Tranquility: The Many Facets of the Diamond
To find true inner peace, we must be able to embrace life’s inherent paradoxes. Part III of SoMA’s “Summer Soul Series."
By Mary Beth Crain
On the surface, tranquility seems easy indeed to define. It’s the same thing as peacefulness, or serenity, or calmness, right? As we’ve seen in Parts I and II of our “Summer Soul” series, however, tranquility is a highly complex subject that involves many different aspects, from various spiritual philosophies and practices to the very way in which we relate to the world and make our place in it. The truly tranquil person is not merely someone who possesses an inner serenity; he or she must also be able to deal with the paradoxes inherent in human existence, not only maintaining a calm center in the midst of flux, frustration and chaos, but embracing that flux, frustration, and chaos as an inevitable, and therefore natural, part of life.
Tranquility and Duality
Tranquility involves accepting the duality that is a natural part of the cosmos. This duality, according to Taoism, is essential to life, which is nothing more or less than the co-existence of opposites. Light and dark, strength and vulnerability, pain and pleasure, cold and hot, death and birth: all must be accepted equally, for without one there would not be the other. The Taoist state of Hsü is a state of acceptance of this natural duality, and of emotional detachment from the effects of any one aspect of existence. As in the tale of the disciple and the Jewish mystic, one cannot attain tranquility, or perfect equilibrium, until one is neither enraged by insults nor flattered by praise.
Acceptance of duality is at the heart of Thich Nhat Hanh’s “engaged Buddhism”—but in a different, more action-oriented way. “Life is filled with suffering,” he observes, “but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. If we are not happy, if we are not peaceful, we cannot share peace and happiness with others, even those we love. Life is dreadful, but it is also wonderful. Meditation is to be aware of what is going on. When we sit down peacefully, breathing and smiling, with awareness, we are our true selves, we have sovereignty over ourselves.” Hanh does not advocate detachment so much as immersion in life. His philosophy depends on our being “engaged”—physically, emotionally, spiritually—in life, and aware of all of its paradoxical elements. We must see both the good and the bad, and choose to concentrate on “being” peace and joy rather than sorrow. In order to do this, however, we must have gotten past the state of “I”—past the notion of the individual—and into the realm of “Us”—the notion of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life.
Tranquility and Bliss
Should we distinguish between tranquility and bliss? William Blake’s poem,
seems to describe the essence of tranquility. But to be in such a state of oneness with and wonder at nature is also to be in bliss. Is bliss the end result of tranquility? Or is it the other way around?
In his anthology entitled “Mysticism,” F.C. Happold discusses the vision of the mystic, which, he says, “not only contains an existential perception of the Presence and Being of God, a joyous apprehension of the Absolute, of the Reality upholding all things, but is also a new vision of the phenomenal world, so that it is seen differently from what was before. This new vision of the phenomenal world is essentially one of Immanence, of the One, however the One may be conceived, present in and permeating the All.”
Bliss implies ecstasy; tranquility implies calmness. Perhaps true tranquility, the type that comes with meditation and enlightenment, is an “ecstatic calmness.”
Differentiating Between Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Tranquility
In his book, “Who Am I: The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personalities,” Steven Reiss explores what he calls the 16 basic desires that make human life meaningful. One of these desires is tranquility, or what Reiss defines as “a psychological state that is defined as the absence of disturbance and turmoil, or the absence of anxiety, stress, and fear.”
Reiss goes on to observe that the desire for tranquility originates in the animal instincts to flee danger and seek safety—that, essentially, the desire for tranquility is primitive and primal. However, because we have evolved into complex beings with not always logical motivations for our behavior, the desire is stronger in some people than in others. “How strongly people desire tranquility depends on how motivated they are to live a stress-free life,” notes Reiss.” Some people fall apart at the first signs of stress. These people have a strong need for a tranquil or stress-free lifestyle. Other people can tolerate stress reasonably well even though they do not enjoy it. These people have a low need for a tranquil lifestyle.”
Contrary to popular belief, however, the desire for tranquility is not always a positive trait. Reiss’s view characterizes people in whom the tranquility desire is high as, essentially, cowardly, and unambitious.
Essentially, Reiss equates the desire for tranquility with the desire to manage anxiety. Again, those who have a strong desire for tranquility seem, in his eyes, to be weak and fragile. “A very strong desire for tranquility,” he maintains, “is seen in people who have spontaneous panic attacks…And people who tolerate pain poorly show a strong desire for tranquility…[as do] those who have many fears.”
That this view of the desire for tranquility is basically insulting to all the spiritual disciplines, in which tranquility is the desired state, is obvious and ironic. However, it becomes less so when we understand that Reiss is talking about physical/emotional tranquility versus spiritual tranquility.
While the desire for physical/emotional tranquility may be characteristic of more fearful individuals, the desire for spiritual tranquility is characteristic of true warriors of the soul, who are not afraid to explore and take responsibility for the causes of pain and discomfort in their lives, and who are willing to make the long and arduous journey to Attar’s “abode of immortality,” where the ego, the cause of all fear and suffering, is finally transcended. This is the difference between Reiss’s definition of tranquility and the Buddha’s, or Lao Tzu’s, or the Bal Shem’s. In the world of the body and the emotions, timidity may be the main personality trait associated with the desire for a tranquil life. But in the world of the spirit, the person who has achieved true tranquility is fearless—because he or she has moved beyond fear.
Tranquility and Relaxation
When one is tranquil, it is assumed that one is in a relaxed state versus a state of tension or anxiety. Relaxation in and of itself, however, is not tranquility. The state of relaxation is a physical/emotional state in which one may feel little or no stress. When one is relaxed, one feels calm and peaceful, and may even drift off into sleep. The goal of relaxation exercises is to make the body so calm and tension free that if sleep results, all the better.
When one is in the tranquil state associated with meditation and spiritual centeredness, however, one is fully awake. In meditation, sleep is not the desired objective. One should be calm, but one should be aware.
Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard cardiologist who did breakthrough research in the positive effects of relaxation on the heart and health in general, was a firm advocate of meditation. Some of his most famous research, published in his book “The Relaxation Response,” involved the effects of transcendental meditation on the cardiovascular system. Practitioners of TM, noted Benson, experienced lower blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and metabolism. Benson went on to discover that simple techniques of relaxation could significantly reduce stress and stress-related illness. Essentially, Benson advocated simple meditation for 10 to 20 minutes a day. His patients and followers were told to find a quiet space, systematically relax all of their muscles, focus on a single word or prayer, and not to be concerned with intrusive thoughts.
While Benson essentially equates relaxation with meditation, it is important to reiterate that relaxation is not the goal of meditation. Relaxation techniques are just that: tools, not ends in and of themselves. True spiritual tranquility comes with meditation practice, yes—but it is a byproduct of that practice, not the essential goal. The practice of meditation in the purest sense is the practice of shedding the ego and becoming one with The One. Along the way, one may experience pain, discomfort, frustration—the opposite of relaxation. But as one stays with and does not run from the pain, as Charlotte Jodo Beck notes, one eventually moves past it. Benson’s relaxation techniques are really short cuts that may short circuit the deeper meditative experience. They are fine for lessening stress, but they should not be confused with meditation or genuine tranquility.
Yet in Eastern spiritual practices, relaxation becomes synonymous with tranquility. Ingrid Bacci, the author of “Effortless Living”), discusses relaxation in terms of the effortlessness that is at the heart of Zen discipline and practice. “Researchers who study human potential know that concentration, effortlessness and relaxation go together. They recognize that mental focus depends on physical relaxation.” So, like true tranquility, true relaxation is not passive, and goes beyond the purely physical. “It is a discipline of the body and mind in which extraneous tensions and thoughts are eliminated, creating a profound calm in which one is totally alert. Relaxation involves the ability to live fully but without struggle. Buddhism, Taoism, and Zen are all devoted to helping create a sense of deep inner peace, or calm aliveness…The true meaning of relaxation is a combination of peace and power, inner calmness and complete self-expression and focus.”
Tranquility As Inner Silence and Investigation
In his essay “The Seven Factors of Enlightenment,” Jack Kornfield names tranquility as one of those seven factors, the others being mindfulness, energy, investigation, rapture/interest, concentration, and equanimity. Kornfield defines tranquility as “an inner kind of silence, a silent investigation rather than thought-filled”—as opposed to equanimity, which is “calm balance in relation to the changing circumstances of experience.” This is, then, another view of tranquility, which is usually associated with Kornfield’s definition of equanimity.
“In Western psychology,” observes Kornfield, “there is much emphasis on the active factors, which include investigation and energy devoted to understanding of one’s self. But the West has unfortunately lacked an understanding of the importance of the complementary factors of concentration and tranquility. Without cultivating [these qualities], the mind’s power is limited and the range of understanding that is available is rather small in scope.”
There is obviously a fine line between equanimity and tranquility. If tranquility is inner silence or a silent, “no-thought” investigation, it must on some level involve “calm balance,” for as one becomes detached from thoughts, one attains a certain calm objectivity in relation to one’s environment. Yet it is interesting to include Kornfield’s definition of tranquility here, because it gives the concept of tranquility a new dimension. To Kornfield, tranquility is not merely calm centeredness; it involves “investigation,” and therefore awareness and even curiosity. The tranquil state, in Kornfield’s view, is anything but an inactive state.
So, there you have it—or do you? I’ve given you a lot of facts, a broad overview of a subject that, when all is said and done, resides not in the realm of the intellect but in the realm of the spirit. Ultimately, tranquility can’t be studied, but must be sought with intensity and practiced with unwavering commitment until it can be experienced. And yet, learning about tranquility has important value, since it’s through the corridors of our intellect that we often reach the door to the soul. Another one of those annoying paradoxes. Good luck!
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain’s last piece for SoMA was A Fine Mess.
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