How to Stay Calm


Every Day Brings a Choice: To Practice Stress or to Practice Peace

(Joan Borysenko)

The title of this article is taken from a quote by Joan Borysenko. By peace she means peace of mind. Other words we use to express the same idea include composure, calmness, equanimity, tranquility, serenity, and placidity. All of these terms refer to the ability to remain calm under pressure. Her quote is a powerful reminder that each day we can choose to remain levelheaded or freak out, to keep our shirt on or to go berserk, to stress out or go with the flow, to panic or remain unruffled.

The choice we make is an important one, for it is the difference between being in control of our lives or running amok. That difference in choice determines whether we are fired up for success or headed for failure. If you are not making a choice that simply means that your actions are not planned, but capriciously left to the whims of fate. That is, those who are not making choices are living on autopilot, dragged along by the tide of events.

If we lose our composure and panic in the midst of all our problems, we lose the ability to solve them and grow to feel like a helpless victim. The pain and frustration of feeling powerless may drive us to seek solace in food, alcohol, drugs, or sex, all of which can exacerbate our original problem, thereby leading to more pain and a greater need to numb the pain with an addiction.

Actually, peace of mind is our natural inheritance. Experiencing it is not a matter of DISCOVERING it, but UNCOVERING it. You see, it lies buried within us, beneath the barriers we have erected. Once we remove the obstructions of our own making, all that remains is peace of mind. What are the impediments to happiness that we have created? Well, they include greed, fear, anger, frustration, worry, regret, and mistrust. After uncovering the calm that lies at the core of our being, we will be undisturbed by the turbulence and violence that surrounds us, for we will always be able to remain in the eye (calm) of any hurricane.

How shall we begin to remove our self-constructed roadblocks to happiness? Start by eliminating anger. Why is everyone so angry? Weren’t we taught us to forgive our enemies? How much more so should we forgive our spouse, parents, siblings, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, employers, and neighbors? But how can we forgive those who have been so hurtful to us? We can do so by becoming aware of three things.

First, have you forgotten that those you hold a grudge against are dying? Have you been taken in by appearances and convinced yourself that everything is permanent? Look again. Everyone you meet is in their deathbed. They are here for only the briefest moment. Knowing this, how can you be angry at them? Have you no compassion? You don’t have to be a saint to be compassionate. All you have to do is be aware. Compassion flows from awareness. Once you are aware of the facts, you cannot help but be empathetic.

Second, be aware of why those who hurt you do so. It has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. They are nasty to you because they are in pain. They are filled with self-doubt, insecurities, and suspicions. They are misguided, misled, and misinformed. They are fearful and lost, confused and frustrated. They hunger for recognition and approval. Granted, they may be going about it the wrong way. But their only sin is ignorance. Knowing this, how can you be angry at them?

You can only be angry at them if you are guilty of the same sin, which is ignorance or lack of awareness. This is the third point to be aware of. That is, you ARE as guilty as they are. As a fellow human being, you share the same weaknesses. In fact, your anger ‘at them’ is really the anger you feel toward yourself. You are angry at yourself because of your own cruelty. When you stop being angry at yourself, you’ll stop being angry at others.

And whatever cruelty you engage in, it is not because you are ‘bad,’ but because you are unaware. So, open your eyes and let the light of wisdom fill your heart. Forgive yourself and others, and experience the peace that follows.

Once we become aware of the pain of others, we naturally progress to the stage where we wish to end their suffering. We express this desire by doing acts of kindness. Instead of hostility, we offer encouragement, wish others well, and grow magnanimous enough to delight in their successes. At this stage, we not only help others, but help ourselves by removing impediments to our own happiness, for we cannot be kind to others without dissolving our own greed, envy, jealously, and selfishness.

Another barrier we create that blocks the peace of mind we seek is the demand we make that the world cater to our every wish. It is a delusion to believe we are the center of the universe and its only purpose is to give us pleasure. The childish demand that everything proceed exactly as we wish inevitably leads to frustration, anguish, and disappointment. Merely to exist for the sake of pleasure is equivalent to never leaving the womb. It’s time to stop sucking our thumb and start assuming responsibility, for we have an important role to play. It is to make the world a better place. And the world, in turn, grants us experiences so that we may become better, stronger, and more loving. When we are aware of this mutually beneficial relationship of endless growth for the better, how can we not experience serenity?

A friend complained that she is no longer happy at work because everyone is so negative. She has a cause to be concerned because negativity is yet another barrier to peace of mind. But what she does not understand is that ‘they’ are not negative. The world is not negative. Any negativity, if it exists at all, exists in one’s own mind. It is one’s own creation. It is a judgment we choose to make. My friend’s coworkers are merely people, but she has decided to insert an adjective and describe them as ‘negative’ people. If she insists on using an adjective, she would be wiser to describe them as ‘misunderstood’ people, for she misunderstands the cause of their occasional ruthlessness. Why does my friend insist on revealing how much pain she experiences while forgetting about the pain of others? Can you see how the cause of all our suffering is lack of awareness?

Buddha reveals a major barrier to peace of mind when he tells us to eliminate desire. And here’s how the same idea is expressed in the Bhagavad-Gita, which was written a century before the birth of Buddha, “He knows peace who has forgotten desire.” Those who fail to receive the object of their desire often experience anger, resentment, or frustration. Or if they do get it, they may then experience the fear of possibly losing it. Or they may quickly tire of it and want another object, for how can we satisfy our hunger when we have an insatiable appetite? When we endlessly chase after things, we become beggars. But when we appreciate the little we have, we become rich. In the “Gulistan,” written in 1258, Sa’di (short for Shaykh Muslih al-Din Sa’di Shirazi) shares the same idea when he writes, “If thou covetest riches, ask not but for contentment, which is an immense treasure.” True tranquility of spirit comes from the awareness that the source of contentment lies not in what we have, but in what we are.

Tips on Maintaining Your Composure or Peace of Mind

1. Adopt a positive mindset. When an unexpected problem occurs, we often panic. After all, since it was unexpected, we are not prepared with a solution. So, if someone were to unexpectedly lose their job, for example, it’s easy to understand how they may lose their composure. But if we adjust our mindset so as to view the unexpected as a surprise and view a life filled with the unexpected as a surprise party, we will be able to keep our composure. The same would be true if we were to view every ‘problem’ or ‘disaster’ as opportunities to acquire new skills. Imagine the exhilaration we will feel after triumphantly overcoming a great difficulty.

Another aspect of a positive mindset is to realize that having goals, dreams, and wishes are fine, but we may not get what we want, and that’s okay because sometimes life has something better planned for us. So, when setting goals, remain flexible. You can set specific goals, but add the phase “or something better.” For example, “I plan to write a book (become a teacher / move to France / get a new car) or something better.”

At times, we not only don’t get what we want, but we get what we don’t want, such as the loss of our job. When this happens, embrace it as a challenge and opportunity to prove your mettle. The point to remember is your mindset is like your car’s GPS, it will automatically take you to where it has been set. So, set it on the right course with a positive mindset.

2. When calamity strikes, face it. If you allow yourself to panic, stress will drain your energy and cloud your thinking, preventing you from arriving at a solution. So, calm down; analyze your problem with curiosity; study your options; make a plan and act on it.

3. Remember that this too will pass. Facing a difficulty? If so, follow these four steps:

a) Ask yourself, “How do I feel?”
Your answer may be, “I feel miserable (afraid / angry / resentful).”

b) Ask yourself, “How long will I feel this way?”
This will remind you that the problem you face will eventually end.

c) After reminding yourself your problem will end at some point, you should feel a sense of relief.
Pause, and allow yourself to experience and enjoy that relief

d) Ask yourself, “How do I feel NOW?
Because of the relief you felt in the third step, your answer may be, “I feel better, not bitter.”

How many problems have you experienced and what happened to them? Weren’t your problems resolved? Won’t all future problems also be resolved? If you keep this in mind, it’ll be easier to maintain your peace of mind when you run into an obstacle. With practice, you’ll be able to dissolve any problem merely by facing it. For when you look at problems closely enough, you will find they are opportunities in disguise.

4. Gratitude. Instead of focusing on what we don’t have, we need to be thankful for what we do have. As Melody Beattie wrote, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” Also, be thankful not only for every wonderful thing you have received, but for every horrible thing you have avoided.

Focusing on what we don’t have instead of what we do have is one of the main reasons many of us suffer from discontent. TV, radio, and print ads bombard us daily, and their only purpose is to convince us that we are unhappy and need something else to be contented. No wonder we find it difficult to find happiness in ourselves, but be forewarned, you won’t find it anywhere else. I guess they had advertising in ancient Greece too, for Epicurus wrote about the same subject: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; but remember what you now have was once among the things only hoped for.”

5. Do what is right. Do you want a simple formula for achieving peace of mind? Do what is right. Do what you ought, not what you please. Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, also recommended this philosophy, for he wrote: “Why not simply honor your parents, love your children, help your brothers and sisters, be faithful to your friends, care for your mate with devotion, complete your work cooperatively and joyfully, assume responsibility for problems, practice virtue without first demanding it of others, understand the highest truths yet retain an ordinary manner?”

Nearly 300 years ago, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu expressed this same truth another way: “While conscience is our friend, all is at peace; however once it is offended, farewell to a tranquil mind.”

Our own negativity blocks the peace of mind buried deep within us. Once we free ourselves of our bad attitude, contentment will rise to the top and overflow. What are some of the harmful behaviors we need to stop?  Criticism and blame immediately come to mind. When you point at others, look at your own hand and you will find that three fingers point right back at you, so stop blaming others. If you’re a legitimate victim, you have a right to seek justice, but after doing so, get over it; move on; stop complaining. “He insulted me, he cheated me, he beat me, he robbed me. Those who are free of such resentful thoughts surely find peace,” said Buddha.

Peace is not something for us to wish for, but something for us to make, do, be, and give away. The part about giving it away is important, for as Shantideva, the renowned Indian Buddhist master (687~763) said, “Whatever joy there is in this world, all comes from desiring others to be happy, and whatever suffering there is in this world arises from desiring only myself to be happy.”

6. Get along with others. Accept others as they are; don’t try to change them. If you’ve been wronged, forgive, but don’t judge them. If you wish to become a true peacemaker, it’s not your friends, but your enemies that you need to talk to.

When we replace the love of power with the power of love, we will have made giant strides in achieving peace. Frederick Buechner articulately described the power of love as follows, “Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me. To see reality − not as we expect it to be but as it is − is to see that unless we live for each other and in and through each other, we do not really live very satisfactorily; that there can really be life only where there really is, in just this sense, love.”

7. Rein in your imagination. Don’t allow it to turn molehills into mountains or paint pictures of impending doom. When you become aware of such negative imaginings, switch to your rational mind and plan for success.

8. Harness the power of your imagination. Use the power of visualization to see yourself as the person you want to be. Dream about success, composure, and the achievement of your goals. The more you do so, the more your subconscious will come to your aid and bring about your dreams.

Helpful Books

1.HOW TO STAY COOL, CALM & COLLECTED WHEN THE PRESSURE’S ON: A Stress-Control Plan for Business People by John Newman

This excellent book, which is not just for business people, is well aligned with the message of this article; mainly, composure is a choice we make. For example, here are the chapter titles in Part Three of the book:

·         Choose to Approach Problems in a Cool, Calm, Collected Manner
·         Choose to Rest, Relax, and Rejuvenate Your Body
·         Choose to Calm Your Mind, Be Centered, and Think Clearly Under Pressure
·         Choose to Be Physically Tough and Full of Energy
·         Choose to Be Mentally Tough, Emotionally in Control, and Action Oriented
·         Choose to Communicate in a Positive, Productive, Low-Stress Manner
·         Choose to be Spiritually Strong, Resilient, and Joyful Every Day
·         Fun Choices for Balancing and Enjoying Your Life

© Chuck Gallozzi
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