Landing at Tranquility Base

Moonlight shimmers on the surface of the steaming Japanese bath, while a gentle wind rustles. The very atmosphere seems to radiate relaxation and serenity.

Chris Stewart-Patterson
1 May 2002

Moonlight shimmers on the surface of the steaming Japanese bath, while a gentle wind rustles nearby bamboo. The fragrance of exotic blossoms suffuses the cool, moist air. Muscle tension dissolves in the penetrating warmth of the water and the mind slowly gentles. The very atmosphere seems to radiate relaxation and serenity.

A profoundly tranquil experience in a beautiful, serene environment such as this can be refreshing for mind and body. Sadly, we never seem to stay relaxed. When we return to the vicissitudes of life, the effect of such an experience gradually withers. Maintaining absolute tranquility is associated with advanced states few people are likely to attain without undertaking a monastic level of spiritual training. Those of us who have not opted for this path, however, can still benefit from increasing our relative tranquility. This involves learning to influence negative states such as anxiety and agitation by fostering positive feelings such as peace and calm, while also understanding that all of these states are relative and impermanent. Fortunately, despite the often frenetic pace of modern living, we can cultivate tranquility using meditation, physical activity and other readily available activities.

More tranquility is a must-have for high-level wellness these days. In the absence of adequate periods of calm, stress can take its toll. The increasing research probing the effects of negative emotions on physical health reveals stress as a largely underestimated health determinant.

Over time stress may produce a wide range of adverse effects, from impaired memory to depression to the common cold. We know heart attacks and high blood pressure are more common in stressed people. The strain of social isolation is associated with worsening of disease and decreased longevity. Stress can also have effects that reach across long periods of time: childhood psychological trauma can be a risk factor for adult chronic pain and mental health problems.

In pursuing tranquility we are aiming for a particular neurophysiological state. Our minds and bodies are constantly awash in a biochemical “soup” whose changing ingredients both affect and reflect our current moods. If we feel acutely stressed, our fight-or-flight mechanism activates. This increases our heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, metabolism and muscle tension. Stress chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol bathe our brain and body, affecting our moods and physical states. When we engage in tranquility-inducing techniques we can potentially reverse these physiological processes.

People who practice a stress-reducing activity and successfully dial back their stress physiology usually report more positive mood states. Simple and effective techniques are readily available, but the catch is that we need to maintain them in order for them to work. If techniques are used regularly, there is a strong tendency for the feelings of relaxation to permeate our days.
Some of the most effective ways to induce some degree of tranquility involve breath and awareness. Taking as few as ten slow breaths deep in the diaphragm has been shown to rapidly influence our neurophysiology, slowing the firing of neurons and reducing feelings of anxiety and tension. Medical studies of mindfulness meditation have shown that it reduces symptoms in people with high anxiety and reduces suffering for people with chronic pain. Relaxation techniques used regularly may actually reduce deaths after heart attacks as effectively as traditional medical and surgical treatments.

Another way to positively alter stress physiology is through physical activity. The chemicals we generate when stressed—adrenaline and cortisol—help us to respond immediately to threats by priming our bodies for fight or flight. In our modern environment we often do neither and frequently just sit with our tension, worry or anger. If we can increase our activity by engaging in walking or running or other exercise, we can “burn off” the hormones associated with stress. At more intense and prolonged levels of exercise we may even experience a “runner’s high” as we start to generate tranquility-inducing brain chemicals such as endorphins, which enhance our feelings of well-being.

Some people may understandably see stress management as just one more thing they have to do in their already busy day. However, tranquility can also be found in commonplace daily activities. Some folks prefer a “chop wood and carry water” approach and are able to generate a sense of calm from a deep and satisfying involvement in actions such as woodworking, gardening, music or sewing. For people who feel that they cannot add a new activity to their day, tranquility may reside in the application of mindfulness to what they are already doing. One highly regarded contemporary vipassana teacher accomplished most of her early daily practice as a single mother doing childcare and housework.

There are other simple ways of increasing tranquility that tend to be overlooked and underestimated because of their ordinariness. Positive social support is effective in promoting feelings of calm and belonging, especially if we are distressed. Adequate sleep and rest increase our general tolerance for stress and also the likelihood that we can maintain other healthy practices. The power of spiritual values and religious ritual has been well documented in increasing people’s happiness, sense of peace and capacity to endure suffering.

All the techniques mentioned so far have focused on internal changes, but there are also things we can change in our external situation to help foster tranquility. First and foremost is time management. If you are so busy that you don’t have time for a daily tranquility-inducing practice, you may choose to start by creating the time and space for practice. Consider other simple tactics such as retreating to a tranquil spot like a beautiful garden for a short break. Creating a more wholesome financial environment by curbing unnecessary spending can reduce stress for the 25% of stressed people who identity money problems as their major worry.

For those who can’t achieve more tranquility through daily practices or self-help measures, invaluable assistance is often available from mental-health professionals. Cognitive behavioral therapy, a widely accepted form of “thought coaching,” is very effective in reducing negative thoughts and emotions. Forms of this technique abound in spiritual traditions and are quite ancient; Buddhist sutras, for instance, mention techniques such as replacing “unskillful thoughts with skillful thoughts.”

Absolute tranquility can be elusive but we can remain on the path, working to improve our relative tranquility for now. Our basic tool kit includes breathing, meditation, physical activity, sleep, mindfulness, spiritual inspiration and social support. These techniques won’t solve our life problems, but they will likely help us cope better and be more stress-hardy. The beauty of these simple and powerful practices is that at least some of them are available for almost everyone. Amid the cacophony of daily life, relative tranquility may be only a few breaths, words, prayers or steps away.

Chris Stewart-Patterson

Chris Stewart-Patterson, M.D. is assistant professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia and works as an emergency department physician at an inner city hospital in Vancouver.