About a year ago I gave up my pursuit of being calm. It wasn’t a conscious decision at first, it was more of an uncontrollable bubbling up of the not-so-calm aspects of myself and my inability to sit in meditation for any length of time without lots of squirming around. A lightbulb went off one day inspiring me to rebrand my restless anxious energy as “kinetic energy.” (Which I continue to think is a brilliant term that I’m willing to share!) Striving for calm just felt too hard - impossible even! So I chose to give it up.
The more I began to cast aside my narrow goal of calmness and dig into why I prioritized this above all else, the more transformation I began to experience. The more free and expressive and expansive and spacious I felt. Why is calm a trait and experience so sought after in our society? Especially in meditation and wellness spaces? I spent years meditating with determination to change myself and “let go” of difficult feelings, to mold myself into an ideal image of calmness, serenity, and stoicism. If I felt calm up to that point, the feeling was always fleeting and shallow, and the ultimate goal of being a “calm person” always felt so far off.
Don’t get me wrong, it is absolutely essential to engage in exercises to calm the body and mind, but if that is made the goal above all else, we will be missing out on all the healing and transformation that’s possible. Here’s my attempt to support my perhaps controversial stance on why giving up the pursuit of calmness can be liberating.
The search for calm can be a tool of spiritual bypassing.
Spiritual bypassing, a term credited to John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, is “the tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.
The human experience is hard. Healing hurts. Avoiding our problems for momentary bliss may feel good in the short term, but that does not heal us. As humans we have the ability to experience a huge range of physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional experiences. Joy, sorrow, grief, laughter, anger, loneliness, pleasure, excitement…. The “10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows” of human existence as the Taoist saying goes. We have to notice, acknowledge, and often let these states be as they are. For example, grief is a complex somatic process which cannot be bypassed without us carrying its weight forever. Anger, the most informative emotion, has so much within it to discover. Loneliness shouldn’t be pushed away - it is a beautiful essential emotion that’s present in us as social beings. These non-calm states are part of this multifaceted human experience, all chances for us to get to know ourselves better. We don’t need to let in all the hard stuff at once, and often that is not advised for those with serious trauma. (Please do so with professional support if possible) But we do need to take a look below the surface to see what is underneath.
I’ve had to take a look at why I strive to embody this calm, cool archetype. Why does my mind associate calmness with maturity, authority, strength, and the epitome of cool? The aesthetic of the stoic spiritual influencer is so attractive. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding solace in Brené Brown, especially when she said in conversation with Oprah, “Cool is the emotional straight jacket. It makes us unavailable for connection.” While I do know people who appear “cool” and “calm” and are emotionally available, so often, the goal of appearing as such can cause us to bypass our full reality and prevent us from being genuine and able to connect with others.
Prioritizing calm over all else may cause us to suppress our personality.
“To meditate doesn’t mean to escape life, but to take time to look deeply.”
- Thich Nhat Hahn in Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet
I originally looked to meditation to cure all my challenging and negative feelings so that I may one day become a “calm person” who was unaffected by anything. There’s so much material out there in the meditation space promising this. But meditating with this intention never quite felt right. There was always so much tension there for me and fueled disappointment in myself that I just couldn’t be perfectly calm like everyone else in the room (probably a myth anyways).
There’s also this common fear of “being too much.” For some reason this has been a serious internalized fear of mine despite being a generally quiet, shy person. A friend and I were on a walk one day when in our conversation she said “Am I too much?” I stopped us in our tracks and looked at her with seriousness and said “Same here, am I too much?” This launched us into an episode of spreading our arms wide, looking to the sky and all around us, yelling “Am I too much?! AM I TOO MUCH ?!!” over and over taking big steps through the quiet neighborhood, asking trees and puddles, “ AM I TOO MUCH?!!!”
The answer was clear. We are the perfect amount. Why does the pressure to fit in and be agreeable override our innate human need to be fully expressive? Can you imagine if we all suppressed our too-muchness and never shared our full Selves with the world? We need to utilize our meditation practices to help cultivate self-acceptance, self-celebration even! So that we are always coming home to what’s true for each of us.
Pushing away anxiety (or insert difficult emotion here) prevents us from paying attention to the information that the anxiety holds.
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.“
- James Baldwin
Is it anxiety? Or a natural and warranted response to something that is unjust in the world or something inside us that needs our attention? And what if anxiety points to the fact that we truly care about something? As Buddhist teacher Judy Lief says, “We should be anxious up to a certain point. If we didn’t worry about the possibility of very real disaster, that would be stupid. But once something has got our attention, our anxiety gets in the way. It doesn’t help us figure out how to deal with matters we cannot fix.” Sometimes our body is sounding off alarms for good reason. Discomfort can be a signal of our intuition. Such as perhaps that person cannot be trusted, or wow my body really isn’t handling this 60-hour work week, I cannot go on like this! How humans are treating the earth and each other is not acceptable! etc...
There’s so much injustice in the world and in our lives that we cannot bypass. Through meditation and other techniques, instead of pushing our appropriate responses away, we can learn to be with the discomfort. If we prioritize being calm, and thus pretend to ignore personal and collective issues, we may avoid engaging in the messy road toward their solutions. We can also utilize meditation as a container in which to discover what we can do as individuals to work towards reversing these issues.
Ironically, when we relinquish a goal, oftentimes it comes right back to us.
It’s amazing how this works. I’ve noticed it time and again in my life and especially as a business owner. It was when I let go of my narrow goal of calm that I allowed myself to feel all my complex emotions with less self-judgment. This has allowed me to come home to my true Self and my full evolving personality. There is a new spaciousness, even a lightness and ease that I can access now - even during difficult times - a growing sense of trust which is even more profound for me. Life is still a wild ride, and I no longer seek to suppress the wildness of this journey.
My New Goals
“The way out of our cage begins with accepting absolutely everything about ourselves and our lives, by embracing with wakefulness and care our moment-to-moment experience. By accepting absolutely everything, what I mean is that we are aware of what is happening within our body and mind in any given moment, without trying to control or judge or pull away.”
- Tara Brach in Radical Acceptance
I want my meditation practice to help me find the depths of the emotions inside of me, to cry snotty ugly cries or to laugh out loud. To dance, to create, to say I Love You to myself in the mirror and believe it wholeheartedly, to feel powerful and colorful and creative and vibrant and expressive! I want my meditation practice to help me accept when I am tired and need rest. I want my meditation practice to help me tune into my true voice and calling as an entrepreneur, and shed the limiting voices of others around me. I want my meditation practice to support my full Self, and I want that for you too.
I’ll no longer be chasing being a “calm person.” Moments of calm may come and go just like any other type of experience, with no single experience ever defining me. What defines me is who I am at my core. The thread that I carry throughout my life, while the rest of me evolves and changes. My new more spacious goals include: self-acceptance, rest, slowing down, being with what is happening in my present moment, grieving losses as they come and go, and facing my fears or self-imposed limitations head on when the time feels right.