In this article, I will discuss the art of truly not allowing external circumstances affect your internal balance, and its value in living a graceful life.
I have been obsessed with the idea of living with grace for a long time. Me being a martial arts enthusiast, I had always watched with sparkling eyes as the karateka, upon preparing his focus, breaks a stack of bricks. Or when a modern samurai cuts a 6mm BB (travelling at hundreds of feet per second) in half. Or when I watch UFC fighter Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson evade punches with catlike agility and fluidity. They all shared certain traits- the seemingly unnatural physical and mental stillness, a counter intuitive, serence relaxation in stressful circumstances, and their mental attitude of gentle yet utter domination over their circumstances.
They insist on playing by their own rules, which leverage the momentum of a situation, rather than fight it. This is in complete contrast with us, the majority, who are dominated by our surroundings. Their level of involvement is so deep, that it appears as though they are in profound detachment to the situation.
The more I looked around, the more grace I found in life. From a university professor who solves a problem in the fewest required number of steps, to the way the expert musician pulled the heartstrings of his audience through his precise manipulation of notes, to the way the lone hawk expertly navigates air currents with no wasted movement, grace was everywhere, just out of casual sight. I was hooked, and I couldn’t deny it any longer- grace makes life an unbelievably amazing and fulfilling experience. I must pursue this search further. I must become a student of the phenomenon that is grace.
The word comes from the Latin word Gratus, (pleasing, or thankful), leading to Latin gratia (having the favor of the gods). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, grace is defined in English as follows:
“1) Smoothness and elegance of movement
2) Courteous good will
3) An attractively polite manner of behaving
4) The free and unmerited favour of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and bestowal of blessings”
However we try to define it, there is always an element to grace that cannot be quantized, an unknown element, a je ne sais quoi. It is at the edge of your mind, the tip of your tongue, just beyond reach. The more you reach for it, the more you try to recreate that moment, the further it recedes.
The Value of Living with Grace
It should come as no surprise that we live in a neurotic society. Most of us wake up when we’re not fully rested. The average person propels oneself onward using sugar and caffeine, while encountering frustration, anger and boredom in various forms. Frustration with traffic, repetitive and uninspiring work, the annoying co-worker, and bills that induce anxiety, are all examples of sources of the neurosis that is widespread in modern civilized society.
For the most part, we’ve become so acclimatized to this neurosis, that it’s almost expected. In fact, we are taught young, how to follow the neurotic path. Elementary schools condition children to fit the image of the quiet, obedient student with a singular mode of intelligence (happily, this is changing). Hyperactive students are taught to suppress their natural and healthy urges, and are medicated to fit the strict demands of scholarship. In young adulthood, it becomes easy to pass up on personal hobbies, healthy diet and exercise to free up a few hours, which are spent on homework, projects and exams. Later in adulthood, the years of conditioning, the years of learned imbalance further enhance the imbalanced lifestyle. Physical, mental and social well being are forsaken for goals imposed by society (for example, the millions worldwide pursuing “the American dream”).
Don’t get me wrong, society is great! As a society, we’ve prolonged our lifespan, developed cures for previously fatal illnesses, built durable homes and cities, and created means of incredibly fast travel. By forming a society, most of us we have escaped the first rat race – eat or get eaten. I’m not blaming society for causing imbalances in our lives. I think of society as the target setter. We set targets through our collective consciousness, what most of us strive for is imposed heavily upon the rest of us. When we don’t know any better, we pursue targets which are unhealthy and cause discord within our spheres of existence. The problem with the current education establishment is that we are taught very little about how to effectively manage and utilize human conditions – our emotions, personal attributes, habits, mental self-talk, how we associate with our peers etc. These are things we must confront and manage every single day.
You don’t have to live a hermit’s life in the mountains to live gracefully. In fact, quite the opposite.
While one may find grace in living a hermit’s life, it is perhaps more graceful to live in a pressured society, untouched by the pressure. Consider the oft-cited lotus, which lives in muddy ponds but rises above the mud, a testament that great things can arise from the worst circumstances.
Have you heard the phrase, “First World Problems”? It characterizes a universal human trend, where as humans, we create our own problems (I know you’re about to disagree, but hear me out). Circumstances are inevitable, but our response to these circumstances determines what is a “problem” and what isn’t. A man in poverty worries about finding his next meal. A middle class teen worries about his acne, and his appearance before his peers. In both their minds, they are deeply worrying problems. However, as we’ve all heard, worrying is not a productive reaction. In fact, it increases stress hormones and generally makes things worse for you. Worrying is the act of dwelling, rather than acting, on problems.
If we can avoid creating problems for ourselves, we simplify our lives by a longshot. When the teenager experiences an acne breakout, he could see it as a breakout, and not as a problem. He has a choice on whether to act, or worry. The choice is in his hands (well, his head, really). Years of conditioning and socially accepted practices compels him to choose worry and frustration.
One of the best examples of the power of choice is Viktor Frankl, a Jewish doctor imprisoned in Auschwitz, who describes how he transmuted his fearful and morbid existence into a meaningful one, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. This is where Grace enters the picture. His work and experience is a testimony to the power of a graceful mindset. But choosing to make his time at Auschwitz a meaningful experience, he made a choice to not resist the inevitable circumstances he was stuck in. He refused to allow EXTERNAL circumstances attack his INTERNAL balance as an individual.
To be clear, a graceful mindset does not require you to reject reality. It simply requires you to understand that problems arise out of resisting the inevitable.
By living gracefully, we make a choice- we choose to not resist life. This is much, much tougher than it sounds. You’ve heard the phrase, “Go with the flow” and “Just be” a million times, tried going “with the flow” a few times, and likely dismissed it as hippie mumbo jumbo. You must remember that mindfulness and non-resistance to circumstances are cultivated habits- it takes months to grow and a lifetime to perfect.
I’m not suggesting that you live passively. On the contrary, living gracefully involves mindfully taking proactive approaches to overcome challenges, but avoid excesses- specifically excessive worrying. Here’s a good analogy: Water in a stream flows around obstacles, but it never stops moving forward. Bruce Lee famously explained in his quote:
How will one find grace?
You don’t find grace – it finds you. It is a state of being; you allow yourself to become its conduit. You allow grace to enter your life by non-resistance to life, and by reacting to circumstances with awareness. Stuck in traffic? Observe your reactions; don’t get wrapped up in them. Notice the urge to get frustrated, and realize that although the circumstances are what they are, you are the source of your own frustration. See what steps you can take to escape traffic. Make the choice to not induce frustration upon yourself. This will not be easy, but like any habit, gets easier with time and consistent practise.
Sometimes, I really can’t help myself. Some circumstances are extremely worrisome.
A healthy amount of stress (eustress) is good- it motivates you to get off your bum and into action. However, distinction must be made between eustress and distress (useless, harmful stress). Hey, I get it. Maybe you’re not into this self-improvement crap. Maybe you are. Whatever your choice, remember that it takes patience and mindfulness to catch yourself when unconscious behavior strikes. Grace is a state of being that must be cultivated. You must be patient with time, for habits demand time to change. You must also practice patience with yourself- correct yourself gently each time you catch yourself resisting reality. Demetrious Johnson did not learn to become a skillful fighter overnight. Rome was not built in a day.
Start observing your inner dialogue as you encounter frustrations in life, and make the choice to not harm yourself. Circumstances can’t change your inner world – only you can, and you owe it to yourself to change it for the better. I’d like to end with a quote:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
-Viktor E. Frankl, author, holocaust survivor
For further reading, I recommend (obviously) Man’s Search for Meaning, and also An Untethered Soul by Michael Singer. This book contains well structured arguments about how and why you can, and should, remain unaffected internally to changing external circumstances. I will write a post about this wonderful read in the future. All the best! -P