Addictions Anonymous, 40: Problems in Learning Serenity
This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.
During one evening therapy group, the topic of serenity came up for discussion. The comments of some of the group members started me thinking. Perhaps this serenity could be teased into its component parts and described in more detail. In other words, if you had serenity, how would you know? How would you recognize it? How would you get some?
During a break in the group, I jotted down my first thoughts on the self-assigned task of analyzing serenity. Many readers may not appreciate the tortured, analytical thinking of your average psychologist, but the following list, while certainly not offered as anything but personal opinion, may at least serve as a starting point for further discussions.
Serenity is a very personal thing, and to achieve it one must detach from worldly concerns, at least for a little while. Later, perhaps, detached serenity can be carried though the routine of daily living, but at first we have to let go of people, emotions and worldly involvement. In serenity, we let go with love, never in anger or disdain, of course.
Professional people such as a surgeon or a critical care nurse treat many, many patients in crisis during any given time. In order to be good at what they do, they must be objectively detached; they cannot afford to become too emotionally involved with their clients, so they adopt a professional and sometimes distant attitude. This is not necessarily an unfriendly attitude, just one that is not deeply involved emotionally. In any critical task, serenity of this type is essential. We often do our best work when we are emotionally detached from that work. The same thinking may apply to senior members of self-help organizations who, while they may care deeply about all newcomers, cannot let themselves become too emotionally involved in what could very well be a disappointment caused by factors beyond their control.
Whether or not you choose to use detachment, it may be a good tool to practice and to have available in difficult times.
Serenity suggests that we retire from constant efforts to control events and people. Recognizing our own personal limits on power and control is essential, so we do what we reasonably can, work where our skills can be effective, and hope that what we cannot supply will be available from other sources. A serene person does not try to be all things to all people, and serenity asks that we recognize and admit our limitations. In deep meditation, all thoughts of control over others are abandoned, so this is an excellent practice situation.
The problems created by being highly judgmental arise when we give voice to our judgments. Any strongly held opinion generally leads eventually to a public announcement. Immediately, someone will object to the judgment and then the battle is on. Serenity is lost. The most vicious of wars are fought not over land or money, but over ideas. Of course, one will have attitudes and values, this is part of any thinking person's life. What we do not have to do is display controversial judgments in public. We can write about our judgments and save the discussion for just those friends we trust to hear us out without going into battle.
No personal opinion or judgment, no matter how strongly it is held, is worth defending if it means the loss of serenity, so we remember that our judgments in the past may often have been wrong and that most people are quite able to arrive at their own conclusions without our guidance. Efforts at mind control over others are simply incompatible with personal serenity. At best, all we can offer are the alternatives that have appealed to us and worked for us.
In the moment
Serenity depends on a skill for living in the moment. This is, after all, what most addictive behaviors do; they allow one to forget past and future. Unfortunately, the addictive mood-altered ability to live in the moment is only temporary and artificial.
The practice of any highly skilled non-addictive behavior seems also to force us to live one moment at a time. The challenge is to become able to ignore past and future concerns while sitting at rest in a contemplative state. One, of course, does not abandon responsibility for what has been done in the past, nor does one give up plans and hopes for the future. By slipping into life in the present moment through meditation, we limit and control the obsession with past and future, an obsession that has little to do with productive living. As they say, "Worry is not preparation," nor is brooding guilt any kind of amends for past behavior. If you practice having an empty mind during periods of meditation, you will quickly see how difficult this skill is and how much some real, daily practice can help.
Huge efforts have been devoted to building self-esteem in the hope that this would be psychologically helpful. Serenity, however, seems to suggest a state of selflessness, a condition in which ego is set aside, in which pride and greed are ignored, and in which self-esteem is irrelevant.
Many people trying to learn serenity through meditation find that focusing on something specific helps to ease mental turmoil and promote tranquility. Teachers of meditation tell students to concentrate completely on breathing, to count each breath and start over when they reach a count of ten. Some who meditate start by a muscle inventory contracting each muscle group in turn and then letting it relax fully. Visualizing peaceful scenes or concentrating on a chanted mantra also help release the mind for serenity. Later, once full concentration on the present moment becomes habitual, people can do what is called a walking meditation, a state of mind that can be generalized and carried through every daily activity. It takes long practice for most of us, and this is clearly learned skill.
Some folks find meditation to be enhanced with chimes, quiet music or incense. Some find the presence of a teacher helpful. We must be wary, however, of artificial aids, and be sure never to become dependent on any particular ritual since we are going to need our serenity in all kinds of situations over time, situations in which there may never be time for the artificial aids we have come to depend upon.
At first, in the practice of serenity, our customary vigilance wants to remain at high levels; we are used to preparing for stress by anticipating it. In serenity, at least at first, this guardedness is set aside during safe periods of practice. Later, you may notice that you can return to awareness of life's details with much less fear and anxiety as you carry serenity into your daily life.
In serenity our defenses are lowered since most of the situations in which we are used to being defensive are merely ego defense situations. When we give up ego, we can afford to reduce defensiveness to just those situations that might actually be life threatening.
Muscle tension often acts to alert us and keep us tense even if we don't notice how tense we habitually are. Constant practice in muscle relaxation may be necessary before it becomes a daily habit. At first, it may feel unusual and uncomfortable since constant tension may have been a habit of many years.
Obviously, early in serenity training, we must become psychologically alone in order to practice the basic skills. People around us are sources both of positive feelings and of emotional turmoil. Serene interaction with people—with all the people in one's life—must await higher levels of skill, but it is the ultimate goal.
My own list of the components of serenity does not include some details that others might expect or want to add to their own serenity. For one thing, emotional states have not been listed as critical. Indeed, at first, I think it necessary to escape from our constant hot bath of emotions. Many people want a serenity that is like a warm, fuzzy feeling, a feeling of great contentment. Certainly, serenity should bring great personal peace of mind, if that is to be considered an emotion. It should, at least in the beginning, be appreciated as a great release from the pressures and stresses we have allowed into our lives. But feeling good is not necessarily the goal in achieving serenity since, as I see it, serenity is a selfish tool for a better life, not a goal in itself. Again, addiction is an attempt to feel good and often yields a temporary sense of the big warm fuzzy. Unlike addiction, serenity is not an escape, but rather a better path to higher goals.
My view of serenity is perhaps rather selfish in as much as there are no acts of service, no great feelings of love and no dedication to some higher power or purpose. So, yes, I think serenity is primarily a selfish state which, when mastered as a skill of living, can result in far, far greater service in a more meaningful life. Who do you want to do your next surgery or to be your sponsor: someone with real serenity or someone caught up in emotional turmoil?
There are no religious elements in my list above, although one might well include some if that were personally important. Serenity, I think, is a consequence or byproduct of practice more than some magical gift. People with high levels of skill—say in mathematics, music or art—are told repeatedly that they have a gift and should be grateful for it. Little do most people know how many hours and years of diligent practice go into what may seem to be an effortless performance.
Serenity is a learnable skill that requires both the understanding of its essential components and long hours of practice for most of us. When it becomes noticeable to others, it may have long since have become automatic and almost natural for the individual. Practice makes perfect if we want it to. If others take your skills for granted and see them as unearned gifts, that would hardly matter in serenity would it?
Living a life itself is also a learnable skill.