Are you desperately seeking peace? Is your life anything but peaceful? Are you so frazzled you don’t know what’s up or down? Does the universe seem to be conspiring against you with the people, distractions, problems and setbacks in your life?
Here’s a secret: peace is possible.
How do I know? Because basically from puberty until a few years ago I was a miserable, neurotic mess constantly in funks or depressions and wrestling with myself day and night to the point of exhaustion and tears, wondering how I was going to get through the next year, let alone the decades ahead. When I found inner calm, all that changed. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not zenned out 24/7. More like 20/7. The key is that I can pretty much tap back into peace when I notice it has momentarily flown my coop.
Here’s what it took to get and keep me here. Maybe it will help you find your own peace and equanimity.
Talking With a Professional
Everyone has issues. Some have more issues than others. Past traumas and current anxieties can become crippling if left unattended. One of the main keys I found for my own inner calm was dealing with past traumas.
When I was in college and law school, I took advantage of the free counseling services on campus. Coming from a poor background and only having my own nonexistent resources to rely on, I couldn’t afford counseling. Yet I had a lot to deal with as a young adult escaping a chaotic and sometimes homeless childhood while trying to become the successful and vibrant person I yearned to be. The free counseling offered by both universities helped me tremendously to deal with childhood issues while navigating into the adult world.
Friends can be helpful for sharing life issues but they most likely don’t know how to help us deal with all our sh*t and if we burden them too much with heavy issues, we risk overwhelming or alienating them despite their best attempts to be there for us. Professional counselors, psychologists and even faith-based leaders have training to help us identify, talk out and work through our issues in a safe and supportive environment. For this reason, I highly recommend talking with them.
Another reason to talk with a professional is to prevent burying issues and internalizing pain, anxiety or stress. A good counselor or psychologist can help us develop coping skills, anxiety detection and prevention skills, or direct us in our healing journey so that we can move forward after dealing with our issues rather than always looking back and drowning in them.
Most universities offer free counseling services to students. Take advantage of that or other resources offered through your insurance, workplace or community. Many free support groups exist as well for a number of issues. I encourage anyone needing an ear or support to look at these options.
Meditation and Mindfulness
The second major key in finding peace was developing a meditation and mindfulness practice. A good counselor or psychologist is a temporary helper on our journey. They help us deal with past and immediate issues so that we can move forward. However, a big part of our lack of peace comes from our busy and sometimes destructive minds and their thoughts.
We’re always thinking. Those thoughts can run in endless circles. Cheerful people think about fun and light aspects of life while anxious, stressed and depressed people focus or dwell on all the negatives. How we talk to ourselves in general will decide whether we are happy or at peace or miserable and chronically upset.
My thoughts always revolved around what was going wrong – the rain, the late bus, how people were bothering or annoying me, resentments toward my family or colleagues for past or current grievances – whether deserved or not – or anger toward politicians and global affairs, just for starters. If things weren’t perfect, I was upset and frustrated and since nothing is ever perfect, I was always frustrated and upset.
Meditation and mindfulness, even when done 10-30 minutes a day a few times a week, helped me learn how to notice my thought patterns and catch the repetitions that were causing me so much pain and misery. With time, this led to learning how to let go of past resentments and lingering anger that didn’t serve me. It also taught me how to appreciate the good in any moment and not take things so personally, especially things I couldn’t control or change and which really didn’t matter.
I also stopped looking outside myself for happiness and peace.
Ultimately, peace is not an object delivered to us from the outside world or another person. It resides inside us from moment to moment. In many ways, it is a choice – one we can train our minds to select. In the beginning our minds go where they want and think about what they will without any seeming input from us. After all, are you actively deciding what you’re mind is thinking of next? Probably not.
But with time and mindfulness you can learn how to direct and guide your mind to switch off its current default track of thinking and move onto a more peaceful and happy track. Then you can start actively encouraging more and more peace and contentment within the mind and even tap joy and happiness from moment to moment. That’s the potential of our minds. Training them is one of the most fruitful endeavors and you don’t even have to become a zen monk to achieve peace and happiness. Greater peace automatically follows a trained mind.
Changing Our Diets
Another key to inner calm is diet. Interestingly, researchers are finding that what we eat highly affects our mental state. Unhealthy diets high in sugar and processed food are linked to increased anxiety and depression (1). Growing up, my favorite foods were sugary or high in refined carbs like cookies, cakes, pastas, breads, cereal, etc. When my health started worsening and I changed my diet to a whole foods diet, not only did my health improve and become better than it had been since I was young but my mental health improved too. (Read my article How I Went from the Standard American Diet to a Whole Foods Diet in a Year and Reclaimed My Health)
Sugar and refined carbs do a couple of things to our bodies. First, they set up a blood-spiking and lowering roller coaster that can increase anxiety and disrupt our moods. Secondly, they disrupt our gut biota, especially those beneficial bacteria that produce so many neurotransmitting chemicals in our gut-brain axis that impact our mental health. Researchers have found that patients with depression have different gut biota than those who are not depressed and that regulating our gut biota with diet and probiotics can reduce anxiety and stress.
When I switched to a whole foods diet, my lingering mood swings pretty much ceased. After all, I was now giving my body and mind the nutrients they actually need to maintain and repair itself in good condition. It was incredible and eye-opening.
Now, if I fall off the wagon and eat too many sugary, floury or refined carb foods, I’m unsurprised by a spike in nervousness or even a funk that just doesn’t happen when I’m eating healthy and giving my body, mind and beneficial bacteria what they need to operate at their best. Luckily my meditation and mindfulness practice helps me identify these changes when they occur so that they don’t turn into full blown depression or misery but I like to limit such experiences by eating properly.
By changing your diet to a whole foods diet, you might find your body responding with less anxiety or stress and your moods evening out naturally. This is definitely a pillar of peace and an unexpected one. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising. We are chemical beings and what we ingest, consume or drink will impact our bodies – which includes our minds.
Letting Go of Painful Ideas
Peace and anguish are opposite sides of the mind. Usually we feel upset or annoyed or disgruntled or frustrated or… You get the picture. For me, most of this stemmed from my ideas. Ideas about what life was supposed to bring me or what I deserved but wasn’t getting. Ideas about how people should treat me and what they were supposed to give me. Ideas about where I should be in my career or what I should have in my relationships. Then I had ideas about how people should behave or how the world should run.
We all have ideas about everything – including every aspect about how the world and everything in it should or shouldn’t be. When the world or those things don’t conform to our shoulds and expectations, we suffer. Sometimes we get angry or frustrated or offended or upset or sad or depressed.
Those people who are the most peaceful and happy have learned to let go of not just past pain and affronts but a lot of useless shoulds and expectations about others and the world at large. This doesn’t mean being apathetic or insensitive. It simply means learning how to let go of things that aren’t important and carefully choosing those things that will matter to us.
An excellent book on this is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Basically it says we only have so much energy and wasting it on extraneous matters or too many issues will leave us anxious, upset, frustrated and unhappy. Instead, peace is partly found in having a handful of things that we give a f*ck about while letting go of everything else. This includes ideas about how others and the world should act and even how we should or shouldn’t be.
Living in Peace with Yourself
Wherever you go, there you are. Ultimately we all have to learn how to live with ourselves. Our thoughts are at the core of this. Is our mind a good roommate to our self or a rowdy and upsetting one? In the end, what helped me go from chronically depressed and miserable to content and at peace was talking with counselors and psychologists to deal with past traumas and current problems leaving me anguished, taking up a meditation and mindfulness practice, changing my diet to a whole foods lifestyle, and letting go of many of the straitjacketing “shoulds” I had placed on myself and the world. If you follow a similar path, I’m sure you’ll find more peace and happiness seeping into your soul.
Doing all this wasn’t necessarily simple or easy but by the time I was 38 I was starting to be called a “happy person” or the “happiest person” someone knew. This was a complete 180 from even five years earlier. Now, a couple of years later, I’m still tapping peace and happiness and can barely relate to the person I was before – my way of thinking has changed that much. For me, that’s proof that peace is possible for anyone and I encourage everyone seeking peace and happiness to not give up and to keep moving forward.
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