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The Storm Before the Calm

landscape-695137_1280No matter how many times I experience The Storm Before the Calm, it always sneaks up on me. I never recognize it until I’m fully lost in it; bruised, drowning, desperate for relief. Storms are devilishly clever at disguising themselves. “I’m Hurricane Bob!” “I’m Tropical Storm Betty Sue!” “I’m Low Pressure System Barry Manilow!” Don’t let them fool you. No two storms have the same name, but they all wreak the same kinds of havoc.

Of course I don’t mean literal storms. I’m talking about periods of intense disturbance we go through prior to deep and lasting personal growth. I suspect we all have these Storms Before the Calm. But I don’t think most people recognize them. So it’s about to get unbearably metaphorically meteorological up in here.

A Storm Before the Calm begins long before we see it. It’s born in deep wanting—maybe a subtle itch, maybe a yearning so strong it rattles our teeth. It begins down in our guts, and eventually we begin burping it up, asking God (or Whatever) for resolution. Maybe we consult priests and offer formal prayers; maybe we gag out strangled cries that never even make it to language. Either way, we’re begging for change, for fulfillment, for something better.

We want this to happen smoothly and prettily, a sunrise illuminating a perfect summer morning. We expect it to happen this way.

And Whatever says, “Mmm-hmm.”

We forget that to give us more than we currently have, life must make us more than we currently are. And that the first act of every creative change is the destruction of the existing order.

Make no mistake: when we ask for better lives, we are calling the whirlwind.

When the Storm hits, we don’t connect it with our wanting, with our calls for help. We feel blindsided by misfortune, attacked by circumstances, drowned in agony we can’t control.

Loss of control is the essence of the Storm. We may lose control of our emotions, our actions, our work, our relationships, our bodies, everything. It all devolves into chaos—not just the normal inconveniences of daily life, but disruptive, preoccupying chaos, events and feelings we can’t ignore. Plans fall through. Efforts fail. Jobs disappear. Relationships end, or become fractious and impossible. Controllable? Ha! A Storm Before the Calm barely feels survivable.

I tend to recognize the Storm Before the Calm just after I become convinced that I’m cursed. During some of my worst Storms, I’ve felt like a cockroach that God (or Whatever) was trying to kill, first with a rolled-up newspaper, then with a shoe, then with a ton of bricks. After every mammoth blow, I’d be dismayed to find myself hideously alive, missing my head and most of my thorax, but still able to creep forward on my single remaining leg. While, I imagined, God rushed off to deploy the nuclear warheads.

That’s when I remember.

Wait, I think with my tiny, headless-cockroach mind. There’s something about this feeling, this horrible, horrible feeling…it’s not like ever before, but yes, it’s that bad. I think it may be the Storm Before the Calm!

And God (or Whatever) whispers, Bingo.

That dim flicker of recognition is the moment I feel the sea change. I’ve done it enough to know roughly how it’s going to play out. I relax into the belief that Storms Before the Calm come to destroy us, as quickly and thoroughly as possible. And that this is grace unfolding. I know that the greater the gift we’ve requested, the wilder and more violent the storm will be, and the deeper the grace.

Contemplating this—that the Storm isn’t a curse, but preparation for the blessing—ushers me into the Calm. Right then, just like that, I feel the pain ease. Before the wind dies down. Before the argument is resolved. Before the disease heals. Before the rent is paid. The Calm doesn’t come because the Storm is over. It comes because I’ve moved into the truth.

Truth is always calm. Still. Gentle. Quietly and intensely alive.

I think almost everyone goes through this pattern. If we look, you can probably remember breaking through a few Storms into the Calm yourself: “Oh, right! After my nervous breakdown I discovered meditation and Klonipin, and things got so much better,” or “True, it was after Jack left that I finally got the nerve to quit my job slaughtering cattle.”

Right then, just with that tentative step toward a different interpretation of ill fortune, the Calm begins. It feels faint at first, but dropping attention deeply into it—focus more on it than on the Storm—begins to reveal that it’s VAST. So huge a million hurricanes could rage inside it and never disturb its peace. That Calm itself is what we really are. Every single pathetic-looking little human is bigger inside, far bigger, than any storm ever seen on earth.

Sometimes, when I can’t reach the Calm, I’ll just stomp into the Storm, betting wildly that it’s more benevolent than it seems. With a sort of inner Viking war scream, I’ll open the grim and complicated spreadsheets from the bank, or go get the painful medical test, or initiate the conversation I’m way too afraid to have. If there’s nothing else to do, I’ll sit in a silent room, refuse to distract myself, and face the tempest in my mind.

If I do this bravely enough, a weird thing happens. Right at the center of every Storm I find its eye—the one part of my flailing self that can see clearly.

From that still place right inside the storm, all the horrible luck, the stress, the pain, the shame, the loss, begins to reveal itself to me as an incomprehensibly perfect, intricately choreographed rearrangement of the universe, meant specifically to do one thing: Fulfill my longing.

“Oh,” I notice. “The illness came to teach me to relax.” Or, “Oh. The job loss came to teach me that people will help.” Or, “Oh. I failed because I had to discover that I’m worthy of love, no matter what.”

Oh. I called the Storm. It came because I asked. And it’s exactly—exactly—what I needed.

At that moment, I realize what my favorite yogi Nisargadatta Maharaj meant when he said, “Don’t you see? God is doing this all for me.”

Not to me.

For me.

Oh.

Make Your Mind Part of the Peace…And Other Wisdom from Martha

dec photoRecently I’ve been pondering a process I call “bewilderment”—or, as I like to pronounce it, be-wilder-ment. It’s like enlightenment, but way less ambitious. I figure if we all become a little wilder, a little more present, a little more connected to whatever it is that makes dogs so damn happy, we’ll feel better and do better things. The first step in the bewilderment process, upon which everything else depends, is simple: CALM DOWN.

I had a chance to practice this step when Cloyd, the rattlesnake pictured here, visited my house. My first reaction to Cloyd was a jolt of fear. I sometimes call our reptile brain the “inner lizard,” whose job it is to ensure our survival by making us afraid. But the reptile self might also be snake, like the spiny critters pictured in kundalini yoga. As I regarded Cloyd, it occurred to me that if I could calm the snake inside me, I could probably calm the one on my front porch.

As my fear faded, it became obvious that Cloyd had no intention of attacking me, and would be at a massive disadvantage if he tried. I mean, what if someone took away your arms and legs, then told you to fight a massive creature equipped with limbs, digits, and high technology? Once I moved into this more accurate perspective, it was a simple thing to gently herd Cloyd into the woods, which was what we both wanted.

The whole world functions this way. Real threats do exist, but when we approach life with fear, we see threats in everything, including unconditional love. We puff up in self-defense, which others perceive as aggression. We use violent, extreme words and actions when peaceful attentiveness would work far better.

If you’d like to be-wilder yourself, try this: Whenever you notice that the monologue in your head is fear-based (worrying about the future, belittling yourself, fussing over what others may think) stop, breathe deeply, and switch to a silent loving-kindness meditation, repeating phrases like: “May I be happy. May I be calm. May I feel safe and protected.”

It sounds so simple, because it is. Wild things don’t make speeches, they just notice what’s really in front of them. What’s in front of us is a world where far more goes right than wrong. Think how many things had to go right for you to be reading these words (the survival of our ancestors; the families, food producers, and doctors who kept you and me alive; everyone who invented anything from the alphabet to the smart phone; everything that kept them alive, etc.). Make your mind part of the world’s peace, instead of its fear, and I promise, life will get better and better. And once you’ve calmed down, check back here next month to learn the second step in the bewilderment process!

How to Find Joy That Lasts

189758_3698It was the bottom bottom of the ninth inning in game seven of the 2001 World Series. The New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks were all tied up. As Arizonans, my family and I were thrilled to see our state getting attention for something other than sun damage, so when Luis Gonzalez hit a bloop single to drive in the winning run, we went bananas—screaming, punching the air, jumping like jackrabbits on crack. Now, ordinarily my beagle Cookie (may he rest in peace) loved human celebrations. He’d howl along and do a little tap dance, castanet toenails clicking on the floor. But after Gonzo’s historic hit, as the rest of us shrieked in victory, Cookie ran trembling to hide under the bed.

While trying to extract him, I suddenly realized that our revelry had indeed felt a bit crazed. Upon further reflection, I saw that it echoed a similar craziness in the TV commercials that had aired during the game. On television, people weren’t just pleased about new dust mops or deodorants—they were ecstatic. Women threw back their heads to laugh wildly. While eating salad. Alone. Car salesmen announced bargains with such enthusiasm, I feared for their undershorts. In fact, everything I’d seen during the broadcast suggested that the ideal emotional state is one of intense, manic euphoria, and that we should all feel that way almost all the time.

Well, it isn’t, and we shouldn’t.

Cookie’s animal honesty woke me up to the strangeness of something I’d begun to take for granted: the fact that our culture has come to define happiness as an experience that blows your mind. It’s as though we’re somehow falling short if we don’t routinely feel the way Times Square looks—madly pulsing with a billion watts of Wow! 

Don’t get me wrong. Excitement is a great and necessary thing; without it life wouldn’t be complete. But happiness—real happiness—is something entirely different, at once calmer and more rewarding. And cultivating it is one of the most important steps we can take toward creating fulfilling lives.

Peak Experiences: Faux Happiness

Intense excitement is what Asian philosophy might call the “near enemy” of true joy—something that looks like the genuine article but is in reality its evil twin. When a gift recipient or jackpot winner starts shaking, screaming, or hyperventilating, we call it happiness, but actually it’s evidence that their neurological fight-or-flight mechanism has been triggered. (This helps explain why it’s not just a play on words to say that mania can create maniacs, and why in some cases sports fans seem to riot more violently after their teams win than after they lose: Our fight-or-flight system predisposes us to violence.) Switching on this mechanism switches off the physiological processes that allow us to relax, connect, and absorb joyful experience.

What’s more, high excitement is often followed by a mood crash. Afterward we may go through a phase of feeling lifeless and depressed. Users of the recreational drug Ecstasy are familiar with the hormone drop that follows a weekend rave. They call it Suicide Tuesday, and if you’re an obsessive euphoria seeker, you’ve felt it, too, with or without drugs.

For people who think mania is happiness, the only remedy for Suicide Tuesday is another intensely exciting experience. This may explain why trips to Disney World are exalted like pilgrimages to Mecca, and why multi-day extravaganza destination weddings are becoming ever more the norm. The attitude can be traced all the way back to the European adventurers who seeded American society; they were always seeking some variety of El Dorado, some prize to top all other prizes. As a Pueblo Indian chief once told the psychiatrist Carl Jung, “The whites always want something; they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all mad.”

The Plains of Peace: Real Happiness

True joy lacks the wild ups and downs of an excitement-based life. It’s a peaceful landscape, filled with peaceful thoughts and peaceful emotions. Indeed, it’s so peaceful that, to our adrenaline-soaked culture, it looks rather plain. In fact, I like to think of it as the plains of peace.

You can probably look back on times that didn’t seem very memorable when they were happening but that stand out in retrospect for their sweetness: floating in the ocean on a summer day; seeing the sun set as you drove home from work; picking berries in the country with friends. Relive those moments—the sound of the surf, the breeze on your face, the taste of salt on your lips, the gentle rocking of the water—and you’ll see that they’re rich, layered, and powerfully sustaining to the soul. Beagles, who wag their tails over every small joy, seem to recognize these moments continuously. Humans, not so much.

If you worry that your life is lacking in events so exciting they’ll make your head spin like an industrial food processor, I have good news: You can relax. The best way to increase genuine joy is to stop searching for manic highs and instead explore the plains of peace. Happily, you’re in the perfect place to begin: this very moment. 

How to Be Here Now

People started telling me to “be here now” when I was about 20. “Great!” I responded. “How?” Be still, they said. Breathe. Well, fine. I started dutifully practicing meditation, by which I mean I tried to be still while compulsively planning my next billion-watt wow. But one day, while reading up on the latest research in positive psychology, I discovered a two-word instruction that reliably ushered me onto the plains of peace when I couldn’t force my brain to just “be still.” Here it is: Make something.

You see, creative work causes us to secrete dopamine, a hormone that can make us feel absorbed and fulfilled without feeling manic. This is in sharp contrast to the fight-or-flight mechanism, which is associated with hysteria hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Research indicates that we’re most creative when we’re happy and relaxed, and conversely, that we can steer our brains into this state by undertaking a creative task.

To get a dopamine “hit,” make something that pushes you to the furthest edge of your ability, where you’re not only focused but learning and perfecting skills. Cooking an unfamiliar dish will do the trick, as will perfecting a new clogging routine. At first, depending on how addicted to mania you happen to be, the excitement-grubbing part of your brain won’t want to stop obsessing about over-the-top experiences. It will cling to its fantasies about the next huge thrill, its fears of Suicide Tuesday. Keep creating. 

As you persist, your brain will eventually yield to the state psychologists call mindfulness. Your emotions will calm, even if you’re physically and mentally active. You won’t notice happiness when it first appears, because in true presence, the mind’s frantic searching stops. In its place arises a fascination with what’s occurring here and now. Though this feeling is subtle, it’s the opposite of dull. It’s infinitely varied and exquisite.

The aftermath of a creative surge, especially one that involves a new skill, is a sense of accomplishment and increased self-efficacy—which psychologists recognize as an important counter to depression. Instead of a Suicide Tuesday crash, you’re left with the happy fatigue of someone who is building strength.

Pay attention to this process, and you’ll see that the motivation to be here now will gradually grow stronger than the cultural pressure to seek excitement. You’ll find yourself increasingly able to tune in to the delights of the present even when you’re not actively creating. When this happens, you’ll be on your way to genuine happiness: abundant, sustainable delight in the beautiful moments of ordinary life.

And when something genuinely thrilling happens, you’ll be ready. That wild rumpus celebrating the Diamondbacks’ victory in the World Series turned me into a baseball fan. Ever since, I’ve enjoyed watching large men in pajamas strive for victory. I enjoy going briefly berserk when my team wins. I enjoy seeing the women in commercials ecstatically dust their furniture. But I don’t take any of it seriously. What I do take seriously is the lesson I learned from Cookie and his successor, Bjorn: that happiness is available to me in every moment. It’s there in the words I’m writing now, in my engagement with those around me, in the happy sigh Bjorn breathes as we sit together exploring the plains of peace. Wow.