Finding Yourself Begins with Finding Peace of Mind

You were born exactly as you needed to be. You possess gifts and a unique constellation of atoms and neurons, all firing to make you already whole. By cutting through outward expectations and cultural mania, you will find that that within you is already a calm and steady self.

Our modern lifestyle packs a punch when it comes to stress. We are brainwashed by the idea that we can control the uncontrollable, bend reality to meet our expectations, and twist other people’s wills to meet our needs. We have an arsenal of irrational thought patterns that don’t line up with our lived experience, and that dissonance we feel is anxiety showing up.

Even in the best of times, our anxiety can dictate the terms of our reality. In times of intensity and heightened stress, our desire to stay calm, patient, and unruffled may seem impossible. Our brains are hard-wired to scan for impending threats in order to keep us safe, and the body automatically keeps score.

We can’t escape this. But we can learn to work with what is naturally happening so that it doesn’t pull us under into the deep black waters of anxiety and despair.

What Calm is and is Not

Many mistake calm for passivity. Many others think it is merely about proper breathing diaphragmatically. It is not. Make no mistake, calm is active. Calm is action. Calm is disciplined. The good news is calm can be taught. Breathing techniques can aid calm, but in the final analysis, calm comes from your thoughts.

Calm is one of the most important building blocks of self-knowledge. While there is no one place to begin on the journey to self-knowledge and self-understanding, calm is fundamental.

Calm is related to the concept of apatheia. For the Stoics, this meant eradicating the tendency to react emotionally or egotistically to external events, the things that cannot be controlled. It was the optimum rational response to the world. Why? Because of the predictable chaos of the will of others and nature — forces outside ourselves.

Only your own will can be controlled. That does not imply that you lose feeling, or disengage from the world. Ryan Holiday has recently popularized the term apatheia as noted from one early practitioner of the day, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Rome’s greatest playwright, and perhaps also its greatest philosopher. He writes of this concept in Stillness is the Key:

“It’s a powerful idea made all the more transcendent by the remarkable fact that nearly every other philosophy of the ancient world — no matter how different or distant — came to the exact same conclusion.”

Whether you were a pupil of Confucius in 500 BCE, a student of the early Greek philosopher Democritus one hundred years later, or in Epicurus’s garden a generation after that, Holiday observes:

“You would have heard equally emphatic calls for this imperturbability, unruffledness, and tranquility.”

The term is most directly connected to the word stillness in English. It is the ability to be steady as the world storms around. Stillness is the process of achieving deep inner calm. All the great religions and philosophical schools have a term for finding it, and for what it permits. It permits us access into the Tao, the Logos. Stillness, solitude, and silence are all practices that lead to an emotional sense of calm.

Calm and Anger

Seneca called anger the most “savage of all the emotions,” and wrote De Ira (On Anger) on how you should never — under any circumstances — give in to your anger. It may be the most systematic argument against anger ever written. Need justified revenge? Fine. But pursue it for the right reasons, not in anger.

Anger creates haste. Anger blinds. Anger conquers the mind. Anger, according to Seneca’s eloquent treatise, is effectively the root of evil. You don’t want it in your house. The worst things we do to one another are committed in anger. If anyone would know, it was Seneca, who wrote De Ira having survived a first-hand seat in the court of Caligula. The atrocities committed by Caligula, followed shortly after by Nero, cannot be adequately summarized in a sentence; they were nothing less than grotesque and monstrous.

Yet, you might push back and say, “Seneca was an exemplar. He and other Stoics were uncommon humans with great teachers and early fortune. What about the great vast ocean of humanity?”

It’s true, and you could say that anger exists within us for a reason. Doesn’t anger fuel the athlete to dig deeper? The angry “chip on the shoulder” in any field, for any number of reasons, can drive you for years. Some say they can harness their anger into action. For his part, Seneca says to keep it strictly out in all responses.

In the social sciences over roughly the course of the past century, anger has been viewed as destructive when it is habitual and impulsive. However, anger has also been viewed as instructive. “Healthy anger” can be a justified and even necessary response, a sign that you have been wronged, or are experiencing disrespect — whether in fact or perception. Self-respecting people know when their boundaries are being violated.

Anger is also deeply ingrained in our emotions. I’m thinking about all those hundreds of road trips I’ve made on the U.S. interstates and the growing aggression I feel, especially as the roads congest and the trip’s estimated duration lengthens. I think about waiting in long lines at Disney World, like an hour and a half for a three-minute Minions ride while everyone bakes in the heat and gets dehydrated because their $12 Icees are giving them headaches. Or why my wife and I have our biggest fights almost every time we travel — the big wonderful event we’ve been planning for months?

Calm is about staying mindful and in control through a myriad of possible emotions or emotional responses. Anger is but one of them. Angry people are examples of those who are not in control of their minds. Their minds rule them and ultimately keep them in their more primal, animal nature.

In The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene sums up the anger response — and our response to an angry outburst — superbly:

“Our anger often stems from problems in our childhood, from the problems of our parents which stem from their own childhood, on and on. Our anger also has roots in the many interactions with others, the accumulated disappointments and heartaches that we have suffered. An individual will often appear as the instigator of our anger but it is much more complicated, goes far beyond what that individual did to us. If a person explodes with anger at you (and it seems out of proportion to what you did), you must remind yourself that it is much larger, goes way back in time, involves dozens of prior hurts, and is actually not worth the bother to understand. Instead of seeing it as a personal grudge, look at the emotional outburst as a disguised power move, an attempt to control or punish you cloaked in the form of hurt feelings and anger.”

Why? Because this at least lets you respond with clarity and the appropriate energy. Don’t become ensnared in their emotions. Keeping your head while they lose theirs is its own power.

But what about when the anger isn’t coming from someone else, but yourself? In psychology, anger is generally considered a primary emotion (along with fear, sadness, and joy). But is it realistic to keep anger “out of our house” altogether? What if we grew up in a family that thwarted our anger response? What if we grew up under conditions that expressed anger openly?

If you feel you have pent up anger within you, this may be a signal that you should confront the source. Repressed anger leads to depression. Frequently expressed anger is also a signal that you are at war with yourself.

In his book Wishful Thinking, theologian and novelist Frederich Buechner describes anger like this:

“Of the Seven Deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

If anger is a part of your story, simply learning anger control techniques won’t work all that well. What is most effective in working through past anger is to allow it to be confirmed, validated, and released in a safe, controlled environment. Trauma and recovery therapists say you should permit it to be expressed to those who originally sourced it — either by what they did or didn’t do. (Effective methods for accomplishing this goal are outlined for the layperson in books, articles, interviews, and lectures by various writers, foremost among them Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems.)

For many, that may be the only way to make peace. Anger will not let you keep it at a distance for long if the problem goes deep. It needs to be brought forth and given a voice. It should be honored for its felt legitimacy if you are to heal through it and find calm.

Calm and Fear

As a general rule, humans are terrible at dealing with uncertainty. Your anxiety wants you to solve problems as quickly as possible. When the world is burning, it’s normal to run to the closest fire and stomp it out.

But of course, there’s always another fire.

Anxiety creeps upon us. We might start feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, unable to focus. We might get irritated or annoyed at anyone getting too near us at the grocery store during a pandemic when people are supposed to be social distancing, and against our better nature we see everyone as a viral threat. We may not be able to fall asleep at night because our minds remain fully alert and full of things we need to do.

This leads us to focus on the physical symptoms and sensations of anxiety and to overlook the psychological ones. It can lead us to focus on techniques to reduce our anxiety like deep breathing or exercising or meditation or yoga. These practices are great for accessing temporary calm, but they still do not get to the root cause of our fear and anxiety.

Cognitive science and rational-emotive therapy have shown us how powerful our beliefs can be. As young children, we have consistent thought patterns based on how we perceived our holding environment, and over time those thought patterns become internalized beliefs. We carry these beliefs into adulthood.

How Calm Leads to a Growth Mindset

Cognitive flexibility is perhaps one of the greatest tools in the pursuit of accessing calm. There are two components to cognitive flexibility: change how you think about a problem, and let go of what isn’t working.

The belief that we can change or control reality can keep us in an anxiety death grip. The root of our stress and anxiety emerges when expectations don’t agree with reality. Our mind looks for ways to close the loop. It attempts to ruminate, catastrophize, and play out potential endings. Without the tools — and the courage — to confront the source of our fear, we will be hounded by anxiety.

Some fears don’t have a fix. Some fears remind us of our impermanence and stoke existential angst that can feel overwhelming. We fear for our own safety and those of the people we love. Our desire for control doesn’t align with the truth — we know we are not in control.

Rigid thinking is the opposite of cognitive flexibility. Marcus Aurelius lived through a plague, constant sieges, and betrayals during the last 14 years of his life. But as he wrote in his book Meditations, we can always return to that “inner citadel” of peace and imperturbability from which he could much more effectively fight all the challenges he had to face. Fixed mindsets and rigid thinking will keep you looping and looping on the merry-go-round. It may be safe, but the ride is predictable and boring.

The Takeaway

Calm is one of the building blocks for the development of self-knowledge. Becoming self-aware is the basic foundation for creating the life you want. Your happiness depends on it. Calm takes action. It’s about being involved with your emotions and in firm control of your mind.

We can’t know the inner work Aurelius did to get to his inner citadel. Perhaps it was through writing the meditations themselves. After all, tradition tells us that he was writing the meditations as if to himself, not for posterity. We do know that getting to the root can help us to genuinely diminish the anxiety — and better understand ourselves.

The resiliency and adaptability we all desire, along with ever-deepening self-knowledge, begins on the foundation of building a calm self.

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