I’m not calm

In the movie “The Babadook,” there’s a moment when the viewer knows the evil spirit has infiltrated the main character. Until this point, she has been the embodiment of sweet patience — responding gently and evenly to everyone, never with a hint of tension or irritation. But at this moment, as her son comes into the bedroom where she’s trying to sleep and starts talking, we see her eyes narrow and shift as she lies with her back to him, not turning to respond. She snaps.

What she says is not all that bad — “Don’t you ever stop talking?” — but the tone and the abrupt departure from her previous evenness tell us that this is the start of something awful. (It is.)

What I love about this scene is its humanness. Who hasn’t had occasion to yell,” Don’t tell me to calm down. I am calm!” Who hasn’t tried to hang onto tranquility until the last shoe falls and breaks the camel’s back? Tell me I’m not alone.

We think — in the popular imagination — that meditation will get us beyond all that and make us perpetually calm. But mindfulness doesn’t stop us from feeling, it only helps us to know what we’re feeling.

Mindfulness is a relational quality in that it does not depend on what is happening but is about how we are relating to what is happening. That’s why we say mindfulness can go anywhere. We can be mindful of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, beautiful music and a screech. Mindfulness doesn’t mean all these flatten out and become one big blob … The actual experience of mindfulness produces a vibrant, alive, open space, where creative responses to situations have room to arise, precisely because we’re not stuck in the well-worn, narrow grooves of our habitual reactions.” — Sharon Salzberg “Real Happiness at Work”

I want to be mindful of calm and palm trees.  But that’s not my reality right now. I’m mindful of stress, of getting ready to travel tomorrow and all the open possibilities inherent in that. I’m mindful of the tension in my jaw, the growing checklist in my head.

I could smile tightly and say I’m fine. Or I can admit that I’m stressed, that irritation that arises in  me is not the fault of the other person but my high baseline tension level, and wait in that space where I choose how to react.

As the evil spirit in “The Babadook” warns, the more you deny it, the stronger it gets. Accepting that it’s there lets you work with it.


— Nancy Thompson