Serenity is Sanity – Guest Post by Gail Brenner

This post is written by a thinker and blogger I greatly admire, Gail Brenner. Gail’s ideas and writing have grabbed me from my first visit to her blog, A Flourishing Life, giving me new insight every time I visit. Yesterday she graciously hosted me on her blog, on the topic of perfectionism. I asked her to share here with us some of her methods for gaining and maintaining serenity. Please enjoy.

Photo credit: de la Ronde

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

~Victor Frankl

What could be more important than serenity? I don’t know about you, but I got to a certain point in my life where I was tired of my emotional reactions. I commonly felt indignant, judgmental, and afraid, and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t experiencing the happiness and serenity I longed for.

Inspired by the Buddha’s declaration that the end of suffering was possible, I set out to learn how to stop the confusion and find peace. It has been an amazing, fruitful journey, and I am happy to share with you what I have discovered along the way.

Choosing Not to Suffer

Recently, I was trying to open a locked closet door, and the person I was with barked, “Don’t do it like that. You’re going to break it.” Clearly, he was triggered, but in that moment I was very aware that I had a choice about how I was going to respond.

Years ago, I would have been pissed off and offended. I might have yelled back, “Don’t talk to me like that!” or given him the silent treatment for a while. I learned to ask myself this essential question: Who is suffering? And every time I saw that my reactions, not the situations themselves, were causing my distress. I came to see it had nothing to do with the other person.

With a lot of practice, I have become acutely aware of my internal experience in most situations. And if the awareness lapses, a strong emotional reaction will wake me up. Then I make a choice. By choosing serenity over and over, the reactive tendencies have fallen away. Really. When my friend barked at me, there was barely a ripple – even my nervous system remained calm. Instead, I felt compassion for the way he was making himself suffer.

Seeing Things as They Actually Are

I have discovered that we react emotionally when we receive what happens through the filter of our constructions about reality. Let me explain. Say you have an expectation that something should happen in a certain way. Then your actual experience is that reality does not meet your expectation. A construction about reality is not the same thing as reality. They are ideas we build up in our minds about how things are supposed to be.

When we hold on tight to these constructions, we are setting ourselves up for trouble. If reality conforms to the construction, great. But if it doesn’t, who suffers?

This problem is widespread. Consider the ideas we cling to about how the past was supposed to be, what your children should want, how your spouse is supposed to react, how our plans are supposed to materialize. We live under the illusion that we shouldn’t become ill, that challenges shouldn’t occur, that someone dying is wrong.

How much do we live in our ideas about the world, while we are resisting what is actually being offered to us?

I have learned a very valuable phrase: “Oh, this.” My plane is three hours late? Oh, this. My father ends up in the ICU with pneumonia? Oh, this. I watch my mother’s memory fail over time? Oh, this. My sweet friend has incurable ovarian cancer? Oh, this.

“Oh, this” is not about resignation or shock. It is an alive acceptance of circumstances without reservation.

I simply no longer put any stock in the constructions that show up in my mind. I have learned that they bring suffering and recognize that they are essentially insubstantial. Not only do I accept what happens, I relish it. It was such a heartfelt time when my father was so sick. (Much to everyone’s surprise, he recovered.) And I revel in the visits with my mother and my friend. I let my heart open over and over to things exactly as they are.

Not Taking Anything Personally

As I choose not to feed my emotional reactions and I don’t take my thoughts seriously, there is no place for potential triggers to land. And I mean that quite literally.

When I deeply look through into even my idea of myself, I find sensations, thoughts, and perceptions of the world, but I don’t find what is conventionally known as “me.” “Gail” is a label. I can’t find her in this body. And when I close my eyes and become aware, there is not even a body, just sensations. Who am I? Vast space, awareness that is alive and vibrant.

This is not spiritual mumbo jumbo – it is the absolute truth of our existence. But don’t take my word for it – do your own investigation.

  • Are you your thoughts?
  • Are you your feelings?
  • Are you your body?

Thoughts, feelings, and sensations come and go, but what remains? Being, life, conscious awareness. From this understanding of who we are, reactions don’t have any meaning. We can take things personally only through our constructions. When we let them go, there is only complete serenity.

Serenity is Sanity

Notice that serenity is a byproduct of seeing things clearly. We can’t seek serenity directly, but we realize that it permeates everything endlessly when our constructions and reactive tendencies fall away.

Serenity is the ultimate in sanity. Reflect on your own experience so you can choose not to suffer, see things as they actually are (“Oh, this”), and recognize the fallacy in taking things personally. I promise, you will know serenity in the depth of your being.

How have you found serenity? What interferes with choosing not to suffer? I’d love to hear your experiences…

Gail Brenner, Ph.D. writes at her blog, A Flourishing Life, where she delights in offering practical wisdom for untangling self-defeating habits and realizing happiness. You can receive her posts by RSS or email, and follow her on Twitter at @aflourishinglif.

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47 responses to “Serenity is Sanity – Guest Post by Gail Brenner

  1. Pingback: So You Think You Have to Be Perfect? Learn How to Stop Beating Yourself Up | A Flourishing Life

  2. Hi Linda,
    About a month ago, you suggested exchanging guest posts, and I’m so glad you did! I love that readers of both of our blogs have the opportunity to discover a new perspective. You are offering a real service over here at Insanely Serene, and I’m honored to be a part of it.
    Love,
    Gail

    • Gail,

      I’m glad, too, that we could share each other’s insights with our readers and offer them additional resources. I particularly love this post you wrote, I find so much I resonate with. This phrase, “And every time I saw that my reactions, not the situations themselves, were causing my distress. I came to see it had nothing to do with the other person;” I’ve come to this myself, but I love the way you explain our emotional reactions as coming from our framework/contextual choice for viewing the world, our constructions of reality, not reality itself. I also love the phrase you introduce, “Oh this.” I’ve used the idea of “It is what it is.” But I like “Oh, this,” because it’s just an acknowledgment, an acceptance, a recognition of reality. There’s a story about a man and his horse in which both good and bad fortune seem to befall him. But his attitude is always nonjudmental – an event may be good, may be bad, but mostly, it just is, up to us to decide. Here’s a version of the story, http://www.noogenesis.com/pineapple/Taoist_Farmer.html. Also reminds me of Shakespeare’s “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet). I work at this myself, eliminating those emotional reactions is a challenge. Thanks for sharing the story of the closet, it’s an excellent microcosm of staying serene under pressure. It really can work.

      Thanks again for gracing Insanely Serene with your presence.

      Linda

  3. This post is right on the money with my own experience.

    Nothing that happens out there is actually relevant to what we hold inside. Maybe a little paradoxical is that everything that we see outside is what we created and put out there.

    We define the meaning that everything in the world has and rightfully so we can change it, to however we choose.

    By constantly letting go of the picture the we try to paint on top of the world we discuss the freedom of being and reside in the ocean of serenity.

  4. “oh This”; Thank you for the reminder today. I see the constructs and the expectations, and I see the work that I have left to do as it is sometimes challenging to let expectations go and find that serene place that lies beneath in different situations. I will get there.; Thank you for the reminder – I needed this today.

  5. @Jarrod @The Exception

    Isn’t Gail great? I love her insights and agree with you both about the importance of letting go to find that freedom and serenity that floats beneath the surface of our worry and our ego.

    Linda

  6. Gail is great! Once I realized that I can find serenity when I let go of the expectations and patterns I am/was in, my life is calmer. I do not have to react with anger or tension. It has made such a difference in my life.
    Deb

  7. This is a great post and reflects so many of my experiences and learnings about how to live without grasping to have others fulfill my expectations. Gail has captured the wisdom of many of my yoga teachers who have been helpful in my own journey to achieve serenity and non-attachment.
    http://www.postworksavvy.com

    • Hi PWS,
      I really appreciate your comment.

      I’m a devoted yogi myself. Practicing on the yoga mat is wonderful for learning about non attachment and non grasping.

      Whether we practice yoga or not, every moment offers the possibility for examining the places where we are stuck and letting go. As I’m sure you realize, serenity is always available underneath the reactivity. It’s not something we find. When our tendencies fall away, we realize serenity has always been possible.

      • I’m with you both on the yoga thing. I love it. I think most of the reason I love it is because I am truly present when I do yoga. It’s the best meditation. I lose track of all my rat-on-a-wheel thinking and just enjoy the flow. I’ve said this before, but my goal is to string together more and more moments of being present so it becomes more continuous.

  8. @ Jarrod: Your words are music to my ears like the waves gently lapping at the shore. So beautifully said. Everything we perceive is filtered through our minds. We can choose a different filter, or we can let all filters go and meet reality directly. A different filter can be useful, but true, lasting serenity comes only from letting down all barriers and having no resistance to what is. And what do we discover? As you said so clearly, the ocean of serenity.

  9. @Linda: So great to be here and have the opportunity to interact with your amazing readers. The fruits of your commitment to self-reflection are apparent in your words.

    With some attention, and intention, we can change our thoughts – see something in a more positive way, for example. There is another possibility for you to consider as well, which is to meet reality directly with no thoughts. I don’t mean to say we should stop thoughts, as this is impossible, but we can bring our attention to the space below or before thoughts. This is where wholeness and nonseparation are realized, and where true serenity resides.

    I hope these “thoughts” inspire your contemplation!

    • Thanks, Gail. I’m enjoying the comments and conversation. How often would you say you are in the space you describe – in present attention rather than thinking about past or future? Just curious. I am just grateful to have skills to keep me from getting into trouble – at more of a neutral place rather than a negative thought place, where I used to live all the time.

  10. @ The Exception: I love to hear your enthusiasm. When we see through expectations – and all mind activity, we find the serene place beneath situations. It is a coming home to ourselves by bringing our attention deeper inside, being here rather than caught in spinning of the mind.

    Wishing you a beautiful day…

  11. Pingback: Guest Post on Insanely Serene | A Flourishing Life

  12. Gail, I really enjoyed the reminder that it’s not all about me. It can take many lessons for something to be absorbed – I’ve read similar thoughts before, but making changes to the way I think is an ongoing process.

    I particularly liked this: “I felt compassion for the way he was making himself suffer”. We’ve all been there, causing ourselves needless suffering. You write very eloquently. Thank you.

    • Great to see you here, Alison.

      Change is an ongoing process, and I’ve come to love the process. I have found it extremely useful to let go of any goal or endpoint – for example, My thinking should be clear all the time, I shouldn’t get caught anymore.

      Each moment presents an opportunity to be free. It’s not about our expectations for ourselves. It’s about: In this moment, am I holding myself back or am I free? Living in questions and exploration becomes a lifestyle, an ongoing process that can bring so much joy to one’s life.

  13. My question is; how can you allow yourself to truly do this and believe? Although inspirational post and encouraging but when you really are stuck, is it a big crash that is just going wake up one day? Great writing.

  14. Wonderful article full of reminders I really needed to read right now. At the start of this year I set my intentions for growth and serenity. Time and time again I have been faced with the knowledge that it is my reactions and not the circumstances around me that truly determine my serenity and growth. I can be emotionally invested without surrendering to the emotion but instead being with it in a non judgmental way.

    Great post! Thank you and thanks Linda!! 🙂

    • Thanks, CC, always good to see you here. Glad you’re piercing through the veil of illusions – our own framework is the most confusing. I still find I have reactions these days, but I take a lot less time to calm down and accept the situation. Vent it and move on. So much better when emotions run through rather than get stuck, huh? Best, Linda

  15. I love this question, PurpleB, because I feel that it comes from a heartfelt place, from a place of being tired of suffering and wanting to know the truth. I could write volumes to answer it, but I’ll try to be helpful in a few sentences.

    For most of us, there is no big crash and awakening. It is a moment-by-moment process where we gradually become more and more aware of how we make ourselves suffer. When we are fed up enough with it, we are open to change, to seeing things in a new way, to stepping out into the unknown.

    When we make the decision to bring the qualities of curiosity, openness, and willingness to each of our experiences, we set the stage for transformation. We are willing to explore our habits and tendencies, to drill down all the way until we see them with crystal clarity. We are willing to not buy into our thoughts and fears that will try to deter us.

    I can only speak from my own experience. When the fire was lit in me, I put every single thing about my life and my identity up for grabs. It was, and is, quite a fierce process at times. But the fruits, well, this is where words fail. So much happiness…

    I support you on your journey, PurpleB. Please stay in touch (you can find me at AFlourishingLife.com) if you think it would be helpful.

  16. Gail and Linda,
    Great topic, great discussion thread. Serenity comes and serenity goes. I like serenity coming better than I like it going. Of course, I do, and so I end up in pursuit of serenity, and when I am tired and have given up that pursuit, it finds me. Thank you for the reminder, exactly what I needed at this moment.
    Happily – OccasionallySerene!

    • I love this comment, OS! Serenity is realized when we let go of all effort, all trying, anything that takes us away from the here and now. When we relax and expand our attention into the now, serenity is here, patiently waiting.

      Thanks so much for adding this perspective to the discussion.

    • Hey, OS,

      Good to hear from you and agree with you on the up-and-down nature of serenity. In fact, today was a case in point for me. Started off well, got hit by a snag in the form of a family problem, got a little riled up, had to talk it out with friends before I could calm down and go back to work, then got some good news on the work front, and readjusted my attitude. Gave myself a break in the afternoon, and feel oh so much better. I don’t mind working for my serenity, because I do know I usually get there and it feels so much better than the alternative! Glad you enjoyed Gail’s post.

      Best,
      Linda

  17. Hello Gail and Linda,

    Gail, this is an exceptional article. I read it and my heart just keeps saying “Yes, yes this is true”.

    The section on “Seeing things as they actually are” really speaks to me. I look inside and I can see constructs I have manufactured. I look back at instances in the past where I was angry, hurt or sad and I can see that in most case it was due to the expectations that I had embraced and did not let go of. My journey has been leading me away from that and reading this article has truly helped me today. I will remember this, and doing so will allow me to continue evolving.

    Thank you so much. I am happy I found this. 🙂

    • Keith,

      So happy you found the blog and Gail’s post, isn’t she awesome? I also related to the part where she says her reactions have nothing to do with the other person. That’s what I’ve come to myself, after lots of work and practice on detaching from other people and their reactions. It’s pretty powerful, though, to know it’s never about the other person, always about me. Good because then I know I can work on feeling better without relying on someone else, Bad because I can’t blame and have to do the work!! Ha! Anyway, look forward to more conversation.

      Best,
      Linda

      • Yes, she is awesome!

        I laughed when I read “Good because then I know I can work on feeling better without relying on someone else, Bad because I can’t blame and have to do the work!! Ha!” LOL So true, but it is the path to joy I think.

        Loving your blog

    • I feel your heart coming through your words, Keith. I’m so glad this article spoke to you.

      Realizing that our constructs are added to reality and are not reality itself can be so liberating. First, we learn that it is possible to self-reflect and move through our patterns, then we direct our awareness to them so we can see the truth of them – the story, the reactions. As we do this, over and over, our attachments soften, and we are willing to step into unfamiliar territory – no constructions, no habits, just pure being.

      May you realize the fruits of your journey in all ways…

      • Gail,

        You couldn’t have worded that any more perfect. My heart testifies that what you are saying is true. Through practice, we can soften our attachments. How freeing this is! It makes one bold too, as we will venture into the uncharted lands.

        Thanks Gail

  18. I enjoyed this post and the gentle reminder that you suggest Gail “oh this”. It sounds as if your journey has led you to a developing discernment, and this is at the center of your peace and harmony.

    • Hi Sandra,

      Oh, this. So simple, isn’t it?

      The discernment has come naturally as a result of the constructions and tendencies falling away. It is our natural state to be clear, to see things as they are. This state is obscured by our conditioned tendencies. Once these are seen through, things are seen with clarity.

      At the heart of peace and harmony, for me, is not resisting anything. When all the constructions are seen as false, and all experiences are welcomed, as is without any veils, what is apparent is the vastness of peace, spaciousness, a deep relaxing into this moment. Oh, this.

  19. @Keith: My pleasure, Keith. Happy venturing!

  20. Linda,
    A wonderful guest you have here today!

    Gail,
    So good to read this, especially after I’ve just finished reading a book that very much is in alignment with all you are talking about here – “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz.

    What a beautiful place to “be”, and in that – how you see the world is also so beauty-filled. Serenity is such a wonderful place to come from. I’ve found that the more deeply I know myself…the more I have also found this place of serene being…

    So, so good…

    • Thanks, Lance, glad you stopped by and enjoyed Gail’s insights on suffering and serenity. I loved the Four Agreements. I am with you on the idea of finding the serene place inside – I was at the beach today and surprised myself with how much I relaxed into the sun and sand – more so than I thought I would or could. Something inside must be melting. ! Best, Linda

    • Great to see you over here, Lance. It sounds like you are becoming very familiar with serenity. As we know no limit to the depth of ourselves, we discover serenity effortlessly. It’s just here – not something we need to work for. And yes, from this place, everything sparkles with beauty.

      So happy to share this conversation…

  21. What a wonderful post. Thank you Gail and Linda. A good reminder that we always have a choice. I seem to have been reacting a lot recently, rather than creating my experience. Reading this is a good reminder that I can choose another way.
    Jen x

    • Jen,

      I know what you mean – I go through these cycles where I’m much thinner-skinned. I think I learn more each time I go through it, though, and detach a little bit more. I get better and better at making the choice not to suffer earlier and earlier in an interaction or situation. I’m glad you enjoyed Gail’s post, it’s been a fabulous collaboration.

      🙂
      Linda

  22. Hi Jen,

    Beautiful that you notice you have been reacting a lot recently – each reaction an opportunity. In any moment, we can choose happiness or suffering.

    May the moments of your life shine…

  23. Hi Gail,
    A very useful post, beautifully expressed. Here’s a story I heard at a retreat at Insight Meditation Society: Joseph Goldstein, a founder of IMS and a very well known teacher, was asked if he had experienced enlightenment. His answer was that he’s had moments of enlightenment interspersed with other kinds of moments. The title of a book by Jack Kornfeld, another senior meditation teacher, captures the idea of the varying moments of our lives: “After The Ecstasy, The Laundry”.

    Experience has shown me that letting go of habitual responses and finally of the idea of a solid “self” is liberating and a step toward serenity. As you note, it is also hard work to attain these moments of fierce grace.

    • Eileen,

      Thanks for your presence here. Your stories remind me of a class I took with Cheri Huber, the Zen monk, who was asked if she ever got bored saying the same things over and over again. She replied to us, “I never say the same thing twice.” To her, it’s always fresh and new. I love that. It reminds me to stay present in my responses, to let them come from a real place, authentic and not canned. Fun stuff.

      Best,
      Linda

    • Hi Eileen,
      Glad you mentioned Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield. I am very familiar with their teachings.

      Letting go, and liberation, happen in the moment. When the veils of our habits fall away, even if just for a moment, we realize peace. This peace is always available – it is obscured by the mind. I have found that letting go in the moment is work at the beginning because there are a lot of layers that build up over the years.

      But gradually the process becomes so very joyful. We get to experience life, this, even though the mind might label a given experience as hurtful or unpleasant. When every moment is received as fresh, as Linda mentioned, serenity is, happiness is.

      Awakening is not mysterious or only for the chosen few. It is available right now, in this very moment.

  24. Gail, Linda…Linda, Gail…

    Thank you both for sharing…with each other, and therefore with us. Gail, this post is so peaceful. I can feel the serenity of your experience and of course would want it for my own. Oh, this. What a lovely reminder. No drama. Acceptance. A truly beautiful concept. I blog about ‘growing’ by sharing experiences. Today I am a receiver! Thanks you. Look forward to seeing more of you over at the A-List Bloggers.

    Amy

    • Amy,

      So nice to make your acquaintance too, thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I felt some good energy from you here, and look forward to visiting your blog. Do take care of yourself, stay centered in your own truth.

      Best,
      Linda

    • Hi Amy,

      I love the enthusiasm in your comment. Giving, receiving, eventually they melt into one – “oh, this.” It is yours. When we are ready to let go of our attachment to the mind, all that remains is this. No drama, no stress. The end of the inner war.

      I look forward to getting to know you…

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