Five Ways to Find Calm When Your World is On Fire

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As I write this, most of us in North America are reeling from the events of the past 48 hours (and worldwide, reeling from the past year). Americans, in particular, are facing uncertainty and confusion that I don’t believe we’ve seen in my lifetime. Most of us are eagerly looking forward to January 20, yet all we have is this present moment. From the outside, the moment looks chaotic and not particularly pleasant. Yet it’s still possible to find moment of calm when everything around us is falling apart. 

This post is a response to a reader’s question, “How did you start?”

I didn’t head into the forest peacefully in 2010, with the intention of meditating and living simply for a decade.  I went off massive doses of medication because I could no longer afford the $2000/month cost. In turn, that sent me searching—like the proverbial man with his head on fire—for a way to feel peaceful that didn’t require medication (or at least, minimal). That, in turn, led me through a decade of extreme financial challenges, health scares and other survival-level issues. And despite that external chaos, I found moments of great beauty, joy and inner peace. What I write about here is, first and foremost, based on my experience.

Pain is inevitable throughout a human life, and painful emotions need to move through us. Yet sometimes, we just can’t stop the mind from ruminating. Maybe we have a history of trauma, or we’re deeply grieving. These practices are not designed to stop you from feeling. Their purpose is to get you acquainted with your mind and conditioning, and to help you release the thoughts that create suffering.

1. Coming Back to the Breath

This is a practice we can all do any time, anywhere. Simply notice that you’re breathing. Follow the breath through your nostrils, down your throat. Feel it expand your lungs and chest, and breath it into your abdomen. Your breath is your friend. When you feel sad, angry, indignant, hurt… stop for a moment and feel your breath. This breath is life; this oxygen keeps the body going.

One of my favourite phrases about the breath comes from meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg: “Connecting to your breath when thoughts or images arise is like spotting a friend in a crowd: You don’t have to shove everyone else aside or order them to go aware you just direct you attention, your enthusiasm, your interest toward your friend. Oh, you think, there’s my friend in that crowd. Oh, there’s my breath, among those thoughts and feelings and sensations.” (From her book Real Happiness)

Pain comes up to be released. As you’re breathing, if you notice painful emotions arise, consider what how that pain has been trying to protect you. Thank it for what it was trying to do. As you exhale, consciously breathe out the pain. Visualize it going back into the light where it can be transformed.

2. Feeling the Hands

Like all of nature, humans are electrical beings. We are created from energy, powered by energy, and we generate energy. Rub your hands together for five seconds. Feel how it tingles? Those are the nerve endings—electrical processes that keep us alive. The energy you feel in your hands is part of an energy field that runs through all living beings. Concentrate intently on the sensations in your hand. If thoughts come up (and they probably will), keep redirecting the focus to the sensations in your hands. Eckhart Tolle goes deeply into this practice in The Power of Now

Funny story: When I first began noticing the energy in my hands, I felt annoyed with Tolle. He referred to the sensations as the energy body, and my persistent intellect kept retorting, “I’m feeling my nerve endings!” It took me a few years to realize that the “energy body” and the electricity powering our bodies are one and the same.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, there are times when I can feel the hands and stop ruminating. Then there are other times where I can’t remember why I’m trying to feel my hands. Keep practicing. It does work.

3. Learning to Observe and Investigate Thoughts

One of the first things I learned (and it took a while) was how to observe my thoughts. That linked post is the most popular post on this site, and for good reason: Learning to notice your thoughts is difficult! It’s like a fish trying to understand the concept of water. However, once you learn it, it’s a lifelong, invaluable tool for helping orient yourself during particularly challenging times.

Once you’re able to notice your thoughts, and to notice that you are thinking, you can start to investigate your thoughts. The next step is discerning whether our thoughts are based on fact or interpretations. The late Marshall Rosenberg wrote a brilliant book on this called Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Love.

I’ve read and listened to the book multiple times. I took a Sounds True course on Nonviolent Communication. And after a decade, I still can’t practice it on the spot when I’m feeling triggered. This is a process; there is no “doing it perfectly.” Once I was able to observe and question my thoughts, even if I couldn’t practice NVC perfectly, I felt significant relief from anxiety.

Loving What Is by Byron Katie is another book that’s helpful in terms of questioning our thoughts. “The Work,” as it’s often called, comprises four questions that I’ve found really helpful in shifting my perspective. However, it can also be used (intentionally or unintentionally) for “spiritual bypassing” or finding relief without actually processing the emotional pain. 

4. Acceptance and Appreciation

Two more practices that I find helpful are acceptance and appreciation. I have much, much more to write on these, but those posts are a start. Every spiritual teaching I’ve ever read or heard boils down to one foundation: accepting that this moment is as it is. As a friend of mine wisely put it, “We can’t argue that we are where we are.” For such a simple, everyday word, it’s a deeply profound experience. If you’d like to read a wonderful book on what acceptance really means, I recommend Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha.

Accepting what is doesn’t mean we don’t work towards change. That’s the biggest misconception. It simply means (with apologies to Lily Tomlin) that we’re giving up all hope for a better past.

5. Countdown to ease anxiety

To wrap things up, here’s an excellent practice for anxiety:

  • Name FIVE things you can see.
  • Name FOUR things you can touch.
  • Name THREE things you can hear.
  • Name TWO things you can smell.
  • Name ONE thing you can taste.

By now, you’re probably seeing that the common thread is “staying in the moment.” But staying in the moment is not the same as believing your interpretations about this moment. When I say staying in the moment, I mean the physical sensations of this moment. Wind on your face. Rain on your arm. Your heartbeat. Feel your butt against the sofa cushions, or your hands immersed in soapy dishwater or your dog’s fur. Each time we come back into the small moments of our life, we interrupt the patterns of rumination in our minds. Life isn’t going to resume once COVID is gone, or Trump. It’s happening right now, amidst the dumpster fires.

For more on this, I highly recommend both The Power of Now (which I re-read regularly) and The Journey Into Yourself. The latter is one of Eckhart Tolle’s lesser-known talks, yet it’s the one I found the most relief from when everything around me was falling apart.

I’ll be writing more in-depth posts about many of these topics in the upcoming months. All of them are interrelated. The more intense the challenge, I’ve found, the fiercer the presence required to find peace. But moments of peace are possible, even in the midst of chaos and crisis. And those moments, strung together, can help to pull you through extremely challenging times.

In the comments, please let me know your experiences with these practices. This post was prompted by a reader question; feel free to email me with questions you’d like to see answered in future posts.

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Sarah Chauncey

For more than two decades, I struggled multiple treatment-resistant mood disorders. I spent more than 20 years in psychodynamic therapy and tried 18 different medications. In 2010, I began searching for ways to rewire my brain naturally for inner peace. I write about the practices and insights that have improved my mental, physical and spiritual health.

1 Comment

  1. Adrian Frutiger on April 8, 2021 at 2:54 pm

    I have personally tried these tricks and I must say they always work to calm me, have told a few of my colleagues and they have claimed that it does help them reduce their stress and stay calm. Thanks for sharing.

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