Finding stillness

In a world of perpetual pain, finding stillness is the greatest achievement

Drifting in and out of sleep and denial, I imagine bringing a body into conditions of complete quietude, its only movements the autonomic responses sustaining its being alive.

At night I lie awake, settling into positions that will bring sleep, seeking out rest to ease the stress of bodily collapse. There seem only to be a few positions available; adopting any or moving between them means pushing through excruciating stiffness, getting up to answer nature’s call adds the thrill of getting to the smallest room without mishap.

Always I know I will be awake again anyway within a couple of hours when a flush of prickly heat overwhelms me with cold sweat. Or because I have turned over a bit too far and bumped into one of my increasingly insistent hotspots, or just inadvertently scrunched my spine again.

Remembering times when I have been able actually to find stillness in the world during life, the body’s quietude held in muscle memory, my imaginings now authentically based on real experience. In times like these, it is vital to have experienced events with clarity and precision – although it takes a while, maybe even a whole lifetime, to know how to experience the complexities and chaos of events, free from the prejudices of history.

Lying awake for most of the night, all comfort sustained entirely by the effects of pharmaceuticals, the mind confronts the actuality of the body’s demise, its history irrelevant, now palpably deteriorating despite (quaintly) looking on the bright side. There is a bright side?! For as far as is evident, the disease is confined still to bone and lymph; as yet not in any vital organ. Good news is only news that is not as bad as it might be. Clutching at straws. Drifting in and out of denial.

When asked how I feel, whether by medical professionals or anybody else, my experience is now so confined within this downward trajectory, that the only answer I can give is tied to no more than a few days along it, often only hours, and every departure from the decline becomes a blessing that I will emphasise with glee and optimism. My wife knows the whole story better than any, reminding me kindly to remember and to be honest, which is always a good way of returning to reality. I am not alone and I seriously do not believe I would function at all if I were. I remain in awe of our love and the life we share.

I have been blessed in this life to have travelled, to have encountered what Neil Gunn and Nan Shepherd describe as elementals (in The Atom of Delight and The Living Mountain respectively). I have witnessed for example at first hand the transparency of Loch Etchachan nestling high among the Cairngorms. In many places all over this country and in others, I have known directly the naked power of elements, the inexorability of weather, currents and tides, the working day, the revolutions of celestial objects and the grand march of history. There is a great deal to remember here, much from which authentically to ground my imaginings.

For I have certainly taken many journeys during which I have experienced a profound sense of contentment in the face of forces beyond my ken and powers outside any control, all wrapped up against the cold, the wind or the rain by the autonomic power of my body, clever clothes and technical fabric stretched over geodesic poles.

My wife and I also have traveled extensively, usually within the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in an excellent little campervan, an almost fully equipped, hard-shelled, tent with wheels, offering a mobile window to the world. Cosy in all weathers, lots of room for stuff, sturdy against every wind, we have been especially drawn to the Outer Hebrides.

There are places at the south end of the archipelago where quietude is both necessary and beautiful, where finding stillness is determined not by any act of will, but by ambient circumstances, and becomes in fact inevitable as all conceptions of any willing thing wither away, vanish into the consciousness of a moment so vast it is beyond comprehension, back into the empty difference between memory and fantasy.

At the end of September, as I watched the Atlantic Ocean at the western edge of Barra, I came to a realisation. There is something both perfectly ordinary about this experience of emptiness in the face of inexorability, at the same time as something very special and extremely rare.

Where the road round the island rises north from the Borve machair to an outcrop and onwards to the bay where the seals sing still to St Columba, there is access to the shore with space to park and gaze at the ocean.

Between the dunes and the road, held back by a beach, there is a deep brown lagoon of peat water, which gushes towards the sea through a complex clump of rocks protruding through the sand and striding off into the ocean, which in turn continuously batters the land with sets of frothing breakers.

The first time I experienced the power of this place was in 1988. I was cycling through the Hebrides, pitching my tent on machair, visiting bunkhouses and bothies, sleeping on beaches, under stars. The lagoon did not exist then. Just a burn squiggling through dunes and breaking through to the sea at the same rocks. To be sure, I consulted the maps I then used and saw it depicted as I remembered. I wondered if the ocean is ever so big that waves still break through into the lagoon. Maybe then the burn will return.

There is an exquisite chaos created here. Peat water flows always down from the mountain, builds up in the lagoon, seeps out from under the sand and spills over in a vigorous flow through rocks easy enough to step over. The surrounding sand is however susceptible to sinkage. There are warnings too on a notice board about quicksands where the beach flattens at the edge of the lagoon. Meanwhile enormous breakers push up the beach towards the lip, scramble through rocks and run round the open beach to push back peat water, which swirls in a boiling pool of froth, just in front of one of the best rocks to sit on and watch if all.

A streak of brown gradually melds into ocean foam. Birds wheel in the air. Clouds rise and fizzle out all the way to the horizon. Ocean swells smash high against the sheer face of distant headlands throwing out slow-mo spray in great white parabolic plumes.

A few headlands to the south, at the northwestern tip of Vatersay, near wallows where otters play in the kelp, there is a beach approachable only over pastures of tiny flowers and docile cattle, where it appears that sets of breakers pile up on the way to the shore, water mountains squeezing through rocks before rushing to the sand in random lumps, each completely different from the last. Next to this, nestled and almost invisible along the rocky shore, there is a long sandy geo where waves of froth move in and out with utter regularity.

Watching the movements of tides at the edge of a mighty ocean is being witness to events over which the witness has absolutely no control whatever. It is an experience that affords extensive opportunity for reflection, meditation and speculation, perhaps it is the substance of all of the contemplative sciences, the unspoken materially of this precious human existence, the silent space created when mind is confronted by the inexorability of things and the body carrying it learns what it must do in order to remain alive among elemental forces.

It can be easy to forget that the possibility of this kind of experience is not an individual choice, but the outcome of hard work, within an existing context of cause and effect, of every contingent element and power, of the bodily labour of getting to a place of stillness as much as the dead labour embodied in the products required to protect against the elements, the clever clothes, the geodesic aluminium, the campervan.

In principle, quietude can be found under all circumstances given the right motivation: moving among traffic flows in the city invisibly avoiding other vehicles and pedestrians; watching rain gathering into dried up burns, swelling rivers and inundating plains; standing amidst falling snow; watching sunsets darken into night and dawn light rising through the stars; enduring the babble of politicians and hacks; living with cats. Every experience of the inexorability of things and the vanishing space of all consciousness of this will always offer valuable lessons, especially retrospectively.

These are experiences that can take many other forms; finding stillness under any and all conditions requires a very similar motivation, a commitment to become immersed in events and to create conditions where quietude becomes easier to attain, or even necessary, which means being mindful of the tricks a mind can play when it comes to believe it can be anything more than an instantaneous point of apprehension.

That this kind of contemplative consciousness is possible at all is not to be taken for granted. This is the precious gift of being human. But becoming aware of the luxury of stillness in the presence of inexorable forces requires paying very close attention to the life of a body moving in the world, being mindful as it is called. In a post written in the depths of the night at the start of 2019 while I was lying in hospital recovering from spinal cord compression, I emphasised that being mindful has less to do with giving any kind of substance to a thing inside called mind that directs the conduct of the body carrying it, and more with focusing on how a body reacts to the circumstances in which it finds itself, mind being an element of that conduct, the active consciousness of the moment.

Lying in hospital again, waiting for an emergency MRI because again there was so much pain that cord compression was a possibility. It did not feel as excruciating as it was when I had to be hospitalised three years ago, but red flags were raised when I called the cancer help line. Unable to move much once I have found a place of quiet stillness, l can now only remember my life in the great outdoors, contemplating, reflecting, meditating, being here and now, or better, bringing there and then into being here and now, holding still against the pain and relying on many kinds of analgesia. In my imaginings I stand on the summits of many Munros, plod through woods, wander up glens, sit beside many shores and cycle many roads. I have been blessed to have had these experiences as the basis of all contemplation and to be able always to come back to this very real reality when writing.

I had to be kept in hospital from the moment cord compression became a possible cause of the pain; when the next day cord compression was ruled out, there was no reason for me to be in hospital. So I am home again. Apart from the metastatic hotspots in spine, ribs, pelvis and neck, there is a small slipped disc and a compression fracture in a lumbar vertebra, resulting from bone degradation. Much of the pain from the latter is due to muscular spasm protecting the bone damage, which will I am informed decline in the fullness if time. In less than a week, I am to be given an injection of Radium which will soothe the aches from metastatic hotspots. I hope then to be able to get out of bed a bit more, maybe out of the house to a beach where I can watch the sea.

The great error of so called enlightenment thinking is to believe that any state of advanced quietude or reflection, being mindful or finding stillness, can be inserted unproblematically back into the basis of all consciousness. That such a thing as mind has universality or independent substance, unrelated to its bodily location in the world or to the journey it has taken to get here, that one mind at any one moment must have something in common with any other at any other moment.

It is more likely that each and every mind is radically different from every other, that any connection between minds is at best a conversational illusion and that actual connections between human and all other sentient beings are less mental than bodily, physical, biochemical and olfactory. Based not on articulating the uniqueness of every moment of personal quietude but on the shared experience of this, the love of the moment between us, on the fact that despite the privacy of my experience I can expect readers to understand what I am writing about.

For we all know such moments and we all know how precious they are, whether by the side of the ocean or finding stillness against private pain in the middle of a sleepless night.

If you feel able to contribute to maintaining this blog free of adverts or to support me as I turn it into a book, I am grateful for all donations. Please send to: dncnspnc at gmail dot com via PayPal with reference ISBS – it’s shite being Scottish!

Love and Peace


Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, proofreader, Dutch translator.

8 thoughts on “Finding stillness”

  1. Very sorry to hear that. Condolences to his family and friends. I enjoyed his excellent writing and had a lot of respect and sympathy for his take on things. I had been wondering why I hadn’t had an email from the site in a while. Now I know.


  2. A message from Andy’s wife Shona, brother Colin & family. Andy died peacefully on the 21st July 2022 at home. We are humbled by the astonishing efforts made by the care teams, doctors and friends whose work, attendance and love allowed him his wish to spend his final days at home. All of you on this community and others have been a source of inspiration to him in his life and a great source of comfort and help during his illness.


  3. Beautiful writing, came here from your comment on Denis K’s substack. My own words feel inadequate, feel awe. Wishing you peace.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. HI Duncan, I was very glad to get news yesterday and begin to dip into your writing again, admiring your clarity, strength and courage in what may be one of life’s most difficult journeys. I have missed a lot, but will catch up. Your photographs are a joy, I can smell the woodland! Happy to know you found the transcendent writing of Nan Shepherd, and I remember well your cooking skills that weekend at Tara – soup as it never tasted before. Heartfelt thanks for your unstoppable generosity of spirit. Annie

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Dear friend,
    you’ve been much in/on/drifting through my dispersing mind.
    Your words and the gathered images you offer to remind,
    rhyme with mine. I stay in because I do.
    Thank you for your pervasive and persevering awakeness into words.

    Liked by 1 person

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