Serenity is Contagious
As much as one wishes to receive good energy, there is also the desire to put good energy out there. Which is really a process – learning how to do this, not always succeeding. In his book Beauty, John O’Donohue puts it very beautifully, “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.”
I’ve often been told that I seem serene, calm. And maybe it is that the person most affected by the turbulence of the world and who worries most is also well-suited to cultivate that style of mind O’Donohue speaks of. Certainly I’ve been motivated to seek calm and work towards dwelling in tranquility due to my essentially shy and nervous nature. Very often I have felt quite fraudulent when people have thanked me for my calm presence.
But in fact, I’m nothing of the sort. It is, however, a goal of mine to share what tranquility I’m able to muster up and, – that whatever small moments of comfort and calm I have conjured for myself, might be shared. The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke has this to say:
Do not believe that the person who is trying to offer you solace lives his life effortlessly among the simple and quiet worlds that might occasionally comfort you. His life is filled with much hardship and sadness, and it remains far behind yours. But if it were otherwise, he could never have found these words.
Of course, it’s not as though my life is filled with hardship or sadness, not much at present, knock on wood. One thing that I have learned to do in cultivating a tranquil state of mind, is to ‘go forward with curiosity’ which is something the Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chödrön says in her book No Time to Lose, as well. It’s a way of being, this leaning into the world with a curious eye, seeing where things will lead. Curious rather than hopeful, curious rather than fearful or filled with dread. “Enthusiasm is a supernatural serenity,” says Thoreau. Which is interesting because when I have been able to cultivate that sort of inner enthusiasm and curiosity, even when I’ve been rejected or experienced a small setback, this is also when I feel most at peace with myself.
A yoga guru, Satchidananda, says, “We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious. If we smile at someone, he or she will smile back. And a smile costs nothing. We should plague everyone with joy. If we are to die in a minute, why not die happily, laughing?”
It would be good to be able to constantly plague everyone with joy. And why not try? Yes. But it’s also true that the natural mode of the artist or writer includes other states, which must also be embraced. Alone, bothering no one, I hope, I do indulge in moods that are less than serene. Maybe indulge isn't the right word. Despair, melancholy, a bleakness and a blackness are also part of my make-up. And they're necessary. I wouldn't give them up. I write into and through them. I learn about myself in this sort of darkness in ways that I would not were I to be constantly smiling.
Even in my darker moments, I try to remember that I’m connected to those around me. In her book The Eros of Everyday Life, Susan Griffin quotes the Iroquois artist Alex Jacobs. He says, “To us, each object is imbued with invisible fibers of light that reach out into the universe...”
When I think of all the many books that have changed me, that have had a really profound impact on me, Griffin’s Eros is on the list. In the title essay, she says, “Everything I encounter permeates me, washes in and out, leaving a tracery, placing me in the beautiful paradox of being by which I am both a solitary creature and everyone, everything.”
There are times in a life when that tracery may be particularly felt – when those fibers of light can be seen. It’s overwhelming and extraordinary. That moment when one feels those connections, however tenuous, between those we encounter, and those things we encounter also. But the reverse is also true, then.
We are also part of the tracery, we permeate the tracery of others as well. Our days are an intricate weaving of meetings, encounters, glances. Walking down the street we brush up against a person’s coat sleeve. We look at a photograph someone has posted on the web. We exchange a look of understanding with someone at a meeting. We hear a sigh of exasperation as a mother tries to calm her child in a public place.
And then there’s Facebook and all those social networks we now participate in, a tracery unto themselves I sometimes think. It can be overwhelming, all of it, especially to the uber-introverts out there.
Poetry is always a brilliant antidote to the tracery of the social network. Gaston Bachelard says, “At certain hours poetry gives out waves of calm. From being imagined, calm becomes an emergence of being. It is like a value that dominates, in spite of minor states of being, in spite of a disturbed world.” That poetry can be larger, can take over, can dominate, this is one of the secrets of the art.
I love the image of poetry as a wave, having all the force and energy of water, and also the persistence. It moves into the shore, swelling, erasing marks drawn into the sand, makes its own soothing etching in whatever tracery was there before. And as we enter into a calm, we also emerge into exactly who we are, we emerge into being. We can relax. No need to hurry, as Virginia Woolf says. “No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself.”