Calm and equilibrium that sticks
Have you ever spent a few weeks in total relaxation? On a peaceful, away-from-it-all holiday, for instance? Or on a meditation retreat where there was nothing else to do but meditate, gaze at your navel, and eat healthy foods?
You come away from it feeling like a new person. Strong, energised, full of ideas, ready to take on the world. You look around and previously insignificant little details of nature, like the yellowing leaves on a tree, seem uncommonly beautiful. There’s something deeply reassuring about those leaves: seasons come and go, the world renews, life moves on, stuff like that. For some reason even the same air seems fresher. And that apple tastes like . . . wow, have you ever tasted such a delicious apple?
Maybe you can recall what happened next.
At the first traffic snarl on the way back from the airport or the retreat centre, twinges of edginess return. It’s okay, though. They just remind you of how you might have felt at another time. Then you pull into your street and discover someone has parked across your driveway, blocking your entrance. The edginess becomes more pronounced but you cope, because you have this great reservoir of I’ve-been-away-from-it-all peacefulness to sustain you.
Even the next morning when the alarm fails to sound, you are still coping. Same when you get stuck in the queue at the bus stop, and when the elevator gets jammed between floors at work. This getting-away-from-it-all is powerful stuff. You know the world is testing you, however. So all day long you cling to your calm feeling with all your might. You purposely slow down when the rest of the world is determined to race, you speak softly when others want to shout, you struggle to think positive thoughts when others are complaining. And just as you are thinking you might be able to pull it off, an incompetent workmate lets you down badly. Crash. In an instant, all that good work has gone. In its place is not only unrest and disharmony, but disappointment. By the end of the day you’re back to ‘normal’. It is as if you’ve never been away.
How does peacefulness evaporate so quickly? You start the week feeling calm and together, certain that you will be able to hold onto that feeling for ages to come, yet within a day or so it’s disappeared. As if you had never even done the course. Most people who take restorative breaks come to the same realisation: the benefits are fleeting. The beauty fades, the peacefulness frays, the insights seem remote and all that space you thought was there seems to evaporate.
Calm: No Matter What is about making these qualities last. Not just for a few hours or days, or for a particular phase you are going through, but for your whole life. Right up until your very last breath.
Although it’s not our primary intention, the attention-grabbing part of what follows is the way it helps you to overcome setbacks and problems. It won’t prevent them, of course, but it can certainly lessen their impact. You’ll be better able to deal with pressure when you’re fortified by a composure and centredness that always keeps you on track. You’ll be able to bounce right back if you go off the rails at any time. When challenges come along, now you will have the ability to respond in the most constructive way. When disaster strikes, you will be able to get back to normal (the new normal) much faster than would otherwise be the case. And when things appear at their bleakest, you will have this inner stillness to call on, which will help you through.
For this to work you need a foundation of calm and stability that you can tap into at any time: not only when you want to feel relaxed, but when you’re active and under the pump.
Peace of mind in today’s world
Everyone has a theory as to why the world is restless and stressful. And why unhappiness, dissatisfaction, depression and other mental health issues are on the rise. Some say it’s because we lack spiritual resources. Or discipline. Or moral fibre. Or a sense of community. Others say we’re being too introspective. Or our values are changing. And some insist that this is the price we have to pay to survive in an ever-more-competitive world.
Maybe there is substance to these theories. Maybe the world is more stressful. Maybe we are feeling more anxious and depressed. Maybe some organic or spiritual change is producing all those mental health issues that concern us. On the other hand, maybe not.
There is also a strong possibility that the world is pretty much as it has always been, and we are just looking at it differently. It’s possible that it is just being presented to us in a different way, and we’re receiving more troubling news than we used to. It’s also possible that mental health issues are as they have always been, and we are just observing or measuring them differently.
It doesn’t really matter one way or the other, because you can’t change the world, the people around you or, for the most part, even the immediate issues that cause you pain. All you can change is the way you look at things. But you already knew that, didn’t you? Every self-help promoter in the universe seems to be peddling the same story. The problem with that claim, though, is that it’s only fantasy for most of us. We can’t change the way we view things. Our mental habits are too ingrained.
Now consider this: what if there was a way of developing a continuous sense of inner calm and stability without having to learn anything new or change anything old? What if there was a way of insulating yourself from life’s pressures and setbacks so you would recover from them quickly and not suffer any long-lasting pain? What if there was a way of experiencing a deep level of contentment that didn’t require any change in your behaviour or the way you look at things?
You’ll be pleased to know there is. That’s what this book is about. And most remarkable of all, what I propose involves no effort on your part. It requires commitment, for sure, but no effort.
How are you feeling right now?
The impatient side of you might like to be able to turn the page and read about a little routine that instantly transforms the way you feel: from feeling uptight and scratchy to feeling peaceful and contented, in an instant. Or from feeling jaded and lethargic to feeling enthusiastic and full of wonder. Also in an instant. While they may seem like attractive propositions, and are achievable, they won’t serve you as well as what I am about to share. At least not in the longer term. Because those transformations are only about feelings.
‘What’s wrong with that?’ you may think. ‘If he could help me feel calm and relaxed, I’d be on cloud nine.’ Feeling calm is relatively easy to achieve. Making it sustainable is another story. However, I want to take you further than what you feel. There are reasons for this. First, emotions are transient: whatever you are feeling will eventually morph into another feeling. Second, feelings are unreliable: they can be manipulated, overwhelmed by circumstances, and are nowhere near as logical as some psychologists pretend. The third reason is the most intriguing: it is possible for you to experience your own emotions more objectively than is generally thought – actually witnessing them arise and fade – without being bound to them, and without being unnecessarily influenced by them. The method covered in the second part of this book can enable this.
Feelings have a role to play because they help determine what you see as the quality of your existence. If at any given moment you are feeling unloved, anxious, tense, overworked, unhappy, afraid, depressed, sad, disappointed, jealous, angry, confused, embarrassed, unappreciated, wronged, dissatisfied or frustrated, you will rate your quality of life as relatively bleak. No matter what rational assessment you come up with, no matter how optimistic your attitude was at other times, right then you would consider life to be gloomy.
And if you were to experience a succession of such feelings – say feeling unappreciated which led to you feeling angry, and that leading to regret, which led to shame, which turned into fear, which drew you into a depressed like state – your life would seem even gloomier still. This is not an exaggeration; how often do negative feelings seem to be following on from one another, even when things have been going well?
The self-help people assure you that you can change the way you feel, but we all know that there are times when you don’t have the presence of mind to do anything other than hang on and see where it takes you.
Now I want to present you with an alternative, a direct contrast to the negative states above. This time we’re not talking about a feeling as such – at least not one that is easy to describe like joy or confidence – but more a state of mind or a quality of life. It is called equanimity.
In the classic sense equanimity means inner calmness and composure, particularly in challenging situations. Wikipedia describes it as being ‘a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may [upset] others’.
In some Eastern teachings equanimity is described as being one of the four sublime states (the other three being kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy). Think of it as a quiet contentedness; a sense that, no matter what is going on around you, all is okay or turning out okay. When equanimity is present, everything feels perfect.
With a foundation of calm and equanimity, you are a powerful person. It doesn’t matter what feelings you are experiencing because you are aware of their transience. They come, they go, but you continue with the sense that all is okay. Deep down you are certain that everything is okay.
Before we move on from feelings, there is one more thought I want to leave you with. You will feel more peaceful and together as a result of using the process in the pages ahead. Take that as a given. Yet this is only a byproduct. The process is designed for something deeper and more fundamental than what you feel. We’re aiming for a bedrock of calm and order that you will be able to depend on, no matter what challenges arise, no matter what you may be feeling at any particular moment. And, all things being equal, you’ll be able to depend on this for the rest of your life.
The time and place to find equanimity
Here is an easy choice you can make that will ensure whether your experience of the world is positive or negative, peaceful or restless. That choice is where you direct your attention.
Although this is not quite as straightforward as choosing whether to look at the vase of flowers or the garbage bin, the choice I’m going to point out is many times more effective. Don’t be fooled by its simplicity; it works.
Most restlessness and all negative frames of mind relate to either the past or the future, not to the present. Negative emotions such as fear and anxiety are future-based; they relate to what may happen. And negative emotions like regret and disappointment are past-based; they relate to what has happened. Future tense, past tense. No exceptions. What both have in common is that they are conceptual, existing only in your thoughts, with no concrete reality of their own. So as long as you avoid thinking forwards or backwards (which you can’t do forever, obviously), you will avoid negative emotions. And, in the main, you will avoid restlessness.
Contrasting this is what occurs when all of your attention is fixed on the present. For a start, those negative frames of mind vanish. Gone. Next, the positive frames of mind that I have been writing about – stillness, peace of mind, clarity and equanimity – spring to life. If you quieten your thoughts and just experience the present, those qualities are automatically there. But the moment you start thinking about what’s happening, comparing or trying to evaluate it, it’s gone again. Because, by trying to get your head around what you are experiencing, you move away from the present.
Not everything to do with the past or future involves negative emotions – for example, you can have pleasing memories about past events and you can have uplifting thoughts about what you are planning to do in the future – but negative emotions cannot exist when your attention is focused on the present.
At any given moment you get to choose the attributes that determine your quality of existence. You can direct your thoughts to the past or future, with the restlessness that entails, or you can direct your attention to the present and experience calm and equilibrium. These are your options: tension on one side, peacefulness on the other. Choose.
I bet you’re thinking that commonsense and reason could play a more important role here. For example, if someone knows certain mental behaviours produce restlessness or undesired emotions, surely they can avoid this by modifying the mental behaviours. Here are the two things I know about such an ambition: (a) most people believe they have this ability; and (b) most people don’t have this ability.
Ask any advertising researcher. Consumer interviewees invariably insist that their rationality will overcome any emotional impulses they might experience, yet they respond emotionally almost every time. This is why some people pay ten times as much for a Ferrari as they do for a Toyota. And why others pay ten times as a much for one brand of eyeliner versus another. And why people still take up smoking. And it may even be why someone who is feeling depressed about their weight chooses to eat ice-cream rather than apples.
Not convinced? Here’s a little test for you: what motivates people to go to work each day? You think there’s a logical answer. Surely the motivation is to earn money so they can satisfy their basic human needs for food, shelter and so on. But a recent study of over 10,000 working people revealed that the primary motivator was not financial, but emotional: the feeling of advancing towards a meaningful goal.
It’s possible that you have the rare ability to overrule what you are feeling by applying reason – but just in case you do not, or that ability fails you some days, I have something more powerful you can use. We’ll come to this shortly.
Understanding the present
Now you have a fairly conventional explanation of what you experience in the present. When your attention is focused here your experiences, emotions, relationships and appreciation of the world are at their most fulfilling. Everything falls into place. You feel complete.
Perhaps there have been times when you thought that is exactly where you were – in the present – yet didn’t experience anything like what I described. The critical word there is ‘thought’. What you think has an influence over what you experience. Let me explain.
If you view the present as most people do – thinking that ‘this moment’ and ‘now’ have a relationship with the passage of time – you will always be looking for that gap between past and future. As logical as that seems, the present cannot found there. Why not? Logic tells you that time is linear, stretching out behind and ahead (before and after), with the future becoming the present becoming the past. According to this view, ‘now’ is something like an infinitesimally brief interval that’s constantly updating itself. Logic may even suggest that you can string together millions of little nanosecond ‘now’ moments to create one continuous present. But you can’t rationalise the present like that, you can only experience it. Any direct effort to grasp it in some way takes you further and further away from it.
(Yes, I am aware that I, too, have associated the present with time by comparing it with past and future. I apologise for this shortcoming of language.)
Maybe you have a more sophisticated viewpoint than the one just outlined, perhaps having come to the understanding that this moment has no relationship with time. You think you’re on the right path here, but all you’ve done is come to the second obstacle, the one that relates to knowledge.
If you are relying on what you know as ‘the present’, you will always be trying to align what you are experiencing with what you think it should be. That’s an impediment to your experiencing it. Indeed, every thought and concept that is in your head right now is an obstacle. If you think that the present is something that can be understood, rather than a reality to be experienced, you face an obstacle. If you think you have some control over the process that brings the present to you, or you to it, you face an obstacle. Same, too, if you think there is anything you can do to summon it, or if you think that you can learn how to be present, or think you can perform this practice called mindfulness. Even the subtlest notion that you have any say in what is happening or what’s going to happen is an impediment.
The challenge for now is just to accept that we’re dealing with something that has no intellectual, psychological or emotional component. I’ve been referring to it as an experience, but it’s not an experience of something: it is just pure, unmediated awareness.
You will be pleased to know that coming up is a process that brings this to life.
By the way, if you find this whole topic of past-future-present a bit perplexing, don’t lose sleep over it. Meanings and explanations have nothing to do with it.
Excerpted from Calm: No Matter What by Paul Wilson. Copyright © 2014 by Paul Wilson.
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