01.06.2007

What Price Tranquillity?

Peace is attainable but we have to make some sacrifices, says Eric Harrison. And perhaps now is the perfect time to start.

Peace is attainable but we haveto make some sacrifices, says Eric Harrison. And perhapsnow is the perfect time to start.

Peacecomes in many forms from the transient to the eternal,from the trivial to the sublime. "Peace at last!"says the mother when the kids are finally in bed. Peacein politics means the cessation of hostilities, whichwould seem like Heaven to the inhabitants of Sudan orIraq. Moral peace comes from doing what you feel isright and being true to yourself. You can also be atpeace if you philosophically accept your fate withoutcomplaint.

Yet peace is often a contaminated product. There isthe spiritual serenity of detachment and indifference:"Everything passes, so why worry?" Religionsguarantee peace beyond the grave if you behave yourself,and the opposite if you don't. Gurus offer permanentpeace as a shining, but somehow just-out-of-reach, ideal.Finally, travel agents sell peace as part of the packageat tropical resorts.

In a perfect world, we would feel mentally at peaceevery time we were physically at rest. Peace is utterlynatural, yet to the chronically stressed, it may seemas unattainable as the moon. One thing is certain however- we can always be more peaceful than we are. The searchfor peace starts with the biological process of relaxation,and we all relax sometime. Is there some secret formulathat allows us to move on from physical relaxation tomental stillness?

There are two archetypal images of peace. The firstis that of the seated Buddha with his eyes open. Thesecond, closely related, is that of the yoga chick,with her eyes closed, sitting cross-legged on an emptybeach. These two images tell us volumes about how tobe peaceful. If we analyse them, we find that peaceis not free or automatic. It comes at a price, and isdependent on certain conditions.

The Buddha is depicted as being alone, inactive, mentallystill and alert (that is, with eyes open). We also assumehe is leading a simple, non-materialistic life in nature.These illustrate four key ingredients of peace - solitude,stillness, silence and simplicity. The more we can achieveany of these, even for a minute or two, the more peacefulwe become.

At some deep level we know all of this. We can seethat our lives are commonly too crowded, busy, noisyand complicated. These are four key ingredients of stress.Even if we understand this, peace still seems impossible:"I can't leave my kids, my mortgage, my Internet,my city lifestyle, and just do nothing!" Importantas peace is, we don't want it at the expense of everythingelse. In 1993, I met 150 other Western meditation teachersat a conference in California. Most of us had spentyears in retreat, or been monks or nuns in the past,and had known inconceivably beautiful states of mindas a result. Yet, nearly all of us had finished withthat lifestyle and re-entered the modern world. Thereare higher goals than tranquillity alone. A search formental clarity at all costs is somewhat immature andunbalanced.

I left that contemplative life behind in 1985, butwith a burning question: 'Could I maintain those calm,clear states of mind in the midst of a career, relationshipsand the city?' 'Could I balance inner peace with thequite contrary demands of love and work?'

I found that I could, but what came easily in the wildernesstook ingenuity and effort in the city. In the midstof a crowded life, we can always be a little more alone,silent and still, if we value and cultivate those qualities.We can find islands of peace in the turmoil, and peacein our minds, even if it seems absent from the worldaround us.

SOLITUDE

Peace is about solitude. It is naturally antisocial.Perfect peace is almost narcissistic in its self absorption.We find peace when we walk away from others, if onlyfor a few minutes, and feel ourselves to be alone. Peopleare crucial to our wellbeing but we find peace on ourown.

Solitude is not about abandoning people. It is aboutbeing mentally alone whenever we are physically alone.We can be fully alone while walking, going to the toilet,doing housework, sitting in a bus or falling asleep,if we know how. More commonly, we hold lengthy conversationswith and about people in our heads all day long, whetherthey are present or not. When you go to the toilet,are you truly alone? Or do your parents, children, friends,workmates and various TV celebrities all squeeze intothe cubicle with you?

Whenever you don't have to engage with people, youcan be mentally alone. When you walk through a parkon the way to work, you can be as alone as a yogi inthe Himalayas. It all depends on how you direct yourmind. If you are truly in the park and in your body,you can find peace in every step.

STILLNESS

The seated Buddha is making a statement. He has nothingto do, nowhere to go and very little to think about.For this reason, some people find a meditation classan extremely odd experience. For perhaps the first timein their lives, they sit still and literally do nothingfor maybe 20 minutes. They even give themselves permissionnot to actively think (which is easier said than done).

Peace is about inactivity, about doing nothing andletting the body and mind return to balance. This iswhy peace is so good for our health. Every day we oscillatebetween activity and rest, wakefulness and sleep, andwe typically find peace in the rest and repair partof that cycle. This is why the idea of perfect peaceis a myth: we can't do nothing forever.

Although it is easy to sit down and physically stop,our minds can still be restless. We typically entertainourselves with TV or reading or absentminded rumination,without our minds ever coming to a halt. We can relaxand even fall asleep this way, but we won't be trulypeaceful.

The mind only becomes calm and still when it focuseson one thing at the expense of everything else. Thisis what meditation trains us to do. Focusing is a subtleskill, and not what people usually take it to be. Itis not exclusive since we still notice peripheral thoughts.It is intermittent, since we are bound to lose focusperiodically. Although focusing is an act of will, itis not strained or brittle, since it grows out of thecomfort of physical relaxation. The paradox is thateven poor focus is so much better than eternally chasingour thoughts. Focusing automatically relaxes us by simplifyingour mental activity. It illuminates the detail of whateverwe pay attention to, so we come to know it deeply, beyondwords and concepts. In meditation, focusing can takeus into trance and bliss. In everyday life, it makesus fully conscious and self aware. In any case, theimmediate payoff for good focus is a calm, still, observantquality of mind. This is vastly different from merelybeing relaxed or spacing out.

SILENCE

When the inner chatter weakens or stops, a remarkablenew world appears. You hear the birds. You sense yourbody. You know what you truly feel. When the words fade,so do the past and future and all their gloomy/hopefulstories. You live within the vivid, unpredictable beautyof the present moment, if only for moments, here andthere. You feel the uncanny mystery of life itself,beyond any explanation.

Inner silence leads to a mode of deep thought thatwe can call contemplation. Our everyday thought is typicallyfast, linear and reliant on words. It scrambles fromone thing to another all day long, and rarely comesto a conclusion. It can't stop and it can't listen.

Contemplative thought, on the other hand, emerges froma calm mind and body. It is familiar with silence. Thereare spaces between the words in which our feelings andour imagination can talk to us. The understanding andinsights that arise tend to be visceral and pictorialrather than verbal.

"In stillness and silence, the soul grows wise",said Thomas A Kempis. Peace is valuable in itself, butit is also the basis of direct understanding, or wisdom.St Benedict called this process 'divine listening'.Only in silence can you hear the still, small voiceof God, and that is true even if you are an atheist!

A SIMPLE LIFE

In theory, the Buddha led a simple life. He beggedfor his daily food and had no thoughts for the future(In reality, he was a empire builder). We can't do that,but we should at least see the price we pay for ourcomplicated lives. Given our individual temperaments,there is only so much complexity we can handle and stillsleep well at night.

Just as our bodies have to digest the food we eat,so our minds have to process whatever we take in. Wepay for the junk food and chocolate, and we also payfor every skerrick of junk information. We can easilybecome more peaceful if we reduce the input. Just tryto do without newspapers, TV, radio and unnecessaryconversations for a day or two, and see how much calmeryou feel.

Peace is dependent on solitude, stillness, silenceand simplicity. All of these are internal qualitiesand far more attainable than we might assume. As peaceis so quiet and subtle, it is hard to see its value.In fact, it is crucial for good health, and a calm,clear, intelligent quality of mind.

Perfect peace may seem impossible, but we can all bemore peaceful than we usually are, even in this minute,if we feel it is worth cultivating.

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