When a storm of life passes through, whipping up turbulence around us, we feel no control over our destiny. Things are happening to us, and it seems the best response is to be defensive. Reacting to the storm out of fear, we may lash out to push through it or turn inward to protect ourselves. Either reaction, however, only produces negative consequences. For instance, if someone is unkind in the workplace, we might respond sarcastically, which only escalates the situation. Or we hold onto it for days, obsessing over what we did wrong. Both responses feel bad.
I hate feeling bad. And yet I’ve spent much of my life in a negative or neutral (read “depressed”) emotional state. The mindset was so pervasive it became my default, actually becoming “comfortable.” I lived many years in comfortable discomfort. But something was missing. I didn’t want to be comfortable with feeling bad. I wanted those feelings to go away. I didn’t expect to feel good all the time, I just wanted less negativity. More than anything – more than fixing the situation, more than making others be who I wanted them to be, even more than wishing I was someone else – I wanted peace of mind. I wanted to feel easy, no matter what kind of weather was swirling around me.
I was missing peace.
As it turns out, there actually is a way to feel good, or at least peaceful, even (and especially) when the we’re in the middle of a storm, and the world disagrees with us at that moment. It’s possible to have peace of mind when going through a difficult divorce, losing a loved one, or fighting with a friend – even when that driver cuts us off and flips us the finger!
How Can We Find Peace When Things Go Bad?
The process of changing our responses, the ones that lead to feeling bad, can be long, slow, and incremental – so don’t put on the pressure for instant results. It involves taking determined steps forward. There will also be almost as many taken backwards. In this way we train ourselves out of familiar negative reactions into more positive and peaceful responses.
So, practice these principles:
Like a tree stays rooted when winds buffet its branches, we can put down spiritual roots that keep us from swaying or falling off balance when “things” happen. Just because our boss goes ballistic on us, we have a fight with our partner, or our kids act out does not mean we have to uproot ourselves mentally. Peace is always possible when we center ourselves rather than get triggered by everything else.
How do we stay rooted? First, we have to know where our center is. This is achieved through the process of self-discovery, getting to know and accept who we are with all our beauties and blemishes. Then, once we know our own values and integrity, we must stick to them! Holding our ground is extra challenging when we get resistance, which leads to the next idea.
Many of us have knee-jerk reactions to events and people around us, many of which stem from our past patterns. The analogy here is the needle in the record album – the more you play the same song, the more the needle follows the same groove, sometimes carving so deeply it can’t move to a new song track.
How do we jump the rut? Awareness is the first step, always. Recognizing where and when we react is key to deciding to do something differently. Then we have to practice moving the needle from the groove – this is where we practice taking a step forward. We detach from the other person. Instead of yelling back at someone, imagine a zipper over your mouth and keep it closed. Pause, listen, and consider a different response. Every time you have an interaction you don’t feel good about, look at your behavior and ask whether there is anything you could change the next time.
Focus on the Things We Can Control
“Feeling bad” comes from wishing other people were different, behaved “better,” said the right things, or felt the way we wanted them to feel. But by focusing on controlling others, we make ourselves miserable. It’s impossible. But with detachment, it’s much more possible to let go of things we cannot control and instead focus on what we can.
So what can we control? Our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. Our own attitudes and words. Even these can sometimes run rampant. I won’t lie; learning to control ourselves and to respond in measured and peaceful ways is work. But with practice we can make progress and improve on our own mistakes.
We create our own suffering by resisting what is happening – “What you resist, persists” (Carl Jung). If your partner asks for a divorce that you don’t want, it’s important to acknowledge the issues rather than deny or avoid them. If your son develops a drug addiction, railing against him may not help as much as educating yourself about the problem.
It’s a normal human reaction to put our heads in the sand when a storm approaches, but ultimately that approach causes more damage than facing the challenge head on. (Remember: “Head on! Apply directly to the forehead.”)
Suffering is no fun, but we alone are responsible for increasing or decreasing our experience of it – “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional” (Buddhist proverb). Though we may think the situation or “someone else” is to blame, we generate our own misery. And, we can provide our own comfort. Even in the midst of a crisis or emergency, it is possible to keep a calm and peaceful head.
How can we create our own comfort? We develop a library of resources: friends we can vent with; mentors to offer advice; pets to offer undemanding company; books that inspire us; food that comforts us; spaces that sustain us. By surrounding ourselves with the tools that meet our needs, we build a repertoire of comfort that we can draw on when crisis hits.
There is a spiritual tenet that what we want for ourselves we extend to others. If we want peace, ease, serenity in difficult circumstances, we can imagine the same for others. This is particularly powerful when applied to the people we may be in conflict with. It’s not general – say, wishing for world peace, but specific – like praying that your ex finds a loving new partner after acrimonious proceedings.
We can also apply compassion to ourselves. We may be in pain over difficult circumstances, but we don’t have to make things worse by judging ourselves harshly over how we respond. Rather, we can apply understanding and kindness to ourselves and take steps to behave differently in the future.
Putting Principles into Action
I recently lost a close family member and was not able to say goodbye in person. It was hard to miss that last interaction with him, to hold his hand and kiss his cheek. I had to apply the principles above:
Stay centered – I focused on what I knew of our relationship, that we loved each other and had spent some good time together. I reflected on any unresolved issues or things unsaid and realized there were none. All of this gave me peace
Don’t react – While I had some strong feelings about missing the opportunity to say goodbye, I did not dump them on anyone or do damage to other relationships. Rather, I worked through my feelings with trusted friends, and was able to let go of the negativity.
Focus on the things we can control – I could not visit my loved one, but I could reflect on our relationship, send him positive thoughts, and reflect on the times we shared. I was able to say goodbye in my mind and to send him prayers of gratitude for the role he played in my life.
Comfort ourselves – I took full advantage of my support network, crying on my friends’ shoulders, surrendering to loving hugs, connecting with family who could give me perspective. I slept well, ate good foods, and exercised to make sure my body had enough energy.
Accept reality – My loved one had passed and there was nothing I could change. I could stay stuck in pain and anger or I could accept the situation. I decided I would rather let go of what I couldn’t control and stay with the good memories I had of him. I also allowed my grief to naturally arise, be expressed appropriately, and pass through me.
Practice compassion – I realized that I was only one of many affected by this death, and that many others were in pain. By widening my perspective, and because I had comforted myself, I could extend kindness to others. I used my creativity to put together a photo album of family history and memories to share at the funeral.
The missing peace is within our grasp. We do not have to depend on anyone else or any other circumstances to find it. We just have to be willing to stand firm in our commitment to know ourselves when the storms of life swirl around us.
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