There are few things I love more than the tangible, kinetic feeling of being calm. Learning to cultivate calm is an art, science, and discipline. Cultivating calm was a primary goal of the Stoic philosophers, Buddha and Buddhists, Christian and Islamic Mystics, and even soldiers facing battle.
Every one of us faces personal battles every day. We encounter ceaseless conflict (both internal and external), opposition, and media “noise” on levels other generations could not imagine. Our brains are vibrating with a frantic energy like a monkey that mainlined a case of “Monster” Caffeine Drinks. Our culture subsequently, is literally “going bananas.”
Cultivating calm has been coveted as a necessary life skill for a pleasant life for multiple millennia. Have you ever seen those ancient circles and pinnacles of stone left in various parts of the world, like Stonehenge, Easter Island, Central America, etc.? Ever wondered why Ancient cultures invested massive resources into building these structures, the pyramids, and temples? They were seeking a place to ground themselves, their minds, their collective spirit. They were ultimately seeking (and investing in) cultivating calm.
My most concrete example of cultivating calm in the midst of a storm came in a jujitsu tournament I was competing in. I was still a brown belt (one level below a blackbelt) and I had signed up for a competition months before. I had trained hard for it. Then one of life’s storms hit me; I caught a deep fever the night before, felt weak as hell, loopy in my brain, and frustrated I could not operate at my peak (if I could operate at all).
I felt so profoundly weak when my time to get on the mat came up. I literally “gave up” caring anything about the outcome. My only goal was not to pass out. The contest involved dealing with three multiple attackers at once, some of whom had weapons like wooden knives and rubber pipes, etc. I bowed to my opponents, with my mind lost inside the weakness my own body, barely aware of my surroundings. I heard a loud, “Hajime!” (“begin” in Japanese). A visceral “storm” of male bodies came quickly flying at me, weapons in hand. The storm had broken loose all over me.
I breathed in slow and deep. I calmed my mind to a state of utter indifference to their, or my wellbeing. I let my body simply slip into what I had trained it over the years to do. I had no fear. I felt no feelings at all, primarily due to the fatigue of the illness. Just my calming deep breath, and the slight sensation of some movement going on around me.
I had become “the eye of the midst of the storm.” I literally remember nothing from the long time I was there in the center, joint locking and throwing my three opponents around. Not one damn thing. Eventually, the storm passed, and I was still standing. Out of a group of about 20 skilled martial artists in my rank, I won 1st place. All I can remember was deep breathing and moving in circles.
How Can We Cultivate Calm in the Midst of the Storm?
Life too often brings storms that can be unsettling, even more than the very physical one I endured. Ever found out a partner cheated on you? You got unexpectedly laid off from a job you liked? Have you ever received a doctor’s diagnosis you dreaded and never expected? Ever had a partner or stranger hit you out of nowhere? Ever had a knife or gun pulled on you, a car crack into your bones while walking or riding a bike?
Life can dish out some unexpected and deeply distasteful experiences. How do we deal with that? Chaos, panic, freezing in our tracks, breaking down? I personally prefer to deal with these life storms with a deep, powerful, grounded sense of calm. This can only be done through disciplined cultivation of your body, mind, and spirit.
Cultivating Calm in Your Body
Breathe. Breathe deeply. This has an immediate effect upon your complex and wonderful physiological system. Your blood pressure decreases, your capillaries deliver life-sustaining O2 to you cells, your brain releases a host of naturally created morphine-like neuro-hormones (dopamine, endorphins, etc.). Cultivating your breathe is cultivating calm.
Which modality is best to train your body in? Do you try Qigong or Yoga?
Martial Arts or meditation? I have a high energy level and have always struggled with seated, silent meditation. I prefer “moving meditation,” like Qigong, Tai Chi, and other “Internal” Martial Arts. When I do try to meditate, I prefer to do so with some relaxing music that positively affects my brainwaves.
In my opinion, disciplining our bodies is the easiest and most effective portal to mastering our lives. As hard as it is to lose weight, increase our exercise levels, adjust our diet, etc., it is still easier to change our bodily habits than our mental habits. Our negative and sabotaging internal mental dialogues are even harder to tame than our sluggish bodies.
Cultivating Calm in Your Mind
Our mind has been subjected to years of “malware” and negative, destructive programming. We allow these ridiculous “tapes” of past inputs from family, “friends,” societal stereotypes, to play on in our head. Having worked with many victims of child and sexual abuse, I have known many whose abusers still torment their victims from the grave, due to the abusive verbal “programming” they received in the past. That stuff goes deep.
Regardless of the source of this negative programming, it is our responsibility as adults to change it. It is within our power to change negative, destructive thinking and programming into something positive. This change occurs both with our cognitive thoughts, and our subconscious. Our cognitive thoughts can be changed through “talk therapy,” reading positive self-help books and materials, or attending a spiritual center that helps lift our thinking to a higher level.
Our subconscious mind is a bit harder, and is a complex subject that deserves its own article. One easy way to affect our subconscious mind to cultivate calm is through affirmations. These hit both the conscious and subconscious levels of our mind and thinking. We can repeat verbally a positive affirmation. One I like is, “I am calm, centered, and powerful.” We can say this as we do meditation, exercise, moving meditation, or right before we drift into sleep.
Another technique is writing it in handwriting in a journal repeatedly. Writing it out in longhand handwriting activates another part of our brain, and can get the positive reprogramming in deeper. This all takes time. This all takes commitment. A commitment to yourself, your wellbeing, your personal development.
Your Life is A Training Ground
The great teachers of the past, like Morihei Ueshiba (the founder of the martial art, “Aikido“) taught us wisdom such as this: “The Art of Peace begins with you. Work on yourself and your appointed task in the Art of Peace. Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow.” The great Stoic teachers, like Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, taught the same, and prized cultivating calm as their chief goal in handling life’s follies.
I worked hard to achieve a Master’s Degree in Negotiation, Conflict Resolution, and Peacebuilding. I served for 16 years teaching non-violence skills in very dangerous neighborhoods in Los Angeles. I have taught Qigong and Martial Arts for years. I personally believe that we as a species will never achieve community and world peace until we cultivate calm and peace in our hearts.
As the African proverb says, “When there is no enemy within, the enemy outside cannot harm us.” That is because when we can conquer the “enemy within” (fear, hate, greed) there is no enemy left to fight. Only then will we reap the ultimate harvest of cultivating calm; a peaceful world for us and our grandchildren.
Previously published on FrankBlaney.com