Let’s talk about what serenity … isn’t.
I was sitting quietly waiting for a yoga class to start during a stressful time a few years ago when a teacher walked across the room to tell me, “I have to say, you’re the chillest person in this room, sitting here like the Buddha.”
I gave him a wry grin and said he should see the mayhem happening on the inside. He responded that the inside and outside are connected, and I couldn’t possibly sit in such a manner if it was all that bad. I thanked him and good-naturedly said something about begging to disagree.
I recalled that experience some time later when I saw a Buddhist sutta which is commonly translated as follows:
They do not lament over the past,
they yearn not for what is to come,
they maintain themselves in the present,
thus their complexion is serene.
I had seen those words many times, but suddenly they carried new meaning.
It’s incredibly easy to mistake “that person looks serene” for “that person IS serene.”
It’s just as easy to attempt to force a serene outer appearance in the hopes that the inner experience will follow. Neither of these are skillful. A problem-free life is not a requirement for a serene complexion. (If it was, the first serene human face would still have yet to be made.)
An outer appearance of serenity is simply a reflection of our inner capacity to relate to our problems in a skillful way.
I wasn’t trying to control how I looked as I waited for that yoga class to start, but in a room full of people who seemed far more relaxed than I felt, the teacher came to me. It was an “a-ha” moment for my practice; an unsolicited confirmation that I had developed the ability to give my internal turmoil enough space and compassion that it didn’t spill out into my face … or actions.
And that’s one of the funny paradoxes of holding it together: it rarely FEELS like holding it together.
Everything doesn’t have to be ok for us to relax; it’s enough to simply be ok with the thought that they aren’t.