Here’s a Trick to Becoming a Calmer Human Being

If you’re a total worrywart, steal some serenity from your surroundings

If you’re overwhelmed by the relentless pace of urban life and the constant pressure to be ticking items off your to-do list, you’re not alone. Many of us have completely lost the ability to take a vacation without any guilt.

The most useful advice I’ve received about this recently came from a tall, placid, bearded yoga teacher. Imagine lying on a mat with your limbs outstretched while being told, in a thick Indian accent:

“Take relax.

All body — take relaaax.”

I’d never heard it put like that before, but the phrase made sense to me. Tranquillity is a transferable quality. If you don’t possess it, you can absorb a measure of it from places where it’s present in abundance. These places may include your local library, the vast patch of green grass close to your home and any large body of water, be it a swimming pool or a river or even your bathtub.

You already know this, of course. But it’s not always enough to spend a couple of hours in a quiet place — once you leave, all the static of modern life reappears and pretty soon you feel just as frazzled.

In that case, maybe you need a little more time and distance away from your usual surroundings to properly drink in some much needed calm.

Early in the summer, I had the privilege of spending several days in a small town near the city of Kochi, in Kerala, India.

I stayed very close to a river and was surrounded by tall coconut trees and leafy green shrubs. Undoubtedly, spending an extended period of time in nature has a deeply soothing effect on both the mind and the body. What surprised me the most, though, was realising that the longer I was there, the more I could feel the equable, easy-going nature of the Malayali people (residents of Kerala who speak the local language, Malayalam) start to wash over me. It was the only way to explain why I didn’t freak out when I was late to meetings, something that’s almost inevitable in India.

It helped to be frequently reminded that most situations can be resolved quite simply.

When a thick, slanting blanket of rain would appear at several times during the day, seemingly out of nowhere, I would immediately reach for my bag, slightly alarmed, to check whether I’d brought my umbrella. Those around me, I noticed, simply took cover and waited, unruffled, for the shower to pass, which it almost always did.

I returned home one day to find my bed and an entire wall were suddenly covered with tiny, weirdly skinny flies. I remained unusually composed, knowing this would somehow be taken care of. Sure enough, we were able to get rid of the flies surprisingly easily, using a broom to direct them towards a light source outside the room.

When I clambered onto a bus in a city that was quite new to me, I went straight to the bus conductor and asked him to let me know when my stop arrived. He must have sensed I was nervous about getting to my destination on time because he looked at me with an expression that somehow conveyed don’t-worry- you-perpetually-anxious-Westerner-it’s-all-going-to-be-ok.

I had been in Kerala long enough at this point. As I settled onto my seat, I decided he was right.

Learning to stress less is like learning a new language. It helps to immerse yourself in a culture of calm, whatever that means for you. Nature, music, gentle people, kindness and creativity can contribute to this. Serve yourself a generous helping of each of these every chance you get. Do this repeatedly, even if it feels unnatural, and after a while you may notice your blood pressure doesn’t automatically shoot up when difficult circumstances arise.

It’s strange how this works, but part of it involves the simple realisation that there is an enormous spectrum of ways in which people can react in stressful situations, and that over time it’s possible to inch your way towards the healthier, more effective end of the scale. To do this, you simply need to be open to the incredible power that your environment has over your mood. You can use this in your favour by feeding yourself more of the stimuli that nourish you and less of those that deplete you.

We’ve come to normalise a state of overwhelm and constant tension, but let’s remember that’s not the only way to live. As one Malayali woman smilingly said to me, “In Kerala there is no problem”. While that’s not technically true, it may be worth emulating people who’ve chosen to live their lives as if it were.

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