Inner Calm: The Key is Letting Go

Allowing our emotions to arise, be felt, and dissolve helps us cultivate equanimity. From this place of balance, we’re more resilient to what life throws at us.

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We often hear about inner calm, but it can be so much more than a fleeting moment of peace after yoga or the perfect massage. Inner calm is actually our ability to let go of attachments and reactions to life’s events, resulting in ease and clarity.

As a mindfulness skill, inner calm is the ability to let go of attachments and reactivity based on an understanding of impermanence—the changing nature of our thoughts, emotions, and desires. When we find ourselves rushing and reacting, we can remind ourselves, This too shall pass. The purpose is not to negate what we’re feeling but to put brakes on accelerated feelings. Once we return to our inner stillness, we can look at the source of our reactivity, intimately seeing its changing nature: This right here is what frees us.

Once we return to our inner stillness, we can look at the source of our reactivity, intimately seeing its changing nature: This right here is what frees us.

As a practice, inner calm is the art of stopping, looking and letting go for purposes of healing and clarity. It involves physical composure and mental tranquility. It can be seen as the ultimate balm for your soul—like a cool breeze on a hot day. Inner calm brings ease to body and mind alike. In the body, composure is experienced in the muscles and as an overall feeling of ease. In the mind, inner calm creates the space to hold everything without attachment and resistance. Conversely, the absence of inner calm may show up as restlessness in the body and agitation or reactivity in the mind.

Seeking inner calm can often leave us wanting more, but it’s ironic that true inner calm is achieved when we let go of our desires, even the desire for inner calm itself—a catch-22 if there ever was one. This paradox becomes evident when we consider the case of a client dealing with anxiety who turned to meditation as a way to ease his mind. Surprisingly, he found himself even more anxious post-meditation. He had hoped that meditation would improve his sleep, but he was left frustrated when he observed his restlessness during a body scan meditation, which only seemed to worsen his sleep problems.

The moral here? To find peace, he had to let go first of his expectations around finding peace. In order to let go, he learned to see the three hindrances to his achieving mindfulness: running in circles (a restless mind), pulling (striving to sleep), and pushing (frustrated with his restlessness). With practice, he learned to accept his restless mind, which softened the striving and frustration, and he was able to find ease, even when he couldn’t sleep, which ultimately allowed him to sleep.

Letting go of attachments to certain outcomes doesn’t, however, mean that we’re suppressing or evading challenging situations. Instead, this release occurs organically when we comprehend that emotions arise and dissolve—all within ninety seconds.

The Ninety-Second Rule

Inner calm is not about suppressing, denying, or avoiding our emotions. When we don’t give in to the urge to react, we’re cultivating the ability to stay with unpleasantness (knowing that emotions are physiological responses in the body that will arise and dissolve). Just as happiness triggered by external events doesn’t last, negative emotions also don’t last. Have you heard of the ninety-second rule? Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor reveals in her book My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey that all emotions have a beginning, middle, and end—all within ninety seconds from when they first arise.

The reason we continue to experience negative emotions, sometimes for days, weeks, and even years, is that we continue to fuel these feelings with our narratives. Instead, if we stop and let the emotion move through our body, we’ll create space in our minds to better understand what they are trying to tell us. Rather than suppressing or using positive thinking to bypass our experience, we can form an alliance with our feelings. By doing this, we can uncover how they’re trying to protect us, address our unmet needs, or draw our attention to new information in the environment.

The ninety-second rule is a helpful reminder to ride the waves of our emotions, but emotions can sometimes be so powerful that they hijack our rational thought processes. It’s helpful in these situations to remember where those emotions come from—deep in the past, when we were hunter-gatherers facing real tigers!

How Inner Calm Supports Resilience

So much of our lives are marked by perceived threats to our identity, career, or relationships. Our primal reactions—fight-flight-freeze—can be unhelpful when it comes to navigating these everyday psychological and social stressors. What’s needed to resolve problems common to the modern world is clarity and creativity, but our reaction is the opposite—to fight, flee, or freeze. This evolutionary response to any threat is automatic and unconscious.

What’s needed to resolve problems common to the modern world is clarity and creativity, but our reaction is the opposite—to fight, flee, or freeze.

When our emotions are triggered such that we can’t think or see clearly, it’s called an “amygdala hijack”—a term popularized by emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman. The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain. One of its functions is to scan the environment for threats and prepare the body for an emergency response. When it perceives a threat, such as a tiger lurking in the bushes, it sends an immediate signal to release stress hormones—adrenaline and cortisol—that ramp up an emergency response. Blood stops flowing to the organs and instead floods into the limbs to prepare us for fight or flight. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for thinking and executive decision-making) shuts down because there is no time to think and analyze when we’re facing what the brain perceives as a life-threatening situation.

During an amygdala hijack, it is said that our IQ temporarily drops by ten to fifteen points. Maybe this explains that feeling after we’ve reacted to a verbal trigger: What was I thinking when I said that? That’s exactly the point. We stop thinking rationally. It also compromises memory, which is why we can’t remember a single good thing about a person with whom we have a conflict or why we can’t find our keys in the middle of a panic attack. Being in a continuous state of fight or flight from modern threats also compromises the integrity of other systems, like immunity and digestion.

Cultivating inner calm is an important step in avoiding the amygdala hijack so we can think clearly even in highly charged situations. Using practices to promote inner calm—like breath awareness—helps slow our escalating emotions and allows the parasympathetic nervous system to kick back in so we can once again think clearly. Another activity that nudges the prefrontal cortex to start thinking again is “noting” or “labeling.” The act of noting or labeling our emotions gets the prefrontal cortex to regain healthy communication with the amygdala and avoids the hijack. Inner calm offers opportunities to learn and improve or for us to provide a deeper understanding of the “what” and the “why” behind our actions. We can replace tension and misunderstanding with harmony and understanding. Inner calm is key for resilience in relationships and life in general.

Where Are You on the Inner Calm Continuum?

You can strengthen your ability for inner calm, regardless of your circumstances. First, pay attention to when you’re calm and when you’re not. Next, notice the causes and conditions that promote calm and what stops you from being calm. By cultivating a habit of calming the mind and body, you’ll develop the ability to access this place more quickly and easily.

Daily Practice: One-Minute Rest

Rested, we care again for the right things and
the right people in the right way.
—David Whyte

Take time in your day, several times a day, if possible, to empty your cup and make space for what matters. You can do this very quickly by checking in with your body.

  1. Any tension or tightness in the body is a clue that you’re holding on to something that needs your loving attention. You can’t let go without knowing what it is you’re trying to let go. Just turning your attention to places you’re holding tension can help you uncover the emotions and thoughts associated with that tension.
  2. Once you can see the cause of your tension, you can figure out the solution. It’s also clarifying to realign with your intentions as you’re emptying your cup—what is it you’re clearing the space for?
  3. Return. Take a one-minute rest and return to your body. Rub the palms of your hand and place them on your eyes, allowing them to rest. Move your hands to your jawline, neck, shoulders, chest, or wherever feels good in your body.
  4. Listen. Listen within. What can you let go of at this moment to make room for what matters?
  5. Begin. Begin your activities with a relaxed body and mind aligned with what matters.

Try practicing and playing with this reminder with your family, with team members, and in your community before beginning a meeting or activity together.

Excerpted from the book Return to Mindfulness: Disrupting Default Habits for Personal Fulfillment, Effective Leadership, and Global Impact by Shalini Bahl Milne. Copyright © 2024 Shalini Bahl Milne. Republished with permission from the author. Return to Mindfulness will be available on Amazon on January 18, 2024.