Wanting to be calm all the time is an understandable desire. It's a natural reaction to a world that offers and encourages very little of it. That being said 'calm' in the way we are often taught mindfulness, is not the solution, nor the intention of those who originally pioneered mindfulness meditation in Buddhism.
The goal is not to deny certain emotional states that we perceive as negative, nor the energy that comes with them. The idea is to learn to embrace all that is here, including the quote unquote ‘negative’ thoughts and feelings we have, within a wider context. When we label something as negative, bad or wrong, we are subtly viewing it through a particular lens. Soon enough this lens becomes automatic and we seem unable to perceive the experience itself in its raw, original form, separate from our skewed perception of it. The judgement and the experience become entangled and synonymous.
When this happens, we start to become hypersensitive to any sensory input that reminds us of the ‘negative’ experiences we‘ve learned to avoid or deny. I call this the web of association, where each unpleasant experience starts to be associated with any similar thought or phenomenon that happens to share the vicinity of the original ‘negative’ experience. This then cascades infinitely, tainting our experience of even what were once considered pleasant experiences. Energetic feelings of what we once recognised as excitement and anticipation now remind us of fear and anxiety. So now because we associate energy with anxiety we start to crave its absence. We look for anything that can shut our minds and bodies off to the feelings of energy. And it is this imaginary place of respite we mistakenly start to call ‘calm’.
But what we begin to discover is that denial and avoidance of energy and stimulation is not the paradise we hoped it would be. Gradually this web of association grows, progressively rewiring all of our experiences so that any experience of stimulation at all is now synonymous with anxiety and panic (which we’ve decided is bad). We therefore now come to preceive any experience without stimulation as synonymous with depression and apathy (also bad in our minds).
Now the unfortunate news here is that recognising this conceptual trend in and of itself won’t help us become free of it. What we require is practice. This is why when we begin our mindfulness practise, I and many other teachers encourage us to start where we are. To recognise what is going on in all its entanglement, chaos and complexity. By starting from where we are we can notice the particular lenses that we are filtering our experience through, even if we can’t yet let go of looking through them.
In so doing when we start our practise it may involve a lot of what we might call ‘tolerance’ for experience. This is because we are usually relating to our experience from a place of intolerance and so this first step, of ‘tolerance, is a major one on the journey to eventually embracing our experience in its entirety. Ultimately the aim will be to be able to stay with all experience no matter how much or little energy is present.
To take an example from Jon Kabat Zinn, what we are looking for really is to be able to go beneath the waves crashing on the surface of the ocean of our experience and into the deeper depths where there is tranquillity and equanimity. A different sort of calm. It doesn't mean trying to control the waves and even more importantly it doesn't mean just waiting out the storm on the surface.
Deep below the surface of the waves it may feel tranquil, but that doesn't mean there's no energy. There is a tremendous amount of energy coursing through the ocean in its depths and indeed the whole ocean. The ocean is constantly in flux. With tides and channels pushing and pulling, drawing the water and life here and there. It's just that here in this deep place we aren't tossed about by it as we once were by trying to fight or deny the power of the waves on the surface.
The lesson here is that in order to find this true calm, we need to be able to embrace and harness this energy, not ignore it or wait it out. We do that by coming into relationship with whatever is here right now unconditionally, whether we find it pleasant or not.