When you’re upset and someone tells you “Calm down!” what happens? What’s your reaction, faster than the speed of thought? Do you feel calmer? You might actually feel more agitated, resisting the will of someone who doesn’t get you.
The part of your nervous system that experiences upset, fear, and any kind of threat is like a baby, a vulnerable kitten. This ancient part of the brain knows only what feels dangerous or safe. There is no explaining things to the frightened part of the brain—applying logic and reasoning might increase the sense of threat as your inner kitten feels pressured instead of comforted.
So how do you calm yourself? Since there’s no spell, no Relaxio to magick you back to ease, what is there to do?
SOS: The Body and Mind Come to the Rescue
You can’t command yourself to be calm and expect that to work. But you can use the rational part of your brain to create the conditions that allow for calm.
Light, subtle breathing through the nose into the diaphragm calms your nervous system and reassures your organism that things are okay. Mindfulness of that calming experience registers as a reward in your brain. Repeating this makes it a habit.
Start with the breath. Close your mouth and place your tongue on the roof of the mouth. Slow the rate of the breath. Reduce its volume. Direct that gentle, subtle breath into the diaphragm while stilling the chest and the rest of the body. Follow the breath in and out with your attention.
With the breath calmer, the mind thinks more clearly. You come to understand that each time you repeat a behavior or thought, the brain wants to keep on repeating it. So shift from automatically repeating habits that don’t serve you to taking a pause. In that pause, simply notice whatever arises. This small behavior change has profound effects.
Still, the experience of change is uncomfortable even when it’s welcome. It takes discipline to direct the mind to pay attention, to disrupt a habitual behavior. Turning off autopilot takes courage. When the urge to repeat a habit that’s not serving you arises, try this: watch the urge build, wait for it to peak, and notice whether the urge eventually settles and evaporates.
This is what we’re doing here: Initiating change intentionally and being mindful of the results in the moment and over time. Repeating activities that have rewarding results creates new samskaras, or patterns, in the brain—ones we can fall into effortlessly by practicing them until they become habits.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn continues awakening the world to, mindfulness is what arises when we pay attention on purpose in the present moment nonjudgmentally.
That doesn’t mean your attention doesn’t wander; it means when the mind wanders (because that’s what minds do), you gently escort the squirming kitten of your mind back to the sensations of the breath and the body. “Nonjudgmentally” doesn’t mean you magically stop judging; it means when judgment arises (because that’s what minds to), when anything arises (because that’s what life does), you notice it and name it: Hmm, sensation in the chest and throat. Hmm, thoughts. Hmm, judgment. Hmm, self-criticism.
The Ninja Move
There’s no surefire Relaxio spell, but there’s a move that lefts you shift gears every time you notice unwanted behaviors, sensations, and thoughts.
See, when we notice an unwanted habit repeating itself, the internal monologue says, “You’re wrong—do better.” That just launches another unhelpful cycle. To interrupt that cycle, use the modern, reasoning part of your brain to get curious and notice the experience. Hmm, that was a heavy sigh. It came out of me before I knew it was happening. Dammit, I did it again. Ah, that was judgment.
Inquire within about immediate experience:
- What sensations do I feel now?
- Where do I feel them in the body?
- Are the sensations moving, still, slow, or fast?
- Do they remain the same or change as I observe them?
- What is my attitude—curiosity, impatience, acceptance, criticism?
- What is the quality of my breath now—the rate, the volume, the depth?
- Where is the breath now—the mouth and chest or the nose and diaphragm?
- How big or subtle is the breath? How much movement is my body making with the breath?
- How far beyond my nostrils is the breath going outside of my body?
Continue observing with curiosity. Notice the effects. Noticing the effects is key: that pause to notice causes your brain to register Hey, this behavior gets different results.
All the time: Pause and notice what is. All the time: Notice the effects now that you’ve paused and noticed.
Moment by Moment for All Our Days
This is how to harmonize the activity of the primitive brain and the modern brain.
This is how to sustain a more balanced inner life day to day over the long term: by applying awareness and curiosity. Gentle attention supports the mind; steady, easeful breathing supports the body. All are working together, and you get to choose what they work on.
A mindfulness meditation practitioner, Jud Brewer, MD, who also happens to be a clinical psychiatric researcher, wrote in his book Unwinding Anxiety: “Mindfulness might actually give you more satisfying rewards, as in a substitute that has bigger, better rewards but without the baggage of feeding the craving.” Using mindfulness this way “helps you step out of your old habit loop time after time at the beginning, and then once it gets grooved, turns into a new go-to for your brain (that is to say, a new habit).”
That’s what we’re doing here—creating samskaras, or patterns, that are helpful to you, transforming the breath to serve you in the moment. When afflictions arise, this practice offers a path to developing automatic behaviors that let you shift gears and help you get where you want to go and, more importantly, be where you are now.