I enjoy coming up with new pieces of advice that I can tell myself. They become temporary mantras, something I can repeat in my mind now and then to keep myself as centered as possible in an unpredictable world.
Calm acceptance of what is. This is my newest adage.
I've always been impressed by people who can stay calm in stressful circumstances. Soldiers fighting in war. Emergency room doctors and nurses. Parents of a two year old having a temper tantrum. So many other examples of humans handling difficult situations with poise and competence.
That requires a certain detachment from a natural impulse of fear, anxiety, freaking out. "Calm" doesn't mean Buddha-like serenity. The way I see it, calm is founded on an ability to stand back a bit from whatever storm is raging around us, sort of like a lighthouse on a rock in the middle of the ocean.
The massive waves break upon the rock, but the lighthouse keeps on shining a light all around itself, illuminating what is there. That's the "what is" part of my adage.
It doesn't do any good to be calm if we're not in touch with reality.
For example, even though the United States intelligence services were warning that Russia was poised to invade Ukraine, in the period before the invasion President Zelensky and other top officials in his country were discounting the possibility of an invasion.
They didn't prepare the Ukrainian people for this. They didn't move military assets in preparation for war. The calm being preached by Zelensky was a false calm that wasn't based on the what is known to American intelligence, but on an attitude of I hope this turns out to be based on wishful thinking.
Another example is the raid of Seal Team Six into Pakistan that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden. This mission succeeded because the highly trained special forces operatives kept their calm in the face of serious problems, such as one of their helicopters being disabled, and were completely in touch with the reality of what they faced in bin Laden's compound.
Regarding "acceptance," I don't see this as being content with a bad situation.
That's the way I used to view the word, perhaps because one of the stages of coming to grips with grief, or one's impending death, is acceptance -- which connotes a sort of grudging realization that nothing can be done about what either has happened, or will happen.
Instead, acceptance is better thought of as an embracing of reality. It doesn't mean we don't want to change reality, to alter what is into what could be. But before we can make things better, we need to understand how things are now -- both within and without us.
Yesterday our local newspaper, the Salem Statesman Journal, had a nice piece by Leah Burkhart, a Salem Health educator. Here's part of what she said in "When it comes to stress, begin with acceptance."
Fun Fact: April is Stress Awareness month (as if any of us needed help being aware of our stress).
Search any wellness book, online video or social media outlet and you’ll see all sorts of techniques for combatting stress, reducing stress, or even numbing it. You’ve seen the headlines: “Feeling stressed? We have the answer!” All you have to do is drink more of this, eat more of that, practice more of this, or give more of that. Easy peasy. Right?
We are bombarded with images of smiling faces — people who have found “the way” and are now liberated from the shackles of anxiety, fear and frustration. They are either peaceful and serene or blissed out, giggling with joy.
Naturally, then, we are left wondering why we aren’t stress-free, too. What are we doing wrong?
The answer is … nothing. You are doing absolutely nothing wrong. Stress, loneliness, frustration, sadness — these things are hardwired into the human body. Stress doesn’t have to be the enemy. At the very least, it can be considered a messenger. It can even be a powerful ally.
The key to making friends with stress is to first incorporate the practice of acceptance.
What is acceptance?
To be clear, acceptance does not mean saying, “Oh, well. There is nothing to be done. I guess I’ll just be miserable.”
Acceptance is being able to simply look at how something is without immediately seeking to change it.
In your mind, acceptance sounds like:
“Huh, I’m feeling really lonely right now.”
“I am feeling overwhelmed. There is a lot to do, and I don’t think I can get it all done as quickly as I would like. No wonder I am so tense.”
“I am really tired right now.”
“Yikes! I’m angry right now. I mean really, REALLY angry. I’m enraged.”
Why on earth might this be helpful? Because acknowledging where we are is the first step to understanding what needs to come next. Trying to reduce stress without first accepting it is like trying to read a map in a theme park without having a “you are here” dot. Acceptance represents the place to start.
Once you see, clearly, that you are overwhelmed or tired, it’s easier to ask questions like, “Okay, I’m exhausted. What is the next right thing I can do (or not do) now?” The answer might be to recruit support from people around you, get up and take a walk or go home early. But the answer is not the important piece. The important piece was being clearheaded enough to ask the question.
What can help you reach acceptance and identify what needs to come next? Often the best answer is to learn the art of slowing down and engaging in a moment of mindfulness. That might look like:
Practicing a few moments of slow, deep breathing.
Taking a moment to pull up a guided meditation practice.
Going outside and sitting still for a few moments and simply observing your surroundings.
In other words, the best way to learn acceptance is to practice slowing down.