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Calmness Is Contagious, Even If You’re Faking It

Calm

“Peace of mind is not the absence of conflict from life, but the ability to cope with it.” ~Unknown

We had just reached cruising altitude and my friend and I were settling in for the eight-hour flight from Tokyo to Honolulu. Exhausted after spending the day in the airport, we were excited to finally be in the air with beaches awaiting us at our destination.

Jered and I were on an adventure around the world flying with standby tickets to any destination that had open seats. Even though we had been trying to get a seat to Bangkok, then Sydney, then Seoul, then Frankfurt, and then Paris, all with no luck, we decided to take the only available seats on the last plane of the day.

After getting comfortable we decided to pass the time by racing each other in solving our Rubik’s cubes (what can I say; this is what we did for fun). It turns out this odd hobby was about to help me on the road to improving my inner calmness.

“BANG!” We hit sudden, unexpected turbulence from a winter storm. I only remember two things: my stomach squishing into my throat as we hit an air pocket and a little girl in the aisle flying to the ceiling.

Thankfully, there was a nearby flight attendant who heroically jumped, caught the girl, and curled up on the floor before she got hurt. 

The plane was jerking violently in all directions. People were screaming. The pilot was on the intercom saying something, but no one could hear it over the chaos.

Throughout the maelstrom my friend and I stayed focused on our cubes, continuing to spin their sides as we attempted to solve them before the other could. While my exterior seemed calm and focused, in my mind I was screaming.

My hands were clammy and it became harder to keep my hold on the plastic toy in my hands. I was afraid I was going to die.

The worst of it was over in twenty or so minutes, but the flight was still rough for several hours. As the sun started to rise and the flight had been calm for a couple hours, passengers slowly started to liven up again, chatting with the people around them about the experience.

Having spent the time focused on the cube in front of me, I was surprised when the guy sitting next to me said, “Man, I was freaking out. I was about to lose it, but then I looked over and saw you two just playing with those things. You two were so calm that it helped me calm down too.”  

This struck me as odd since I felt the same way he did, just internally. But soon other passengers sitting around us around us started chiming in, sharing the same experience. It seems a wave of collective calm slowly rolled over the back of the plane helping to ease some of the tension.

Without being aware of it, I projected calmness to the people around me. They in turn became calmer. And ultimately my internal fear started to fade away as well.

It was a surreal experience but it became clear to me that calmness was contagious, even if I was only faking it.

In many meditative traditions a calm, clear mind is often said to be like a still pond under a full moon. The smooth surface is transparent, allowing the moonlight to clearly illuminate the bottom of the pond. It is also like a mirror, reflecting back in perfect detail the moon and the night sky.

Unfortunately, however, our minds are not always clear. The surface is full of ripples that make it hard to see the bottom and distort the image of the moon. While these ripples are sometimes created by the wind or the environment, most of them are caused by rocks dropped into the pond; rocks created in our minds.

These rocks are emotions like anger, hatred, or fear. Often without realizing it we are constantly throwing these stones into our ponds, never letting it return to stillness.

Returning to a calm mind is simple. Just stop throwing rocks and let the waves calm down on their own. Despite this, we often try to calm our minds by throwing more rocks into to pond.

Sometimes when I can tell my wife is upset with me, but tells me nothing is wrong, I start to provoke her, “What’s wrong? I know something is wrong! Why won’t you tell me what’s wrong!?”

I genuinely want to calm things down but, as you can imagine, I end up making her feel worse because I continue to throw rocks instead of letting things calm down on their own.

When we do stop throwing rocks, though, the effect can be powerful and lasting. As we are interconnected with others, the stillness of our mind, the refusal to throw rocks, can help others find the same peace.

When people see that your mind is clear it helps them realize that they too can let go.

I still think about that flight from time to time, but mostly when I’m flying. I used to be a fearless flyer, but even today I feel pangs of panic, that squirt of adrenaline down the back of my neck, every time a plane bumps or shakes.

However, as I’ve increased my awareness of my own emotions, I can sense when I’m holding a rock and then I set it down.

Here’s an exercise to try. Next time there’s something or someone causing you distress: stop talking. Pause and take a moment to take a few deep breaths. Begin to watch your thoughts and note the upsetting ones. Don’t ignore them, just notice them. These are your rocks.

As you notice anger or hatred forming in your mind, imagine it as a rock. See yourself holding that rock, poised to toss it into your mind. But instead of throwing it, picture yourself gently setting down beside you. Take a deep breath. Let it go.

Practice this when you can. Not only does cultivating calmness have tremendous effects on your personal state of mind, you never know how big an effect you may have on the others around you.

Photo by oddsock

Avatar of Jeff Urmston

About Jeff Urmston

Jeff is a designer, philosopher, and blogger that writes about growing your mind through meditation, mindfulness, and helping others.  You can connect with Jeff on Twitter via @jeffurmston or on at www.livegrowchange.com.

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  • http://www.selfication.com/ Patrik Edblad

    I can definitely relate to this. I’m often told that I have a very calming presence on the people around me which is often surprising to me since a lot of times that wasn’t I was experiencing on the inside. I might have been nervous like crazy and still those around took comfort in my calm demeanour. I really like your pond and rocks-exercise, I’ll be trying it out. Thanks for sharing, Jeff.

  • Dochy

    This is such an insightful post! The step-by-step action plan you’ve given, involving the rocks and water, is awesome! Thanks so much Jeff for sharing this!

  • http://www.dawnofchange.com/ Onder Hassan

    Awesome article Jeff :)
    I would like to add that being calm is the key to being non-reactive, which was a massive thing for me when it came to displaying confidence and emotional control.

  • Faith

    Humor helps to diffuse reactive situations, too. Same scenario — bucking airplane (maybe not quite as violent, but violent enough) as we flew over a line of thunderstorms. I’m digging my fingernails into the arm rest, feeling like I’m just about to start screaming in panic. Behind me, two Texans, with really thick Texas accents, are chatting. One says to the other, “Rough flight.” The other replies, “Aw, this is nothin’. I was on a flight coming into Dallas one day, and we hit a patch of turbulence that was so rough, every toilet on the plane flushed at the same time.” For about 5 rows around, everybody started laughing hysterically, myself included. And suddenly, I realized the rough flight was a lot easier to accept. The panic was intercepted by laughter.

  • Jeff Urmston

    Thanks Onder! Remaining calm, even when I really want to freak out, has been a huge help for me in many stressful situations.

  • Jeff Urmston

    Thanks Patrik! I always amazes me how emotions can work in reverse. In the case of calmness, just acting calm can make you and others around you calm. One study, for instance, looked at forcing smiles and found that even if the person didn’t initially feel happy, they were on average much happier in the experiment than the control group.

  • Jeff Urmston

    Thanks Dochy! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Jeff Urmston

    Faith I think that is an awesome point. Humor is an great way to ease the tension caused by fear and panic. Unfortunately negative emotions can be extremely contagious–think of mass panics and mobs. When things get tense on a plane you can almost feel as the uneasiness passes from person to person. Being calm in these situation is great, but humor can quickly cut through the tension and stop the spread. Laughter is one of the most contagious human expressions. Thanks Faith for the insight!

  • Tana Franko

    Thank you for this. It’s too soon to tell, but I suspect it may be the most useful thing I’ve read in a long time. :-)

  • The Emotion Machine

    Some research suggests that faking emotions requires more emotional labor and can actually lead to easier burnout and fatigue. I believe addressing your emotions in an honest way and taking healthy measures to reverse those patterns is more effective than “faking emotions,” per se – but it could just be a semantics thing for me.

  • Daria

    I am so glad you’re alive! :)

  • Jeff Urmston

    I think you make a good point here. Simumlating emotions is a difficult task and requires heavy cognitive load. The study I mentioned in the comments below was reverse engineering by recreating the physical outcome of a given emotion. For instance, by using a device to force a smile, the reported emotions become happier on average. Faking something like the sense of being happy in the mind might be very hard because you’re consciouslly aware of faking it. In the case of calmness, it’s less an emotion and more a physical state that helps regulate your emotions. Thank you again for pointing this out I think it is something I’d like to explore furthur.

  • The Emotion Machine

    Just to elaborate my point a little further with some studies I collected awhile back:

    - According to a recent study in the Academy of Management Journal,
    it was discovered that bus drivers were more likely to experience
    negative emotions on days when they pretended to be in a good mood.

    - Another analysis of over 3 decades of research found that faking positive feelings at work was associated with lower employee satisfaction and increased job burnout.

    - A third study published in Anxiety, Stress, and Coping
    found that volunteers at a call center who were told to “hide negative
    emotions” had greater increases in blood pressure and heart rate than
    those told to show their true feelings.

    http://www.theemotionmachine.com/fake-smiles-at-work-may-be-unhealthy

  • Jeff Urmston

    Thanks Tana, I hope this advice proves useful.

  • Jeff Urmston

    Thanks Daria!

  • Esther Litchfield-Fink

    I will remember this one. “calmness is contagious”. Thank you! by the way I cannot do a rubiks cube to save my life.

  • Jeff Urmston

    Thanks Esther!

  • Jeff Urmston

    Those are good studies. They help clear up the semantic difference between faking emotions (as in trying to simulate a particular set of feelings or attitudes) as opposed to creating the resulting physical conditions of an emotion (smiling, meditating on the breath). I think my use of “faking” may be part of the confusion here. The goal is to create conditions that result from a given emotional state but not to deny that you may be feeling quite the opposite. As the studies you provided show, truly faking or forcing your emotions to be what they aren’t is stressful on the mind. Thank you for taking the time to dig up the studies!

  • Jane

    What a wonderful post. I’ve been practicing this today during my meditation and find it to be very helpful, thanks so much for sharing. I wish letting go of certain people–mainly manipulative family members– were that easy.

  • Bliss Williams

    What a true insight, i truly believe with things like this that we can fake it till we make it!

  • Kellie

    Excellent advice. Read thi when I really needed to. Thank you.

  • Jeff Urmston

    Thank you Jane, I’m glad the post was helpful. I definitely know the type of people you mean, none of it is ever easy but it helps.

  • Jeff Urmston

    Thanks Bliss!

  • Jeff Urmston

    Thanks Kellie, glad I could help.

  • Evangeline

    This is a really well-thought out article. Thanks for sharing this experience. I experienced air pocket whilst en-route to Norway from the Philippines with my 2-yr-old son three years ago. Luckily not as long as 20 minutes but more than enough to scare me and create that feeling of anxiousness whenever I feel a bump when I travel now. I wished I had my Rubik cube then but will definitely bring something along the same line on our next long-haul trip.

  • kristin

    dude. i’ve had a connection with rocks my whole life and more so lately. i find myself picking them up on walks with a sense that they mean something. that each rock i pick up is me letting something go in it.

    i’ve got piles and cairns and lines drawn out with these rocks.

    this post is beautifully timely.

    thank you.

  • lv2terp

    I love your analogy about throwing rocks into the pond!!! Thank you for such a brilliant, clear, and thought provoking post! :)

  • Kerry

    This is a wonderful post, and I sense it will stay with me. What great advice, and came at just the right time for me… I’ve also had people tell me I was calm when I wasn’t experiencing that internally, and I never thought of it benefiting others, but you describe the ripple effect phenomenon in such a vivid and powerful way. Thanks for writing it.

  • iamskeletonmeat

    This is great man, thanks!

  • JennieWalsh

    Thank you for this great advice. I know that we are drops in the ocean of the universe and our thoughts, feelings, words and actions affect every other part of life. If we want peace, we must BE PEACE.

  • Hope

    Excellent, the analogy with rocks kind of helps !

  • Mouli

    Amazing !!!
    its very cool and nearer to my real life experience.
    when I was in the flight, the flight came on to runway and gradually increased its speed and slowly left the runway and entered into the air, by pressing my chest slightly. I felt soo excited in that moment but suddenly a flash came into my mind. ” we left all our belongings like our parents brothers sisters friends enemies house dresses books all other things. if any un wanted thing(Just like Flight Crash) happens now, what is my position in the world?
    How the world will be without my presence? how my near and dears feels my absence?
    For all above questions my heart given answers which are too hard to digest.
    on that moment I decided to become a changed person. and Im practicing it now too.
    any way that flight experience has changed my thinking
    and your post is sooo good ;-)

  • BlizzagaLantean

    Does this work with anxiety too?

  • mike

    I struggled with anxiety too. The key to move past your anxiety is to realize that thoughts are just thoughts. And there are no bad thoughts. Just productive or unproductive. Also you can become aware of the anxiousness in your heart and let go