Calm is a superpower

A jetty over calm water in the Lakes District

Calm is often underrated, or overlooked entirely, but the ability to remain steady and focussed under fire is one of the most valuable qualities anyone of us can develop. Period.

The stoics called it equanimity and valued it so highly that it was a cornerstone of their entire philosophy.

In fact, you’ll find it difficult to name a major religion or belief system which doesn’t put equanimity and calm close to its centre (it’s just a shame they don’t seem to make better use of it).

Calm a superpower because it’s the best antidote to anxiety, and anxiety is a contagious, corrosive, cancer which can runs through groups like a wildfire.

But calm stops anxiety dead in its tracks.

Calm helps create herd immunity from anxiety and panic, it helps group and individuals remain resilient.

Calm is a powerful and generous gift in almost any situation, and best of all – it’s perpetually available to all of us, free of charge.

“Calm is a superpower” is a phrase I have shamelessly borrowed from Brené Brown.

Defined by its shadow

Sometimes it’s easier to definition an object or concept by its shadow because, the shadow is more familiar, it’s easier for us to identify and work with.

In the case of Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art (about creativity), the shadow was “the resistance” – the force which conspires to stop us doing our most meaningful work.

Pressfield pitches us at war with the resistance, at war for the meaning and fulfilment in our life. And it works, because it’s easier for us to feel the resistance than it is to feel the burning drive of our own creativity. The resistance is familiar and by identifying it, naming it and calling it out, he creates the moment required to take it down.

It’s compelling stuff and is definitely worth the hour or two it will take you to devour it.

But right now, I’m reading a book about vulnerability by Brene Brown which does the same thing. It defines a lot of vulnerability and its importance by what it’s opposed to, by what it neutralises, by what it fights. But in Brown’s book the shadow is not easy to name, to identify or call out.

The shadow side of vulnerability is shame – and I’ve never found anything else which is so difficult to read about, but so important to understand.

I can’t really stress how weird it feels to be read a book which is urging you to open the Pandora’s box of your own personal shame and then take a look inside. And then go to work.

Shame is horrible. It’s insidious and malevolent and just plain fucking awful. And it’s also a key driver of our action and behaviour, so you better believe it’s worth understanding.

A big reason why it’s so important, is that we never talk about it. It’s not part of any broad conversation, except as an instrument, a weapon which is often publicly wielded at those who are caught doing in public, things which we might all do in private.

And it’s hard to talk about shame. I certainly don’t want to write about it here. But I feel like I have to. I feel like we’ll all have to at some point. Because shame is a viscous catalyst of isolation. It’s horribly contagious and it thrives on secrecy, silence and judgement.

It might not be the kind of topic that you strike up at the bus stop, but it’s going to have to come out somewhere.

You might not get on board with the value in supercharging vulnerability, but it doesn’t take much of a look inside, at its shadow before you realise that it’s worth doing something about shame.

Bravery and sincerity

Someone in the office started a weekly, drop-in, mindfulness session.

She booked a room for 20 minutes, and once a week, anyone who is interested can go over and listen to a simple, guided meditation.

It’s a great idea, was well framed and perfectly executed. Most of the people who turned up to the first session hadn’t done any meditation before, and the group seemed to genuinely enjoy the experience.

One of the things which I liked most about her idea, is that it was offered with compete sincerity – which means that she left herself vulnerable to social ridicule for backing an idea which might not work.

You might read that and think “social ridicule? What kind of work place is that?”

As it happens, it’s a great workplace, with lots of genuine, caring people. But there is still vulnerability in presenting an offer like this sincerely. When you first suggest it to a group of people, you do so not knowing if it will be accepted and you open the door especially to the very English dismissal/ridicule/discrediting arriving in the form of “banter”.

This kind of dismissal doesn’t have to be malicious in order to be effective or painful to receive. It’s often not even intended to actually discredit the idea, but is just a sniping observation, played for laughs.

This is especially true if the idea presented is more like “let’s meditate together” as opposed to something socially safer like “let’s get a burrito.”

The fact that I find this sincerity brave, probably says more about my own sensitivity to being undercut socially than being any great comment on how we interact with each other. I’ve been burned by comments like this in the past and I’ve certainly been responsible for dishing out my fair share. But I still think there is something powerful in this sincerity and worth calling out.

Brene Brown has spoken and written about the power and value of making ourselves vulnerable and Seth Godin stands firmly behind putting things out there which might not work.

Elsewhere, Godin had said that bravery is over-rated, because we tend to elevate it to a status which means that we tend to make it unattainable for most people on a daily basis. But I think that the opposite is true. I don’t think that it’s given enough emphasis, but we need to show where it exists in the small gestures, not just the large ones. We need to celebrate and promote the acts of everyday bravery in everyday situations, as they potentially open up a whole spectrum of choices which might not otherwise be available to us.

This might just be a case of calling out and supporting sincere offers when we see them. Probably more helpful is to ensure that we defend sincere offers when they are at risk of being undercut socially by someone who pokes the vulnerability for laughs.

It might not be the easiest position to take in the world, but if it were easy, then the stoics wouldn’t have bothered to make courage one of their core virtues.

Either way, I’m all for a little more sincerity and social vulnerability. They might be occasionally painful, but I suspect they contain a lot of value that we ignore on a daily basis.

In the meantime, if you need me between 11.40 & 12.00 on a Wednesday, I’ll in chilling out in Christine’s mindfulness session.