The Power of Calmness
"The essence of virtue is self-control!"
— Antisthenes the Cynic
What is Calmness?
Calmness is a form of "positive apathy" we direct toward the unwanted. It can be natural or acquired, permanent or temporary. It is not a very popular virtue, and most people are less calm than they should be, mostly because they underestimate the power of calmness in facing danger or solving problems with, improving logical thinking, or boosting mood. To them life is too short, beautiful and serious to sit and watch, calmly. Thus they confuse calmness with apathy, weakness, and delusion, although calmness only balances one's emotions, focuses one's power, and organizes one's thoughts.
Chemically speaking, decreasing the levels of stress hormones (adrenalin, cortisol, prolactin ...), while increasing soothing endorphins, through frequent meditation and relaxation techniques, is what is meant by calmness. It's the pivot many oriental practices such as yoga and transcendental meditation revolve on, which is compulsory to master in some monastic orders. Calmness can be acquired by anyone, even those who are not genetically calm.
The Benefits of Calmness
1. Calmness gives us strength.
One can simultaneously be strong and calm about life, however weak or meek they look to others, or to themselves, while they are still learning to be calm. Real power is one to be kept in reserve and used moderately on demand, according to circumstance, not squandered here and there needlessly and unwisely. Power without self-control is weakness, like a raging river whose waters are lost in the sea, or a powerful machine without a control valve. We lose ground when our anger shows to others (be it people, obsessions, bad habits, hard times, sudden difficulties, etc.) because anger should only be opted for as a last resort, weapon or card, when we run out of all tactics in our survival repertoire, not a trigger we happily pull anytime.
Calmness is a great survival strategy, and a peaceful lifestyle that leads to better, healthier, more enjoyable living. As long as we need to "enjoy, understand and control" our life, calmness will always be needed. In the battlefield, during the fight for survival, we can still be calm, because worrying about one's fate is not enough: we need our brain to think, some pleasure to feel motivated, and enough self-control to master our weapons. In the intervals, between fights, we should cherish our peace of mind, and enjoy life to the full. Such intervals should be prolonged, maximally: peace should be the norm, not fight.
2. Calmness helps us re-gain our self-control.
All humans are to various degrees slaves to their habits. Nature dictates to us how to behave, based on every action we and other animals had taken, millions of years, or few seconds ago. A repeated behavior is easier, safer, and evocatively appealing. "Naturally," old times are the good old times; early experiences and first impressions are the greatest—even when they are not. This is what Nature thinks, not necessarily what we should think.
Mastering calm techniques gives us the power to control our thoughts and actions, relinquishing bad habits and acquiring good ones, even when the former are at an advanced stage of addiction: to drugs, alcohol, nicotine; to sex, food, people; or to any compulsive behavior.
Calmness only cleans the old house, preparing it for the new guests we alone choose. Developing new, healthy habits is the best way to kick old ones, as nobody lives in a vacuum.
In calmness we willingly choose to be apathetic about our primitive desires and fears, temporarily, until the urge, craving, or cause of stress disappears. When we calm down, we let the higher brain, or cerebral cortex, take control of the primitive, limbic brain to confront our problems: to solve, accept or ignore them. Otherwise, such primitive brain has no function but to operate basic survival needs, like eating, smelling, seeing, etc. (no deep thinking, decision-making or problem-solving).
3. Calmness improves brain functions.
It helps us make the right decisions, as well as enjoy intellectual activities. Calmness leads to better, clearer and rational thinking, without being too detached, deluded or less involved. Being calm while thinking doesn't detach us from reality; it's the opposite: we only move back further to get the whole picture. We see life clearly when we calm down our conflicting thoughts, not letting one overcome or hide the others, in the background. Contrarily, people lose sound judgment when they become enthusiastic about one point and miss the others. Ironically, going crazy about something/somebody is to some a sign of deep love (unless they mean irresponsible love). Rather, we love life more, when we spend enough time understanding it, just uncovering some of its endless mysteries, that a lifetime is not enough for.
It's true there are times when we need to enjoy what we love without stopping to think, choose and argue about it, that may spoil the spontaneity, novelty and element of surprise in it ... when we are too tired or busy to think, or too ignorant to make prejudgments about something we should simply taste and try first. BUT, for most of our life, when we are under no such conditions, it doesn't make sense to keep choosing pleasures void of any sense, that do not differ from those of other animals, that cannot enjoy our uniquely superior human "mindful" pleasures.
4. Calmness decreases pain and increases pleasure.
Calmness is a pleasure in itself. The serotonin released when we calm down is a pleasure hormone that gives a sense of well-being; it's needed for fighting addiction and depression.
Calmness is not apathy. One can still be passionate about life, enjoying every minute of it, without losing their calm. We love life more when we take our time tasting its many pleasures, according to everyone's pace, taste and needs. If we constantly think life is too short and death is around the corner, that we have to hurry up and "gulp" whatever life serves us, we'll end up with indigestion, i.e., an "upset head" full of indelible bad impressions of life, hindering us from enjoying it.
Without determination and love to enjoy life, calmness degenerates into apathy. In order to purify calmness from the stigma of apathy wrongly attached to it, and treasure it instead as a precious virtue to keep for life, one should learn first which apathy is good and which is bad. The confusion happens usually when misapplying calmness, or when mixing up naturally calm people with those who are pathologically apathetic. Situations like watching a person die when you can easily save their life; not telling the truth when your silence causes someone harm; or just watching your life go by without enjoying it to the full (some people take apathy to an extreme, living as if they were already dead, or were never born)—are all examples of negative apathy.
Calmness is an emotion. It's full of life and it gives life, like a seemingly dead seed or a frozen tissue. Emotions are mere chemical reactions taking place inside us, and so is calmness. Both our body and mind are still active during calmness, however slow they look, or differently they act. Real calmness is inner calmness that nothing in the world can disturb. Calmness is not about calm thoughts, actions or objects; nor tedious exercises we mindlessly indulge in, and mechanic mantras we repeat; nor is it a quiet atmosphere we diligently create — it's none of that. Rather, we use "calmness" to refer to an active, positive state of mind, of a person who may/may not be in deep thoughts, or is even constantly moving and experiencing other powerful emotions, none of which affects their calmness. We do not consider an object, a movement or a thought as calm itself, although metaphorically we do, for these are only vehicles that help us reach emotions, like calmness. We do use certain soothing thoughts, relaxing motions and peaceful objects (art, music, nature, etc.) only to attain calmness.
5. Calmness balances our emotions.
Calmness is a virtue basic for acquiring any other virtue, positive emotion, or healthy habit. Calmness is the cradle of power: without it all other sources of power are misused, overused or not used at all. Mastering calmness enables us to add the greatest survival tool to our repertoire of strategies, if we learn how, when and where to benefit from it most. We live and learn (from animals, other people and our own experiences) the wisdom of life that requires us to be fully flexible to cope with its endless difficulties. Calmness gives us that flexibility, to masterfully control all the other tools, bonding other virtues, and balancing other emotions.
In calmness, we can do things more flexibly, by responding to each problem differently:
Most of the time we use all these strategies simultaneously, and unconsciously. We try to fill every moment of our life with happiness by challenging our hardships, while cherishing every pleasure we have, however hard we try.
In calmness, we see the larger picture of life, where we can find HOPE always standing there to cheer us. Nothing like hope, or faith as some call it, helps us endure the hardest of hardships, because it's an endless source of motivation, where one can find a goal to live for, a future to look forward to, and other spots in the picture they forgot to notice before.
When we get lost, in the abyss of our problems, entangled in cares and choked by Fate, we still have that superiorly human pleasure of hoping: looking inside us, into the worlds we knew, and those we are yet to know, where we diligently search and ask ourselves: "Where is the solution?", until we FIND it.
6. Calmness improves our health.
Calmness has a long list of health benefits you may read about elsewhere ...
The Benefits of Anger
Calmness is not an absolute, however we wish it was. Unfortunately, for the present and until we discover ways to better control our body chemistry, a minimal stress level is always needed, as long as we live. And that's the dilemma: it's not that pain is good, but good enough to remind us of the value of "pleasure" and pleasurable times (that are strangely felt and maximized after stressful and painful times: eating after hunger, resting after exhaustion, meeting after separation, etc.). Pain is the best teacher, yet if one wants to do away with it, they need a vivid "imagination" instead, to imagine what they would do, should they face pain! Pain is only a beacon, a borderline not to cross, and a reminder for us to take happiness seriously, and not just happily.
One cannot love without being afraid of losing what they love; that fear is healthy, although it's painful. When we love, we hate the opposite of what we love. Facing what we hate is inevitably a stressful experience, but ignoring what we fear is equally stressful. Thus, we only have one choice left to stay happy: to minimize such stressful experiences, by facing one fear at a time, fighting it once and for all.
Both apathy and anger are great survival strategies animals have been using for millions of years, either simultaneously or independently of each other. Those two weapons have empowered many species, helping them survive in the harshest environments and live with the most ferocious enemies.
Giving vent to our anger by letting the stress hormones do their job is a natural and healthy behavior, provided we know when. Ignoring one's anger, by trying to be untimely quiet, is more stressful: it's like fighting an invisible enemy, that requires extra tactics, energy and time. We have to recognize our fears and face them.
Many life situations are too critical where every second counts, that to be calm about it, taking one's time to think, analyze, and finally decide, could literally mean losing one's job, health, family ... or life. Some decisions cannot wait; an action has to be taken and a solution found fast. This is when stress hormones are mostly needed.
However, it's vital to learn that it takes longer time for our body to calm down, than it takes to tense up. (It's like still/disturbed water, that is %60 of our body). Thus, we shouldn't sacrifice "physical calmness" easily, except in situations requiring maximum body speed, muscular power, and fully alert senses, all of which unfortunately put us in a tense mode keeping us from deep rational thinking. We are programmed this way so that we can immediately respond to an imminent danger, rather than waste time thinking and passively wait for our approaching end.
Getting an overdose of stress hormones (which are nothing but toxins), by subjecting ourselves to long periods of stress, can shorten one's life expectancy, lower their immunity to diseases, and increase the risk of death by diverse causes. Although stress hormones are useful sometimes, we'd better keep such weapons as a last resort, than live a trigger-happy, short life. Thanks to our civilization, we constantly minimize such stressful experiences, by fighting poverty, disease, wars, crimes ... and other insecurities, that trigger these hormones.
Back in the wild, many species had developed several survival strategies, other than the "fight or flight" strategy; they developed the "play-dead" strategy. Animals using such technique are usually described as intelligent, whether applying it in defending themselves against predators, or in attacking a prey, when they are the predators. Humans too use the play-dead strategy, not necessarily in facing enemies, preys or predators, but in facing situations they can't escape or problems they can't solve.
When Fate is looking at us right in the eye, we are helplessly left with that one last strategy we learn from our animal cousins. We play dead to fight our bad habits, compulsive desires, obsessive thoughts, addictive passions, etc. Addiction is stronger than us; we have to be apathetic toward what we are addicted to, until the urge for it goes away. Those who insist to argue and reason with their bad habits are fools, because they don't know that their enemy is stronger than them. Addiction knows no logic.
With controlled apathy, we gain self-control. With temporary, partial, on-demand death, we come back to life stronger and more lively. Meditation, relaxing, sleeping ... and hibernation are all forms of playing dead.
While apathy transforms into a virtue sometimes, calmness is always a virtue. At such hard times when we avoid confrontation with stress, pain or anger, being temporarily neutral is better than being irreparably foolish, and ignoring our pain is better than arguing with it. It's an old survival strategy to overcome pain with, that even other animals use.
There are many lessons humans can learn from animals, as the latter had been around for millions of years before the former. Who wouldn't admire sometimes, not necessarily love, these creatures:
• A light-paced, rest-loving, super-flexible, tactful cat with a charming personality no one denies (even dog-lovers). You can learn patience, social etiquettes, appreciation of rest and sleep, etc., all of them being the legitimate fruits of calmness, from that little kitten napping on your doormat, whose more powerful kin in the jungle learned long ago to mix power and calmness, literally, shifting between maximum speed and dead stillness, keeping outer apathy and inner burning desire. If any living being knows the power of calmness by nature, it's a big cat. It's the very incarnation of the power of calmness.
• A sly powerful snake, that you can learn much from but do not want to meet, unless you are born a snake yourself, having to cope with life without arms and legs, and benefiting from such smooth slender body nature has given you. With minimal movement, near-zero friction with objects to hit around you, and enviable silence you naturally possess, you can get all your heart desires, without losing your temper in the process.
• A slow but perseverant turtle, moving little and living much (actually more than everyone else).
• Even a lazy sloth taking life easy, whose philosophy in life "Why the hurry, if I'm happy?" makes it the envy of those who can't get enough rest or a break from their stresses.
Although calmness is not new to these animals, we humans should be patient till we master it ourselves. Some of us are calm, genetically, having less stress hormones running in their veins and arteries; while others have to teach themselves how to be calm, to find their peace of mind.
Calmness is not popular in mainstream culture because most Western countries, that dominate the media shaping the mindset of people around the world now, had suffered religious tyranny for centuries leaving cultural scars time couldn't heal yet, where many endured oppression and embraced virtues they hadn't chosen or discussed, whether calmness, chastity, faith, etc. Now many of them hate and reject any reminiscence of those dark ages' repression, going to extremes and living a totally impetuous materialistic life instead.
On the other hand, the moderately ascetic oriental religions and philosophies had not taken that extreme path and are still popular because of their life-like nature. Buddhism and Confucianism are focused more on achieving happiness for individuals through individuals' choices. There isn't much left then for supernatural powers or invisible beings—gods, angels, demons, saints ...—to interfere with man's choices or decide his own destiny. The concept of heaven, eternal happiness or eternal hell is non-existent either, thus giving the greater attention to the happiness obtained in this world we know and see.
In such a philosophical order, maximizing the power of our consciousness has become a prerequisite to achieving happiness. Yet, our conscious minds are constantly disturbed by the physical world we are helplessly exposed to through our senses, blurring our vision, that we cannot see neither the reality of the world nor that of ourselves. This is why we need calmness.
Peace of mind is fundamental to achieve happiness in many religious systems. Being calm is also part of different therapeutic practices.
Those who are calm by nature are few, and calmness has never really come out to be part of the mainstream of everyday life. People who prefer silence and tranquility are usually thought of as apathetic, depressing, or even androgynous: effeminate men & frigid women. (Conversely, women are labeled "masculine" when they express anger or try to be in control.) Also, confused thoughts about anger suppression has added to the stigma: whether to vent anger and feel relieved, yet lose other people; or not to vent anger so you please them while you are hurting inside!
Those who "rebel" against Nature, trying to refine their own nature and choose their destiny, have a price to pay: they won't necessarily die or get injured, but en route to calmness, they may suffer people's ridicule and the stigma of apathy, weakness, eccentricity ... by those who blindly follow their animal nature, not valuing calmness or any other virtue they bother not to gain.
Calm people are mistakenly passed as apathetic because of their appearance. Many people judge each other by appearances, since they can't see how the brain works inside (humans are not telepathic, mind-readers yet). They become enthusiastic about interpreting people's behavior by their physiognomy and body language, while they lack in scientific knowledge. Many insist on doing so, although little or no facts are there to confirm it. Worse still, when they have no job to do, suffering the sempiternal burden of silence, they run to astrology and the stars to find the answer! They disrespect both calmness and common sense.
Other than the involuntary lack of calmness, caused by genes, health or environment, there are some difficulties we can overcome alone, using less energy and time:
Physical: It's more important to focus on obtaining inner calmness than outer calmness, which is not always available, because we may spend much time driving, walking, talking, meeting with people, or just moving, due to our different responsibilities. Calming down our minds should be the priority then, by learning to temporarily stop or slow down thinking, or to relax our minds by free fantasies, short meditation, soothing repetitions, etc.
Staying away from any stimuli by turning off all our body senses is the key to achieving deep physical and mental calmness. When the latter is achieved, there is no need for the former, even when we are with other people or exposed to physical disturbance. Physical, or outer calmness only helps us achieve mental, or inner calmness. When mental calmness is achieved, physical calmness becomes unconditional to calmness. Peace of mind is what matters most, to maximize the power of calmness.
Social: Achieving calmness becomes even more challenging, if people do not appreciate or understand our need for calmness. This adds another social pressure to keeping one's calm. Such people may not respond, reply to your requests, do their job ... unless they see you shouting, crying, or just suffering. They may take pleasure in this, or it's just their way of understanding. (Like insects that can only see moving objects!)
With people like these, whom Fate put you with, you cannot but keep your calmness inside, speak the language they speak—with fluency, please!—, and put on the mask they love to see on you, since they are only audio-visual learners! Hopefully, eventually, but not necessarily, they will learn and speak the language you speak. And if you survive such a test, you are surely a calm person, and even angels are jealous of you.