Moments of peace in the midst of hectic lives are possible. We just need to know where to look | Moya Lothian-McLean
I spend a considerable part of my time seeking moments of peace. This is partly a result of the world we live in: we’re locked into a 24/7 society, where overstimulation is the norm. But it also evokes personal contradictions: I have an endless to-do list that propels me every day, each action a check-off task, from lunch to the walk to the store. For someone who wants peace so much, I don’t leave him much room.
Clearly, I am not alone in this quest. Much has been made of the relentless cultural march of ‘mindfulness’, a concept originating in a meditative practice but now apparently used to refer to everything from paying nearly £70 a year for an app to wild swimming . Too many columns have already been devoted to dissecting the prevalence of mindfulness, but suffice it to say that I see its rise to mainstream status (and its subsequent commodification) as a symptom of a massive search for a small pocket of peace.
Last year I worked on a podcast episode for the Wellcome Collection to accompany an exhibition they were presenting which was partly about the concept of tranquility. In conversation with collaborator, environmental psychologist Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe, I scrolled down a list of places in my adopted home, London, where I had felt a sense of transcending my dirty little self. to be awash in complete peace: the tippy-top of St. Paul’s Cathedral; the Watts Memorial in Postman’s Park; a medieval church tucked away on Ely Place, one of the city’s last private roads. There was a common thread there, Ratcliffe told me, citing the work of his doctoral student Ruairi Patterson: awe, that transcendent sense of awe and wonder that might be triggered by a particularly fiery sunset, or watching your friend stuff four hot dogs into her mouth immediately.
I was intrigued by this and contacted Patterson. Yes, he told me, there is growing evidence that wonder can reduce stress and improve well-being.
Patterson pointed me to a paper published last year, led by a Peking University researcher, who found that experiencing “awesome phenomena” could lead to greater life satisfaction and less stress. Previous work has also suggested that wonder is a key component of nature’s ability to reduce stress levels and improve well-being. “These effects,” says Patterson, “result at least in part from the ability of awe-inspiring experiences to ‘put things into perspective’ by making oneself and one’s personal concerns seem small compared to the perceived vastness awesome phenomena.”
A nice idea, isn’t it? Yes, I thought, fear certainly plays a central role when I feel most serene. But thinking about it, I’m sure that’s not the only factor; there are many times when I have felt fear and yet I have not quite reached that state of peace. After reflection, I proposed an alternative thesis: it is about being out of context.
The times I feel the most peaceful are when I’ve stepped out of the normal flow of my daily life and into someone else’s timeline. Like entering a church as a non-believer, with no religious tradition in my past. Cycling in a park that I never usually visit. Lunch at a museum café instead of reheating my salmon and vegetables at home. When I am out of context, my problems are unable to find me until I have slipped into the rhythms of my normal existence. The more I thought about it, the more correct it seems to me. I remember the great sense of peace that came over me as a child when I walked out of school in the middle of the day for a doctor’s appointment. Sitting on the hard plastic chairs in the waiting room, I heard the cries of my classmates in the courtyard of the neighboring school and I felt completely calm not being there with them, in my place. It’s a comforting mix of near-anonymity, newness, and escaping the wreckage that accumulates by simply existing.
By its very nature, finding stillness by stepping out of yourself is not a way to be sustainable. It is a state that can be torn away; at some point, I have to put myself back in place. I suspect that being constantly at peace would breed complacency. Having to fight for something, even if it’s inner calm, unfortunately means that I appreciate it more. At least armed with the exact knowledge of the conditions that create this feeling of serenity, he feels within reach. That alone is soothing. And I did it without the help of a mindfulness app. Saving £70 on Self-Knowledge: Now That’s Peace.