The Path to Inner Peace
Inner peace lies close at hand. You can always reach it, just as Glinda tells Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.” “I have?” Dorothy asks. “Then why didn’t you tell her before?” the Scarecrow demands. “Because she wouldn’t have believed me,” Glinda says. “She had to learn it for herself.”
You may imagine inner peace to be as distant as the legendary kingdom of Oz, and getting there to be as fraught with perils as Dorothy’s journey to the Emerald City, yet once you have found inner peace you may say with Dorothy, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.” (And Glinda will say, “That’s all it is!”) But it may be useful to offer a few hints to guide one’s journey toward inner peace.
As with any goal, it helps to have a clear vision of the destination. What does inner peace mean to you? You may begin with negative definitions, like the absence of worry or freedom from stress and turmoil. But eventually you may be able to arrive at a positive formulation of the goal, such as a calm confidence in facing life, an internal gyroscope that keeps you on course, or an attentiveness to the “still, small voice” within. These phrases are merely suggestions. You will need to give serious thought to what inner peace means for you personally.
It may be helpful to think about times in your life when you felt truly peaceful. I keep returning to the distant memory of several hours spent on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco on the day after Christmas. I would never have described my life at that time as peaceful, yet for several hours I did nothing but contemplate San Francisco Bay, a thoroughly uncharacteristic pastime for me.
Try to get in touch with the sensations associated with any past experience of peace, however fleeting. For me it involved being outside of time, at least the kind of time referred to in Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated poem, If: “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run.” Up to that time, and for many years thereafter, I devoted myself wholeheartedly to fulfilling Kipling’s formula. Yet for several hours on Telegraph Hill I had no thought of productivity or accomplishments.
Make a list of all the adjectives describing what you consider to be the negative aspects of your life. If you find yourself desperately searching for inner peace, your list may contain words such as driven, compelled, beleaguered, speedy, overworked, overwrought, disconnected, disharmonious, fragmented, isolated, dehumanized, hopeless, etc. Make the list as long as you can, and try to get in touch with all the feelings that compiling such a list evokes.
Then try to find alternatives for each word in the list, words that would be more consonant with your desired state of inner peace. This list might contain words such as serene, untroubled, tranquil, flowing, harmonious, accepting, and the like. Try to get in touch with the feelings that these words evoke, then seek opportunities to use these words as often as you can. Your daily vocabulary has a surprising influence on your state of mind. Transform that vocabulary and you can transform your thinking.
If you find solace in scripture, it might occur to you to seek out every instance of the word “peace” in your holy book and to produce an index card for each passage that you find meaningful. You might want to locate a peaceful image to accompany each passage. Carrying out this exercise, presumably an unaccustomed activity, may in itself lead you away from the harried and frenetic and toward the calm and contemplative. (You can see one person’s realization of this idea at http://oakvillepsychotherapy.com/Pathways.pdf)
I associate inner peace with slowing down. When in Toronto I try to spend time in the city’s historic houses, whose recreation of calmer times immediately brings my pulse rate down. Of course it is much easier to slow down in nature. For centuries spending time in natural refuges has been prescribed as an effective treatment for many human ills. During the twentieth century this traditional wisdom was rejected for lack of scientific evidence, but recent studies have detected the actual chemical basis in emissions from trees that make time spent in the forest so refreshing and restorative. Japan, whose forests offer an unusually rich and diverse biosphere, has actually designated a number of forest trails for use in regaining mental and physical health.
You can try an easy experiment in this regard: consciously slow your pace and take note of the physical sensations that this exercise produces. At first you may be conscious only of other people speeding past you—and getting to their destinations before you!—but as you persist with your slower pace you will probably discover pleasant sensations that get lost in dashing about. You may be sufficiently intrigued with this phenomenon that you slow down still further, and then further yet, so that you barely seem to be making any progress at all. But at this point, as you focus not on the goal but on the process, you are engaging in mindfulness, a trendy term for tuning in to your interior reality.
I associate inner peace with the experience of being balanced, or centered. You may have appreciated the distinct sense of well-being that you experience when centered without knowing how to achieve it voluntarily. One road toward inner balance is meditation. Meditation for some people has become so overlaid with discipline and ritual as to obscure its fundamental simplicity. Here are three different possible entry points to meditation requiring no courses or spiritual masters. I invite you to try one. (1) Focus on your breathing. Pick some point in the breath cycle and notice each recurrence. When your mind begins to wander, gently direct it back to the point of focus. (2) Choose a mantra—some simple word or phrase—and repeat it over and over to yourself. Controlled studies have had subjects repeat a number over and over, and that will have the same effect as a mantra, but to me seems lacking in poetry or spiritual value. When your mind begins to wander, gently direct it back to the point of focus. (3) Darken a room, light a candle, and focus on its flame. Notice how it almost seems to be alive in its constantly varying movement. When your mind begins to wander, gently direct it back to the point of focus. All three exercises, by helping you to detach from thoughts and feelings, lead to a sense of inner balance. Remember that the object is not to prevent the mind from wandering—it will almost always do that—but to develop a habit of gentle restraint that brings your mind under your quiet control.
Centering can also be invoked through controlled breathing. Yoga adepts know dozens of different ways to breathe, each with its own purpose. The method described here may be one of the simplest. Place your hands on your stomach and breathe in such a way that when you breathe in, your stomach goes out, and when you breathe out, your stomach goes in. This so-called “belly breath” is the way you breathe when you sleep, but not the way you breathe when you run. Like meditation, breathing in this fashion requires concentration, so you need to distance yourself temporarily from life’s demands and give full attention to your breathing.
Breathing sounds too simple to be effectual—after all, we breathe from the moment we are born until, literally, our last dying breath. Yet “belly breathing” has a profound influence on our organism. If we are stressed, belly breathing has the effect of commanding our emergency system to stand down. Six or seven belly breaths suffice to change your mood. (I have found a variation on the belly breath to be particularly effective: as soon as your reach the point of maximum intake of air, immediately begin releasing air without pause; when you reach the point of maximum exhalation, immediately begin taking in air without pause. In this way you can become conscious of creating a continuous loop of breath.)
Inner peace goes hand in hand with relaxation, properly understood. Relaxation in the sense I am using the word does not mean sitting in front of a television set or tossing down a few beers at the bar. Relaxation as I intend it means releasing physical tension. You may find it possible to relax your muscles one by one simply by focusing on the act. But muscles that have been held too long in a state of tension may not be able to relax in this way. To overcome that problem, adopt a reclining position and, focusing on each muscle in turn, beginning with your head and working your way down your entire body, consciously tense each muscle and then allow it to release. A number of relaxation tapes exist in which a calm voice directs your attention to each muscle in your body, and you may find such assistance helpful.
Time spent in nature, a deliberate pace, meditation, breathing, contemplating meaningful words, or altering the vocabulary with which you describe your life: all represent pathways to inner peace. When you discover yourself more attuned to peace you may marvel with Dorothy that the way stood so close at hand, and hear the echo of Glinda’s words, “That’s all it is!”
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