T.S.Eliot was not influenced by Buddhist teachings as far as I’m aware, but in this verse from the ‘Four Quartets’ he captures something that to me feels very alive with the Dharma. He talks of ‘the still point of the turning world’ – a place of pause where we might find ourselves spun out of the dance for a moment. It might be a place we recognise from our own experience – climbing a hilltop, finding ourselves alone by the sea, a place where just for a moment the world doesn’t press on us so strongly. It might be an involuntary pause – sometimes illness or loss forces us to a different pace. It might be a place we seek out. There is something different to be found there.
Meditation is for me one such still point. We can sit with different aims, which are appropriate at different times in our practice. It might be the right thing simply to be learning to practice, finding out what it’s like. We may want to be calm, have a refuge from a busy or difficult life. We may be exploring deeper meditative states, the ‘dhyanas’. We may be using it as a basis for insight practice, observing, even enquiring about our experience. For me, answering the question why I sit has become simpler over the years. I ask less and less of my practice and I’m learning simply to let it be. It is a space where craving and aversion are given a chance to fade away, or to play out their dance in their own time. Here I can let go of fighting my experience; It can be the mindfulness of breathing, the metta bhavana practice or just sitting, the only effort is in not to get too lost in thoughts, to keep an overall sense of awareness. It is a deep ‘unlearning’ of the habit of activity, of preference, of dividing experience into acceptable and unacceptable. Awareness is the practice, skillful choice comes later when we can see ourselves more clearly.
At the still point of the turning world.
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards;
at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
At the still point we have let go of judging and evaluating, or we see our judgements for what they are. We get caught up, we let go – thoughts, feelings, sensations arise and pass away. At the still point ‘the dance’ becomes clearer. There is only the dance, not separate from stillness.
I am reminded of the Zen teaching of ‘not choosing’:
The Great Way knows no impediments;It does not pick and choose.
When you abandon attachment and aversion
You see it plainly:
Make a thousandth of an inch distinction,
Heaven and earth spring apart.
If you want it to appear before your eyes,
Cherish neither ‘for’ nor ‘against’.
To compare what you like with what you dislike,
That is the disease of the mind.
Then you pass over the hidden meaning;
Peace of mind is needlessly troubled.
(Seng-ts’an, Third Patriarch of Zen)