This post is written by a thinker and blogger I greatly admire, Gail Brenner. Gail’s ideas and writing have grabbed me from my first visit to her blog, A Flourishing Life, giving me new insight every time I visit. Yesterday she graciously hosted me on her blog, on the topic of perfectionism. I asked her to share here with us some of her methods for gaining and maintaining serenity. Please enjoy.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
What could be more important than serenity? I don’t know about you, but I got to a certain point in my life where I was tired of my emotional reactions. I commonly felt indignant, judgmental, and afraid, and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t experiencing the happiness and serenity I longed for.
Inspired by the Buddha’s declaration that the end of suffering was possible, I set out to learn how to stop the confusion and find peace. It has been an amazing, fruitful journey, and I am happy to share with you what I have discovered along the way.
Choosing Not to Suffer
Recently, I was trying to open a locked closet door, and the person I was with barked, “Don’t do it like that. You’re going to break it.” Clearly, he was triggered, but in that moment I was very aware that I had a choice about how I was going to respond.
Years ago, I would have been pissed off and offended. I might have yelled back, “Don’t talk to me like that!” or given him the silent treatment for a while. I learned to ask myself this essential question: Who is suffering? And every time I saw that my reactions, not the situations themselves, were causing my distress. I came to see it had nothing to do with the other person.
With a lot of practice, I have become acutely aware of my internal experience in most situations. And if the awareness lapses, a strong emotional reaction will wake me up. Then I make a choice. By choosing serenity over and over, the reactive tendencies have fallen away. Really. When my friend barked at me, there was barely a ripple – even my nervous system remained calm. Instead, I felt compassion for the way he was making himself suffer.
Seeing Things as They Actually Are
I have discovered that we react emotionally when we receive what happens through the filter of our constructions about reality. Let me explain. Say you have an expectation that something should happen in a certain way. Then your actual experience is that reality does not meet your expectation. A construction about reality is not the same thing as reality. They are ideas we build up in our minds about how things are supposed to be.
When we hold on tight to these constructions, we are setting ourselves up for trouble. If reality conforms to the construction, great. But if it doesn’t, who suffers?
This problem is widespread. Consider the ideas we cling to about how the past was supposed to be, what your children should want, how your spouse is supposed to react, how our plans are supposed to materialize. We live under the illusion that we shouldn’t become ill, that challenges shouldn’t occur, that someone dying is wrong.
How much do we live in our ideas about the world, while we are resisting what is actually being offered to us?
I have learned a very valuable phrase: “Oh, this.” My plane is three hours late? Oh, this. My father ends up in the ICU with pneumonia? Oh, this. I watch my mother’s memory fail over time? Oh, this. My sweet friend has incurable ovarian cancer? Oh, this.
“Oh, this” is not about resignation or shock. It is an alive acceptance of circumstances without reservation.
I simply no longer put any stock in the constructions that show up in my mind. I have learned that they bring suffering and recognize that they are essentially insubstantial. Not only do I accept what happens, I relish it. It was such a heartfelt time when my father was so sick. (Much to everyone’s surprise, he recovered.) And I revel in the visits with my mother and my friend. I let my heart open over and over to things exactly as they are.
Not Taking Anything Personally
As I choose not to feed my emotional reactions and I don’t take my thoughts seriously, there is no place for potential triggers to land. And I mean that quite literally.
When I deeply look through into even my idea of myself, I find sensations, thoughts, and perceptions of the world, but I don’t find what is conventionally known as “me.” “Gail” is a label. I can’t find her in this body. And when I close my eyes and become aware, there is not even a body, just sensations. Who am I? Vast space, awareness that is alive and vibrant.
This is not spiritual mumbo jumbo – it is the absolute truth of our existence. But don’t take my word for it – do your own investigation.
- Are you your thoughts?
- Are you your feelings?
- Are you your body?
Thoughts, feelings, and sensations come and go, but what remains? Being, life, conscious awareness. From this understanding of who we are, reactions don’t have any meaning. We can take things personally only through our constructions. When we let them go, there is only complete serenity.
Serenity is Sanity
Notice that serenity is a byproduct of seeing things clearly. We can’t seek serenity directly, but we realize that it permeates everything endlessly when our constructions and reactive tendencies fall away.
Serenity is the ultimate in sanity. Reflect on your own experience so you can choose not to suffer, see things as they actually are (“Oh, this”), and recognize the fallacy in taking things personally. I promise, you will know serenity in the depth of your being.
How have you found serenity? What interferes with choosing not to suffer? I’d love to hear your experiences…
Gail Brenner, Ph.D. writes at her blog, A Flourishing Life, where she delights in offering practical wisdom for untangling self-defeating habits and realizing happiness. You can receive her posts by RSS or email, and follow her on Twitter at @aflourishinglif.