In this tradition of practice, we often hear teachers warning us to not attach to calmness. Since many people begin the practice of meditation because they would like to experience some calmness in their busy, stress-filled lives, this admonition can be confusing, and maybe even off-putting. It may be useful to look deeper into what one means by the term “calmness,” and consider what sort of calmness are we really looking for in our lives.
Probably what most people mean by “calmness” is a sense of inner peace and ease – a lack of mental and emotional agitation. To my mind, in terms of its cultivation, there are really three types of calmness with varying degrees of usefulness. The first type of calmness is the experience of calm that is tied to one’s outer surroundings. This sort of situational calmness is dependent on where one is physically. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear people report that they feel peaceful when they are in the quiet of the meditation hall at the Center. People may also seek out secluded natural settings as a way to de-stress. While it can certainly be helpful and nourishing to periodically visit settings that are quiet and soothing, this type of calmness is of marginal use in our daily lives. At some point, we need to leave the meditation center, or the quiet of the woods, and reenter the world. It would be better if we could cultivate an experience of calm that does not depend on where we are physically.
The next type of calmness is that which comes from slowing down the thinking mind – maybe by focusing on the breath. It is a calmness that is not tied so much to physical surroundings, but more to one’s inner landscape. We no longer need a quiet outer environment, just a quiet inner environment. This calmness is more useful in that it can be practiced in the settings of our daily life. Though it can be challenging to access this calmness when we are actively interacting with other people. Many people find it difficult to watch the breath and have a conversation at the same time.
The deepest and most useful type of calmness is that which comes from insight, and which transcends both outer and inner silence. This type of calmness comes from mindfulness practice coupled with clear comprehension – being able to perceive what are known in Buddhism as the “three characteristics” that are inherent in all experience, both inner and outer – annica (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), and annata (not-self). When one is mindfully aware of what is arising in the moment, whether it is an external sense perception, or an internal thought or feeling, and that awareness is clear enough, the mind recognizes that whatever is being experienced is annica (it arises and inevitably passes away), because of this it is dukkha, (not capable of bringing lasting satisfaction), and it is also uncontrollable or annata (not-self). When we can directly recognize the truth of this in the moment, our awareness is no longer identified with what is being experienced. We can experience and make use of thoughts and feelings, but are not identified with them any longer. This sort of mindfulness and clear comprehension yields a calmness that is completely independent of outer and inner circumstances. It is by far the most useful sort of calmness one can possess.
In the Christian gospels, Jesus says that one should build one’s house on the rock, not on the sand, so that when the wind and rain comes, it will not be washed away. This last type of calmness is calmness that is established on a firm foundation. It doesn’t matter what the weather is doing. This doesn’t mean we don’t care about what is happening, only that our inner peace is not at the mercy of it.