Tranquility: Mystical State or Practical Tool?
To find peace of mind, you just might have to lose yourself. Part I of SoMA’s "Summer Soul Series."
By Mary Beth Crain
Ours is a society that thrives on the most negative of human impulses. We gobble up conflict and violence as fast as we consume our BK stackers ‘n fries. We love to watch families implode, serial killers at work, human beings making jackasses of themselves. The highest priority of TV and movies is people doing mean things to other people, or visions of humanity under siege, unable to protect itself from evil aliens or lethal viruses. It’s orgasmic—misery and terror are our aphrodisiacs.
Yet the irony is that at the same time we dream of tranquility and yearn for a life with no stress, no tension, no fears. This usually takes the form of a “getaway”--the travel industry makes megabucks off its “dream vacation” cruise packages that promise the ultimate in R&R—lounging around at the pool sipping margaritas, eating from morning til midnight, getting the full spa treatment, indulging in total playtime without a care in the world. The only trouble is, the dream only lasts as long as the cruise.
Tranquility is far more than fun and sun in Acapulco, or vegging and gorging courtesy of Carnival. It’s more than striving for a stress-free life, or even living a “happy” life. It is a discipline as well as a state, a condition of balance that, like any fitness program, requires effort and commitment to attain and maintain. The truly tranquil person has achieved equanimity in body, mind and spirit. His or her sense of peace is not dependent upon external factors, but comes from within.
Tranquility is a state of calmness or equilibrium. It is a state many aspire to, and few achieve. Most of us have known moments of tranquility, but how many of us have experienced the ongoing state of tranquility, referred to in Taosim as “hsü,” or, as described in Wing-tsit Chan’s “A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy”:
"Absolute peacefulness and purity of mind and freedom from worry and selfish desires, and not to be disturbed by incoming impressions or to allow what is already in the mind to disturb what is coming into the mind. Hsü-shih means unreality and reality, but hsü also means profound and deep continuum in which there is no obstruction."
In Lao Tzu, hsü is discussed as an important feature in achieving tranquility. And not surprisingly, tranquility is the desired state in Taoism, in contrast to the Neo-Confucianist “Man of Action.” Lao Tzu writes:
To Lao Tzu, the attainment of tranquility seems, on the surface, to be a solitary, detached affair. Complete vacuity, or emptiness, is the state of ultimate detachment. One gets the image of a holy man in deepest meditation, experiencing the totality of birth, death and rebirth as he rests happily in a state beyond the self.
Buddhist mysticism, by contrast, is a little more involved with life and describes “four sublime states.” The first, Benevolence, involves “identifying oneself with all, so that one pervades the entire universe with thoughts of compassion, with heart grown great, wide, deep, boundless, purified of all ill will.” Attaining the second state, Compassion, one “identifies oneself with all, pervading the entire universe with thoughts of compassion.” In the third state, Joyous Sympathy, one “identifies oneself with all, pervading the entire universe with thoughts of joyous sympathy.” The fourth sublime state is, in a way, the reward for having attained the other three: Equanimity, or Peace of Mind. Here, one can now experience tranquility and “pervade the entire universe” with it.
It is evident from this teaching from the Metta Sutra of the Buddhist Scriptures that the key to achieving tranquility lies in developing the qualities of benevolence, compassion and sympathy—joyous sympathy—that extend us beyond the self and connect us, eternally and irrevocably, with the whole of humanity. We cannot be truly tranquil, according to this philosophy, until we are truly selfless—until we have traded the ego for Oneness and are able to genuinely feel and care for others without ulterior motive of any kind. It is this opening up to the world on the deepest level that eventually gives us the sense of joy, connectedness and non-duality that can lead to tranquility.
Other spiritual disciplines emphasize other qualities that will lead to tranquility. The ancient Christian ascetic, Dorotheos, for instance, constantly refers to the centrality of humility and the goal of tranquility. “The road to tranquility,” Dorotheos maintains, involves the pursuit of virtue and the struggle against the passions. And the central virtue is humility, the sure avenue to tranquility, as it is able to overcome the passions: “In point of fact humility,” writes Dorotheos, “protects the soul from all the passions and also from every temptation.” Dorotheos’ journey entailed sublimating desire and passion through contemplation and asceticism. This was the way to virtue. It is not so different from the Bhagavad Gita’s “Way of Selfless Action.”
Detachment from pain and pleasure is considered central to achieving tranquility, or “perfect equilibrium,” in Jewish mysticism. There is the story of the 13th century Jewish mystic who was approached by a disciple wanting to learn the art of hitbodedut, or meditation.
“Are you in a condition of perfect equilibrium?” asked the master.
“I think so,’ replied the disciple, who had lived a life of prayer and good deeds.
“When someone insults you, do you still feel injured? When you receive praise, does your heart expand with pleasure?”
“Yes,” the would-be disciple admitted. “I suppose I do feel hurt when insulted, and proud when praised.”
“Well, then, go out and practice detachment from worldly pain and pleasure for a few more years. Then come back and I will teach you how to meditate.”
The Sufi mystics equate the loss of selfhood with tranquility. The great Sufi saint, mystic and poet Farid al-din’Attar proclaims:
If thou dost desire to reach the abode of immortality, and to attain this exalted Station, divest thyself first of self, and then summon unto thyself a winged steed out of nothingness, to bear thee aloft. Clothe thyself with the garment of nothingness, and draw over they head the robe of no-existence. Set thy foot in the stirrup of
Complete renunciation, and, looking straight before thee, ride the steed of non-being to the place where nothing is. Thou wilt be lost again and again, yet go on thy way in tranquility, until at last thou shalt reach the world where thou art lost altogether to self.
All of this, of course, seems quite esoteric. When we are dealing with intangibles, we find it difficult to make the leap into practicality, i.e. how, precisely, does one go about being compassionate, benevolent, sympathetic, serene? If we are not naturally that way, or if we have difficulties transcending the demands and seductions of the ego, will we ever achieve a state of tranquility? Will it take years of discipline? Will we be lucky if we know tranquility a week, a day, an hour before we die?
You’ll find out in Part II, “Tranquility: The Storm Before the Calm.”
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Contributing editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was "'The Sopranos' Mob Catholicism."
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