20 Ways to Find an Inner Calm
Eons ago on my previous blog, Calm Things, I wrote a post titled "Prescription for Calm" and I've been thinking about it lately, and have decided to give it a bit of an update and share here. It was inspired by the wonderful Anne Lamott (of Bird by Bird fame) who wrote a long note on Facebook that was shared and re-shared. She began by saying that she was about to turn 61 and wanted to write down everything she knew so far. I loved the idea, and wanted to share everything I knew about keeping calm to date.
And it seems to me that while we need to pay attention to what's happening in the world, do good work, advocate for those in need, and to resist in those ways available to us, we also need to look after ourselves, and also each other. Especially each other.
Pay attention to your breath. Breathe in light, breathe in joy. Breathe in the scent of fir trees and grass and cherry blossoms. Breathe in fresh snow and pink clouds, and the dew and the scent the earth releases in early morning. Breathe in your favourite pasta sauce simmering on the stove. Breathe in everything you love. Breathe out sadness and unfairness and heaviness.
When you're feeling really strong, reverse this process. Breathe in what is hard and difficult and terrible and breathe out peace and love and light. Send the light out to others in your breath.
Be still, be silent. Quiet yourself. Listen patiently. To the sound the breeze makes in the leaves, to birds, and the sound of your footsteps. Listen to people with affection, as Brenda Ueland says in her essay, "The Art of Listening." Listening is a creative act. Don't worry about saying clever things, but bring your full attention to hearing what someone is saying and why they're saying it and what they might not be able to say. Ueland says this beautifully: "Listen to your wife, your husband, your father, your mother, your children, your friends; to those who love you and those who don't, to those who bore you, to your enemies. It will work a small miracle. And perhaps a great one."
There is a poem by John Fox, that begins like so:
When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
What's interesting to me is that it's just as calming to be the listener, as it is to be the one who is listened to. Isn't that a marvellous trick?
3. Try to be the one least in need
This is from a Rumi poem, which goes,
"It's a person's duty to get oneself in a position
where one can be generous with their time and silver.
Whenever you gather with friends or are in a crowd,
try to the be one least in need. For simply doing that
Instead of asking myself, why aren't people giving me what I need, or telling me what I want to hear, or making me feel better, I find it's actually more calming to turn this around and ask, what can I give someone, what do they want to hear, what do they need? It takes me out of myself, out of my wallowing and whinging. I'm not saying I'm always perfect at this, but I do know that it's more calming than focusing on my own unfulfilled needs and puts them in perspective.
4. Go where the light is
I repeat this often enough. I mean it in a literal sort of way which is something that photographers do. If you're trying to photograph a still life object, you take it over to a window, you go to where the light is – you don't wait for it to seep into the middle of a room. On a sunny day, go sit on your back porch, or the front one. Feel the rays on your face, feel blessed by the light. But also, figuratively, interpret this as fits: go where the light is.
5. Likewise, go where the love is
I take my instruction from The Dhammapada.
"If, while on your way
You meet no one your equal or better,
Steadily continue on your way alone.
There is no fellowship with fools."
"One who keeps company with fools
Will grieve for a long, long time.
Living with fools is painful,
As is living with foes.
Living with the wise is delightful...."
Surround yourself with people who love you, who inspire you, who are uplifting. Otherwise, you're better to go it alone. Obviously it's not always possible to be in the company of the wise and brilliant, but you can try to minimize your exposure to the less uplifting.
A friend recently shared the following quotation on Twitter:
I won't be the first writer to recommend walking. Here is Bruce Chatwin: "I haven't got any special religion this morning. My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don't need any other god." Walking clears your mind and opens it up at once. Some of my best ideas have come to me during a walk. I can tell you it's useful to have a big dog who enjoys every type of weather and has big brown eyes and can tell time. So if I haven't taken Ace for a walk by 9am, he's going to sigh and moan and look at me mournfully. I've often said that a writer is constantly in training. You need to eat well, live well, take care of your body. If at all possible, when walking, walk on the sunny side of the street.
7. Return to a place
When I was writing my book of poems about travellers to Venice, Against Paradise, I read Watermark by Joseph Brodsky. He returns to Venice over many years, in the winter, perhaps as a sort of touchstone. As much as I'd like to return to Venice, (I was there once on our honeymoon 20 plus years ago), it's never seemed feasible. But we do go to Jasper or Banff, the mountains, at least once a year. It's a place against which to measure oneself. And also to forget oneself. I don't think you have to go anywhere far to do this sort of thing. Maybe there's a park on the other side of the city, or a place by the nearby river. I recently came across the following quotation (and bought the book, based on my love for it):
"A smaller place with which we resonate is more important than a great place of pilgrimage, where one is only a visitor."
– Václav Cílek, from To Breathe with Birds: A Book of Landscapes
8. Read poetry
Why? I'll let Adam Zagajewski take this one:
“Read for yourselves, read for the sake of your inspiration, for the sweet turmoil in your lovely head. But also read against yourselves, read for questioning and impotence, for despair and erudition, read the dry sardonic remarks of cynical philosophers like Cioran or even Carl Schmitt, read newspapers, read those who despise, dismiss or simply ignore poetry and try to understand why they do it. Read your enemies, read those who reinforce your sense of what's evolving in poetry, and also read those whose darkness or malice or madness or greatness you can't understand because only in this way will you grow, outlive yourself, and become what you are.”
– from A Defense of Ardor, Essays
Read poetry when you're struggling, when you're happy. When you're going through difficult times.
9. Start your morning as you would like your day to behave
If you would like your day to be full of meaning and new insights, if you would like to look at things from perhaps a slightly different angle, then read poetry in the morning rather than the newspaper, rather than turning on the screen. Sit and mindfully drink your tea or coffee or orange juice. Bless your day. Your cornflakes. Your boiled egg and toast.
The following poem is by a friend of mine, and I come back to it often.
I bless you in the name of the morning
the first thing of it, whispering
through the folds of my ear-imprinted pillow.
In the name of the mirror, toothbrush
and the slow shower that clarifies
vowels and consonants of my waking.
I bless you in the name of the breakfast
the wake up of it, orange juice and
Quaker Oats, sometimes Cornflakes
milk, white and breathless
becoming supple flesh of sally-rod
bone of unbreakable dolomite.
I bless you in the name of toast, buttered
spread flat, not to mention marmalade
its orange ribs rolled into this glass jar.
And in the name of an egg, boiled
in a white fountain-head of bubbles
the shell cracked open, and salted.
I bless you in the name of the chair, upright
my feet soft-shod on the floor-shine.
In the name of Gerry, who lives downstairs
and makes no more noise than a mouse
and in the name of the mouse
for whose absence I am grateful.
I bless you in the name of the marigold sun
remembering me to the meadows, where cows
who neither know nor number, graze
in a mist that is minding its own business
as it rises over the river
disappearing until nightfall.
I bless you in the name of the air
rising over my childhood
when I stood to my waist in the water
splashed in a sacrament of swimming.
Where I ran round the field with my sister
in her summer of first communion.
I bless you in the name of that summer
for girls who came down from the city
and our games played in white clover.
Once and for all and over and over
for moments of eternity
here and now, and forever. Amen.
10. End the day by forgetting your blunders
Emerson said it well:
“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”
I can't find the reference now, but I'm pretty sure I was reading something on Elizabeth Gilbert's Facebook page where she talks about how we spend a lot of time worrying about what others think of us, about how we said that lame or dorky thing and we beat ourselves up about that. But that in truth, no one is thinking about us. They probably registered the lame thing, and either figured out what we were trying to say, or just dismissed it as lame or dorky, but they didn't give it another glimmer of a thought. No one is walking around for days thinking about the thing we said. They probably just smiled it away at the time, or maybe they thought it was actually okay and not quite so lame. They probably registered this thing that you have lost sleep over for about 20 seconds before forgetting it. No one remembers your blunders in the way that you remember them. In general, I repeat to myself, "No one is thinking about you." It's strange how soothing this is.
Which comes from a book by Stephen Batchelor titled Living with the Devil. He writes about contingency – that "whatever is contingent depends on something else for its existence. As such, it need not have happened. For had one of those conditions failed to materialize, something else would have occurred. We make 'contingency' plans because life is full of surprises, and no matter how careful our preparations, things often do not turn out as anticipated."
I think it's more comforting to believe in contingency than, say, fate. If you don't get this job, perhaps you will get that one. If this publisher doesn't take your book, then there will be that one.
12. You are obligated to share the beauty you find with others
By now you've heard me say this: You are required to make something beautiful.
"The barrenness of the poetic task: as if every day we look out at a courtyard of rubble and from this are required to make something beautiful." - Theodore Roethke
And yes, it's rubble. The lesson is to make what you can with what you have. Don't let yourself off the hook. Enjoy the process. Work, and do not waste time.
13. Don't complain about the weather
(unless it pertains to global warming or disaster). The weather is beautiful. It makes every moment of every day unique.
"Life always gives us
exactly the teacher we need
at every moment.
This includes every mosquito,
every red light,
every traffic jam,
every obnoxious supervisor (or employee),
every illness, every loss,
every moment of joy or depression,
every piece of garbage,
Every moment is the guru.”
- Charlotte Joko Beck
You might like to add to this. Every flake of snow, every drop of rain, every high wind.
You might want to give up complaining in general altogether, remembering the words by Joan Didion:
14. When your eye starts to twitch or you experience other signs of stress, lie down on a couch or chaise longue and close your eyes
Listen to music - an entire album. Chopin, Beethoven, Sting, whatever you love. I learned this when I experienced Bell's Palsy a number of summers ago. I couldn't read, couldn't look at a computer, couldn't take photos. But I put on some music and I didn't do anything else - I didn't wash the dishes while I listened, or dust, or tidy. I just listened. And I realized how rarely I actually just listened to music and how wonderful this is. So now, whenever my facial muscles start to twitch in scary and involuntary ways, I head to the couch. I crank up the volume on Chopin.
15. Life is not easy, life is not difficult, and other mantras
So this is taken from a longish and beautiful passage about trees by Hermann Hesse, which you can read here. It gets at the contradictions of being, which I love, and it's also a pretty good mantra. Life is not easy, life is not difficult. I recommend having a mantra or two on hand. When you're stressed, you can walk to the mantra, repeat it to yourself before going to sleep, when you're driving etc. There are at least 10 good reasons to have a mantra.
The mantra I began with and still use, is from Julian of Norwich:
“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
16. Share your calmness
Once you have cultivated that style of mind that can tap into an inner tranquility, share it.
"Over against the world with all its turbulence, distraction and worry, one should cultivate a style of mind that can reach through to an inner stillness and calm. The world cannot ruffle the dignity of a soul that dwells in its own tranquility. Gradually, this serenity will begin to pervade our seeing and change the way we look at things."
– from Beauty, by John O'Donohue
Please also consider this:
"A voice that calms, movements that calm,
eyes that quiet - dreams that also do the
same, and enliven too...
Be a precious donor of peace and hope.
Give love to all you meet,
for so many in this world are being torn
17. Don't be nervous
It's usually the worst advice – to tell someone not to be afraid, or nervous, or not to worry. But the following words by Henry Miller seem helpful:
"Don't be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand."
The key to not being nervous, is to work, and to work on what brings you joy, and without overthinking it too much. Be reckless. This will quell the nerves.
18. Let sorrow be a doorway
This is from the lyrics to Jennifer Berezan's "A Song for All Beings." Just listening to it has a calming, soothing effect.
I cannot turn my eyes, I cannot count the cost
Of all that has been broken, all that has been lost
I cannot understand, the suffering that life brings
War and hate and hunger
And a million other things
When I've done all that I can
And I try to do my part
Let sorrow be a doorway
Into an open heart
And the light on the hills is full of mercy
The wind in the trees it comes to save me
This silence it will never desert me
I long to hold the whole world in these arms
May all beings be happy
May all beings be safe
May all beings everywhere be free
19. Take a Silence Pilgrimage
Take a whole day to be silent, or if you can't manage that, take half a day, three hours together. Sign off of the entire internet. Turn off your wi-fi. You are not obliged to announce this to anyone.
A day of Silence
can be a pilgrimage in itself.
A day of Silence
can help you listen
to the soul play
its marvellous lute and drum.
Be still, be silent. Find an object to contemplate. Write about it. It doesn't have to be anything fancy. Pluck an apple from the fruit bowl. Study, the colours, the stem. Notice the shadows it casts on the table. Cut it into four, and study the seeds, the flesh. Taste it. Breathe in the apple scent. Write down everything you notice.
20. Marvel, fill up on wonder, be astonished
For this, too, works wonders upon the soul. Look outward. Find a tree to love, a bird whose song you cherish, place a vase of flowers on your kitchen table and watch them change. Perhaps Mary Oliver says it better:
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
And there's this:
"I can’t quite shake the astonishment. I can’t quite believe what my life keeps teaching me, that material existence is a thin veil thrown over a foundation of miracles so numerous and profound we almost invariably overlook them."
– Martha Beck
When you are busy noticing the miracle of things, of existence, and when you share what you see with others, I guarantee that this will soothe your soul, calm your spirits, at the same time it lifts them.