Stillness And Speed

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 20x16

Untitled, oil on canvas, 20×16

I AM NO PHYSICIST, but I am working on a theory of opposing forces. It is not a theory per se, but more like an experiment, since it arises directly from my experience, from recently cultivated practices rather than a hypothetical stance. Yet it is not exactly an experiment, either, in the sense that these practices, while new, are organic and permanent. The changes that have resulted from them after just weeks are so profound that regardless of theory, they are here to stay.

The locus of the problem is the interaction between stillness and energy. The challenge is for these two competing forces to not merely coexist, but to be fully integrated and produce synergy.

Crevices, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 14x11

Crevices, oil on canvas, 14×11

For much of my adult life, I have been a creature of speed. I cannot deny the many ways that I am a product of my culture, and my culture worships speed. Much of it is an illusion, of course—it is our cars that are moving, not us; our computers and their derivative, the Internet, bring back photographs from Tibet or news from France, while we remain sedentary.

Some of our speed is artificially induced, stemming from vague dissatisfaction instigated by the profit motive. The dissatisfaction breeds restlessness with the moment; we must leave the present to improve it, so the reasoning goes, by purchasing things to increase our comfort, or by changing scenery altogether. Speed is our commercial creed, and staying put anathema.

Seen this way, it becomes a political act to sit still. Yet there are powerful spiritual reasons for doing so, too (as well as a nobler view of speed, as a dynamic expression of energy rather than simply a spur to commerce).

The benefits of sitting still quickly become obvious, despite the difficulty of slowing down. I have rediscovered this through the simple act of sitting on my front porch.

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 11x14

Untitled, oil on canvas, 11×14

The wide, graceful porch is one of the best features of the place I live, set high and back from the sidewalk and street. Every spring I optimistically dust off the chaise lounges and porch rocker, plant flower boxes along the waist-high front walls, and populate the space with a variety of houseplants grateful for fresh air—and then for the most part I proceed to ignore it.

I treat this beautiful space as a pass-through to my mailbox, the site of an occasional lunch or book. Were it not for the daily duty of watering the sun-drenched plants, there would be some days when I would not venture on the porch at all. I almost always have had something else, something better to do, it seems, than to sit and appreciate the view.

That all changed a month ago now, when I began to take my morning coffee while sitting on the porch, resisting all urges to do anything but observe my landscape—not even to read or deadhead the flowers.

The result has been simultaneously relaxing and stimulating. My mind can race until it is exhausted, and then wander. My senses become alert to the many lives—human, insect, plant, and animal—with whom I share my front yard. The songbirds are diverse, but constant. I notice changes to each and every plant on this lush deck, experiencing subtle colors and textures that previously were ignored, or a blur.

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 14x11

Untitled, oil on canvas, 14×11

I have no doubt that this quiet time is positively impacting the rest of my day, too. I spend much less time sitting at my computer. I have been inspired to add flowers to the lawn between sidewalk and road, for not just my benefit but for the many walkers, runners, and other passersby. I have transferred this acute attentiveness to other parts of my house and yard, and am seeing things that have been there all along for what feels like the first time. (There are still pockets that are largely unobserved.)

This subtle change has a cumulative force, and the porch, once largely forgotten, has become a magnet of sorts, as I am now drawn back to it to read for an hour or so in the early evening, time which I previously spent indoors mesmerized by sterile, redundant images on my computer or television screen. Even as I write these words, it seems painfully, absurdly simple to realize how this has been available to me all along.

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 11x14

Untitled, oil on canvas, 11×14

The quiet time, though, ironically contributes to the problem of excess energy. Sitting doing nothing adds to my wellspring of energy, in part because during that time there is no competing activity to drain it.

Even without quiet time, even without the imperatives of commerce, I feel overflowing with energy at times. It is as it should be; energy is the stuff of life. Still, I seek conscious and constructive ways to expend it, and must guard against its tendency to dominate my need for quiet.

By definition, stillness and speed cannot exist at the same time; one requires the absence of the other. The more time I devote to sitting still, the less time I have to be active. The more I am in motion, the less present I am to my surroundings.

Yet speed and stillness stimulate each other, and both are necessary to a holistic life. Finding ways to integrate this upsurge in energy while preserving the quiet time which fuels it could take the rest of the summer, at least. By then, I will have tripled the size of my front gardens, their bold layout imagined while sipping my coffee.

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