Hi all, first Oppo post here. I’m working on a speech for my Toastmasters group that I thought was worth a share here. It’s a work in progress, but I welcome any conversations and feedback! Thanks for reading!
As human beings, social animals, we have a variety of needs. Once we satisfy our most essential needs, others continue to present themselves.
As the great philosopher Christopher Wallace once said, “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems.” (You may know Wallace by his stage name “The Notorious B.I.G.”).
This sentiment rings true in our everyday lives. Once we get beyond our basic physiological needs, things like food and water, shelter and warmth, other needs present themselves. We need security, stability, self-esteem, self-actualization. These things don’t always come easily. Many struggle their entire lives to achieve them.
One such need is peace of mind.
Seeking peace of mind has always been a part of humanity’s religious, spiritual, and cultural pursuits. It’s not some new-age concept, and it’s not a luxury we should push aside.
Some 2,500 years ago The Buddha himself taught meditation to help achieve two goals: vipassana and samatha. Vipassana is insight; it allows a person to see, explore, discern. Samatha is serenity, or calm abiding; it steadies, composes, unifies, and concentrates the mind.
Think about that: Serenity. Calm abiding. A mind that is steady and composed, unified and concentrated. I don’t know about you, but that all sounds really good to me.
Unfortunately, the stresses of daily life interfere with our inner peace most of the time. It seems like we’re always doing something and thinking about ten more things we need to be doing. Right now some of us are thinking about 9am meetings or sick family members. We’re constantly planning, worrying, deciding, second-guessing.
We need to give ourselves a break from time to time. We need some serenity.
Think about a time when you felt totally at peace. Maybe it was during a vacation. Or maybe it was after some happy event, like the birth of a child or some professional achievement. Try to remember that feeling. You have no worries. All is right with the world. Everything is going to be OK. Now, imagine if you can feeling like that all the time.
Serenity isn’t just a break from our normal stress; it is also a means to help us achieve those ideals promised by the Buddha. A mind that’s steady and composed, unified and concentrated. Such a mind would serve each of us better at work, in conflicts with family members, even in solving the Sunday crossword puzzle.
There are probably as many ideas about achieving inner peace, samatha, or serenity as there are people in this world. We are all different, and I don’t think there is a single right answer. I’ve tried lots of things in my search for serenity.
The first route to serenity I tried was really more of a shortcut. At a young age I figured out that getting blackout drunk did a pretty good job of clearing my mind. This wasn’t a long-term solution. The next day would be that much worse. Eventually came the obsession—whenever I wasn’t drinking, I was thinking—obsessing—about drinking. So much for serenity…
I’ve managed to put down drugs and alcohol for over nine years now. But my mind is still far from clear. Many of the thoughts and feelings that I tried to suppress are still here. So how do I seek serenity and inner peace in a healthy way?
Meditation is the first thing that comes to my mind. As I mentioned earlier, the Buddha specifically taught meditation as a path to serenity. Most religious traditions have embraced meditation in some way. Many nonreligious traditions have too. So if meditation is the path to serenity, how do we meditate?
Of course there are a million ways to meditate, because different things work for different people.
Raise your hand if you’ve had any personal experience with meditation. I see lots of hands, and probably every experience was different.
I’ve tried meditation a few times. I sat in a circle and listening to a recording and followed along, relaxing each muscle one at a time. I tried to clear my mind and concentrate on my breathing. I tried focusing on a single spot on a wall or a single thought in my mind. I found this to be really difficult. There’s a reason why people say they “practice meditation,” because it certainly takes practice.
I’ve found that for me, meditation doesn’t have to take place sitting in a room. There are lots of other ways to meditate. I challenge you to find the way that works for you. I’ve tried a number of ways myself.
Athletic endeavors can be meditative. Have you heard of a runner’s high? Runners describe experiencing a serene, sometimes euphoric feeling when running. Other athletes have similar experiences. There is biological support for this—physical activity triggers the release of chemicals in our brains that make us feel good. And in a sport like running, you also have an opportunity to practice “traditional” meditation too—for example, during a run you can focus on your breathing, concentrate on a single thought, or chant a mantra. …At least that’s what I’ve heard. About a week ago I ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll ½ Marathon here in San Diego. I did not find peace or serenity. I did not experience a “runner’s high.” It was not a meditative experience for me on any level. I felt great to have finished. But during the run, as usual, my mind was racing even faster than the runners around me. Yet other people at the finish described that peaceful, almost transcendent feeling that we all seek on some level. I know we have runners here who can back that up. If you haven’t tried it, you should.
Other people seek serenity through yoga. Yoga and meditation go hand in hand—yoga practice combines physical, mental, and spiritual elements and its history includes Buddhist and Hindu influences. So it makes perfect sense that this form of meditation would bring some people closer to serenity. The challenge for me is my complete lack of strength and flexibility. I need some more practice.
It may sound strange, but the activity I’ve found most meditative is driving. I don’t mean sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I mean cruising on the open road, or carving up a twisty mountain or canyon road. A drive like that can be therapeutic.
Sometimes I use a highway cruise to collect my thoughts or clear my head. If you’ve taken a long road trip you’ve probably had this experience. I allow myself to think, but I gently and automatically stop myself short of obsessing or negativity.
Driving a winding backroad is one of the few times I can completely forget about everything else. For me, it’s a completely immersive experience. Every turn, every gear shift, every squeeze of the throttle is the only thing on my mind in that moment. The scenery calms me. I notice it but I don’t focus on it; it’s just a beautiful backdrop. I remain completely in the moment. Yesterday’s mistakes and tomorrow’s worries disappear. It’s a blissful, almost religious experience.
I don’t claim to be a great driver. That’s not the point at all. I make mistakes all the time. But when I’m driving, I’m in the moment. I can acknowledge my mistakes and move forward. That may sound simple, but to me it is profound. The sloppy downshift from two turns back is already a distant memory. I just cannot do this the vast majority of the time.
I’ve heard people describe lots of other paths to serenity—prayer, rock climbing, cooking, hiking, sailing. Perhaps at the end of the day what’s most important is that we’re doing something that we enjoy. Perhaps the key is to be fully immersed in what we’re doing. If we’re completely in the moment, we’re able to clear our minds of extraneous thoughts.
The pursuit of peace of mind won’t always be easy. It would be great if we could just yell “Serenity Now!” like Frank Costanza from Seinfeld. But of course there’s more to it than that. Finding inner peace takes practice.
We’re all at different points on the path to serenity, and our progress will change day to day and even minute to minute. But once we commit to this effort and find tools that work for us, we’ll be in much better shape.