“I vow to let go of all worries and anxiety in order to be light and free.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
This particular week, I flunked. I’d be lucky if you gave me a D grade in assessing my calmness.
Generally, nobody can question my commitment to leading a life of less stress. I try hard. I try very hard.
You might even be impressed with my healthy diet, my abundance of sleep, and my regular exercise. You couldn’t fault the careful thought and planning that go into my days and weeks. Hell, I can even claim meditation, mindfulness, and self-awareness as long-time, well-practiced skills.
But some weeks you take your eye off the ball, don’t you.
And I can’t blame any common stressors that predictably make life tougher: no illness or injury, no family or relationship stress, no extra pressure at work or excessive financial strain.
That particular week I failed because I didn’t stop. I didn’t let go. Too much rushing, too much on my mind, too much scheduled.
And of course I was on edge, with that irksome and uneasy agitation that plagues you when stress gets the better of you.
It feels unshakeable, lurks about robbing you of simple pleasures, sapping any joy from your day. Left unchecked it will escalate. We all know that stress may pass with little consequence, but let it go and go, and it mutates, into depression, anxiety, or destructive behaviors, ruining work, relationships or your health.
Despite working hard over the years to build my repertoire of tricks and techniques to restore calm, on this occasion it was more luck than effort that turned things around for me.
The surprising antidote arrived on the Saturday afternoon.
Unplanned, Unexpected Calm (and How It Happens)
“Tilt your head forward so that you’re looking down,” Claire instructed, and boy, did it feel weird. “Yes, it will feel strange, as though you’re swimming downward,” she went on.
Ugh. What was I doing here? And why?
Well, I had signed up my husband and I for a swimming instruction session—determined to choose a shared experience that he’d enjoy for his birthday rather than buying more stuff.
But here I was near the end of a hectic week, with a very full head, stacks of unattended emails, and loads of washing to do. The swimming thing had seemed like a good idea at the time and I knew he’d love it, but maybe I could have skipped it, got some jobs done, and joined him afterward for dinner.
Then it happened.
Claire again: “Swim a short distance that you can manage without a breath, go as slow as you can, and try to minimize any splash. How does it feel, what do you notice?”
I noticed I was beginning to feel better!
She had my attention now, and with each instruction, she dragged me out of my head (with all of its worries and preoccupations) and into my body, full of new muscle, body-position and watery sensations.
I let go and resigned myself to the present moment. And why not? The emails and washing were out of reach and my work worries would still be there when I got back to my desk. Anyway, in order to follow Claire’s instructions, I had to tune in!
I had to listen and interpret her words with my body and my movements.
Claire is a Total Immersion swimming coach, and this method of swimming is all about slowing down at first to improve the accuracy of your stroke: to get balance and movement right, in order that you maximize propulsion and minimize drag. It’s very mindful. It requires that you commit to the present moment and focus inward.
Calm was upon me, hooray.
Take a romantic view, and envisage the sensory experience of the cool and quiet of the water, the slow and rhythmic movements of the body. Or the simple science of it: the activity required me to engage my pre-frontal cortex, thus redressing the dominance of the stress-fuelled, and stress-fuelling, limbic system.
Your Way is the Best Way
The swim session reminded me of a lesson I’ve learned before, my pursuit of mindfulness and meditation. Many years ago after the traumatic loss of a loved one, I survived on yoga and walks on the beach.
Even earlier in life, during anxious exam periods, I had a taste of it when I got some physical and mental relief from dancing around my room and singing along to Thelma Houston and The Pressure Cookers’ “I Got the Music in Me.”
Some of my friends are also devotees of yoga and meditation, but many of them aren’t. They have their own way of getting out of their heads and into their bodies. Out of the angry memory trap of yesterday’s argument with the boss, or out of the anxiety-ridden imaginings of tomorrow’s tense family gathering.
They find their way into the present moment and into their bodies via all sorts of sometimes forgotten, yet always relished activities, like surfing, guitar-playing, gardening, painting, baking.
They rediscover and commit to these cherished activities, and learn as I did again in my swimming lesson, that they rebuild your depleted stores of calm and stop the ravages of stress.
What is your calm-restoring activity? When was the last time you did it? Or is it time to take up something new?
(It ought to go without saying that escapist distractions, like the game you play on your phone on the way home, don’t cut—they do nothing to bring you into the present, or into your body!)
I’m certain you want more calm in your life, and I could give you a long, long list of ways to achieve it. But the simplest and best way to begin is to find your own way and commit to it. But beware.
The trick to getting started on the path to more calm.
Finding your way, your chosen activity, is not hard. Making it happen is harder. You must stop. You must stop and let go. Certainly, when I get it wrong, that’s where I go wrong—I don’t stop.
You won’t find the time for it; you must make the time for it. Thank goodness I booked that swim session weeks before.
You must stop and give yourself permission to let go of your troubles, even just for a short while.
It won’t solve your problems, but it will, in the very least, ground you and let you feel better. And it will likely leave you better equipped to deal with your challenges.
By all means develop your meditation skills and practice. But the simplest way to get more calm right away is to choose your calm-restoring activity, and make a time for it. That’s the trick.
Calm will happen.
When you struggle to get out of your head and let go of all that’s in there nagging at you, your activity is the way to go. And this easy indirect way of letting go is, happily, habit forming.
You will get better and better at stopping. Better and better at returning to the present moment. Better and better at restoring calm.
Thich Nhat Hanh said: I vow to let go of all worries and anxiety in order to be light and free.
Hear, hear. I am renewing my vow to let go of all worries and anxiety in order to be light and free. I will do my best. And to that end, and especially when I struggle, I will make time for swimming, journaling for healing, doing yoga, or whatever it may be that will bring more calm.
How about you?