- Julius de Jong
How to Cultivate Calmness and Equanimity (Episode 6-39)
Practical tools (and reminders) for not getting carried away
Equanimity; it’ s a beautiful word. I like saying it. But what does it actually mean? According to dictionary.com, it means ‘mental or emotional stability or composure, especially under tension or strain’. To me, this has a lot to do with staying in the present moment; the here and now. Not being carried away by our emotions, or our chain of ever fleeting thoughts. It also has to do with the (cultivated) ability to see things as they are, and for what they are. My post on Stoicism has shed some light on this, and provides some tools and suggestions for cultivating this ability. When we can see things as they are, we become less easily pulled away by our emotional reactions. Away from what is, in the current moment. Or, perhaps more accurately, what we perceive or interpret to be. Either way, when we can keep our composure, under tension or strain, we remain equanimous. In equilibrium, if you will.
From personal experience, with family, loved ones, and people close to me, I know myself and them to have certain triggers with one another. Certain topics are sensitive, and even the tone of voice when speaking can sometimes be enough to stir our emotions. Trigger us, away from the present moment, into the reexperiencing of a past experience, not fully processed. This especially happens when we’re already away from our equilibrium state. For instance, when we’re tired, or haven’t had sufficient time for ourselves, are hungry, or are agitated about another experience we’ve (recently) faced. In those instances, it becomes easier for us to get carried away by our emotional reactions towards what happens around us.
This is why we need to actively ensure we maintain our physiological, psychological and spiritual balance. Nature helps us with this, through the process of homeostasis, hereby ensuring our optimal functioning. With regard to our physiological system, this means to maintain internal stability and optimal functioning based on the coordinated response of-, and synergy between, all parts of our system in any situation or stimulus. Cats and dogs display their natural ability to do this when getting up from a nap. Without question, they always stretch. Dogs, in addition, also shake their bodies to ease and dissipate tension, but also to signal a transition from one phase to the next. This helps them naturally reset their equilibrium and maintain their homeostasis. At times, we as human beings seem to have lost this ability. In many cases, we carry forward our energy and state of being, even though we are transitioning to something-, or someone new. In our psychological system, we regain our equilibrium when tension, or a drive we experience, has been reduced or eliminated. It is thereafter, when we regain our calm again. Our spiritual balance can be ensured by cultivating presence, thereby being consciously aware of our sensations, thoughts, surroundings, desires and needs in the present moment, and of those whom we might be sharing that moment with.
I’m sure I won’t need to argue much, to get you to buy into the idea that life will be better for everyone when we become able to stay calm more often. To stay calm, and free from excitement and disturbance, enables us to stay in the present moment and be as objective as our rational minds permit. The logical question then follows, how can we cultivate this calmness? And what can we do to support, or regain, our equanimity? Allow me to attempt to identify some suggestions for this, below.
‘Without sleep, without the replenishment of your energy, your work suffers, you make more mistakes, you tend to think more negatively and you make poorer decisions’ (Holiday, 2019). From personal experience, I know (and I’m sure you do too) how much sufficient sleep affects my ability to self-regulate and stay calm in challenging circumstances. Taking the occasional 20–30-minute nap is also very beneficial for dealing with stress and staying calm. Want to feel calmer, collected and equanimous? Don’t forget to sleep. Enough!
Like sleeping, breathing is of crucial importance for keeping our calm. When we become more anxious and nervous, our breathing becomes shallower. Probably the best thing, to bring back our calm, is to breathe deeply. Dr. Andrew Weil, known for his emphasis on the importance of breathing, states ‘If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly’ (Williams, 2015). Our breath connects our body and mind, and helps us to slow down and think better and more clearly. Although there are various techniques and practices when it comes to breathing, I’ll keep things simple here, for now. The right, and restorative way to breathe, is diaphragmic-, or abdominal breathing. In simple terms; belly breathing. It’s when we breathe deep and slowly, into our belly, that our heartbeat slows down, together with our entire being. When inhaling, it’s important we therefore feel our belly rise. Inhale and exhale are best done through the nose, as this helps moderate air-volume, filter particles and cools or warms the air to our body’s temperature.
Groan, moan and sigh
What I’ve caught myself doing naturally, as a way to calm my system down, is to make sounds. I find it very relaxing, and helpful with the dissipation of tension, when I groan, moan, or have a big sigh. For some reason, the friction we feel in our throat when groaning or moaning helps with this process. Groaning, moaning and sighing help us let go and unwind. ‘These types of noise also specifically stimulate the part of your brain that assesses whether you’re safe or not. When this is stimulated it in turn tells the body it’s okay to relax - that it’s okay to let your guard down, and let some of the stress and tension go [both] physically and mentally’ (Martin, 2021). Makes sense, if you ask me. Give it a try, and see how you feel.
When we are working on a deadline, the limitation of time can cause tension and stress. It can take our thoughts into the future, thinking ‘what-if’ scenarios. These are mere speculations about our current situation and the cause of our stress (Barker, 2018). Instead, choose, and focus on the job in front of you. This helps calm down our racing thoughts and brings us back to what we can control, right here, right now. It’s there where our agency is maximum and where we have direct influence over how events will unfold. Focusing our thoughts and attention is crucial for staying calm and equanimous.
Ever tried to wing something? I sure did. I also prepared extensively for things, and there is a very noticeable difference. When I’m unprepared, I’m much more nervous and anxious. On the contrary, when I’m prepared, I feel collected and confident. I am more in tune with what I can expect. Preparation is a way to build our equanimity. A prepared mind is better able to deal with unexpected situations. Planning helps you be prepared. Planning also helps with overcoming stress and anxiety, and a lack of planning often results in unnecessary tensions and hassles (Walker, 2000). Be prepared for things to not turn out as you wish. Plan for the worst.
An interesting method for this is negative visualization, or as the Stoics called it, ‘premeditatio malorum’; the pre-meditation of evils. Marcus Aurelius would practice Negative Visualization for a short time in the morning. He would think of all that could go wrong in the day, what he would do to remedy each problem, and after this, he would move on from it and go about his day not thinking about it unless something actually went wrong. If something did go wrong, he was already more prepared for it and could better remedy the situation. You too can do this as a visualization practice. But, as Massimo Pigliucci suggest, we can also do this through written exercise. The notion here is to start with the worst possible outcome. From there, work your way back. What kinds of things could you envision, or write down, to minimize the chances of that worst-scenario situation to actually unfold? When we go through these potentially negative scenarios with a calm state of mind, it helps us be prepared and more collected for when things indeed turn sour.
Dichotomy of control
The dichotomy of control is a central concept in Stoic practice. As Epictetus states; ‘Certain things are up to us, and others are not. A good life is focusing on the things that are up to us, and develop an attitude of equanimity and acceptance towards the rest’. Focusing on what we can control helps us stay calm under pressure (Barker, 2018). Our agency is maximized when we focus on those things that are up to us, and in our control says Massimo Pigliucci in our interview on cultivating calmness and equanimity. Therefore, recognizing what is within our control, and what is not, helps us focus our attention where it matters most; where our actions have agency. The dichotomy of control is not just a Stoic concept. We also know it, for instance, in Christian tradition from the serenity prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr: ‘[…] give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference […]’. We can control external events to only a certain extent, but we can learn to control our internal responses to those events almost completely (Walker, 2000). Focusing on what we can control brings back confidence and calmness. It puts us in the driver’s seat.
Reflection, and talking to ourselves
‘To perform at your best, you mustn’t just react to problems. Instead, think deeply about them, view the issues from different perspectives and patiently seek the best solutions’ (Holiday, 2019). A very big part of the negativity we experience is not caused by the unpleasant aspects of real-life events but is created internally, by the things we say to ourselves about those events (Walker, 2000). Stoics don’t make a sharp distinction between emotions and reason, as they perceive both to be a part of cognition (Pigliucci, 2021). It follows this premise, that you can talk to yourself about your emotions. Gradually, through this process, you can reason within yourself about the usefulness and unusefulness of certain [thoughts and] emotions. We therefore need to learn to understand why we respond, and think, as we do. By reflection and talking to ourselves, we can apply reason to our learnt and automated responses and reactions. We can then consciously replace these for new and more constructive, healthy ways of responding and reacting. Epictetus calls this ‘challenging your impressions’ (Pigliucci, 2021). Instead of reacting from our automatic judgements and impressions of things based on past experiences, we need to learn to see our experiences as new and unique. By talking to ourselves, we can apply reason for looking at our experiences and the emotional responses coupled with them. For instance, when we’re reacting with anxiety and tension based on a past experience, we can engage ourselves and neutralize the severity of the experience with reason and objectivity, and create a new pathway for that experience. Not one based on blunt emotion, but one based on reason and rational objective thought.
Thinking fast and slow
Daniel Kahneman identifies two types of thinking in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. This book shows us how our brain is constantly fighting over control of our behavior and actions and how it differentiates between two systems of thinking. The first system produces fast, intuitive reactions and instantaneous decisions that control most of our actions. This system will change our life through our reflexes and instantaneous reactions to present danger. The second system is the deliberate type of thinking which involves focus, deliberation, reasoning or analysis. Most of our reactions and actions are governed from the first system. As Massimo Pigliucci rightfully identified in our interview, too often, we don’t engage with system two. We’re only in system one; operating on autopilot. We need to train ourselves to pay more attention to system two. Epictetus taught us to slow down on our judgments and first impressions. He also taught us to do this so regularly, that it becomes a second nature habit (Pigliucci, 2021). Through this, the results of our system two thinking and reasoning can actually become a system one fast and intuitive response, cultivated by our focus. We can make things instinctive through exercise. We can automate our behavior though conscious training and repetition. This allows us to reprogram our experience and responses to external stimuli which initially disturbed our calmness and equanimity. Through practice, we can learn to remain calm and unaffected emotionally. Recognizing, in the present moment, if we’re responding from our system one (based on past experience and learnt behavior), can help us shift our focus back to our focused and deliberate system two thinking. From there, we can apply reason and analysis to make the right decision, and stay calm.
Cognitive Behavioral Restructuring
We engage our emotions through behavioral practice. The way we change ourselves, is through repetition. This too applies to our cognition and our experience with, and responses to, stimuli. We can teach ourselves, by repeated practice, to view and experience things differently. Therefrom, we can also behave differently. When experiencing repeated feelings of upset and anxiety, we can practice cognitive behavioral restructuring of our experience, or seek cognitive behavioral therapy. The cognitive step is reasoning with ourselves about what it is that’s upsetting us. This could involve talking with ourselves, as discussed above, or talking with a friend or therapist. The behavioral step is practicing the exposure to the stimulus, or perceived negative experience. This helps to create new experiences and new neuro-pathways through which we can learn to remain calm and equanimous when exposed to emotionally challenging situations. We do this by practicing the exposure to a challenging stimulus while creating new emotional responses. Through gradual increased exposure to the stimulus, coupled with new behavioral responses, we can learn to have a new experience while remaining calm. By staying present with the experience, in increased intensity, over time, we learn to get over the anxiety and fear, or whatever emotion we’re experiencing.
Face your fears through paradoxical intention
In line with cognitive behavioral therapy is paradoxical intention. This is about confronting your fears by doing what frightens you. Through increasing the intensity of your emotional state, and moving through it by facing your fear, ultimately you become aware of the irrationality of your emotional response (Frankl, 2019). By facing things that cause anxiety, we change our focus. Instead of avoiding something because we don't want to do it as it causes fear or anxiety, we can change our mind. Our mind often does the opposite of what we want it to do. When we actively try to suppress a thought or worry, it often makes it worse; what we resist, persists. What we allow, simply passes us by. Facing our fears helps us to let go of resistance and allow for the experience to pass us by. Facing our fears helps us to get over them. `Practicing paradoxical intention can be done in these four easy steps (Cocchimiglio, 2021):
Identify the thing that causes your fear and anxiety;
Look for ways to make it bigger than it is. For example, if you have a fear of failing, then consider trying things that you don't know how to do. Set yourself up to do something where you might fail;
Then start putting yourself in situations where you are going to fail;
Continue to do this until the idea of failing no longer causes you extreme dread and fear.
Leverage past experience
When finding yourself in a fearful or stressful situation, see if there are similar past experiences which you can leverage and use in the current situation. Thinking of your current problem as similar to a past problem will help you feel more collected, confident, and to stay calm (Barker, 2018). There is always something from your past experience that can be utilized when facing your current problem. Even the process of reflecting on this will calm you down when faced with a challenging situation. It shifts your focus to what you can control, and away from being distracted by ‘what-if’ future oriented thoughts. When we leverage past experience, it helps us to view a possibly freighting scenario as just another version of a problem you’ve solved before. This will allow you to keep moving forward, even when scared. Key to staying calm is feeling in control. Knowing what to do based on past experience helps you to do just that.
Being, or becoming present
Emotions, such as fear or anxiety, tend to take us away from the (objective) experience of the present moment. Paradoxically, they can also bring us back into the experience of the present moment. For this, read about the Self-Powerment Model from Dr. Faye Mandell in this post about being present. When, in spite of our sometimes overwhelm of emotions, we can manage to come back to the present moment, we can cultivate reason and (more) objectivity to assess what is really happening. Our anxiety, and all those ‘what-if’ scenarios and thoughts, which take away our calmness, are all based in the future. Not in the present moment. When we realize this, we can use that awareness to come back to the here and now.
In closing, allow me share a personal example, in the here and now. Currently, I’m experiencing some anxiety. It’s the same as I basically experience each time, when writing any post for 39 Ideas For Life. Namely, the more I learn about a topic, the more I realize how little I actually know. This in turn makes me realize how little of what is out there on this topic, I’ve actually covered, and articulated in this post. But then, after taking a deep, belly breath, and coming back to the present moment, I can realize that I simply won’t be able to cover all there is about this topic. All I can do is my best to cover those things I found most useful and applicable in my research, and share them here. That is something, which is in my control. Covering everything there is about how to cultivate calmness and equanimity, is not. Recognizing that this is part of the experience, is me leveraging my past experience, as suggested above. Finally posting it online, after these feelings of anxiety, is me facing my fears. Perhaps at post 39 this will be different? Stay tune to find out!
To learn about calmness, and how to cultivate equanimity, I have interviewed Massimo Pigliucci, a student of Stoicism, and as I learnt through our interview, someone who has become ever better at staying calm in difficult and challenging situations through the application of ancient Stoic practices.
Massimo Pigliucci is Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the City College of New York, and holds both a PhD in Evolutionary Biology and Philosophy. He is great writer and observer, has authored many books, of which his latest is titled, ‘The Stoic Guide to a Happy Life’.
It was great talking to Massimo and it proved to be an educational interview, filled with personal stories and great examples. Probably what I enjoyed the most, was his ability to bring ancient concepts to life with simple, relatable, present-day examples. Enjoy!
Massimo’s blog: https://figsinwinter.blog
Massimo’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/mpigliucci
The Stoic Guide to a Happy Life book: https://amzn.to/2VxbRvX
Aurelius, Marcus, 2006, Meditations. https://amzn.to/3hSaJvu
Barker, Eric, 2018, Barking Up the Wrong Tree. https://amzn.to/3rY5fmw
Carter, Elizabeth, 2019, The Complete Works of Epictetus. https://amzn.to/3irmJDo
Cocchimiglio, Sarah, 2021, Paradoxical Intention: How It Works. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/therapy/paradoxical-intention-how-it-works/, accessed on 7 August 2021.
Epictetus, 2008, Discourses and Selected Writings. https://amzn.to/3wU0VWf
Frankl, Victor, 2019, Man’s Search for Meaning. https://amzn.to/3CvEsTe
Holiday, Ryan, 2019, Stillness Is the Key. https://amzn.to/2VyBZXH
Kahneman, Daniel, 2013, Thinking Fast and Slow. https://amzn.to/3AikSrV
Martin, Jill, 2021, Why Sigh in Yoga. https://llivyour.life/blog/why-sigh-in-yoga, accessed on 8 august, 2021.
Pigliucci, Massimo, 2020, The Stoic Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living. https://amzn.to/2VxbRvX
Pigliucci, Massimo, 2018, Stoicism as a Philosophy for an Ordinary Life, TED talk. https://youtu.be/Yhn1Fe8cT0Q, accessed on 2 august, 2021.
Walker, Eugene, 2000, Learn to Relax. https://amzn.to/2X6FSUe
Williams, Michael Townsend, 2015, Do Breathe. https://amzn.to/3lJhpia