A horse is galloping quickly on a village road. The man riding it seems to be in a hurry to get to somewhere important. A curious villager standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” The rider replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!”
– Adapted from The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh
It’s not surprising that, in a culture that rewards activity and fears stagnation, we consciously create busyness in our lives. When we get curious, though, we see how our restless and hurried actions often reflect chaos in the mind. Our habitual mind can run our lives like an unbridled horse. Without pausing and asking the horse–our default minds–where we are going or why, we unwittingly react to life, based on the beliefs we’ve built and inherited over our lifetimes (see ABC model).
While previous blog posts discussed how to work with stress, here we will explore how to cultivate the quality of inner calm: tranquility in the mind and relaxation in the body. Like the still eye of the storm, inner calm exists even in the midst of life’s chaotic moments. Far from bypassing or repressing our experience, nurturing this quality requires that we get to know our defaults and embrace our emotions. Only then can we settle the mind and take decisive action with clarity and composure.
Why inner calm?
We are wired to seek stimulation and comfort, and avoid boredom and discomfort. In the process, we often feel unsettled or unsatisfied. Cultivating inner calm helps us restore balance by allowing us to:
Our minds tend to cling to our perceptions of past events, replaying stories and experiences again and again without resolving them, and resisting the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings they bring up. This makes shame, guilt, and resentment hard to shake. By cultivating inner calm, we create the space inside to stop, look, and relax when these stories arise. Finally, our minds and bodies can rest and heal.
When we stop trying to fix, avoid, or repeat old thoughts, and commit to sitting with them in the eye of the storm, our thoughts settle. With patience, we will begin to see the situation clearly. We are then empowered to make skillful choices in this moment.
Inner calm in action
Inner calm is not about rejecting or overriding our feelings. Instead, it calls us to see and accept things as they are, however pleasant or unpleasant, and let go of our stories and assumptions.
It is easy to confuse inner calm with its imposter: indifference or complacency. But this quality is not about rejecting or overriding our feelings. Instead, it calls us to see and accept things as they are, however pleasant or unpleasant, and let go of our stories and assumptions. When we feel at ease in both comfort and discomfort, our resistance dissolves and the doorway to inner calm opens. Finally, we can access the vast ocean of wellbeing that exists within each of us.
Through mindfulness practice, we develop our ability to observe and acknowledge thoughts, sensations and emotions. As we observe our internal experience, we see the impermanent nature of these phenomena, and reveal our capacity to witness them without reacting. With a calm mind and relaxed body, we can bring this capacity into our daily activities. Learning to experience each situation free from the urge to push it away (if it is unpleasant) or hold on to it (if it is pleasant) gives us the freedom to fully engage with each moment, exactly as it is, and take skillful action.
3-steps to stopping the horse
With an easeful composure and reigns in hand, we can direct our lives more intentionally. Relaxing the body and settling the mind helps us reign in the wild horse of the amygdala, our brain’s emotional center, and restore control to the prefrontal cortex, our rational decision making center, by bringing balance back to the nervous system. Here’s a quick three-step process you can use when you feel agitated or stuck in compulsive action:
1. Relax the body: release tension.
Pause. Take a deep breath. Bring your attention to your body. Notice where you are holding tension, and allow yourself to relax. Relax the jaw, shoulders, and neck. Feel the breath creating spaciousness in the chest and around the heart.
2. Relax the mind: acknowledge your emotions.
Often, our minds are stirred because we are resisting emotions we think we shouldn’t be feeling. Acknowledging our emotions with compassion and patience is often enough to reduce their power and calm the mind. Practice allowing yourself to feel and identify your emotions. You might try the phrase, “I see you, [emotion].” Without trying to change anything, see how it feels to simply acknowledge your emotions as they are.
3. Take action: respond compassionately.
Emotions can be useful signals of our underlying values and needs, but without proper understanding, they can have an outsized influence on our actions. With practice, we can learn to register emotions as triggers for skillful action instead. One place to start is by asking your emotion, “What are you trying to tell me?” or “What do you need?” Take a few moments to listen or write out your intuitive response. If you’re feeling stuck, check out this chart that unpacks the purpose of our emotions.
I would not look upon anger as something foreign to me that I have to fight… I have to deal with my anger with care, with love, with tenderness, with nonviolence.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Going through this exercise, you may be surprised to find that your agitated mind was actually reflecting and underlying feeling of anxiety or another uncomfortable emotion. Asking your anxiety, “What do you need?” may reveal that the anxiety was covering a feeling of exhaustion, expressing a need for rest. You might then choose to take a break, or plan to get to bed earlier that night. Problem solved.
Clean up your life
Before we expect ourselves to have access to inner calm at all hours of the day, we may need to shift our lifestyle to train mind that it is safe and enjoyable to feel calm. Much like how practicing gratitude and compassion help build our store of positivity, actions and environments that cultivate ease and tranquility can help incline the mind towards inner calm. Try out one of the following action steps this week to clean up your life, Marie Kondo-style. If it brings joy, consider adopting it as a guiding value for your life.
1. Noble silence.
Silence is essential for deep transformation. Today, commit to acting mindfully and in silence for 30 mins. Meals and household chores are great opportunities for this practice. No words, not even checking your phone! Notice where the mind goes.
2. Live ethically.
Non-harming and compassion promote peace, inside and out. Actions that originate in craving or anger create agitation in the mind, accompanied by feelings of remorse, guilt and shame. Today, bring awareness to the motivations and impacts of your actions. Commit to one action with a clear intention of compassion for yourself or someone else.
3. Move mindfully.
Slowing down and focusing our attention on the task at hand helps us cultivate inner calm off the meditation cushion. Today, create time buffers around activities so you don’t have to rush. When required to hurry, see if you can still breathe and maintain inner spaciousness and quiet, even as you rush in the outer world. Use phrases like, “when walking just walk;” “when standing just stand;” “when seeing just see.”
4. Guard the sense doors.
In an age of 24/7 connectivity and Amazon Prime, we can easily fall into sensory overload. Today, notice the quality of sensory inputs you are consuming (food, drink, music, video, social media). Before choosing to move forward, ask yourself, “Does this bring me calm or agitation?”
5. Keep friendships that promote peace and well-being.
Today, contact a friend or loved one who truly makes you feel good and who shares your values. Take stock of the nourishing relationships in your life, and how you might shift more time and energy to cultivating them.
For a guided practice and discussion on cultivating inner calm, check out the video recording below of last Friday’s weekly live meditation session. The guided practice begins at 19:00–feel free to follow along, or sign up here to join in for free this Friday! Additionally, check out the past few blog posts on strategies that can help you cope with the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19.
Thank you for reading! Post any questions or comments below!