The #1 question I’ve been getting recently is how to stay peaceful and calm when everything around you is in utter chaos, disruption and turmoil. 

As one of my course students in America aptly puts it: 

Everyone’s hating on everyone for everything. No one’s truly present and each side is claiming the other side is closed-minded and brainwashed, and in a way, they’re all right. It’s like we’re all existing in some sort of invisible fog that’s taken over our minds and destroyed our ability to think and see clearly, be kind, loving and compassionate. As a sensitive person whose core value is LOVE, even I’m having a hard time being loving, especially when I’m triggered, which seems to be a lot these days. How do I remain true to my loving self when things are so nasty out there? 

Mark G.

The photo above is from my high school yearbook. Along with 2 others, I was voted “Calmest” in our school. I’m the one sitting on the far right. No matter what was going on around me, I remained unruffled (at least externally). People have often told me I’m the calm in the midst of a storm. Back then, part of my calmness was because every time I got emotional, people became uncomfortable and I found that it was better for everyone if I remained – at least on the outside – emotionless and quiet (which came across as calm). It was part innate and part trained. Now, over 30 years later, I’m still calm but my calmness is much more informed, grounded and deeper than it used to be.

A few years ago, I received a vision while practicing transcendental meditation. I was sitting in lotus position (the traditional cross-legged, straight-back pose with hands palm up on each knee) on my bedroom floor. In the vision, the room, walls and house around me dissolved and parts of my life appeared, swirling around me, coming and going like flashes of a character’s life on a movie screen. Unlike in a theater, the screen surrounded me in a circle radius and I was able to see the scenes from all angles, even behind me.

I saw my 16 year old self staring out my bedroom window at night in the small rural town of Platte City, Missouri, crying and looking out toward the quarter mile long dirt driveway for my then-boyfriend’s old rusty blue Chevy pickup truck. I spent many nights waiting for him, obsessing over him, crying over him because I didn’t know my own worth back then and I’d made him out to be the only evidence and gauge of it. Without his attention, validation and love, I was nothing. When we broke up, I thought I was going to die. He was the only one who’d ever love me, I thought. 

I saw my 21 year old self on my birthday, lying face up depleted and exhausted in the cool sand of Long Beach, California, staring up in desperation toward the sky. It was a brisk fall day (by sunny California standards) and no one else was out. I was glad to be alone and begged God to let the sand swallow me up, to let me disappear. No one would notice, I pleaded, please have mercy and let my suffering end. I didn’t realize this was merely the beginning of a decade-long battle with deep depression. I waited over an hour, thinking He was busy and would get to it as soon as He can. But He never did. By the time I left the beach, I had only one thought about God: Asshole.

I saw my 25 year old self, drunken and dancing at a Halloween party in Los Angeles, California, wearing a black faux patent leather dominatrix costume that barely covered my girl parts and a long curly black wig that reeked of cigarette smoke and fallen souls. It was my attempt to fit into the world, not just with the “cool kids” but with people and society in general. I was always an outsider and it had become clear to me that deep thinking and feeling was the killer of joy, friendship and a good life, so I drank to numb myself and acted the way everyone else acted in order to belong, and hopefully, if I was lucky, find some of that happiness that everyone else seemed to have. It didn’t work.

I saw my 42 year old self, taking out the trash one inconspicuous morning at the small apartment I moved to after a brutally devastating breakup that nearly broke my soul and left me without a house, a business and savings, everything I’d been building for the past 5+ years. Holding a Hefty white tall kitchen trash bag in my hand, unshowered and alone, walking toward the communal dumpster bins, I felt the warmth of the sun on my face, looked up to the sky, and suddenly a profound wave of joy rose up within me and washed over me, cleansing me of the sadness that had consumed me only moments before. It was the moment I fully realized that joy had been there all along, my entire life, just waiting for me to notice it. It was my natural state of being and all it took was being distracted enough by taking out the trash to let go of my unnatural state of being, my internal and external drama, even if only for a split second. But it was long enough to notice something else, something real and ever-present.  

In addition to seeing moments of my life, I also saw moments in history. I saw the witch hunts of Salem, Caesar’s rule, the tragedy of 9/11 and more personally, my mother orphaned as a teenager struggling to survive in Vietnam, and my father joining the military out of high school, full of American pride and determination to make a difference.

As I sat in my room, I saw the vision of myself sitting in one place perfectly still while the scenes around me shifted and fluctuated with humanity’s thoughts and emotions, ranging from fear and suffering to joy and love, and peace and contentment to stress and worry. They were my own, people I knew and society’s as a whole. It all swirled together in one big quantum mixture of existence called “life”, and I saw the future, which was no different than the past and present, the same fleeting thoughts and emotions fluctuating through time. 

And all the while, I remained sitting, still, myself. 

The one constant in this experience was the watcher. A multitude of scenes from my life, my loved ones’ lives, humanity’s struggles through time, past present and future, came and went, while the watcher, the one witnessing it all, remained constant, a sustained eternal presence, perhaps expanded from the experience yet unchanged and whole.  

Coming out of the meditation, I realized that WHO I AM, who I REALLY am, has nothing to do with what’s swirling around outside of me. Whether it was pain or pleasure, sorrow or joy, the real me remained unharmed, unchanged and unaffected by anything happening “out there” and while the human me was deeply affected by the fluctuations of the human condition, the real me, the soul me, was sitting in meditation watching it all unfold. 

I always remember that gift of a vision when the world around me becomes chaotic. I imagine that there’s a soul me sitting somewhere in meditation and the life that’s happening right now is what’s flashing on the screen for the soul me to witness. The human me, my human life and the external world is what she’s watching on her ethereal 360 degree movie screen. It helps me step back into the seat of the soul and remember that everything in this life is temporary. 

Everything from our thoughts and emotions to our challenges and struggles is fluctuating and shifting on the big screen of the movie called “life”, temporary flashes of moments in time.

And there’s a higher reality, a transcendent presence, that’s witnessing all of it. Watching. Loving. Being. Emanating calm, peace and acceptance in the midst of the chaos on the screen.

When we silence our drama long enough to catch a glimpse of this emanating calm, we wake up from the dense fog of madness and begin to see more clearly, with presence and wisdom. We step back into our authentic, natural state of being which is pure love, joy and peace, and regardless of what’s happening “out there”, we can experience it without getting lost in it.