Why is our calm so easily disturbed? Our culture values self promotion over humility, action over careful consideration, and passion over contentment. These human proclivities keep us off balance, tossed around by the waves of experience and crashing up against the rocky shore of reality.
If we speak more than we listen or when we react impulsively, we leave little room for wise responding. But as Viktor Frankl so wisely put it, “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.”
Fortunately, another characteristic of human beings is a rather large cortex we can use to override our baser instincts (if we can become aware of them and give ourselves time to consider the facts as well as our options). To make space, we need to truly accept the fact that we are fallible creatures whose unexamined minds can be easily fooled. Only in this way will be consistently willing to pause and investigate deeply before we decide and before we act. Cultivating humility is one way to help ourselves make a habit of making space.
…we frequently do not know our own motivations in life and are prisoners to what we cannot understand. We can recognize only a small fragment of our own, and an even smaller fragment of anyone else’s… – Andrew Soloman
Humility values listening over speaking. As Fr. Thomas Dubay said, “The humble listen to their brothers and sisters because they assume they have something to learn.” Being humble means that we accurately assess our own strengths and limitations. Of all the personality traits measured, humility is the most strongly linked with helpfulness and generosity. It motivates us to look beyond ourselves and our personal beliefs and preferences.
One reason we find ourselves valuing passion over peace is that emoting often feels good in the short term. In the case of anger, there may be a surge of energy and a feeling of righteousness. When we lament our woes, we may feel our burden is shared by another, lightening our load. Venting brings a temporary kind of relief – but, just like releasing effluent into a river, it eventually comes back around to contaminate us and everyone else around us. Rehashing our complaints or acting out our afflictive emotions only ultimately strengthens them and makes them contagious. A consistent mindfulness practice helps us see these habits and patterns more clearly so we can prevent ourselves from increasing our suffering.
The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.” – Marcus Aurelius
Even when we are threatened, things tend to work out better when we don’t let our calm be disturbed. We have good evidence that peaceful resistance is much more effective in the long term than aggression and violence. According to Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan in their study of violent versus non-violent resistance between 1900 and 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts.
Yet our baser instincts often tell us to fight against what feels unwanted or threatening. We want to protect our own self-interests now – we fail to recognize we are playing a long game. What seems best for me right now, might not actually serve the greater good. But, accepting and acting on this insight appropriately takes much discernment, patience, courage and compassion. A dedicated mindfulness practice can help us cultivate the internal qualities that make this more likely.
We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us… We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. – Wendell Barry
Chenoweth, E., & Stephan, M. J. (2011). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. Columbia University Press.
Stephan, M. J., & Chenoweth, E. (2008). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. International Security, 33(1), 7-44.
Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) Data Project: A multi-level data collection effort that catalogues major nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns around the globe from 1900-2013.