September 2014

Peace of Mind


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At a panel discussion in Wisconsin last year, the Dalai Lama remarked, “Everybody wants a happy life and a peaceful mind, but we have to produce peace of mind through our own practice.” Just what do we mean when we say “peace of mind”? And how might we cultivate it through practice? This month, let’s investigate these questions and see what we find.

It seems that peace of mind can be situational or habitual. There might be a particular situation that you have peace of mind about. If, for example, in a difficult situation you know that you’ve done everything in your power to remedy the difficulty, then that might help you to be at peace with that situation. If you’re usually able to be centered and balanced in the face of challenging circumstances, that would suggest that you’ve cultivated peace of mind as a habit. What can we consider to be some components of such a habit? Some possible components of a peace-of-mind habit are resilience, acceptance, forgiveness, awareness of transience, being true to yourself and living in the present moment. Let’s take a look at how each of these relates to peace of mind.

Resilience

When we feel resilient, we have the sense that we are going to be able to handle whatever challenges life throws our way. For many of us, resilience is something that develops over time, as we learn from experience how to tackle various types of problems and we learn where we can turn for assistance with problems. With resilience, we have an underlying emotional strength and flexibility that helps us to deal with all kinds of situations. That sense of being ready for whatever arises would seem to contribute directly to experiencing peace of mind.

Acceptance

Serenity and peace of mind are closely related concepts. The Serenity Prayer mentions “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” The things we cannot change include everything that’s happened up to this very second. We can’t change what we or someone else did yesterday or last year or 20 years ago. We can modify our understanding or our view of such past events, but we can’t change those events. That can be hard to accept, but once we do, it can free us to make changes today or tomorrow or next month.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness seems closely related to acceptance. A quote attributed to the comedian Lily Tomlin is “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” Forgiveness is such a tricky topic to discuss, because it can be interpreted in a number of ways. To me, it does not mean that, when someone has done something terrible, you are saying it’s okay. It does not mean that you have to forget an awful deed that someone has perpetrated. And it does not mean that anger doesn’t have its place in the face of harmful actions. Anger can be wisely directed as fuel to help us remedy unjust situations or to remove ourselves from dangerous circumstances. But when anger has outlived its usefulness, we can try to find a way to let it go. Holding onto anger for too long hurts ourselves more than anyone else and hinders our chances of experiencing peace of mind. Forgiveness is often viewed as a process and as something that can’t be forced. Being willing to be open to the possibility of forgiveness can be a starting point for the process.

Awareness of transience

According to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “The only thing that is constant is change.” It can take decades to see and accept the wisdom of those words. Some change occurs so slowly that it might appear that it’s not occurring, but if you look closely, you’ll see that it is. Awareness of the transience of existence can help us to deal with change more peacefully and even to get more enjoyment out of life. In A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle writes, “Once you see and accept the transience of all things and the inevitability of change, you can enjoy the pleasures of the world while they last without fear of loss or anxiety about the future.”

Being true to yourself

Being true to yourself is often recommended by philosophers and would seem to be another important component of a peace-of-mind habit. Harmony between your inner and outer selves is one way to define being true to yourself. Like resilience, this is something that can take years to develop. When we’re younger, it can be natural to get caught up in proving that we can meet other people’s standards. After we have made our way in the world for a while and have established certain types of competence, we may find ourselves wanting more harmony between our deepest selves and our external lives, and we might make some significant changes in order to feel more harmonious.

Living in the present moment

Living in the present moment might be the most important component of a peace-of-mind habit. When we’re fully paying attention to what is happening now, we’re not getting caught up in excessive regrets or resentments about the past or in excessive worries about the future. That doesn’t mean that we never have any regrets or resentments or worries. But when they arise, we can see if there’s anything productive that we can do about them. If we regret an action, we can try to find a way to remedy the situation. Developing a habit of peace of mind doesn’t mean that we never feel unhappy because of something we’ve done. Experiencing unhappiness because of one of our own actions can spur us to try to make amends for difficulties we’ve caused. Once we have done what we can to rectify the situation, we can learn from it and then let it go. Being fully in the present moment isn’t something we can do all of the time, but the more we are able to, the greater are our chances of having a sense of peace.

Practices to help us cultivate peace of mind

What kinds of practices can help us to cultivate peace of mind? Meditation is of course a practice that is often recommended to those seeking greater peace of mind. There are many types of meditation and it can be hard to know where to start. The book, How to Meditate, by Pema Chödrön, which is reviewed in this issue of Blue River Monthly, is a fine starting point. Other very good starting points include Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Your True Home, by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Other meditative practices such as yoga and tai chi can also contribute to a greater sense of peacefulness. Meditative reading, as described in the April issue, can help us to calm and center ourselves in tough circumstances and has the advantage that it can be done almost anywhere. Walks in nature can be meditative and the sights, sounds and smells can aid us in really being present. Prayer can be another type of meditative practice. Sending out prayers can sometimes ease our minds in very trying circumstances when there is not much else to be done. At other times, a prayer of gratitude might enhance our sense of peace. According to the theologian Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” Writing in a gratitude journal on a daily basis can be a way to make saying “thank you” a habit, and can contribute to a greater sense of peace and to greater appreciation of one’s life. To keep a gratitude journal, at the end of each day simply write down five things that you’re grateful for.

What else can we do to try to cultivate a peace-of-mind habit? A valuable practice can be to try to remember to pause before speaking or acting, particularly in emotionally charged situations. That can give us a little space to consider the potential consequences of our words or actions, and can perhaps lessen the chances of saying or doing something we’ll regret. Something else we can use to cultivate a peace-of-mind habit is laughter. If we don’t take ourselves overly seriously, we can find humor in our foibles and in a variety of situations. The sense of “lightening up” that accompanies laughter can result in a feeling of greater peace.

Steps to enhance individual components

On top of those general practices, which can enhance a number of the components of a peace-of-mind habit, we can take steps specific to individual components. Learning new skills can contribute to an enhanced feeling of resilience. As noted earlier, being open to the possibility of forgiveness can help to set in motion the process of forgiving. Reminding ourselves on a regular basis that “This too shall pass” can help to increase our awareness of transience. Finding ways to remind ourselves on a regular basis to be in the present moment as we go about our day-to-day lives is another thing we can do; some people use a sound such as the ringing of a phone as a reminder to come back to the present moment.

Points to bear in mind

Clearly there are numerous practices and techniques we can try if we want to cultivate a peace-of-mind habit. However, sometimes it can be a real challenge to cultivate such a habit. During some difficult stretches of life, peace of mind can seem quite elusive. For example, persistent financial difficulties can make it more challenging to cultivate a peace-of-mind habit, as can chronic health issues experienced by oneself or a family member. Also, variations in brain chemistry might make it more challenging for some individuals to calm and center themselves than it is for others.

Another point to bear in mind is that, when we experience peace of mind more often, it doesn’t mean that life is boring or devoid of excitement. Instead, we can view a peace-of-mind habit as a foundation for our lives. When we have that solid foundation in place, we can build on it and have all sorts of satisfying adventures.


Cultivating a peace-of-mind habit doesn’t mean we are going to feel peaceful all of the time. But we can take steps to experience peace of mind more often and that can be very worthwhile. Practices such as meditation, walking in nature and reminding ourselves to pay attention to what is happening now can help us to develop components of peace of mind, such as resilience, acceptance and living in the present moment.

-- By Mary Jablonski

See features from the September 2014 issue

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