During life’s inevitable shifts, these tools & teachings help you find calm in chaos, ground & centre you, giving you a little control in how to respond—in even the trickiest of circumstances.
“I feel like an inadequate machine, a machine that breaks down at crucial moments, and grinds to a dreadful halt,” wrote poet, novelist and memoirist, May Sarton in her Journal of a Solitude, aptly echoing my own thoughts of late, having found myself on quite the medical whirlwind (more on that here). Part of being human is in accepting that sometimes we fall and fail, break down, and get sick, and that things do go wrong—no matter how fervently we try for them not to.
Though wherever you now find yourself, having ways to weather each passing storm — even if it lingers longer than expected, and far more fervently too — can help you make sense of chaos, be more at ease with uncertainty, and also ensure you’ll find calm equilibrium no matter the challenges you face, so that warm rays can break through those dark and weighty clouds, returning you and your world to sun.
Be Like Water —The Taoist Practice of Wu Wei
The ancient Taoist concept of Wu Wei can be a powerful practice in making peace with the ongoing paradox, your writing and creativity too. Although there is no direct translation into English, the essence of Wu Wei is in many ways much like water, to behave like water, to yield, be supple, and adapting to circumstance, without judgement or resistance but a gentle ease and acceptance of what is.
Many Western translations focus on “inaction” but though this is part of Wu Wei — knowing when to trust the water to allow yourself to float — it is also to be the water, to not go against the flow of things, that is the flow of life, but to be in alignment with it. Inaction may also be considered static when Wu Wei is having the wisdom to know when to act and when to rest but resisting neither.
Being like water in uncertain or tricky times is to be fluid, moving with ease instead of excessive effort or struggle. It’s the cultivation of a mental state wherein we adapt, finding new solutions to go around the rocks that thwart our path instead of bumping into them, finding ourselves stuck in resistance. Wu Wei is also allowing the water to take you wherever your own story leads.
Water is an equally exquisite metaphor for writing. These rocks can manifest as doubt, writer’s block, or creative unease but when you let yourself to go with the flow and around them, riding the waves of your own creativity, even if a day has been so creatively calm that you find yourself staring out from the beach, holding your surfboard and shivering, disheartened by the distinct absence of surf, you know that these ebbs and flows are as much a part of creativity as they are life.
To have a deeper understanding of Wu Wei, and to practice it, is to be soft, and supple, much like the martial artist who yields, using the weight of their opponent against them being both strong and soft, flexible, adapting to each moment and movement. As with martial arts, this suppleness in body and mind keeps you flexible to the complications of life, open, showing that suppleness is never weakness but strength.
RAIN of Self-Compassion Practice
If you are finding the weight of the world a touch too weighty, and your thoughts echoing such, if feeling a little displaced, vulnerable, uncertain or insecure—try this clever little acronym to help you return to calm presence. “To help people address feelings of insecurity and unworthiness, I often introduce mindfulness and compassion through a meditation I call the RAIN of Self-Compassion,” says Tara Brach.
“You can take your time and explore RAIN as a stand-alone meditation or move through the steps in a more abbreviated way whenever challenging feelings arise.” RAIN can take you out of the trance of uncertainty, shift your mind state to more compassionate places, and help you weather whatever difficulties you may be dealing with.
“As you practice you may experience a sense of warmth and openness, a shift in perspective. RAIN is a practice for life—meeting our doubts and fears with a healing presence. Each time you are willing to slow down and recognize, oh, this is the trance of unworthiness… this is fear… this is hurt…this is judgment…, you are poised to de-condition the old habits and limiting self-beliefs that imprison your heart,” says Tara Brach.
“Gradually, you’ll experience natural loving awareness as the truth of who you are, more than any story you ever told yourself about being “not good enough” or “basically flawed.” The greatest blessing we can give ourselves is to recognize the pain of this trance, and regularly offer a cleansing rain of self-compassion to our awakening hearts.” It’s also a nourishing practice to prepare yourself for any creative act, enhancing your creativity and process. The RAIN acronym stands for:
Recognise what is going on.
Allow the experience to be there, just as it is.
Investigate with kindness.
Natural awareness, which comes from not identifying with the experience.
Your Anchor in the Chaos
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor,” wrote Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist, Thích Nhất Hạnh in Stepping into Freedom: Rules of Monastic Practice for Novices. “An emotion comes, stays for a while, and goes away, just like a storm.”
If being pulled this way and that by difficult feelings, or caught by what Tibetan Buddhist’s refer to as Shenpa — those thoughts that hook you, keeping you stuck in psychological loops — one tool that’s always available, which you can always return to, is the breath. “Breathing in, there is only the present moment. Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment,” says Thích Nhất Hạnh.
“This is a very important practice. Live your daily life in a way that you never lose yourself. When you are carried away with your worries, fears, cravings, anger, and desire, you run away from yourself and you lose yourself. The practice is always to go back to oneself. By being aware of your in-breath and out-breath you generate the energy of mindfulness, so you can cradle the suffering.”
Having an awareness of your breath gives you a sense of inner harmony, an anchor in the chaos, and a path to presence in the calm. Returning to the breath, and using it as your anchor can ground and centre you, no matter how capricious or complicated external circumstances may be.
Stop and focus on your breath. Is it shallow? Slow it down and soften the process, without forcing it, simply allowing the breath to find its own natural depth and rhythm.
Soften your face, your eyes too, which is often an area for subconscious tension, then mentally scan your body, attending to any tightness by lengthening your spine, drawing back your shoulders, and relaxing into each breath.
Allow your awareness to sink back, away from the incessant chattering monkey mind and into that place of inner stillness, always keeping an awareness of your breath—let it be your anchor.
Finding Freedom in Response
“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. The last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” wrote Viktor Frankl, concentration camp survivor, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.
Frankyl articulated beautifully what it is to still find meaning in difficult circumstance, making it rich with lessons for everyone, no matter the challenges each of us face, because no matter how tricky or trying, no matter how constricting, you always have this liberty in where you rest your focus, in how you respond.
Just as we can choose to magnify a situation by focusing on it, so too can we choose to shift that focus in kinder places, to accept and manage as best we can in spite of it. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom,” wrote Frankl, which in many ways is the essence of mindfulness.
“Mindfulness allows our minds to have a choice,” says Tara Brach, Ph.D, psychologist, author and teacher of meditation Tara Brach, Ph.D. “At the moment in which you pause and realise that these thoughts are not really serving, you have the option to come back to presence. This process of choosing becomes more powerful as you realise how thoughts can create suffering and separation. They create judgment and end up making us feel bad about ourselves.”
It’s easy for challenging situations to eclipse all else, to become your whole world but though a natural human reaction, it only adds suffering onto suffering. “When we learn to acknowledge, embrace, and understand our suffering, we suffer much less. Not only that, but we’re also able to go further and transform our suffering into understanding, compassion, and joy for ourselves and for others. In fact, the art of happiness is also the art of suffering well,” says Thích Nhất Hạnh.
The Buddha’s Two Arrows of Suffering
If someone experiences painful feelings they may fret, agonise, worry and feel distraught—regardless of being able to affect change in that moment, in that instant. Yet they put themselves in an even more troubled state. It’s as if they were pierced by an arrow, and then immediately by a second arrow so they experience the pain of both.
When asked to articulate the difference between a wise response and that of an ordinary response to pain the Buddha used the analogy of two arrows (though speaking of physical pain, this teaching applies to the same human tendency, no matter the source of discomfort). So the second arrow comes only through response—in trying to push away the first arrow and get rid of the initial pain.
Paradoxically, the effort of resisting means your energy gets tied up with it, intensifying it, and also caught in a pattern that can become habit, subconsciously reverted to each time difficulty presents itself. If the tendency is to always react with anguish at the first hint of trouble, this, like any repeated response, creates real neuroplastic changes, becoming a default state ‘learnt’ by the brain.
Instead of becoming stuck in this profoundly troubled state — the ‘second arrow’ — use that final freedom between stimulus and response. Be willing to be touched by pain and remain present. The acupressure points below can help. “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…the point is, to live everything…Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer,” as Rainer Maria Rilke once said.
Acupressure to still your thoughts:
Shen Meng or Heart 7 (Spirit Gate or Door) is soothing to your mind and especially your spirit, returning you to your body if feeling displaced, and calming overwhelm, anxiety and stress. It’s located in the little dip just above the the wrist creases, in line with your pinkie finger (see image). You’ll know that you have the right point as your hand will feel slightly numb. Press on each wrist for 1-2 minutes.
Feng Fu or GV 16 (Wind Mansion) is the finest point of all to quieten overthinking and calm racing thoughts, easing emotional stress. Whenever filled with uncertainty, press this point. It’s found in the centre of the back of your neck, in the hollow at the base of your skull (see image). It gently brings you back into yourself, returning you to presence and connecting you to your deeper needs, centering and grounding you. Contraindications: Do not use Feng Fu during pregnancy or if you have a pacemaker, epilepsy or schizophrenia.
Staying Open to What Is
If the moment is unpleasant — physically, emotionally, creatively, or a fusion of the few — we may want to escape it, alter it, or suppress it, all of which means we’re not actively living in the moment, not present in the moment but life only happens in the present. “The mind is a machine that is constantly asking: What would I prefer?” wrote award-winning author and essayist, George Saunders, in The Braindead Megaphone.
“Close your eyes, refuse to move, and watch what your mind does. What it does is become discontent with That Which Is. A desire arises, you satisfy that desire, and another arises in its place. This wanting and rewanting is an endless cycle for which, turns out, there is already a name: samsara.”
This samsara, this grasping, and need to alter our internal state, to change what is, is in a sense rejecting life as it unfolds before you. “It all comes through learning to pause for a moment, learning not to just impulsively do the same thing again and again. It’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space. By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness,” says Pema Chödrön.
Even if things are far from fine and life laden with mishaps, staying open to what is — without masking or escaping the moment — eases some of anguish as it creates a shift. “Once we learn how to go with the flow and accept how life is unfolding in this moment, right now, we open ourselves up to experiencing a lot more joy just in being, without the need to prove anything through the act of doing,” says Lauren Sapala, writing coach and author of The INFJ Writer: Cracking the Creative Genius of the World’s Rarest Type.
“That’s what striking the balance between vision and reality for the writer is all about, learning how to be comfortable in just being a writer and experiencing the act of writing.” It’s powerful as it also gives you permission in a sense, for things to not be OK with that itself being OK, returning you to presence, awakening you to the good in the moment, to pockets of joy, no matter how humble or fleeting. To help augment this, try this calming acupressure sequence, one of the finest in fact, as it’s soothing to your entire being.
Soften the Struggle By Naming Your Thoughts
Difficult times can naturally lead to difficult thoughts but to linger in this place is to exacerbate unhelpful thinking and likely increase these uncomfortable emotions too. “When you relate to thoughts obsessively, you are actually feeding them,” said meditation master, scholar, teacher, poet and artist, Chögyam Trungpa.
“Thoughts need your attention to survive. Once you begin to pay attention to them and categorize them, then they become very powerful. You are feeding them energy because you are not seeing them as simple phenomena. If one tries to quiet them down, that is another way of feeding them.”
If feeling displaced by circumstance, consciously acknowledging the thoughts and feelings that are affecting you — and naming them as just that — creates space between you and those thoughts, which can so freely exacerbate emotions if given free reign. “What if you could pause and say, “OK, it is just a thought”? That is revolutionary,” says Tara Brach.
So if feeling fearful, say “I am feeling fear”, or frustration, “I am feeling frustration”, and so on.
Another useful prefix — which works equally finely for writing doubt or thoughts that hamper with your creative confidence — is: “I am having the thought that…”
“Each time we recognise thinking and come back into the present moment with gentleness and kindness, we are planting a seed of mindfulness. We are creating a new habit—a new way of being in the world. We quiet down the incessant buzz of thoughts in our mind. We take refuge in what is true—the life and tenderness and mystery of the present moment—rather than in the story line of our thoughts,” says Tara Brach.
“Key is that we approach this with a gentleness and kindness.” In softening some of the struggle by finding that freedom between between what are gloriously flawed human responses, and gentler thoughts that support you, nourish you, and your creativity, with non-judgemental acceptance, you can stay with the moment, with uncertainty, chaos or pain, and be entirely present in it.
Trusting Ourselves in the Water
When things go wrong, and we find ourselves caught in the current of an uncertain sea, as it sweeps us up, we may lose all sense of direction, no longer trusting our innate wisdom but adrift, cast out to open waters, without a trace of our former navigational abilities.
When so much seems to be at stake, so much of ourselves, who we are, and even what we do becomes unsteady on its feet, everything feels equally precarious. Though to ride this wave, like any wave, is to allow it to carry you.
“To have faith is to trust yourself to the water,” said much-loved Eastern philosopher, Alan Watts. “When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.” Fighting things you cannot change — even if only in this moment — is a waste of your energy.
Though if you can relax as much as possible, if you can take a deep breath, soften your face, your eyes, your heart, and belly too, and lengthen your posture as you settle into your breath — releasing any tension, and relaxing your whole being with this trust — you can return to presence, a state of non-judgemental awareness wherein lies infinite peace, no matter how turbulent the seas or unpredictable the weather.
Be kind to yourself & remember…
“If you can sit quietly after difficult news, if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm, if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy, if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate and fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill, if you can always find contentment just where you are . . . . you are probably a dog.”*
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Wanting to leave you satiated though not with ingestion, as it was evolving into such grand offering, dividing this post into two. Read part two for 8 more mindful and meditative practices, to appear here in a fortnight: When Things Go Wrong—15 Tools to Find Stillness in the Storm Part II.