serenity comes from within

Serenity is a Skill You Can Learn

Serenity is not bestowed from outside; it can only be built from within. You can actually learn to be calm, by practicing “thought before action”.

What is “Calm”?

I am known for being calm. I can remember how many times I have lost my temper since I was in my mid-twenties, and count them on one hand. A passage comes to mind when I think about how I achieved that serenity.
 
“CALMNESS of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom. It is the result of long and patient effort in self-control. Its presence is an indication of ripened experience, and of a more than ordinary knowledge of the laws and operations of thought.”
 
James Allen wrote this in 1903, in his short book “As a Man Thinketh”, a set of brief essays that outline how each person is the architect of their own life. It is one of the jewels of early western thought on the power of our minds to direct our lives.
 
“Man is made or unmade by himself; in the armoury of thought he forges the weapons by which he destroys himself; he also fashions the tools with which he builds for himself heavenly mansions of joy and strength and peace.”
 

Serenity Now!

As we engage in the world, it can become easy to get frustrated and angry at others. People do not behave as expected, much of the time. But you might as well get mad at the stone on which you just stubbed your toe! In the end, you can only govern your own thoughts and actions. Trying to force your mind on others is no way to grow inner serenity.
 
serenity now
Seinfeld tried to address the pursuit of inner calm with Frank Costanza’s “serenity now!”  yell. It made me laugh but pointed out that just yelling the word was the exact opposite response required to achieve it. You can’t force serenity on yourself; you have to build it from the inside.

Thought Before Action

Real peace and inner calmness can only come from looking within. You have no control over anything outside of your thoughts and actions. Once you come to grips with that, you can focus on examing the things that cause you distress and change the way you respond to them. Take time to think about your responses before you decide on action. Thoughts affect no one but yourself, actions affect the world. Approach action with calmness and serenity, and you will rarely regret your choices.
You can grab a copy of this insightful little book from The Gutenberg Project for free. Read some of the Zen stories that inspired thinkers like James Allen.
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As always, comments and critique are welcome!
emotional vocabulary

Building Your Emotional Vocabulary

How is your emotional vocabulary? Do you struggle to find the right word to describe how you are feeling? You are not alone!

Understand Your Emotional Fluency

As I posted earlier, I went to a counselor to get some insight into my feeling of disconnection from those around me, which I thought was based on experiences from my childhood. In conversation with him, we discussed how I expressed my emotions to others. It turns out my ability to express what I was feeling was restricted to 5 or 6 feelings! What I needed was to expand my ability to express my emotional state, and so improve my emotional intelligence.

It turns out men are not trained to be as emotionally descriptive as women. Most men use the same basic descriptors of their emotions when expressing them. The most common being sad, happy, angry, afraid, surprised and disgusted. Most women have access to many more terms to more accurately describe how they feel. Just as some of us men are color-blind, many of us find ourselves floundering to state our actual feelings, a sort of emotional blindness. Women are encouraged to “feel” much more openly as they grow – the end result is they are far more skilled at emotional fluency than men.

The Vocabulary Wheel

What we need is a way to become more fluent in the language of emotion! My counselor shared a tool he uses to help people work on their emotional vocabulary – English teacher Kaitlin Robbs’s wheel. This wheel starts in the middle with basic emotions (like what I was used to using) and expands outwards, giving us more accurate words to describe our feelings.

emotional vocabulary wheel
Click to Open

These detailed synonyms are extremely helpful in expanding your fluency. They certainly helped me move from “I’m happy” and “I’m sad” to more accurate descriptions.

Exercise your Emotions!

I use this wheel to find alternative words to use in posts, articles, and conversation. It is a great tool for fresh writing, and a must-have to build your emotional vocabulary. If you are interested in emotional intelligence at all, this is a great place to start.

Are there other tools you have come across to help express your feelings?

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thoughts on being a man

Thoughts on Being a Man

I was at a wedding recently and watched a friend of mine walk his daughter down the aisle. One of the most touching moments was the father-daughter dance at the reception. I thought to myself “What a great guy, and what an impressive example of how to be a man”. I wrote recently about respect being a key to a great relationship, and I started thinking about what it takes to be a man today. Here are a few of the things that come to mind, when I reflect on the guys I know and respect.

Be Respectful

Every man I know who I admire presents respect for those they encounter. In every act, they demonstrate that they value the other person. Whether that is their spouse, child, friend or a stranger. Speak directly, without any hint of condescension. Consider the day the other person is having, and attempt to put yourself in their shoes.

Being manly does not mean you need to be a dick to others. Quite the reverse. First, you need to respect yourself; then you can fully respect others.

Be Humble

Nothing is more of a turn-off to another person than to be confronted with someone who comes off as superior. Ask yourself if you do any of these things:

  • Talk a lot without being prompted
  • Complain about stuff on social media
  • Never ask how the other person is doing
  • Display strong opinions on any subject, regardless of your familiarity with it
  • Constantly talk about your accomplishments and future plans
  • Refuse to enter a conversation with a person who does not share your views

If you do, you may need to examine how you perceive others, you may be looking at others as an audience, rather than equal participants in life.  Take a breath. Try and have a conversation, rather than preach. Ask opinions.

Be Strong

Being decisive is one way to be strong. Offer an opinion, but be willing to change it if logic or circumstances make it more desirable. Don’t be afraid to argue a point, healthy debate is part of learning and growing.

More importantly, being strong means being there for others. Be “The Rock” for them! (As much as I admire Dwayne Johnson, you can be a strong guy without rocking those pipes!). Sit on the floor and hug your spouse when they cry. Hold someone’s hand. Give a firm handshake.

Have Fun

The worst thing any man can do is take himself too seriously. The ability to laugh at life and yourself gives you a chance to step back and appreciate just how much of a gift your life is, and the lives of others. Having a sense of humor lets you free your soul occasionally. Nothing is as healthy as a great laugh. 

Spend time with the people you love – even if it is a morning cup of coffee with your partner. Tell jokes, bad puns, and tell stories.

Be Open

The most critical trait of being a modern “real” man is to be emotionally open. If you are angry, accept it and don’t make it personal. If you love someone, you’d better let them know! You don’t need to wander around with Kleenex stuck up your sleeve – it is more about being open to experiencing all emotions. The days of the clichéd “man as stoic” not showing any emotion are over. You are allowed to smile, frown, laugh, cry –  pretty much anything goes (as long as you don’t go too over the top).

Please leave a comment below with your thoughts on what it takes to be a man these days!

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UPDATED: I originally referred to men who put themselves first and don’t have a sense of humor in a negative fashion. I fell into the trap of categorizing people, which I appreciate is the opposite viewpoint of what I am talking about here. I’ve removed that categorization.

 

To learn more about being open, check out the post on emotional vocabulary.

versions - older woman with head in hands

The Weight of Your Personal Versions

As a guy who spent years building software, I am thoroughly familiar with the concept of software versions. We’d make changes to software, and compile “versions” of it for release when it was ready. I had no idea that the same versioning concept could also represent our own experiences and personality!

A few years back, I was experiencing a feeling of emotional disconnection, and would occasionally find myself becoming short with my partner for no apparent reason. We had trouble talking, and I would find myself withdrawing from any emotional conversation with her. So not healthy!

I decided I’d get some counseling, to see if I could come to grips with what was currently going on in my life. I figured some of my early experiences and traumas must still be affecting me, even though I thought I’d dealt with it all.

Before going to the first session, I decided I would try and get a chronicle of my early years written down – but had no idea just how difficult this turned out to be! I started with a blank notebook page, and listed all the places I’d lived 20 or so before the age of 20), schools I’d attended (13 in 12 years), and major events I could remember.

It turned out I had huge gaps in my memory and needed to start working on a computer to edit the chronicle as memories came back. It was such a strange exercise in the end. Even now, a few years later, things come back to me. What was causing that blank spot? I think it was a defense mechanism kicking in, effectively a mind-fog.

When I got to the first counseling session, I gave my counselor a piece of paper with a short version of the major things that had gone on in my life. It listed experiences of abandonment, emotional disconnection, sexual abuse, and a bunch more. I thought it was a pretty good start on figuring out what was going on in my head.

The first thing he asked after reading it: “Is this person still you, or do you think you’ve moved on to be someone else?”

It floored me! It turns out my issues with feelings of disconnection with my spouse were more related to the emotional vocabulary I was using, and not decades old dramas (more on that in another post). Suddenly a weight came off my shoulders. I had been carrying around an outdated different version of myself for years! I had not realized that it was no longer a version of “me” that I needed to keep.

Sure, I still visit once in a while, and there are still some incredibly painful memories that come up from time to time. But now I find I can face them more readily, and look at them through the filter of distance.

Recognizing and cleaning up the versions of yourself that you’re carrying around can be a life-altering experience. True, we are the sum of our experiences, but that version changes over time. As I read the Zen Koan “Muddy Road” I can see how the weight of those different versions can weigh you down. By recognizing that those versions of us exist and that we are carrying them around, we can start pushing them away from our daily responses to life. That way lies a less burdened life.

Have you ever experienced anything like this personal versioning? Have you dealt with it or are you still carrying around that weight? Tell me about it in the comments!

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You Might Also Like: Zen and the Art of Learning

 

a man crying - be yourself

Be Yourself

“Be Yourself” by Audioslave

Someone falls to pieces
Sleeping all alone
Someone kills the pain
Spinning in the silence
She finally drift away
Someone gets excited
In a chapel yard
Catches a bouquet
Another lays a dozen
White roses on a grave

And be yourself is all that you can do
To be yourself is all that you can do

Someone finds salvation in everyone
Another only pain
Someone tries to hide themself
Down inside himself he prays
Someone swears their true love
Until the end of time
Another runs away
separate or united?
Healthy or insane?

And be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)
To be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)
To be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)
Be yourself is all that you can do

Even when you’ve paid enough
Been pulled apart
Or been held up
Every single memory of
The good or bad, faces of love
Don’t lose any sleep tonight
I’m sure everything will end up alright
You may win or lose

But to be yourself is all that you can do
To be yourself is all that you can do
To be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)
To be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)
To be yourself is all that you can
Be yourself is all that you can
Be yourself is all that you can do

Written by Timothy Commerford, Chris Cornell, Tom Morello, Brad Wilk • Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group
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hand holding a birds nest engaging

Engaging With the World

Instead of retreating from the world, being human means fully engaging with it.
 
One of the Zen koans I find thought-provoking is “Nothing Exists“. Its message is simple: to experience enlightenment, you cannot distance yourself from reality. That is a common misunderstanding about Zen. It is easy to think that to achieve a sense of peace, you should attempt to reach a place where nothing can touch your inner mind.
 
While emptying your mind is a common meditative practice, it should lead to a state of mindfulness. This state is the place of no-thought. No-thought does not mean nothing is going on in your head. It means that you allow your mind to flow around and through your perception of reality. You become one with everything that is, and feel your place in that reality.
 
This brings the world into your mind, engaging with everything that is. Distance from the world only leads to a loss of that engagement.
buddha's zen

101. Buddha’s Zen

Buddha said: “I consider the positions of kings and rulers as that of dust motes. I observe treasures of gold and gems as so many bricks and pebbles. I look upon the finest silken robes as tattered rags. I see myriad worlds of the universe as small seeds of fruit, and the greatest lake in India as a drop of oil on my foot. I perceive the teachings of the world to be the illusion of magicians. I discern the highest conception of emancipation as a golden brocade in a dream, and view the holy path of the illuminated ones as flowers appearing in one’s eyes. I see meditation as a pillar of a mountain, Nirvana as a nightmare of daytime. I look upon the judgment of right and wrong as the serpentine dance of a dragon, and the rise and fall of beliefs as but traces left by the four seasons.”

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View All 101 Zen Koans

silent temple

100. The Silent Temple

Shoichi was a one-eyed teacher of Zen, sparkling with enlightenment. He taught his disciples in Tofuku temple.

Day and night the whole temple stood in silence. There was no sound at all.

Even the reciting of sutras was abolished by the teacher. His pupils had nothing to do but meditate.

When the master passed away, an old neighbor heard the ringing of bells and the recitation of sutras. Then she knew Shoichi had gone.

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View All 101 Zen Koans