DePauw University’s Samuel Autman describes his own journey toward stillness, drawing inspiration from a wide range of spiritual traditions.
Amid this fast-paced, overwhelming year, we invite you to slow down, settle in and embrace the season with the help of our Winter Slow Moments Campaign. Along with commissioning a new Slow Moments film featuring Cataract Falls, we’ve invited several Indiana writers to explore themes of winter—such as stillness, dormancy, darkness and brightness—through original prose and poetry. From a commentary on the wintering practices of Indiana wildlife, to an exploration of the season’s simultaneous status as dark and bright, to a meditation on the varied spiritual traditions that embrace stillness, these original works urge us to forge connections between nature, literature and our own human practices.
Arrested by the Stillness
Seven months after Princess Diana died in a tunnel in Paris, I was seated between A and F, two friends living in London, watching an elegant Indian woman performing Bharatanatyam on stage, a 2,000-year-old dance originating as a form of worship in Hindu temples in southeast India. Her hips and torso gyrated, and the line between sexual and spiritual evaporated that March evening.
Early into her performance, I drifted off watching her movements, my consciousness, spirit or soul cracked open. Unknown reservoirs of love exploded within, an intoxicating and inexplicable joy. I was not out of my body but I swayed from side to side as if I was about to fall over. I glanced at A and F, unable to express what I felt, the warmth and stillness that had descended within and upon me.
During the intermission, my friends and I stood in the lobby commenting on the marvelous performance. Nothing in our small talk indicated that they noticed anything out of the ordinary with me. For the rest of the show, I marinated in a magical feeling that I linked to the Bharatanatyam performance.
Experiences like that are hard to name. Mystics would call it an episode of unified consciousness. Pentecostals might say drunk in the spirit. Summarizing spiritual experiences in language is impossible. I now know that stillness was announcing its presence.
Still, stillness and silence were not in the lexicon of a Black man who grew up in north St. Louis. At fifteen years of age, I defected from my mother’s Missionary Baptist denomination for a neighborhood Church of God in Christ (COGIC), demonstrably louder. Worshipping God involved tambourines, singing, dancing, fiery preaching and often loud petitionary praying. In short, I was immersed in the opposite of stillness.
The 24-hour news cycles feed into our social media accounts, lighting up our smartphones, robbing us of an inner world. Graham Turner writes in The Power of Silence, “For many people in the West, the very idea of silence is strange and unattractive, if not actually forbidding. . . . We talk about uncomfortable silence, a stony silence, an ominous silence, a silence you can cut with a knife, a deathly silence.”
After a 13-year career in newspaper with editors calling until late hours finalizing details on stories and holding a pager waiting for the next disaster, the 9/11 terrorist attacks were the last straw for me. I resigned from the journalism industry and found myself living in rural Greencastle, Indiana, a town, enveloped in a peculiar Midwestern stillness that I didn’t know in St. Louis. I found myself at war with it.
The rhythms of my new life in academia allowed nonstop travel, the perfect antidote to sitting still. Almost thirty countries later—the pandemic landlocked me in the middle of the country and drew me into a contemplative life. Books by such authors as Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating appeared almost out of nowhere.
My fear was that contemplative life called me out of the world and into a kind of twisted introspection. As I began practicing something called “centering prayer,” which is simply sitting in silence for a certain amount of time daily, I could feel how inner resources spilled over into my writing and teaching life. Social justice and peace activists Thích Nhất Hạnh, Gandhi and Howard Thurman, also famed contemplatives, perfectly embodied that.
In an interview with Krista Tippett’s program On Being, Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, described Howard Thurman’s vision for merging the outer with the inner.
“The inward sea. In the inward sea there is an island that everyone has, in their spirit; that on that island is an altar. And next to that altar is an angel with a flaming sword. And in order to put what is most important on the altar, you first have to find the sea, you’ve got to get to the island, and you gotta get past the angel, so that you can find what is truly genuine in you and what is most important. He said, once you find that, then you come alive. Then you discover what you have been purposed for. And then you begin to work outward. So you work inward to work outward.”
An esoteric-leaning woman I met at a workshop ten years ago asked me where I lived. Upon hearing Greencastle, Indiana, she said, “Green is the color of the heart chakra, and castle is from Teresa of Avila’s ‘interior castle.’ You’re there to learn to live in your interior castle.”
Samuel Autman is an assistant professor of English at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he specializes in the personal essay and journalism. His essay “Invisible Nails” won first place in the 2015 Disquiet International Literary Contest in nonfiction and is now available in THE KEPT SECRET: The Half-Truth in Nonfiction published by the Michigan State University Press. His other essays have appeared in THE CHALK CIRCLE: Prizewinning Intercultural Essays, BLACK GAY GENIUS: Answering Joseph Beam's Call, Ninth Letter, The Common Reader, Under the Gum Tree, The Little Patuxent Review, Bonfires, PANORAMA: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, Memoir Magazine, Brevity and The St. Louis Anthology. The award-winning short film “A Long Walk” was adapted for the screen and played in national film festivals.