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Tranquility: The Storm Before the Calm

How finding peace in life can be as easy (or as hard) as breathing. Part II of SoMA’s "Summer Soul Series."

By Mary Beth Crain

In our efforts to keep afloat on life’s rough waters, most of us are like the proverbial cork bobbing to and fro on the stormy sea. We are buffeted by the emotions, tossed about by circumstance. We’re cool one minute, miserable the next. As long as things are good and life behaves, we’re happy. But as soon as something goes amiss, the illusion of happiness vanishes. We are dependent, it seems, on external forces that we can’t control. As such, how could we possibly be tranquil beings?

We can’t—until we really understand what tranquility is.

We can divide tranquility into two categories: its aspects and its practice.

According to the various spiritual disciplines, the aspects of tranquility include:


1. Benevolence
2. Compassion
3. Joyful sympathy
4. Humility
5. Detachment from both pain and pleasure
6. Loss of selfhood/ego

But how does one achieve these states? First and foremost, through meditation.

In her essay, “This Very Moment”(“Ordinary Magic: Everyday Life as Spiritual Path,” John Welwood, ed., Shambhala Press), Charlotte Jodo Beck observes,

The crux of meditation is this: all we must do consciously is to create a little shift from the spinning world we’ve got in our heads to right-here-now…What really is, when we meditate, is often fatigue, boredom, and pain in our legs. What we learn from having to sit quietly with that discomfort is…that when you’re in pain you can’t spin off. You have to stay with it. So pain is really valuable.

Zen training is designed to enable us to live comfortable lives. But the only people who live comfortably are those who learn not to dream their lives away, but to be with right-here-now, no matter what it is: good, bad, nice, not nice, headache, being ill, being happy. It doesn’t make any difference…If we can accept things just the way they are, we’re not going to be greatly upset by anything.

Tranquility is the absence of fear. It is the opposite of anxiety. The truly enlightened person experiences tranquility as a state of being. If anything should happen to momentarily upset his tranquility, he is able to return quickly to his center. As a stone is thrown into a tranquil lake, it creates momentary ripples that soon subside, and the lake is tranquil again. It is only through silence and deep centeredness that we can move past the self, the ego, which is the source of all fear.

It is not enough, however, to know momentary tranquility. It is not enough to lie on the beach, listening to the waves and gulls, and feel peaceful until we rise and get into our car and become unnerved once more by the problems and stresses of daily life. It is not enough to meditate once a month, or once a year. The feeling of tranquility is transitory; we lose it as soon as we return to the anger, frustration and anxiety that are an inevitable part of the “real” world. True tranquility means being able to sustain a sense of equilibrium no matter what happens. Like any skill or talent, it must be practiced until it becomes part of our being.

From Charlotte Jodo Beck’s essay, we see that the practice of tranquility requires three essential things:

1. Paying attention/listening.
2. Being in the moment.
3. Accepting things as they are.

Interestingly, these are the three essential attributes of Kung Fu practice. The original purpose of Kung-Fu training was to achieve tranquility through spiritual enlightenment: “To calm the mind and from that quiet place comes God.” The “Three R’s of Self-Defense” in Kung-Fu are:

1. Don’t react. Wait and listen to what others are trying to tell you.
2. Don’t reject. Don’t judge people.
3. Don’t resist. Go with the flow.

Don’t react is really the equivalent of paying attention. Don’t reject is accepting things as they are. And don’t resist is being in the moment, going with what is happening now.

Tranquility is the central goal of Kriya Yoga as well. “The Kriya Path is: Attaining eternal Tranquility by practice of Pranayam and continuing meditations on the Formless, i.e. Tranquility.” Pranayam, or breathing exercises, “dissolve the mind and intellect by attaining naturally the still state of breath from the operation of Prana, Apana, Smaman, Udana and Byana.” Through a specific system of breathing, which takes in the Prana, or life force, and channels it into, essentially, cosmic energy that flows from us into the universe, and back from the universe into us, in a continuing cycle of shared life, tranquility is attained—tranquility being synonymous with “the Formless,” that state of sublime union with the infinite which can not be described in words or images.

The detachment from the ego, from the idea of separateness, is a critical aspect of tranquility. In his essay “Being Peace,” the famed Buddhist spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh discusses the practice of “Engaged Buddhism.”

Meditation is not to get out of society, to escape from society, but to prepare for a re-entry into society. We call this ‘engaged Buddhism.’ When we go into a meditation center, we may have the impression that we leave everything behind…and come as an individual in order to practice and to search for peace…This is already an illusion because in Buddhism there is no such thing as an individual.

When we divest ourselves of the notion of individuality, we are able to feel the sense of interconnectedness with all life that is at the heart of all spiritual philosophies, and at the heart of tranquility. We can truly feel compassion, benevolence, joyful sympathy, not just intellectually but all through our being. These are no longer concepts or ideals, they are part of us, because we have transcended the “I-Them” myth that is at the heart of all strife and suffering.

Through meditation, we move past the “I” and into the “Us.” As Sogyal Rinpoche observes in “Glimpse After Glimpse,”

To end the bizarre tyranny of ego is why we take the spiritual path…However hard ego may try to sabotage the spiritual path, if you really continue on it and work deeply with the practice of meditation, you will begin slowly to realize just how gulled you have been by ego’s promises: false hopes and false fears. Slowly you begin to understand that both hope and fear are enemies of your peace of mind: hopes deceive you and leave you empty and disappointed, and fears paralyze you in the narrow cell of your false identity. You begin to see also just how all-encompassing the sway of ego has been over your mind, and in the space of freedom opened up by meditation, when you are momentarily released from grasping, you glimpse the exhilarating spaciousness of your true nature.

How do we meditate? There is no “right” way; meditation can take many forms. You can do Zen “sitting” meditation, or “walking” meditation. You can do Hindu “chanting” meditation. You can do Yoga breathing exercises while gazing at a spot on the wall. You can sit quietly with a Bible passage, reflecting upon it until it actually enters your being. The common meditational ground among all spiritual practices, however, is to find a quiet, peaceful place, and make the time—half an hour to an hour—during which you can sit undisturbed, breathing deeply and naturally, relaxing each muscle in your body, allowing your thoughts to come and go, focusing on no-thing, until gradually you experience the exhilaration of detachment from the ego and the emotions that opens the door to tranquility.

Stay tuned for “Tranquility, Part III: The Many Facets of the Diamond.”

 

Comment on this article here.

Did you miss Part 1, "Tranquility: Mystical State or Practical Tool?" Click here.

 

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Mary Beth Crain is the contributing editor at SoMAreview.com.

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