Monday, April 13, 2015

prescription for calm

This past week the wonderful Anne Lamott (of Bird by Bird fame) wrote a long note on Facebook that was shared and re-shared. She began by saying that she was about to turn 61 and wanted to write down everything she knew so far. I love this idea and it's been rattling around in my brain all week. Eventually it occurred to me that it might be a useful exercise for me and perhaps amusing for my readers if I attempted to make a similar list but with a bit of a twist. Longstanding readers of this blog will have heard it all before, but here goes.

Everything I have learned about becoming calm so far:

1. Breathe. Pay attention to your breath. Breathe in light, breathe in joy. Breathe in the scent of fir trees and grass and cherry blossoms. Breathe in fresh snow and pink clouds, and the dew and the scent the earth releases in early morning. Breathe in your favourite pasta sauce simmering on the stove. Breathe in everything you love. Breathe out sadness and unfairness and heaviness.

When you're feeling really strong, reverse this process. Breathe in what is hard and difficult and terrible and breathe out peace and love and light. Send the light out to others in your breath.

2. Listen. Be still, be silent. Quiet yourself. Listen patiently. To the sound the breeze makes in the leaves, to birds, and the sound of your footsteps. Listen to people with affection, as Brenda Ueland says in her essay, "The Art of Listening." Listening is a creative act. Don't worry about saying clever things, but bring your full attention to hearing what someone is saying and why they're saying it and what they might not be able to say. Ueland says this beautifully: "Listen to your wife, your husband, your father, your mother, your children, your friends; to those who love you and those who don't, to those who bore you, to your enemies. It will work a small miracle. And perhaps a great one."

3. Try to be the one least in need. This is from a Rumi poem, which goes,

"It's a person's duty to get oneself in a position
where one can be generous with their time and silver.

Whenever you gather with friends or are in a crowd,
try to the be one least in need. For simply doing that 
is giving."

Instead of asking myself, why aren't people giving me what I need, or telling me what I want to hear, or making me feel better, I find it's actually more calming to turn this around and ask, what can I give someone, what do they want to hear, what do they need. It takes me out of myself, out of my wallowing and whinging. I'm not saying I'm always perfect at this, but I do know that it's more calming than focusing on my own unfulfilled needs and puts them in perspective. 

4. Go where the light is. I repeat this often enough. I mean it in a literal sort of way which is something that photographers do. If you're trying to photograph a still life object, you take it over to a window, you go to where the light is - you don't wait for it to seep into the middle of a room. On a sunny day, go sit on your back porch, or the front one. Feel the rays on your face, feel blessed by the light. But also, figuratively, interpret this as fits: go where the light is.

5. Likewise, go where the love is. I take my instruction from The Dhammapada

"If, while on your way
You meet no one your equal or better,
Steadily continue on your way alone.
There is no fellowship with fools." 


"One who keeps company with fools
Will grieve for a long, long time.
Living with fools is painful,
As is living with foes.
Living with the wise is delightful...." 

Surround yourself with people who love you, who inspire you, who are uplifting. Otherwise, you're better to go it alone. Obviously it's not always possible to be in the company of the wise and uplifting, but you can try to minimize your exposure to the less uplifting. 

6. Walking. I won't be the first writer to recommend walking. Here is Bruce Chatwin: "I haven't got any special religion this morning. My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don't need any other god." Walking clears your mind and opens it up at once. Some of my best ideas have come to me during a walk. I can tell you it's useful to have a big dog who enjoys every type of weather and has big brown eyes and can tell time. So if I haven't taken Ace for a walk by 9am, he's going to sigh and moan and look at me mournfully. I've often said that a writer is constantly in training. You need to eat well, live well, take care of your body. If at all possible, when walking, walk on the sunny side of the street

7. Return to a place. When I was writing my books of poems about travellers to Venice, Against Paradise, I read Watermark by Joseph Brodsky. He returns to Venice over many years, in the winter, perhaps as a sort of touchstone. As much as I'd like to return to Venice, (I was there once on our honeymoon 20 plus years ago), it's never seemed feasible. But we do go to Jasper or Banff, the mountains, at least once a year. It's a place against which to measure oneself. And also to forget oneself. I don't think you have to go anywhere far to do this sort of thing. Maybe there's a park on the other side of the city, or a place by the nearby river. 

8. Read poetry. Why? I'll let Adam Zagajewski take this one:

“Read for yourselves, read for the sake of your inspiration, for the sweet turmoil in your lovely head. But also read against yourselves, read for questioning and impotence, for despair and erudition, read the dry sardonic remarks of cynical philosophers like Cioran or even Carl Schmitt, read newspapers, read those who despise, dismiss or simply ignore poetry and try to understand why they do it. Read your enemies, read those who reinforce your sense of what's evolving in poetry, and also read those whose darkness or malice or madness or greatness you can't understand because only in this way will you grow, outlive yourself, and become what you are.”

-  from A Defense of Ardor, Essays

Read poetry when you're struggling, when you're happy. When you're going through difficult times.

“In difficult times carry something beautiful in your heart.” 
- Blaise Pascal

9. Start your morning as you would like your day to behave. If you would like your day to be attentive, full of meaning and new insights, if you would like to look at things from perhaps a slightly different angle, then read poetry in the morning rather than the newspaper, rather than turning on the screen first off. Sit and mindfully drink your tea or coffee or orange juice. Bless your day. Your cornflakes. Your boiled egg and toast.

10. End the day by forgetting your blunders. Emerson said it well:  “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” 

I can't find the reference now, but I'm pretty sure I was reading something on Elizabeth Gilbert's Facebook page where she talks about how we spend a lot of time worrying about what others think of us, about how we said that lame or dorky thing and we beat ourselves up about that. But that in truth, no one is thinking about us. They probably registered the lame thing, and either figured out what we were trying to say, or just dismissed it as lame or dorky, but they didn't give it another glimmer of a thought. No one is walking around for days thinking about the thing we said. They probably just smiled it away at the time, or maybe they thought it was actually okay and not quite so lame. They probably registered this thing that you have lost sleep over for about 20 seconds before forgetting it. No one remembers your blunders in the way that you remember them. In general, I repeat to myself, "No one is thinking about you." It's strange how soothing this is. 

11. If not this, then that. Which comes from a book by Stephen Batchelor titled Living with the Devil. He writes about contingency - that "whatever is contingent depends on something else for its existence. As such, it need not have happened. For had one of those conditions failed to materialize, something else would have occurred. We make 'contingency' plans because life is full of surprises, and no matter how careful our preparations, things often do not turn out as anticipated." 

I think it's more comforting to believe in contingency than, say, fate. If you don't get this job, perhaps you will get that one. If this publisher doesn't take your book, then there will be that one. 

12. You are obligated to share the beauty you find with others. You are required to make something beautiful. 
"The barrenness of the poetic task: as if every day we look out at a courtyard of rubble and from this are required to make something beautiful." - Theodore Roethke
And yes, it's rubble. The lesson is to make what you can with what you have. Don't let yourself off the hook. Enjoy the process. Work, and do not waste time. 

13. Don't complain about the weather (unless it pertains to global warming or disaster). The weather is beautiful. It makes every moment of every day unique. 

"Life always gives us
exactly the teacher we need
at every moment.
This includes every mosquito,
every misfortune,
every red light,
every traffic jam,
every obnoxious supervisor (or employee),
every illness, every loss,
every moment of joy or depression,
every addiction,
every piece of garbage,
every breath.

Every moment is the guru.”

- Charlotte Joko Beck

You might like to add to this. Every flake of snow, every drop of rain, every high wind. etc.

14. When your eye starts to twitch or you experience other signs of stress, lie down on a couch or chaise longue and close your eyes. Listen to music - an entire album of something you love. Chopin, Beethoven, Sting, whatever you love. I learned this when I experienced Bell's Palsy a couple of summers ago. I couldn't read, couldn't look at a computer, couldn't take photos. But I put on some music and I didn't do anything else - I didn't wash the dishes while I listened, or dust, or tidy. I just listened. And I realized how rarely I actually just listened to music and how wonderful this is. So now, whenever my facial muscles start to twitch in scary and involuntary ways, I head to the couch. I crank up the volume on Chopin. 

15. Life is not easy, life is not difficult, and other mantras. So this is taken from a longish and beautiful passage about trees by Hermann Hesse, which you can read here. It gets at the contradictions of being, which I love, and it's also a pretty good mantra. Life is not easy, life is not difficult. I recommend having a mantra or two on hand. When you're stressed, you can walk to the mantra, repeat it to yourself before going to sleep, when you're driving etc. There are at least 10 good reasons to have a mantra. 

The mantra I began with and still use, is from Julian of Norwich:  

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

16. Share your calmness. Once you have cultivated that style of mind that can tap into an inner tranquility, share it.   
"Over against the world with all its turbulence, distraction and worry, one should cultivate a style of mind that can reach through to an inner stillness and calm. The world cannot ruffle the dignity of a soul that dwells in its own tranquility. Gradually, this serenity will begin to pervade our seeing and change the way we look at things."

~ John O'Donohue, Beauty

"A voice that calms, movements that calm,
eyes that quiet - dreams that also do the
same, and enliven too... 
Be a precious donor of peace and hope.
Give love to all you meet,
for so many in this world are being torn
- Rumi 

So, that's the prescription for calm that I've come up with for myself after years of writing on a blog called, Calm Things. If you find any of it useful, lovely. 

Next on the agenda: a plethora of photos taken one morning about a week ago, in the suburban forest near my house. The contradictions of the season, as you'll see. 

Taking photos is also one of my 'calm things' so thanks for indulging me with those.

Next, Ace. Personal trainer, walking companion.

More favourite calm things: flowers, tea, books. Jane Austen's Persuasion is one I go back to frequently.

The light in my kitchen, early morning. 

A glass of sparkling wine. Why don't I drink more of this stuff??

And lastly, a cake that Chloe made. I will never turn down a piece of chocolate cake. 

Wishing you a week of calm with at least one sweet indulgence. 

- Shawna


  1. This is just a stunning post Shawna. I do many of this calming techniques as well, but you had a few to share that I had not thought of. With your words, poetry and images, it really was a lovely start to my day. xx

  2. wow..this is a wonderful prescription and a beautiful gift you have given us, Shawna. I want to print this out and hang it on my refrigerator so I can read it every single day!

  3. What a wonderful and wise list, accompanied by beautiful lines of poetry! I will definitely print it and keep it on my reading table. Thank you.

  4. I sure would love to spend a day with you! All the words shared and words not just by you but the other words shared. Filled with such wisdom and understanding of this life. How beautiful that I found myself here today in your space. I never know how to follow some people. I especially feel lost on blogspot, I even had a short lived blog here once. Do you have a follow button that gives me messages in my email in-box? I love too that you walk in the snow. I just love that so much and your images you share from your walk are so beautiful. I really love the one with the limb curved holding the snow like a baby.

    Love Tracie

    1. Tracie thanks so much! I saw that you switched to Squarespace which I really like using. (I use it for my husband's art site and a poetry site).

      There's an email subscription box at the very bottom of the blog! Thanks for asking. And thanks for the great comment. xo

  5. Oh gosh, this is an incredibly useful (and wonderful) post, thank you. Persuasion is a favourite too. xo

  6. Thank you! After a crazy week of work (and it is only Monday), this is just the reminder that I need, to first of all see beauty and secondly, to be calm within it.

  7. Thank you for all of that wisdom and beauty and truth and humor. You are a blessing in the lives of others you don't even know.

  8. Thank you EVERYONE! Wow. You seriously made my day with all the love!! xo S.

  9. What a beautiful post to read first thing in the morning! Thank you.

  10. I've returned to read this post again. Exactly what I need! Many appreciative readers on my FB page too.

  11. Dear Shawna ... I've printed out this post so that I can read it over and over and over again! It is just so perfect! Thank you so very much. I wish that you lived closer so that I could have afternoon tea with you! XX

    1. Tea would be lovely wouldn't it? Glad you liked the post xo S.

  12. So happy to have found your gorgeous post today. Thank you for the wisdom and photographs and words!

    1. Glad you found it too! thanks, Irene!

  13. Shawna, how did I miss this post? I found it when Karen featured it on her blog. You've changed my morning which I hope to take to the weekend and the next week of busyness. Also, I intend to share this with all those that bring love and wisdom into my life, I realize now that there are many and that's a lovely change in my life. A thousand thanks for all that you give me.

    1. Thanks so much Manisha, and thanks for sharing. I'll look up Karen's blog - thanks to her too. xo

  14. Lovely, wise post! I will save and share it with my photography retreat participants.


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