Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Keep Calm

keep-calm-listen-to-bon-joviA good friend of mine stuck a poster up on my Facebook page the other day which reads ‘Keep Calm and Listen to Bon Jovi’.

She had of course just read one of my many recent articles that have alluded to the lyrics of that great band for inspiration. It brought a smile to my face because she knows first-hand how prone to stress I can be; and whilst I’m pretty good at keeping my stress levels in check these days; I will admit that given the right stimulus I can still succumb to the odd stress fuelled, eye bulging moment.

Stress, anxiety, anger – they’re such corrosive emotions though; they’re emotions that rob you of reason, of perspective, of hope, of creativity, of intuition.

Under their influence you simply don’t act in anything like the same way as you normally would do; those negative emotions skew your thinking, blur the distinction between what’s important and what’s not, and leave you absolutely incapable of finding objective and helpful solutions to your woes.

In short, they leave you incapable of seeing the wood from the tress.

So no matter how you do it, by listening to Bon Jovi or otherwise, keeping calm is undoubtedly all important.

Calm by Design

In fact, to say keeping calm is all important could be something of an understatement, because the reality is that a calm state of mind, according to many of the enlightened life-philosophies of the world, is our underlying nature.

Buddhists for example believe that our default mental setting is one of tranquillity, and that any deviation from that mental calm is akin to clouds passing through an unbroken blue sky. The calm blue sky is still there – it’s always there in fact, the clouds of angst just temporarily hide it from time to time.

To give another example, Stoics believe that we have an obligation to act in line with nature; and as human beings innately blessed with the unique gift of logic and reason, part of that obligation involves viewing everything through a rational lens.

To a Stoic, feeling anxious, stressed or annoyed would be to abandon that unique human gift; it would be the ultimate betrayal of our natural state. But a Stoic would also argue that embracing the gift of reason is far from an onerous task, because with reason comes peace of mind. It is irrationality that’s at the root of anxiety and the like.

No Control

Take our level of control as an example. In reality, there’s not much we can control in this old world of ours apart from one thing: – how we choose to perceive things; which funnily enough we achieve through the application of reason and logic.

But so often we forget the above; we run around getting annoyed, upset and frustrated because things aren’t how we judge they ‘should be’. Someone has treated us unfairly or unkindly, or despite our best efforts things don’t go to plan, and we take the majorly irrational decision to get worked up about it; as if somehow that’ll help.

Take a common day trivial event that’s beyond your control: -

Say someone’s aggressively tailing you as you’re driving; or alternatively (as seems to be happening to me all the time at the moment) you find yourself perpetually snared by red traffic lights. Does it make any sense to get upset or frustrated about it?

Wouldn’t it be better just to stay calm; to accept that you have no control over the traffic lights? Wouldn’t it be better to mitigate the negative effects of the dangerous driver by simply pulling over at the first opportune moment in order to let him pass so that he can reap his mayhem elsewhere?

Why then, given the obvious answer, do we insist on attaching further irrational judgements by thinking ‘They shouldn’t be driving like that’ or ‘This red light is going to make me late…it’s so unfair!’?

Those superfluous irrational judgements just get in the way; they stoke our negativity fires which in turn just leaves us prone to acting in destructive and damaging ways.

The bad driver stirs your anger, what do you do? Slow right down to provoke him a little bit more; or wait until you get to a red traffic light and then leap out of your car and threaten him with a crowbar?

You get upset that you’re going to be a few minutes late because of a flurry of red traffic lights; does feeling upset or frustrated actually help you to get where you’re going any faster?

I am not passing judgement here; I myself am a creature of extremes. I have a Vulcan like logic that means I do eerily well on IQ tests, and yet that logic can be thrown out the window thanks to my equally emotive nature. It’s that emotive nature that I now do pretty well at keeping in check with my Stoic outlook these days; but too often in times gone by did I get stressed at the proverbial traffic lights – over things that I had no control.

Insight of an Emperor

Marcus Aurelius, the second century A.D. Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher wrote in his Meditations: -

The cucumber is bitter? Put it down. There are brambles in the path? Step to one side. That is enough, without also asking: “How did these things come into the world at all?”

In reality we have so very little control over what goes on around us; including what people think of us, how they act, what happens to us…either day-to-day or in the grand scheme of things. Getting upset, angry, frustrated or bitter over things we have no control really is to abandon our rational nature. Asking, as Marcus wrote, ‘How did these things come into the world at all?’ doesn’t help with the solution, it just adds to the problem. It’s irrational.

We can try to influence circumstance for the better of course; to that end we can attempt to put the bitter cucumber down or sidestep the brambles. In fact, living in accordance with reason dictates that we do so, because it would be illogical to imprison oneself in a problem – to eat the bitter cucumber or to get injured by the brambles – when the solution was within one’s grasp.

The operative phrase here however is to influence the situation ‘for the better’.

Slamming your brakes on so that the annoying driver almost back ends you, or driving like a lunatic to make up for wasted time after you’ve been stuck at traffic lights, isn’t acting for the better, it’s acting for the worst. Those actions, born out of negative emotion, don’t solve problems, they exacerbate existing ones; they often create even more.

And that’s the sad truth; when actions are born out of negative emotion they almost universally turn out to be either futile or to our detriment – and to everyone else’s as well. Yes, an emotionally charged response may make us feel great at the time and additionally, it can often feel very appropriate. But in hindsight we tend to realise that our negative emotions simply led us to cut off our noses to spite our face; they were foolish and not in the least bit constructive after all.

So Keep Calm Indeed

Whenever you feel your negative emotions stirred, just remember the damage that they’re likely to inflict. Do you really want your behaviour, and your future (as well as those around you) to be marred by them?

Whenever I feel a twinge of negative emotion these days I try to ask myself: -

‘Is my emotive response here appropriate, positive and helpful?’

The answer is almost universally no. But that’s the entire point; it’s that intervention that enables you to claw back logic, to distance yourself from the irrational and then act in an appropriate, positive and helpful way.

What feels emotionally appropriate at the time, as I said above, often doesn’t seem so appropriate when emotions die down. What can feel like taking action, can often reveal itself to have been destructive and unhelpful for all concerned in the cold light of day.

Life is about building bridges, not knocking them down; and yet knock them down is what we so often end up doing when we act from a negative emotional base.

To build those bridges, to act positively and effectively in all circumstances, we really do have to keep calm; because it is only through a calm mind that we are able to engage logic and to act with reason.

So help yourself to keep calm in trying circumstances by always asking yourself, ‘Is my response appropriate, positive and helpful?’ and of course…by listening to Bon Jovi. :-)

Comments

  1. This post is chock full of excellent reminders for chilling and keeping out of trouble.

    Having said so, I think we are a species of very anxious apes. So we need constant reminding to chill. Our ancestors lived under extremely trying circumstances by today’s standards.

    Great examples with tailgaters and red lights. I tell myself to never be in a rush. This prevents many of the irrational thoughts that creep in when I am rushing around making silly mistakes in haste. However, I can always improve in this area.

    I can begin with driving, coincidentally, but even my practice sessions at times need to be less hurried and more calm. The strings are my friends not my enemies, no? Well, the G-string is questionable.

    • Spot on CJ, our brains simply haven’t caught up with the times and we remain a bunch of anxious apes. It’s akin to the bunny that zigzags across the road when confronted by a car; his little bunny brained evolutionary response just doesn’t get him far in the modern world.

      You make an excellent point; anxiety leads to haste, which leads to cock-up. In fact, we must be very similar in that respect because I often feel a degree of time urgency. It’s something I actively counteract – I refuse to do anything in a rush these days and if I feel that pressure I simply stop what I’m doing and walk away. Obviously I wouldn’t make a great doctor in A & E with that attitude, but for my less time-urgent lifestyle it works pretty well. It keeps my higher mental faculties intact – creativity, interest, curiosity, reason and the like – all of which are most definitely essential to us musicians. So it’s good to hear you’re slowing down the pace on those practice sessions. :-)

  2. Hello Gareth! I am always so happy to find your new posts in my Inbox. What a perfect post for me to read on a Sunday night. Although they were much more stress-filled when I was teaching, I often find that even after a wonderful day as today was, I need some gentle reminders. This post was that for me tonight, and I thank you!

    I think your little helpful habits are indeed just that. Helpful. I really liked when you mentioned how little control we really have over things in the grand scheme of things. I have the hardest time with worrying what others think. This is an ongoing battle with myself: What would _____ think if I did ______? Who cares? It’s your life! Yes, but really, isn’t that going to peeve ______? What is the worst that can happen? Will _____ hate me?

    And so it was that, before I even read this post, on our extended walk this afternoon, I found myself singing (in the grassy median of a rather busy road that doesn’t have sidewalks on either side), “It’s my life! It’s now or never. I ain’t gonna live forever! I just wanna live while I’m alive. It’s…my…life!” I am much like you in that Jon never lets me down. Plus, CJ likes to hear me sing and finds it rather charming when I’m wearing a rather ghastly hat and not giving a damn what people “out in public” think!

    It is truly one thought, one action, one moment at a time. But it is SO worth it! Thank you, Gareth!

    • ‘What will people think?’ is an insidious thought process all right Tammy. I don’t know if we can ever fully banish that little gremlin voice for good; for some of us (including myself) I think the best we can do is tame him to a whisper. Sometimes my default thought process is still to give more regard to what others think of me instead of what I think of them; something I consciously override by reminding myself that people’s attitudes are just one of the infinite variables over which I have no control.

      I was sitting at the dinner table yesterday listening to someone harp on about how they feel anxious at petrol pumps because they’re worried that they’re holding up people behind them. How ridiculous is that? I’m not sure which is more ridiculous in fact; to go through life prostrating oneself to others in the most subservient of ways, or not having the reason to understand how self-destructive it is. Biting my tongue really was all I could do.

      Indeed Tammy, it is our life and we’re not gonna live forever – and so we’ve got to get a grip of what’s important and what matters before it is too late. It’s so great to hear that you’ve both realised the problem and are actively gaining dominance over it. Hey, in fact you’ve gone two better than me; singing in public and a silly hat Tammy, I’m impressed. :-)

  3. Keep calm while listening to Bon Jovi? Bit hard to do that to rock music. What I like about Bon Jovi is his lyrics and sings about life… not just love songs. Keeping calm is about not letting negative emotions take you over. When you feel a negative emotion begin to upset you, DECIDE to change it to a more positve one.

    • Thanks for the comment Brian. Indeed, the key to preventing oneself from becoming overwhelmed with negative emotion is to decide to adopt a more positive outlook…I couldn’t agree with you more. How that decision is put into effective practice is of course the key. If listening to Bon Jovi lyrics helps an individual to promote a positive outlook that restores their composure and peace of mind, then maybe listening to rock music is a viable strategy after all. :-)
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