“Stillness” vs Noting

  • Principle of Quietism: We hold this truth to be self-evident: that insight is improved by intellectual quietude.

The idea is that awareness is more penetrating when the (voluntary) body is still, when its emotions are flat, and when its thinking is minimal. This is only partly true.

The (folk) model

Bodily rest and experiential peace are supposed to provide a “clearing” for deep seeing. The transparent/opaque metaphor is indeed commonly aligned with stillness/turbulence in pop meditation literature. For example: “A chatty and disturbed mind muddies the waters of consciousness. The solution: stop reacting, sit still, and calm the mind by attending to inconsequential objects with periodic motion. Softness, quiet, and repetition bring the will and perception to motionlessness, and thereby to insight.”

This link is so cliche that it now seems self-evident. Of course, no one will want the end result of their method of meditation to be opacity and turbulence as commonly understood. That would be marketing suicide.

Well, what if this is wrong? What if the view from peace is delusional, and the consciousness of frantic engagement is really the penetrating one?


The pond metaphor found its way into Quora, where a cliche-minded Oprah-drone wrote the following:

As long as a surface of a water body like a pond or a lake is disturbed , you cannot see the depth. When the surface becomes clear, you get access to the depth.

Deep inside you is a warehouse of creativity, joy, abundance, peace, calm, strength, knowledge, health. The mind as we perceive is a collection of thoughts. Most of the time our thoughts are random, obscure, about the past regret or the anxiety of the future.

When you meditate the mind become still or the mind becomes “no mind”—i.e., you experience thoughtlessness. Regular practice gives you the key to that deeper precious source that I just mentioned above. Just few minutes of thoughtlessness everyday will transform the quality of life.

Here’s another from Facebook. And the guy credits himself as the author of the simile [with original typos]:

Meditation for you Health

The mind is like a pond....

The ripples on the surface are like the day-to-day thoughts that occupy the conscious mind

Yet the surface is only a tiny part of the pond

It is in the depths of the pond, where there is stillness,

that you will come to know the true essence of the pond, as well as your own mind.

Jac Riblet

While Googling about, I found the ultimate list of extractions from the “stillness aids penetration” prejudice. Other opacities besides ripples and mud have been added, to allow a one-to-one with the Five Hindrances:

An ancient metaphor for how the hindrances obscure clarity of mind is that of a pond. When the pond is clean and the surface still, the water reflects our image. The effect of sensual desire is like looking into a pond that has been dyed. We are predisposed to see unrealistically – i.e., “seeing with rose colored glasses.” When the heat of ill will is present, it is as if the pond water is boiling; no reflection is possible. Sloth and torpor are like having thick algae growing across the pond; again, no reflection is possible except by the difficult work of pulling out the algae. Anxiousness is like the wind churning up the pond’s surface. And doubt is like the water filled with mud. Because we tend not to see clearly when the hindrances are present, Buddhist teachings strongly encourage people not to make decisions while under their influence. If possible, wait to make a decision when the mind is more settled or clear.

Against the still pond

I say it is a bad metaphor for three reasons:

  1. Being the still pond makes you generally ineffectual
  2. Being the still pond makes you complicit with dominator culture
  3. Being the still pond blinds you to the noumenal, which is frenetic process

Stopping thinking, focusing on one thing, stilling the mind—these are conceptual fictions impossible to impose. Matter is motion essentially. Spontaneous activity is consciousness at its bottom. The “stillness” of an immobile meditator is frenetic internal activity. If intentionality (apperception, or consciousness that includes self-reference at least in the structure of the cognition) is awake, then it may be looping in on itself, but it is still in motion. Any stillness is a blanket fantasy thrown over the churning froth that just is consciousness.

What is meant (hopefully) is only that, now, in meditation, the intentionality of the subject is empty of any particular object or fantasy. But having “black nothingness” or “the void” as one’s object is still a particular and imposed, probably from the ideology of stillness itself.

The real goal of meditation is to fuse the intentional consciousness with its proper object, which is frenetic physical reality and spontaneous volitional reality. The proper method, then, would seem to be that of Noting.

In fact, to increase stillness is to maximize intervention. The Witness consciousness is only Witness by disidentifying itself with everything that passes by. When consciousness flows with the river, then time stops and the subject/object distinction disappears. It is only when consciousness is rooted to the bank that it can apprehend the matter flowing by an build images from it, like a net. To be ultra-still, then, is to be a net with an ultra-high threat count—it intensifies the otherness of sensation and other phenomenal arisings.