Want Inner Peace? Here’s How in Three Steps
Ready for a deceptively simple way to calm your anxious mind? Ancient wisdom and modern science converge with this sage advice for facing your challenges with calm focus.
Anxiety is at an all-time high, with nearly 20% of U.S. Americans suffering from an anxiety disorder. The worst of the pandemic may be over, but still each day offers potential stressors of varying degrees: burned toast (and shrieking smoke alarms), rush-hour traffic, interpersonal conflicts, other unpleasant surprises that can lead to mental distress.
Even when symptoms don’t rise to the level of a clinical disorder, our ruminations and fears can sabotage our well-being, our goals, our relationships, and even our health. As Glenn Turner wrote, “Worrying is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do but gets you nowhere.”
What’s the healthier alternative to unproductive worry?
As Viktor Frankl observed over 70 years ago: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Growth entails overcoming survival brain impulses and instead acting from the wisdom of your “best self.” That is the path of freedom and joy, of flourishing, of inner peace. How can you access your best self? You can follow this simple advice from the beloved Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh:
““Smile, breathe, and go slowly.”
The first time I read those five words, I adopted them as my go-to mantra for confronting challenge. In this short, memorable sentence, this Buddhist monk summed up how to flourish in almost any circumstance: Smile, breathe, and go slowly.
While he drew his wisdom from ancient spiritual practices, it resonates beautifully with positive psychology perspectives and my own experiences. Here’s how science supports these three steps for inner peace as you confront your life challenges:
Smiling is usually seen as a reflection of positive feelings. But facial expressions, including smiling, also contribute to your feelings and your energy level. And who wouldn’t like more energy?
When worries bubble up, as they always do, try inducing a genuine smile by doing things you enjoy—take a walk, call a friend, dance, sing, etc. Or savor the view from your window or a warm cup of tea. Or identify something to be grateful for.
If that doesn’t work, you can just “fake-it-til-you-make-it.”
In two studies, participants “forced” to smile by holding a pen or chopstick between their teeth showed more positive emotions than comparison groups. According to researcher Dr. Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, “When your muscles say you’re happy, you’re more likely to see the world around you in a positive way.”
Are you concerned about how a relationship is going at work or at home? Find an honest reason to smile before you engage with the other person as smiling facilitates trust and cohesion. Smiles prove to be contagious, leading to widening ripples of positive energy, notes positive psychologist Shawn Achor.
The bottom line: When you need to pivot from overcome needless rumination to energize yourself for a personal, professional, or interpersonal goal, remember to smile. Even if you have to hold a pencil between your teeth.
You’ve been breathing since you were born. But did you know that how you breathe can affect how you feel—and vice versa?
Unless you practice yoga or meditation, chances are you are breathing incorrectly. With our societal preoccupation with a flat stomach, too many of us end up with the bad habit of chest breathing, or worse, mouth breathing.
Our bodies benefit most from diaphragmatic breathing, also known as “deep breathing” or “belly breathing.” It has repeatedly been shown to be one of the best ways to lower stress. When you breathe slowly and deeply, your brain gets the message to calm down—and it in turn messages the rest of your body to follow suit. Stress symptoms such as an increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, decrease.
Furthermore, pausing to breathe gives you a chance to center yourself mentally and consider your next best move rather than reacting impulsively. When things get especially tough, instead of revving yourself up into a panic over the situation and engaging in shallow rapid breathing, take a few minutes to practice deep breathing. You’ll feel better and think more clearly.
Need breathing lessons? As you inhale and exhale, your belly—not your chest—should be rising and falling. Also, your exhale should be longer than your inhale. While you may exhale through your mouth to relax, you should always inhale through your nose. Find more tips from the University of Michigan here.
3. GO SLOWLY
As a child, you may have read Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tortoise, designed to teach young minds that “slow and steady wins the race.”
Productivity gurus love to reinforce that moral by citing Roald Amundson, the Norwegian explorer whose team was the first to reach the South Pole. Amundson insisted that his team march no more than 20 miles a day, even when conditions permitted more. Everyone must sleep and rest, he explained. Meanwhile the rival team, whose leader exploited ideal weather with marathon marches, perished en route.
No matter what your productivity goal is, you will reach it sooner and with less angst by setting reasonable daily goals. For example, developing a regular work habits result in greater success than loaf-and-cram sessions.
Surprisingly, going slowly also improves difficult conversations, according to experts Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman. They recommend sharing just one thought slowly--then wait for the other person’s response rather than spewing out a monologue—which might trigger the other person. Rinse and repeat. By going slowly, they explain, you’ll be able to take in the other person’s response and thus guide the conversation to a more desirable outcome.
In short, be the tortoise. You’ll get to the finish line in better shape.
CHOOSE THE PATH OF JOY, CALM, AND FOCUS
Despite the swirl of challenge and uncertainty, there remain things under your control. In any moment, you can choose to enhance your positivity, inner calm, and focus to make the most of each day and each connection. All you need do is smile, breathe, and go slowly.
Drink your tea slowly and reverently,
As if it is the axis
On which the world earth revolves
--slowly, evenly, without
Rushing toward the future;
Live the actual moment.
Only this moment is life.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
P.S. If you’re interested in developing your mental fitness through coaching, please contact me for a complimentary consultation. Let’s get you out of that rocking chair and on your way to your best life!
Recommended resources from Thich Nhat Hanh
Plum Village App Free app with guided meditations by Thich & followers
Image credit: Photo of Thich Nhat Hanh by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC