“Empty your mind of all thoughts. Let your heart be at peace. Watch the turmoil of beings, but contemplate their return. Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source. Returning to the source is serenity. If you don’t realize the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow. When you realize where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king. Immersed in the wonder of Tao, you can deal with whatever life brings you, and when death comes, you are ready.”
“In my better hours I am conscious of the influx of a serene and unquestionable which partly unfits, and if I yielded to it more rememberingly would wholly unfit me, for what is called the active business of life, for that furnishes nothing on which the eye of reason can rest.”
—Henry David Thoreau
“To be serene and successful we must be at one with the universe.”
—Henry David Thoreau
“Peace is flowing like a river, Flowing out of you and me, Flowing out into the desert, Setting all the captives free”
Tranquility may be known by its synonyms, serenity, and my favorite, peace of mind. There are probably more, but these are the primary ones.
I will begin by recounting an impression I had as a boy of 12. I had been hearing of St. Francis and his life as a monk. The thought occurred to me that, like him, I would like a place in the garden with a sheltering tree to sit quietly for daily meditation. The impression remains with me, strong and pure, to this day. Everyone should have his or her own tree under which to sit!
Tranquility is an essential condition which allows penetration to the deeper levels of the fields of consciousness. If it is in place, meditation is made possible. This is because distractions and obstacles are moved out of the way. The path becomes clear. Westerners are so involved with trying, with effort. They must learn to “give it up to get it all back”. The simplicity of the process is the reason for the success of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s “oceanic” model of consciousness, where the “bubbles” of the ocean decrease in size and increase in subtlety as the deeper levels are reached.
For me the desert, especially in the pleasant winter months, evokes tranquility. I was fortunate in my early life to make several trips to the desert area of California, Palm Springs in childhood and Desert Hot Springs in my teenage years, where my father owned property. The winter months, especially, were a time that I could describe as calm, clear, and conducive to meditative thought. It was there that I bought and read Joshua Loth Liebman’s Peace of Mind. During this time I also purchased three greeting cards with reproductions of desert scenes painted in watercolor. As art should do, they seemed to speak to me of the inner sense of “desert-time”. I framed them and for years they have hung on the wall of my office, wherever I have lived.
Written in the days following the end of World War II, Peace of Mind served as a beacon of hope to many in surviving the traumatic years of the war, extending into the tumultuous postwar period. Liebman recounts how, as a young man, he compiled a list of all of the “goods” of life he could identify: health, love, power, riches, fame, etc. He then showed it to a wise elder who, with a look of amusement, said, “You have forgotten the one ingredient lacking which each possession becomes a hideous torment, and your whole list an intolerable burden.” Then, with a pencil stub he crossed out the list and wrote peace of mind. If asked to list our inventory of desires for this life we, too, might omit it, yet this inner tranquility can and does flourish without the support of prosperity or even physical health. The teachings of Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and others reveal the foundation of a deep underlying spiritual serenity. The holy Hindu syllable OM (AUM) is used as a benediction of peace, and, when intoned represents the end of our search and striving, both the origin and the destiny of life. Historically, it has been the desire of wise men and women. To do so, one must “look within”, but this is no easy matter. Until recently, this has been the purview of religion, but in the modern era psychology has come to the fore. This does not need to be an either/or proposition; both can provide comfort and spiritual release using their own unique methodologies. Peace of mind will aid us in achieving our real goals, rather than the wasted time and energy of neurotic combat, which include goals which are not real to them, such as making enough money to show others up, or fulfilling the wish of a dominant member of one’s family, which is a “borrowed goal”. Furthermore, one’s religion must assist in dealing with his metaphysical fears, providing comfort and courage in the face of death.
No less eminent a philosopher than Alfred North Whitehead has weighed in on the subject of peace. In a single statement he postulates, “Peace is the intuition of permanence amid pain, frustration, loss, and tragedy.” It is comforting to think that, in the long run, it will outlast the negative fluctuations of the present. Arthur Koestler observes that “the purely self-transcending emotions do not tend towards action, but toward quiescence, tranquillity [British spelling], and catharsis. Respiration and pulse-rate are slowed down, muscle-tone is lowered; ‘entrancement’ is a step toward that trance-like state induced by the contemplative technique of Eastern mysticism and by certain drugs.”
A truly paradoxical phenomenon exists in the psychological state, “the excitation of calmness”, is part of tranquility: by slowing down the activity of the mind and its desires, a unique energizing force arises. I am no spiritual master, but I can tell you that when the body is relaxed, the mind is stilled, and the consciousness is centered, a joyous bubble of buoyancy arises, as if welling up from the depths. of the ocean. The Sanskrit term is kutastho, the” still point”. I learned of a term for it shared by many observers, ASMR, Automatic Sensory Meridian Response. It describes “that lovely, shivery, slightly spine tingling feeling that humans sometimes get when animated by gentle sounds, whispers and soft repetitive movements—sort of the way you feel when a soft summer breeze kicks up and washes over your skin—pleasant, tingly and soothing.”
Tranquility has an explicit mention in the Hindu scripture Srimad Bhagavatum: “Sitting erect, in a position of controlled ease, he must repeat the sacred word OM—meditating on its meaning. He must free the mind from all distracting thoughts and desires. When the mind wanders, let him bring it back and try to fix it on the divine light within the etheric center of the heart. Consistent practice will bring tranquility and peace within. The flame of desire will be extinguished, just as a fire goes down when no fuel is added. The mind which is no longer agitated by lust is always tranquil. As the restless waves of the mind subside, there arises gradually divine bliss. The sacred word OM is the bow. The purified mind is the arrow. The divine Self is the target. Just as the arrow becomes one with the target, so by the practice of concentration does the mind becomes united with the divine Self.”
Chinese poetry, especially, carries with it the values of tranquility, using meter and imagery to create a realistic model of the philosophical description. Several excellent collections exist and are well worth spending time with. Two of my favorites are Arthur Waley’s Translations from the Chinese and Beata Grant’s Daughters of Emptiness: Poems of Chinese Buddhist Nuns. This impression actually began before that. I remember a distinct impression conveyed to me during a visit to a Chinese gift shop. Its ambience provided multiple sensory perceptions: incense, curios, lacquer bowls, paintings, and much more. The fortuitous visit underlay the impressions made by my readings in Indian and Japanese culture and spirituality which were to follow.
In Eastern lore, no flower is more celebrated than the lotus. Growing in muddy stagnant water, it thrives in those conditions, manifesting its serene beauty in colorful blooms. It is a metaphor for the tranquil state, the opening of its flowers symbolizing the opening of human consciousness made possible only by meditation. This symbol of beauty purified even with impure surroundings is repeated in the Chandogya Upanishad: “As water adheres not to the leaf of a lotus-flower, so evil action adheres not to him who knows this.”
Focus on the breath to achieve rest is a part in Hebrew tradition. According to Rabbi Shim’on, King Solomon learned from his father, King David, the breathing techniques used to invoke what is called “the holy breath” to achieve the inspiration of the divine. By “learning and practicing the secrets inherent in the breath, Solomon could lift nature’s physical veil from created things and see the spirit within”. The invocation of “the winds to come from all four directions and fill his breath” is strongly reminiscent of a Navajo or Lakota ceremony. It should come as no surprise that an effective and proven spiritual technique such as this should be shared across cultures.
In the Hindu or Judeo-Christian tradition it is accessed by the mantram Aum (Om) or Amen—the seed word is the same. The most explicit and helpful explanation I have found is from Swami Satchidananda’s comment that Om is the mantra which is “the easiest, the simplest, and the best. Why? Almost every religion has this, because all the prophets, sages, and saints have understood the greatness and the power of the repetition of God’s name.” He states that it brings us into the presence of God. Om is also the Pranava, the sound of creation, a humming sound. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3) This hum of creation has actually been captured by physicists going back in time to the Big Bang. Here science and religion are in accord, for sound energy is the basic energy from which all that follows is built, hence the reliance upon the sound of the mantra to reach the level of Being. He continues, “whatever the mantram, the basis is Om”. He goes on to state that, after the three stages of the pronunciation of the ‘seed’ Om as Aum, A-U-M, which may be expressed as Mmm, Amen, or Amin (because people hear it differently), there is a fourth stage, the Anaagata, which is silent and always with us. And it is to this silence that we return in meditation.”
Humility is a great companion of tranquility. It is a living, real time meditation by which in our waking moments we may reduce our footprint on the conscious life of the world in which we live. But this is not self-denial for its own sake. Its practice opens up the wider spiritual world to us and enables the many wonderful gifts of the universe to flow in freely. Its most important byproduct is peace “flowing like a river”, the priceless gift of tranquility.
Silence, the Anaagata, is a great companion. Thoreau writes, perhaps drawn from his Walden experience, “Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses, and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointments.” Years ago I made an amazing discovery in a library. Tucked into the pages of a book was a scrap of paper containing the most eloquent poem I have ever encountered on silence. I have never succeeded in finding its author, but give credit to its unknown creator and wish to include it here:
“Be silent, secret, and conceal, Whatever you think, whatever you feel. Within your soul your dreams should rise And set like stars that fill the skies, With splendor in their nightly route. How can a heart at will unfold its tale? Can any soul be told by what it is you live and die? A thought when spoken is a lie. The springs men dig for they pollute. Drink secret waters, and be mute. Within yourself learn how to live. Magic, that is not fugitive Lies, a rich treasure in the mind Thoughts that the glare of day will blind And the wild din without, confute… Heed that low music, and be mute.”
And so, sleeping or waking, we may enter into that great rest, in the great and wonderful silence of eternity, connected to the eternal nature, absorbed in the One.