I mentioned in a recent post how I’ve been reading Natame Soseki’s The Gate. I’m nearing the end now and just came upon the protagonist, Sosuke, ruminating that “he must find a way to attain serenity in life, given his many troubles and high anxiety.”
Serenity, I had almost forgotten this word I used to bounce around in my thoughts like a rubber ball. I think it a beautiful word, right up there with love, compassion, empathy, and the like.
But what is it really?
I’m not a religious person, but one of the best definitions comes from the Bible which speaks of “the peace that passes understanding.”
Similarly, theologian Richard Niebuhr said it exceptionally well in a prayer he devised that later became popular and is sometimes erroneously attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.
Its beginning goes like this:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Alcoholics Anonymous has liked it so much that they recite it at the opening of their Twelve Step sessions.
Danger lurks, however, when we conflate serenity with passivity. As the news media confirm daily, we live in a world of virtually palpable wrongdoing and robust evil, sometimes beyond words. All good people must wage the fight, since indifference or passivity surely contributes to their dominion.
Serenity comes from accepting we may not realize our most ardent desires, even those bathed in love and compassion for those who suffer. Paradoxically, accepting our often ineffectuality makes room for serenity’s defining characteristic, transcendence. I like how Bishop Desmond Tutu put it at a time of failing health:
I don’t think I’ve ever felt that same kind of peace, the kind of serenity that I felt after acknowledging that maybe I was going to die of this TB.
The way of serenity isn’t any sudden showering of the gods, for it necessitates self-emptying, or the surrendering of Ego that fosters our suffering with its myriad desires and its denial of our mortality. Paradoxically, when we do so, it promotes our healing, or as Victor Frankyl expessed it, “The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more he actualizes himself.”
The good news is that we can cultivate serenity by pursuing several avenues that unlock bad habits, replacing them with alternatives promoting our well-being. Here are some that help me:
Cognitive: Change the way you respond to things that happen to you. Do you act or react? Why let someone’s curt remark destroy your day? Are there positive alternatives to the negative way you’re interpreting things? Negative thoughts produce emotional distress. Pluck them by the root.
Music: Shakespeare once famously said, “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.” Avoid the frenetic. Indulge the soothing. Music reduces stress levels by 61%.
Exercise: Physical activity relieves stress, besides being good for your health, giving you less to worry about. You may want to add restorative yoga or Tai Chi, which have proven their worth over several millennia and are endorsesd by today’s medical community.
Interests: Find something you like to do such as gardening, hiking, volunteering.
Friends: Cultivate relationships with positive people. Establish a support network.
Humor: Laughter is its own medicine. Research indicates it can promote blood flow, boost the immune system, and promote sound sleep.
Reading: There are many fine reads out there written by experts on reducing stress. Reading reduces stress by 68% according to cognitive neuropsychologist, Dr. David Lewis. Reading works because it takes us out of ourselves which, of course, fosters serenity.
Eating: Certain foods like blueberries, almonds, whole grains, and veggies can improve your mood and reduce stress. You might like to peruse Elizabeth Somer’s thorough study, Food and Mood.
Organizing: For some of us, including myself, neatness affords me a sense of being on top of things, and is thus its own tranquilizer.
Sleep: Establish a regular schedule and keep to it. Avoid stressful activities or exercise three hours before bedtime; same for intense mental activity.
Nature: It isn’t accidental that nature inspires a lot of poetry or that many people opt for remote vacations away from our noisy world. Nature enhances sensory awareness, and with it, provides relief from daily stress. It’s as close as keeping a garden, taking a walk, and cutting the grass. You can enhance your experience by learning the names of common trees, flowers and birds. For me, it’s become synonymous with sanctuary.
Meditation: I like this one best for its quick returns, especially mindfulness meditation. (See my essay in Recent Posts, “Mindfuness and the recovery….”). Breathing and focusing can produce immediate relief and the ability to let go of negative thoughts. Combined with yoga or Tai Chi, you’ve a double whammy against anxiety.
In all honesty, I’ve not gotten there yet, but I’m trying, remembering that the longest journey begins with the first step. Serenity comes down to doing what I can, subtracting the difference.