Peace in My Mind

I awoke the other morning with a song lyric in my head, from a tune I didn’t particularly care for. It was a line I hadn’t realized I even knew: “Got to get some peace in my mind.” The lyric was from an otherwise forgettable Fleetwood Mac song called “Monday Morning” about a fickle girlfriend, the usual stuff of pop tunes. Yet somehow the song had wormed its way into my unconscious. Perhaps it was because peace of mind, however inartfully expressed, is a universal human longing.

A Google search of “peace of mind” yields nearly one billion citations (952,000,000, rounded to the nearest million). Many of these, I discovered, refer to commodities of one sort or another, either as the name of a consumer product or service, or as a product feature. Included in the list are a line of skin care products, an estate-planning service, tea bags, funeral arrangements, a men’s fragrance (“highly elegant, manly, fresh and linear in a good way”), even a shade of Sherwin-Williams paint (beige). And that was just in the first ten pages of citations.

American capitalism being what it is, I should not have been surprised by the pervasive commoditization of peace of mind. After all, a prominent local jeweler in my home town long touted that his baubles came with P.O.M.G, “peace of mind guarantee.” Why jewelry should be associated with peace of mind was never clear — at least not to me — but I guess it sounded good. Among the benefits of peace of mind, one must not rule out profit motive.

Quite apart from the various products and services associated with it, peace of mind is also a selling point for many spiritual traditions. Christians talk of the peace that passes all understanding. For Buddhists, the basic understanding is that suffering is real but the self that identifies with suffering is not. “Peace comes from within,” the Buddha taught. “Do not seek it without." Ralph Waldo Emerson said pretty much the same thing: “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” The medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart, argued that we must live in utter detachment from every outcome in life, a process he described as “living without a why.” If ever we say, “Why me?” in reaction to some adverse circumstance, we are asking the wrong question.

The Stoics were particularly adamant on this score. Epictetus, who was born a slave, advised, “Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.” Marcus Aurelius, a philosopher who moonlighted as emperor of Rome, advised, “Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.” As emperor, you might think he would have an entirely different perspective on things than the low-born Epictetus. But no: “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.” As Epictetus would say, “Adapt yourself to the environment in which your lot has been cast.”

My Web search turned up numerous tips and techniques for finding peace of mind. They are mostly an exercise in self improvement, which may have benefits in and of themselves but cannot bring true peace of mind. If the aim is to end our suffering — in particular, our attachment to our suffering self — then a new and improved self does nothing but subtly prolong the suffering. We have to move in a different direction entirely — if indeed “move” is even the right way to look at it.

“There is no way to peace,” said the American pacifist A.J. Muste; “peace is the way.” He was speaking here of peace as an alternative to violence and war. But much the same is true of peace of mind. As long as it is viewed as a goal that is achieved by a process of getting from here to there, it will always remain as a shimmering mirage on the horizon. In order to find peace of mind, we think we must first fix everything that is wrong with ourselves, which of course will take a lifetime. Indeed, if the Buddhists and Hindus are to be believed, it will take many lifetimes.

Why not start each morning by telling yourself that the person I am today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly, among other things. Why sugarcoat it? I am deeply flawed, just like everyone else. Why not start there? I might as well, since there is really no alternative. Accept the things to which fate binds you, Marcus Aurelius advised. Love the people with whom fate brings you together — and that includes yourself.

There is a reason why Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. Why didn’t he just leave it at “love your neighbor,” period? Because if you can’t love yourself — bind your fate to yourself, good, bad and indifferent — then you will never have peace of mind. The Greek word for “love” that Jesus uses here (agape) has a very particular meaning that is different from the love you might have for a friend or family member. He’s not telling us we necessarily have to like our neighbor; he’s telling us we have to accept our neighbors unconditionally for who they are. By the same token, we have to accept ourselves unconditionally for who we are.

Are there things about myself that I still need to fix? Undoubtedly, especially things that are harmful to others. But once I am able to accept myself for who I am, I can move forward. I become almost indifferent to my fate. St. Paul was beaten, stoned, vilified, shipwrecked, jailed and eventually martyred by the Romans. Yet, so far as we know, he never asked, “Why me?” He said, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” What was his secret? He had found what he called the peace that passes all understanding.

Philippians 4:7,11

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