Dear Still Water Friends,
For the past few days I’ve been reading A Calm Brain by the neurologist Gayatri Devi, and thinking a lot about what I have been taught by Thay (Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh). Growing up in India, Devi learned from living with her grandfather that it is possible to live a calm life and also be successful in the larger world. She became a neurologist, in part, to understand better how she also could live a calm life. She writes:
Calm is a sense of internal composure that lets us function to the best of our abilities. It is the ideal state of the brain, supported by a body completely allied with this purposeful brain, allowing us to harness our cognitive powers while maintaining a perfect balance with our emotions. When you are calm, you are in your zone, unperturbed by distractions or distress.
How can we get there? What does it take to reach this state of optimal brain functioning? The crucial turning point in my thinking about calm came when I realized that it is as much a neurological state and as much a product of the brain as are language or movement. What this means is that, under the best of circumstances, you can choose your emotional state just as you can choose to move your arm or tell a joke. And you can choose calm over panic in confronting a stressful situation.
According to Devi, the crushing anxiety of modern life has a neurological base:
It is the charged conflict between the primitive core brain and the more evolved rational brain that leads to the angst and unrest that characterizes so much of modern life. We are unable to soothe ourselves. We can’t sleep at night and we’re tense and edgy during the day. We cannot concentrate, cannot relax, even during a massage or while lolling on a Caribbean beach. When we don’t activate our body’s calming parasympathetic mechanism, our runaway sympathetic system causes us to succumb to heart attacks and strokes, even as it helps us meet our daily deadlines.
Devi believes, however, we can do more than simply accept our angst:
By coaxing your body into a state of calm, you quiet your rational brain’s internal mental chatter and allow the parasympathetic system and core brain to do what they do best: calm you down. Equanimity can emerge not only as a result of therapy funneling down from our higher centers to our body but also from the upside-down flood of impulses from our body to our higher centers. The “bottom-up” version of body over mind is where the answer lies.
A Calm Brain offered me a helpful introduction to the neurology of anxiety and equanimity. And, each time Devi offered a concrete suggestion for living with greater calm, I thought to myself, “This is completely in accord with the mindfulness practice Thay has been teaching to generations of students for the past seventy years.”
There are many Plum Village practices that help me to calm, especially sitting and walking meditation, single tasking rather than multi-tasking, developing loving speech and compassionate listening, and mindful movement. All these practices are built on a foundation of mindful breathing, which Devi notes is a excellent way of encouraging “the parasympathetic system and the core brain to ‘relax.’” In a 2006 Dharma talk at the beginning of the Breath of the Buddha retreat Thay explained:
There are people who say “Thay doesn’t teach much, he only teaches breathing in and breathing out”– which is true. . . .
In the Pali Canon and also in the Chinese Sutras, it is said several times that mindful breathing can help you be calm, be happy. It can help you transform the suffering within yourself. The practice of mindful breathing can also help you to touch the nature of interbeing, and to help you release, and to touch nirvana.
You only need to practice mindful breathing, that is enough.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will explore the practices that help us calm ourselves when life is easy and when life is difficult.
You are invited to join us.
This week is also the first Thursday of the month, and, as is our tradition, we will offer a brief newcomer’s orientation to mindfulness practice and to the Still Water community. The orientation will begin at 6:30 pm, and participants are encouraged to stay for the evening program. If you would like to attend the orientation, it is helpful if you let us know by emailing us at info@StillWaterMPC.org.
A guided calming meditation from Peace is Every Step is below.
Present Moment, Wonderful Moment
From Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh
In our busy society, it is a great fortune to breathe consciously from time to time. We can practice conscious breathing not only while sitting in a meditation room, but also while working at the office or at home, while driving our car, or sitting on a bus, wherever we are, at any time throughout the day.
There are so many exercises we can do to help us breathe consciously. Besides the simple “In-Out” exercise, we can recite these four lines silently as we breathe in and out:
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!
“Breathing in, I calm my body.” Reciting this line is like drinking a glass of cool lemonade on a hot day—you can feel the coolness permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel my breath calming my body and mind.
“Breathing out, I smile.” You know a smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face. Wearing a smile on your face is a sign that you are master of yourself.
“Dwelling in the present moment.” While I sit here, I don’t think of anything else. I sit here, and I know exactly where I am.
“I know this is a wonderful moment!” It is a joy to sit, stable and at ease, and return to our breathing, our smiling, our true nature. Our appointment with life is in the present moment. If we do not have peace and joy right now, when will we have peace and joy—tomorrow, or after tomorrow? What is preventing us from being happy right now? As we follow our breathing, we can say, simply, “Calming, Smiling, Present moment, Wonderful moment.”
This exercise is not just for beginners. Many of us who have practiced meditation and conscious breathing for forty or fifty years continue to practice in this same way, because this kind of exercise is so important and so easy.