"Don’t try to feel at peace, be peace."
About 6 months before my first son Malik was born, I had a panic attack.
At the time, I didn’t know what it was. In fact, I didn’t even completely know where it was coming from.
I knew I was worried about money, and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, but I also had a lot of anxiety about my future son. I didn’t just need to support him, I wanted to be an example to him and thought, “How can I be an example to someone else?” “How am I qualified to raise a child and bring them into the world?"
And worse, every day of my life I was running around trying to fix my problems (even when I had no reason to- it became habitual). I was rushing, racing, worrying, and even panicking, but never stopping, calming, resting, or healing myself.
Little did I know, my long-term stress and anxiety had begun to turn into a more severe form of anxiety, and that was an early warning sign.
In a very real way, the majority of us live out our lives at war with ourselves.
We push ourselves to the brink, never allowing a break, and act like stopping to rest is a sign of weakness.
Our minds are in chaos and we have no idea how to get out of this self-imposed hell.
We need to remember how to stop.
To stop, calm, rest, and heal our mind and body so that we can nourish our sense of peace and well-being.
This is the way of samatha, the first aspect of meditation practice according to the Buddha.
How to Use the Energy of Mindfulness to Stop, Calm, Rest, and Heal the Mind
Samatha is the act of calming the mind and bringing it to a state of tranquility. The best way to look at it is as a quality or state to be developed more than anything.
In my book, The Little Book of Mindfulness, I talk about it pretty extensively as it applies to mindfulness and meditation practice. If you haven’t read the book yet I’d suggest doing so as it gives you the best and most complete introduction to mindfulness practice. You can get it free (just an email is required) by clicking here.
I’ll also be talking about samatha in more detail in my free video series at the end of this month (click here to get the video series when it goes live), which I put a short preview for at the end of this post.
Samatha is the art of stopping. The art of stopping harmful patterns of thinking, calming the mind in the face of difficult emotions, resting and nourishing the mind, and allowing the mind to heal when in the presence of deep or chronic pain and suffering.
My intention with this post is to give you an introduction to each of these areas of samatha and show you how to begin putting each of them into practice to relieve stress, ease anxiety, and transform the state of your mind from friction and chaos to peace and the ability to generate joy in day-to-day life.
So here we go...
Simply stopping our activity can be a very nourishing activity in itself, and despite its universal benefits it's something so few of us know how to do.
Try this daily for a week or two and see what a big difference it makes (and preferably, continue the practice from there):
- Set an alarm to go off every 1-3 hours.
- Stop. When the alarm goes off, stop what you’re doing and turn your attention to your body.
- Be mindful. Become aware of the sensation of your breath either going in & out of your nose or of the rising and falling of your abdomen.
- Follow the breath. Follow the length of each breath, lightly concentrating on it from start to finish.
- Interrupted? Bring your attention back. When your concentration breaks, due to a thought, feeling, sensation, or something which you can’t yet pinpoint, acknowledge it (or the interruption in a general sense, if you can’t identify what it is), and gently bring your attention back to your breath.
- A minute of mindful breathing. Do this for about 60 seconds.
The first aspect of samatha, stopping, is about more than just stopping in a physical sense, though. Learning how to stop is also about stopping harmful patterns of thinking, like the habitual patterns that make us rush around all day long.
Our habit energies are very strong. Our volition, or intentional effort, is the opposite of our habit energy. In theory, it sounds like we should just be able to “decide” to change our life in certain ways, but the problem is our habit energy is naturally stronger than our volition.
Our habitual energy has the ability to push us around without our consent. It's the reason we sometimes do things we don’t want to do, which harm us or someone we love, even when we know better.
But mindfulness allows us to change the game and put the ball back in our court by shining a light on our habitual activity. The energy of mindfulness allows us to be present for our habit energy, acknowledge it, and often simply by doing so we can reduce its power significantly.
The next time you notice yourself succumb to a bad habit, whether big or small, acknowledge it mindfully and pay attention to the thoughts and feelings arising along with it. What are you telling yourself when you commit the act? What are you feeling?
In our example, the key habit in question would be the idea that you need to rush around all day to get everything done, or simply that you rush around whether you have a lot to do or not (rushing around may be connected to your sense of self-worth, in that if you're not rushing around you have nothing to do, and if you have nothing to do you're worthless).
When you catch yourself running, especially for no particularly good reason, ask yourself:
Why am I rushing around? What am I feeling as I rush around? What am I telling myself at this moment?
This process can often lead to important insights that will help you loosen its hold on you.
By calming, I’m referring to not only calming one’s thoughts but also calming the storm of strong emotions.
Calming one’s thinking, at least to some degree is generally a quick and natural result of mindfulness practice and is a big reason why it's so effective at relieving stress and anxiety.
To calm one’s thoughts, no special technique or instructions are necessary except to begin meditating and making an effort to be mindful in your everyday life (you can learn both by downloading my free eBook I mentioned earlier here).
But calming your thoughts is only part of the calming equation. Strong emotions are just as harmful and quite intertwined with an overactive mind, especially in the case of anxiety where fear is the most defining aspect. So without handling strong emotions, you won’t get very far.
To begin working through whatever harmful strong emotions you feel on a consistent basis, use the Buddha’s process for seeing deeply into their essential nature (or origin):
- Recognize. Simply recognize that the emotion has arisen with your mindfulness. "This fear has arisen", “I am afraid.” This is the first step. Without acknowledging the emotion, the rest of the process isn’t possible.
- Accept. Accept the emotion instead of pushing it away or attempting to ignore it. “I accept this fear.” Our usual tendency is to push these harmful emotions away or ignore them completely, so this step fundamentally changes how we treat them, which makes it a critical step.
- Embrace. Next, embrace that fear in the spirit of self-love and compassion. “I will be with this fear intimately.” We typically have a negative disposition towards these emotions, and this pattern of rejection can be very damaging. This step completely changes our relationship with our challenge and opens us up to the natural healing process of our awareness.
- Look deeply. This next step can take time. Now having accepted and embraced your fear, it’s the process of meditating and contemplating on it to see deeply into it. What is its origin? When does it arise? How does it make you feel? Questions are powerful here, however, don’t overthink it. The most important effort is to sit in meditation with the emotion and continue to be mindful of it as it arises. Imagine yourself following a rabbit down a rabbit hole to see how far it will go.
- (Realize) Insight. Insight is the “gem” which results from looking deeply- it’s what we really want. With insight, we know what to do (and what not to do) to fundamentally change the situation.
This process can take time, depending on what you’re working with, but it’s effective in helping you overcome strong emotions. I’ve used it myself to overcome a number of personal emotional challenges and limiting beliefs.
We no longer know how to rest our bodies or minds. We work long hours, weekends, day after day, making us more and more susceptible to not just stress but severe anxiety and depression (which can result from long-term stress and anxiety).
Even when we take a vacation, many of us come back more tired than when we left because we’ve become so conditioned to running that we’ve forgotten how to stop and rest.
The art of resting is the art of paying attention to our body and mind so that we can tell when we’re tired, both physically and mentally, and then consciously giving ourselves that time to rest.
And lying down isn’t our only time for rest. Meditation practice is very resting, as well as:
- Drinking a cup of tea with mindfulness - Watching the sunrise or sunset while sitting and breathing deeply - Walking mindfully in nature or even in the comfort of our home
Whatever you prefer, the important idea is to learn once again how to just take a break without desiring any particular outcome. Even to feel better. Don’t try to feel at peace, be peace.
But taking a break isn’t the only time to take resting into consideration. Perhaps the most important point with regards to resting is to learn how to act with ease and joy in your daily life.
The Buddha said that we should walk the path in an easeful and joyful way- the practice of non-practice.
To do this, what I’ve mentioned thus far in Stopping and Calming will help greatly, but I’d also suggest practicing mindfulness of body. Mindfulness of body will help you attune to your body in a very subtle way, allowing you with practice to detect more easily when you become exhausted, stressed, or anxious.
I cover mindfulness of body in my free guide, The Mindfulness Survival Guide, which you can download here.
Last but not least, it’s also important to treat your time for sleep with proper attention as well. Here are a few tips for improving the quality of your sleep:
- DON’T DO blue light 2 hours before bed. Blue light refers to the light emitted by electronic devices such as phones, tablets, computers, or T.V.)
- DO a resting exercise within 1 hour before bed such as the 3 I mentioned above.
- Actually give yourself enough time to rest. Many of us push it and try to run on less sleep than we need. Not everyone needs 8 hours, some of us run fine on 6, so you’ll need to pay attention to your body and find your perfect number.
"Healing is necessary not only within people, but between people, groups, races, and nations."
When we live our lives in a way that we don’t take care of ourselves for an extended period, things are bound to happen.
It’s the classic example of the person that avoids the doctor their whole life only to die of a condition which could have been easily handled or even avoided if caught beforehand.
When we ignore what goes on within our mind, conditions only get worse over time. And those conditions can lead to very bad things (such as depression, as I mentioned earlier).
And when we do try to take care of ourselves? It’s usually through either prescribed medication and myriad treatments or self-medicating and overindulging to bottle down the pain.
Prescribed medication and treatments can be very helpful, but when we ignore our body and mind’s natural healing capability we put ourselves at a risk far greater.
Thich Nhat Hanh uses the example of a wounded animal in the forest. When an animal becomes wounded they don’t continue running around and doing their usual routine. They search for a safe and secluded place to lie down and rest their bodies.
In a very real way, with not only our body but our mind, we can do the very same thing. And if paired with a helpful treatment which makes the process even easier, all the better.
When a little stress and anxiety, and not enough stopping, calming, and resting, turns to physical exhaustion, chronic pain, or a serious condition we need to learn how to heal our body and mind.
Healing is generally the natural result of stopping, calming, and resting and so in many ways, practical advice for healing is really just about applying aspects of everything we’ve already covered.
Like the surface of a lake, when ripples run through our minds we can’t see clearly the cause of our suffering. And if we can’t see the cause, we can’t prescribe a cure. By taking the time to stop, calm, and rest we can bring about great clarity and heal deep wounds.
But healing is also where the need for relief from pain and suffering extends outward. The world needs healing. Healing is necessary not only within people, but between people, groups, races, and nations.
Perhaps the greatest suffering is between others, not within ourselves.
By learning to stop, calm, and rest we can create great healing within ourselves and between people.