Life is full of situations that we deem "wonderful": weddings, new babies, pay raises, promotions, and vacations. It's so easy to feel happy and content when these wonderful events occur in our lives.
But life is equally full of "terrible" situations: getting fired, having cancer or a serious illness, death, dying, grief, financial strain, violent crimes and car accidents. It's typically very hard to be calm and serene when faced with such challenges.
However, peace of mind is largely a matter of attention. If we keep the flashlight of our attention on our negative circumstances, if we constantly attend to the "gloom and doom" voices in our heads, then we will surely be overcome by stress.
My husband recently had surgery to remove a cancerous lesion in his colon. Now he is facing six months of chemotherapy. It would be all too easy for me to stay focused on the fear, the medical bills, the sickness, the side effects, the uninvited changes, the "life interrupted" overwhelm. But I know that doing so will only increase my suffering.
Even having recently written a book about inner peace, my current circumstances have challenged me to be very intentional about how I focus my attention. Below are six specific attention practices that create a peacefulness through my days, regardless of my circumstances.
When I start to feel overwhelmed, I simply close my eyes and listen to the details and quality of the sounds around me. Sometimes I am treated to birdsong, wind blowing, and insects chirping. Other times I hear teenagers chatting, cats meowing, and dishes clinking. Sometimes I can listen to the sound of silence that exists in the space between sounds. Whatever I hear, by focusing my attention on sound, I give my mind a break from its incessant stream of thinking.
When I connect with the human condition, and all those who suffer, I know that I am not alone. I send positive energy to others who are in chemo, to other spouses and caregivers, to people who suffer from grief, depression, addiction, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. I think of those who have walked the earth before me and those who will walk when I am gone. By opening my heart to other beings with compassion, I feel calmer and more supported.
There is a small, special island 10 miles off the coast of New Hampshire called Star Island. I have been going there for summer retreats for the past 12 years, and it is still one of my favorite places on this earth. When I feel most upset, I close my eyes and imagine myself there. I can summon smells, sounds, and visuals that instantly uplift my mood and offer me a refreshing perspective.
Repeating "anchor" words or phrases, such as "peace like a river," or "everything is as it should be," or "I am strong; I am calm" help redirect the mind to more peaceful and positive thoughts. Find an affirmation that feels right to you and experience how it can elicit a feeling of calm.
Using the breath as an object of attention is the classic technique for meditation. If I spend a few moments counting my breaths from 1 to 10 and from 10 to 1, my mind reverts to a quiet stillness. Pay specific attention to your breath as it touches your nose.
Although it can be challenging to focus on gratitude when I'm throwing a personal pity party, I've discovered that it can really turn things around. There is always something to put on the gratitude list: fresh air, sunshine, electricity, running water, Western medicine, support of loved ones, faith, love, the comforts of home, flowers, chocolate, and the many life lessons that are embedded in every situation.
I hope that if you use these six objects of focus, you too will find that it is possible for peace to pervade, even during the most challenging times of your life.
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