying as female for whom this might be helpful.
How Is Stillness “Counterintuitive”?
American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön argues that “as a species, we should never underestimate our low tolerance for discomfort,” (The Places That Scare You, p. 23). I have found it to be true myself: I don’t like to be uncomfortable. And when I find myself in a place of discomfort (or, more precisely, when I find that I’ve been sitting in discomfort for a while), I want to jump to immediate change. To do something (or everything all at once) to not feel whatever unpleasantness I may be experiencing.
I’ve learned that it’s learned behavior.
In her book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown speaks of “vulnerability armor,” that is to say, the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that keep us from being hurt, diminished, and disappointed. These are the things that keep us from courage, purpose, and connection – and, ultimately, from being the person we long to be. (Daring Greatly p. 112)
While there are many ‘shields’ that we use, I believe the one that can be most helped by stillness is numbing. And while ‘numbing’ would certainly apply to more traditionally recognized addictive behaviors (alcohol or substance abuse, overspending, gambling, overeating, etc.), Dr. Brown’s research showed that “one of the most universal numbing strategies is what [she calls] crazy-busy.” (p. 137) Which is, of course, not stillness.
We live in a society devoted to the idea that productivity equals self-worth and that exhaustion is a status symbol. (See The Gifts of Imperfection, starting on p. 99) And while there are small signs that this may be changing, it’s going to take time.
“Crazy-busy” is pervasive and we are, as Dr. Brown explains, a “nation of exhausted and overstressed adults raising overscheduled children.” Particularly for women, the pressure to perform and live up to (often unrealistic) “shoulds” is great (see Daring Greatly, starting on p. 85). And it’s getting in the way of us living the lives we want.
It’s worth noting that Dr. Brown’s work focuses on stillness as an antidote to anxiety rather than busyness (which she found can be combated by rest and play). But I’ve noticed (through lived experience and anecdotes from women around me) that busyness is often a symptom of underlying anxieties. Therefore, I believe that it is just as useful, and perhaps more so, to seek stillness (in addition to, or instead of rest and play) when I find that I’m feeling internal or external pressure to fill my life with busy-ness.
As a coach, I’m looking to facilitate those spaces of stillness that allow my clients to “feel and think and dream and question.” The things needed as precursors to even knowing what they need to be able to grow, let alone do the growing. But if stillness is counterintuitive and countercultural (as I’ve argued above), it might not be immediately accessible to clients who aren’t used to tapping into its power.
And, as a coach, I’m looking for those same things for myself. The space that will allow me to feel and think and dream and question so that I can continue my growth, something that I both desire for myself and that is a necessary component to fulfilling the ICF’s Core Competencies (Section A.2: Embodies a Coaching Mindset).
Growth is or can be, scary and uncomfortable while we’re in it. There’s a reason we have a space called “the comfort zone” where we know what’s what. In some ways, it might be easier to stay there. But sometimes we know that we can’t any longer and we need to grow past it, without yet knowing in which direction or how.
I would argue that stillness can be a first step in guiding us to the answers.
I love the following passage from Glennon Doyle’s Untamed. It sums up not only what stillness (accessed through meditation) has offered me but also shows that perhaps it’s a more universal experience:
[When I meditate] there in the deep, I could sense something circulating inside me. It was a Knowing. I can know things down at this level that I can’t on the chaotic surface. Down here, when I pose a question about my life, I sense a nudge. The nudge guides me towards[…] the next right thing, one thing at a time.
Doyle’s description of the place that meditation (stillness) offers is exactly the type of inner knowing that I hope my clients can tap into.
Dr. Brown warns that as “we first start cultivating calm and stillness in our lives, it can be difficult,” but also notes that “ as our practices become stronger, anxiety loses its hold and we gain clarity about what we’re doing, where we’re going and what holds meaning for us.” (Gifts of Imperfection, p. 109)
In other words, we can begin to get the things we need to grow towards a more fulfilled life.
Yes, But How?
If, as I’ve noted above, stillness isn’t always immediately accessible to our clients or perhaps even ourselves, the following resources may help cultivate moments of stillness or even an ongoing stillness practice.
Source: University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing)
Draw or imagine a large circle with a dot in the center.
Take a few deep breaths and relax as much as possible.
When you are ready, focus on the dot in the center of the circle and inhale slowly. Keeping your focus on the dot, hold your breath for a few seconds. Exhale slowly.
Inhale again, focusing on the dot, but as you exhale, shift your focus slowly to the large circle surrounding the dot. Hold for a few seconds.
Begin your inhale and focus on the dot. Hold. Exhale focusing on the large circle. Hold.
Repeat this until you experience stillness inside you.
Allow Nature to Teach You Stillness
(Source: UMass Chan Medical School Dept. of Psychiatry)
- Glance out a window or step outside
- Bring your awareness to nature’s stillness
- Let nature remind you of being present, let it guide you to the stillness you can find within yourself
These first two exercises might even, with the client’s invitation and permission, be offered within a session. Or they might be offered up as a written resource to be practiced outside of the coaching space.
The Works Of Pema Chödrön
For a client (or a coach) looking for a deeper dive into cultivating a meditation practice as a way of accessing stillness, Chödrön’s books The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times and When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times might be useful places to start. Her writings don’t require extensive knowledge of the topic and were, instead, written to be quite accessible to a layperson. See, in particular, Chapter Four “Relax As It Is” in When Things Fall Apart for a simple (but not necessarily easy) meditation practice.
References & Acknowledgements
I must first thank the women who taught and still teach me how to be still. Without them, this paper (let alone my ICA journey) never would have happened. Thank you, Jean, Jessica, Joan, Lisa, Marin, Rosemary and so many more.
Brown, Brené (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are... Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.
Brown, Brené Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: Avery, An Imprint of Penguin Random House.
Brown, Brené Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone... New York, NY: Random House, An Imprint and Division of Penguin Random House.
Chödrön, Pema When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, Inc.
Chödrön, Pema The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, Inc.
Doyle, Glennon Untamed. New York, NY: The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House.
University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing
UMass Chan Medical School, Department of Psychiatry