Tranquility is a state of mind and body many of us deeply appreciate. How can
we cultivate tranquility? And why is it so often an elusive state in our daily lives? The
truth is that we are a busy, wired up species with many interests and distractions
continually pulling us in different directions. This creates tension and stimulation
contradictory to states of peacefulness, ease, gentle focus and spacious awareness.
The buzz we get from the information highway can be exhilarating. But the fatigue that
comes with too much stimulation is often the source of our yearning for calm and
tranquility in our lives. So how do we reset our nervous system and come down from
periods of exhausting overstimulation?
The radical message of the Buddha asserts that seeds of tranquility are already
within each of us. The natural state of the mind is open and serene. Cultivating
contemplative practice allows us to reconnect to our innate stillness. Each of us can
tap into a felt sense of peace and tranquility. We are not reaching for something foreign
to our natures. We yearn to return to a home base of peaceful abiding. What peace
feels like is unique to each person. To experience peace we need respite from the
seemingly endless demands of modernity. Recognizing when we have reached a
certain saturation point is the first step to choosing calmer moments to revive the spirit.
I recently returned from a three day silent retreat where we were asked to hand
in our cell phones to avoid the temptation of checking messages, told not to read or
write nor speak or even make eye contact with one another. Even the bulletin boards
were mostly covered at the retreat centre. You might say that we were intentionally
guided to give up external stimulation for mental activity. We were left with our own
minds to experience our inner lives and see whatever came up for us.
Of course, this was not sensory isolation; we walked in the lovely woods and fields,
drank aromatic ginger tea, ate healthy, freshly prepared food including delicious
desserts. All our needs were met seamlessly within a strict schedule of mindfulness
practices. The retreat conditions enabled an experience of living life here and now.
Unfolding moment by moment, the natural world and our inner life were so much more
accessible, as the avenues for technological connectivity were blocked for a few days.
Upon returning from this silent retreat, a certain mental ease and tranquility
within. The familiar sense of urgency in all that “needs to be done” seems less gripping.
I am walking a bit slower, and taking some time to launch out on the inevitable errands
that after a few days away from my routine will need attention. I feel my movements
slowed and a quiet calm settling deeply within my body.
But I know that my mind has not miraculously been transformed in three days. It is still
the same busy mind. For now I remember to watch my thoughts and observe mind’s
idiosyncratic ways. I see how I often choose to buy into the tension and hustle around
me. Whatever I feel responsible for assumes an exaggerated sense of importance. My
story concerning the many demands on my time cause stress and distressing feeling
states. Otherwise, I have a to do list that is not unique; just the same kind of list we all
accumulate out of habit. Whatever our circumstances, its not the stuff we need to
address, but the story behind the scenes – inflating our stuff with importance: our roles,
duties, accomplishments and our insufficient freedom or apparent lack of choice.
“Is any of this really necessary?” we may well ask ourselves.
Do you recognize how you let your stress sweep you into agitation, irritation,
anxiety or anger? The mindfulness practitioner learns the futility of turning away from
these difficult emotional states. If we turn toward experience with openness and a
sense of equanimity – right now -this is here – we are in a state of non-contention with painful experiences.
Tranquility may seem distant and elusive when suffering pain or difficult moods
states. Ironically, acknowledging these challenging feelings and sensations is the most
caring state of mind we can possibly cultivate when challenged by them. Mindfulness is
being with whatever is arising without judging it, just noticing and being aware moment
to moment as experiences pass through us. Bringing mindfulness to bear on any kind
of suffering honours the fact that we are human beings not human doings. For that
moment during which we’re being mindful, we cease being swept away into hopeless
and helpless beliefs about ourselves.
The untrained person is buffeted by the rocky demands of life into reactivity in the
service of an attempt at self preservation. His first reaction is to turn away, push away
from what feels too difficult to face. There may be judgement, anger, fear, blame or
aggression. This is exactly how we might turn away from the homeless man on the
sidewalk even as we drop a few coins into his hat. Common humanity can be painful.
Stress is created in the mind when mind concludes that we’re facing a situation for which we do not have the resources to cope. It takes some training and trust in
ourselves to recognize whatever is arising in the mind and heart, (even the aggressive
impulse) and treat ourselves in that moment with kindness, concern, offering ourselves
some moral support. Letting go automatic reactivity takes courage and persistence. At
these times we need the strength and the fearlessness of a warrior. That is how we
begin a journey toward tranquility and peace.
Finding balance may require renouncing habits of living that do not serve our
health and well being. Habits take time and effort to shift. Awareness builds
incrementally and supports our quest to retake charge of ourselves. This process is
beautifully portrayed in Portia Nelson’s poem:
An Autobiography in 5 Chapters. Let’s examine this poem chapter by chapter:
Chapter 1 – I walk down the street;
There’s a big hole in the sidewalk – I fall in.
I am lost…. I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find my way out.
At first when we embark on a journey to cultivate tranquility and peace in life; we
are confronted by years of conditioning. We don’t choose to be stressed out and in
pain. It isn’t our fault. Many generations of stressed out ancestors pass down genes
delineating certain temperaments. As children we watched bewildered parents struggle
with life’s demands. The triggers are active and people and situations easily get us
aggravated, irritated, angry, unhappy. Can we train ourselves to notice this as it
unfolds? The body is where this all happens. Recognizing the sensations in the body
that inevitably go along with our automatic emotional reactivity reveals where our work
lies. We mostly notice how much suffering and tension are involved in allowing difficult
emotional states to build up. Just noticing and allowing ourselves to feel what is coming
up is already stepping out of an automatic pilot lifestyle. Coming off autopilot is a
process. As we embark on our mindful journey, we often feel hopeless and helpless.
As if we were at the mercy of our mindsets. Seeing our suffering can be scary, and
when fear is in charge, anger is not far behind. Working with our fears not the same as
banishing our fears.. but we begin to see them for what they really are with self
acceptance and equanimity. Without the ability to feel the fear and know it, we run
madly off in all directions in an effort to regain control. When struggling for control our
major coping mechanism is projection. We blame our reactions on events and other
people out of the false belief we have no say about our emotional states whatsoever.
As long as we entertain and believe this sense of hopelessness, it will take forever to
find our way out of suffering.
Chapter 2 – I walk down the street,
There’s a big hole in the sidewalk….
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
We humans love all manner of distraction. It is commonplace now to walk into a
a train station, or an airport terminal and see the tops of heads, as everyone is busy
surfing the net or playing with their smart phones. Having nothing to do can feel like
peering down the edge of a precipice – making people dizzy with uncertainty. So we
live a substitute life, pretending it is the real one. We prefer external stimulation and
distraction to connecting with our true inner experience of life. A deep disconnect from
the simple joys of being alive is the result. There are few opportunities to just be even
for a few minutes – lost in observing the moment unfolding around us. Instead we find
many ways of consuming and getting just one more thing done; and in the process our
brains are tuned to a state of arousal and vigilance. Stress is inevitable when living life
constantly engaged in one more activity. We pride ourselves in being busy- as if it were
a virtue.. As I sit in meditation my mind constantly returns to what must be done today;
all the messages to be sent, work to be done, and questions that need answering; this
is not peace but the inevitable product of a mind tuned into relentless “doing” . This
mind is practicing being stressed out!! Can you believe it? Nothing has changed, I ‘m
in the same place – tranquility seems out of reach. How do I / or you get off this Merry
-Go-Round? Mindfulness in the form of Mindful Bells practice enforces a break from
constant doing. Stopping, even for just 4-6 breaths can restore a sense of balance and
bring us back to life unfolding in the real world. But we must choose to let go and be
still: open to things simply as they are without needing anything to do.
Chapter 3 – I walk down the street,
There’s a big hole in the sidewalk…
I see it is there.
I still fall in…it’s a habit.
My eyes are open, I know where I am
It is my fault – I get out immediately.
What a revelation! I have some say in being stressed and unhappy.
It follows then: Only I can get
myself out of this place of suffering.
This eureka moment alters the landscape of experience forever.
It is easy to succumb to this world of endless distractions, short lived little hits of pleasure from endless sources all around. We allow the stream to carry us with it. It is a bumpy ride. Pleasure followed by disappointment; pain amplified by impatience and fear. As we awake to our predicament, its best to first just observe its working on our psyche – day by day. No need to rush and fix anything. Just being with everything unfolding in the usual pattern is an act of solidarity with our situation. It is just “Like This”… What is “this” for you on a regular day? Life may feel like a roller coaster. Getting off requires courage to look closely at what is really happening. We ride the thrill of stimulation and entertainment, indulgences to the top, and then free fall sets in when realizing pleasure fades; expectations are not in line with the actual product we are grasping – the object of our craving. Seeing craving and aversion at work is liberating. We can just be with it: seeing the well worn patterns as if for the first time.
Facing his own suffering, the Buddha decided to examine his own mind. He sat quietly under a tree, closed his eyes and watched his mind at work.
The Buddha was a naturalist doing field work – his topic: – his own mind and body – his tools: – patience, close observation, non judging attitude and acceptance of all phenomena without preferences for pleasant. He taught himself to abide with painful experience and afflictive tendencies – opening to them; countering the natural inclination to turn away and shun the unpleasant. In this careful and systematic manner, he examined what it means to be a human being at the deepest level – compassionate to all aspects of this messy state called life. After some time invested in observation, we begin to see where choice comes in – opportunities to observe our habits will reveal where we can interpose a break in the chain of behaviour choices. We can sidestep the automatic reaction to brace, tense up or fight and resist whatever we just don’t want right now.
Chapter 4 – I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I walk around it.
The deep hole must be seen for what it is. My holes are when I choose to take the easy
way, not noticing that “easy “ really means “familiar and comfy”. Sometimes the familiar
landscapes I travel in, reassuring and no longer threatening are not really the wisest – or
easiest in the long run. For example, I hate paper work, so I usually procrastinate until
the bills are just about overdue. As one can imagine, interest payments are not rare in
my life. I have a stack of file folders on the side of my desk which require attention.
Always something more significant or interesting awaiting doing; closing files awaits
another day. Pretty soon, regret sets in and anxiety drives what could have been much
simpler to finish earlier. Occasionally, I will wake up at 4:30 am needing to get to the
office downstairs and finish the backlog.
I now see that procrastination habit looming over my left shoulder – feeling into
that knot in the stomach that tells me “you are avoiding something”. I can’t avoid the
fact that letting go old habits will require time and patience. It helps to bring kindness to
this recognition. On autopilot, I may suddenly be enchanted by something very gripping
that took precedence over the boring bills. With mindfulness in place, I see the
fascination behind that distraction as just plain delusional- a mirage in the desert.
Delusions are many and vigilance takes energy. This has not been an easy road,
learning to pay attention to the habits that don’t serve me; acknowledging the need to
shift gears. But seeing that deep hole of the old habit right in the middle of my day – the
vertigo I often feel – leaning into a tempting distraction – the anxiety just around the
corner that goes with knowing that playing solitaire on the computer; or sudoku in
today’s paper for only 10 more minutes will be the plunge into another time eating hole
of regret. Yet, the conditions leading up to any habit are oft complex. There is also the
element in situations such as mine that call out “Why this?” and – “What is truly needed
here right now?” This requires taking a step back and sitting with the discomfort of it
all. Seeing my messy, over programmed day, too many projects vying for limited
energy. My particular overly ambitious, overly programmed day needs to be seen for
what it is: a choice I need to revisit. Finally a useful question finds its way to
What is really, truly important in my life?
Chapter 5: – I walk down another street.
There is a forest few miles from our home which burned for two days in June a few years ago. The devastation was wide spread. Squirrels, ground hogs, birds, toads,
lizards and bugs of all kinds were displaced. The ground was scorched. The trees
underwent an awesome transformation – burning from the inside out. These scorched
maples, birches, alders and a few pines and cedars have begun to host vegetation of
all kinds growing from the ashes of burnt branches. The soil is rich in organic material.
Four years later spring and summer wildflowers are evident in great abundance. We
walk this forest at least once a month, admiring the richness and resilience of nature.
As the canopy returns, bird populations are on the rise, their song enriching our hiking
experience. The open sky and sunshine nurtures ground plants not seen here for
Noticing my particular emotional reactions of wonder, pleasure and sensory
delight out here: I am learning that sometimes the heart has to burn from inside out.
Another poem reminds us : Give back your heart to itself. Let go the habit of taking on
the whole world. Let go the drama of your pain and suffering. Burn off the excessive
holding on; and unnecessary bits of your daily routine. Rising from the ashes a
completely new experience will take hold – an appreciation just waiting for permission to
become manifest. Maybe you too are ready to notice and experience what is right here
for your enjoyment. Walk down that other street.