Staying Calm

01 Sep 2021. Bob Kaplan

The thornier the problem and the more at stake, the greater the premium on staying utterly calm, cool and collected. It's not necessarily easy but there are practices that can help, either by instilling calm or by restoring it. Why? To think clearly. And conserve energy.

Meditation is a way to instill calm, to relax mentally. Done once or twice a day, it instills a state of calm that, best case, overspills the bounds of the ten or twenty minutes actually spent meditating, and flows into one's daily life. A friend of mine, who otherwise carries a lot of tension, adopted Transcendental Meditation ("TM"), one of the many types of meditation, and when he hasn't meditated for a day to two, his wife can tell—he reverts to being edgy, easily frustrated. Meditation helps by laying down a sort of cushion, an organic shock absorber, but unlike a car's suspension this one needs to be replenished every day.

But what to do when, with or without a meditation-induced protective layer, something untoward happens and your equilibrium is disturbed. This requires a second type of practice, not general-purpose like mediation, but targeted and issue-specific—a sit-down with yourself, in which you address what it is that has disturbed or perturbed you. This little talk is best held in a break from the action that's like a quasi-meditative state. The goal is to put the disturbance in perspective.

There's a prerequisite to this process though. You must know yourself, in particular know what tends to rob you of your equilibrium. Those threats can be external—a deadline, a boss who throws his weight around, a presentation, a challenging child. They can be internal—an expectation that by a certain age you will reach a certain rank—any unrealistic expectation, frustration when things don't go your way, a belief that other people should follow the golden rule just as you do, a general fear of failure, whatever at work or in your life makes you anxious. You name it. To stand a fighting chance of attaining or staying calm, of not squandering emotional energy, you need to know your adversaries, what you're up against.

For example, I've known leaders in good standing who nevertheless worry about getting fired. Even a minor misstep can send them sideways down that rabbit hole. But a little chat with themselves can repel the anxiety attack by reminding themselves the fear is needless, irrational. Before they can do that, however, they would have had to first acknowledge, and not to deny, the fear.

This shift in perspective is best customized, fitted, to that which disturbs one's equilibrium, but an off-the-shelf version may do as well. One can invoke, for example, a simple dictum, such as "control what you can control and reconcile yourself to what's beyond your control." Or to keep yourself from blowing something out of proportion, one can turn to sayings like, "it's nothing to get excited about," one of my father's stand-bys.

Years ago I turned to meditation during a period of peak intensity that manifested in me as physical symptoms: chest pains. No, I didn't have a heart problem. The pains turned out to be skeletal-muscular in origin.

But relaxing mentally is not like taking a pill. It can be a challenge to enter into the meditative state, to get the so-called alpha waves to kick in. I hit on a way to achieve that state: "breathe into my eyes and out to my fingers." If done correctly, each time I breathe in and breathe out, I feel a kind of physical rush. Ideally, the two separate moments merge, like tributaries joining, into a single integrated mental-physical state of being.

To go with this approach, I came up with a mantra:

 Look above

the stream

of thought.

As I silently utter those words, I look upwards—rotate my closed eyes towards the unseen sky. It's almost impossible to think with your eyes in that position. Almost impossible to think when you defocus your eyes. Which helps me to put distance between myself from my rushing stream of thought.

Yet that state is elusive. Despite a good-faith attempt, one's stream of thought rushes on undiminished, unaffected, unaltered. In my experience it's something of a struggle and you never know how it will turn out. At every attempt then, one needs to be prepared to fail, to be relaxed about failing.

In my effort to ameliorate my chest pains, it helped not just to meditate regularly but to hold one of the brief quasi-meditative conversations with myself when I was actually having the pains. My instinct at those moments was to regard the chest pains as an intruder, an enemy, and attempt to fight them off. But I learned, with a friend's help, to "embrace" the pains. "Oh, your poor thing," I'd say to myself, like I was comforting a child. If I succeeded in taking that counterintuitive view, the chest pains went away.

These self-correcting conversations, these struggles, are like little wrestling matches with yourself. The sides are drawn. In one corner, the Disturber; in the other, Reason. It's akin to the familiar struggle between want-to-do and should-do, between temptation and conscience. But this is less about doing the right thing than doing the effective thing.

Of course, reasoning with yourself doesn't count, doesn't help, unless reason wins the argument. No more than meditating helps if you prove unable to attain the relaxed state. Neither regular meditation nor episodic action is turn-key. But if you do find the key, you achieve an emotional distance—you're standing back and observing yourself—and that releases tension from both your mind and your body.