To Be or Not To Be...Dramatic.
I receive a lot of comments about how calm I am, how I seem to be able to naturally go with the flow. I was thinking of that recently because there’s some tumult going on in my life right now and it made me wonder how I am able to stay calm despite what’s happening around me. Mindfulness of course results in an increased ability to remain calm and centered, but when I think of how opposite I was when I was younger, it made me wonder if there isn’t something more to it.
I was definitely steeped in drama when I was younger. I didn’t realize it of course, because I was not very self-aware, but I was always in the middle of some sort of drama and frequently upset or angry. I grew up in a chaotic and at times violent household, I made poor dating choices, I married very young and very poor, I had two children before I was even 20 and I was constantly on the go, including relocating to multiple states and constantly switching jobs. Drama, drama, drama.
As I was pondering my switch in personality about 20 years ago, my grandmother popped into my mind. I never once saw my father’s mother get upset. In fact, for a long time I assumed she was rather cold as she simply didn’t seem to have a very wide emotional range. Thankfully, I came to realize she was actually quite loving and she became one of my most important mentors in life. What never occurred to me before now though is how mindful she was.
How could a person never get angry, never raise their voice, never show disappointment in others? It wasn’t like their household wasn’t full of drama between their children, grandchildren, businesses they ran, legal issues, financial challenges. But I never witnessed any change in her demeanor, and I spent many entire summers living with her.
One summer when I was about 7 months pregnant with my first child, my grandfather asked if I’d like to join my grandparents on a trip to Los Angeles. They were going to drive their camper from New Mexico to California to participate in a jewelry show and could use my help. I’d never been to California and immediately said yes, pregnant or not.
Due to my condition, my grandmother insisted that I sit in the passenger seat of the truck cab and she set up a folding lawn chair in between my grandfather and I so she could view the scenery on the drive. Basically, she was sitting in between the cab of the truck and the camper area, which could not have been very comfortable. But she never complained. In fact, I can’t recall her ever complaining about anything.
As we approached Los Angeles, the traffic became a problem. My grandfather tended to drive a little too fast and so we were suddenly experiencing a lot of very hard stops as he slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the cars in front of us. Each time he did, the lawn chair flipped over and my grandmother would be on her back, feet straight up in the air.
I was concerned after each incident she was hurt, but she would say that she was fine and simply right the chair and sit back down. My grandmother was only 4’11 and very top heavy, so I confess that it looked pretty comical each time she flipped, but I don’t think I laughed, again because of worry for her safety. But my grandfather’s reaction to the whole thing would have infuriated me if I’d been in that lawn chair. Each time she’d flip, he’d smile and just say, “Well Helen,” as if it was her fault.
She never berated him or asked him to slow down so that he wouldn’t have to slam on the brakes or say anything to make him feel guilty. She would just smile once she was back in the seat and continue to view the scenery. That memory has never left me because it was so shocking to me that she didn’t get mad.
When one of my many cousins would get into trouble at their house, like breaking an expensive vase or hurting a sibling, she would just calmly clean up the mess or apply a bandage. When my grandfather would make a poor money decision, which he began to do as they got older, she would say that there’s no point in worrying about what may or may not happen. That woman just never got ruffled and never changed up until the day she passed at 89.
So, even though I’d never heard of mindfulness during her lifetime, I started to wonder if there could be a genetic factor. Do we have a calm gene that could be passed down through generations? There is clear research that anxiety is influenced by our genetics, so why not calmness?
I couldn’t find a study on that, but I did find that Harvard scientists found evidence that the mere act of clearing the mind for 15 minutes each day actually alters how our genes operate. The study indicated that people who meditated over an 8 week period had a striking change in the expression of 172 genes that regulate inflammation, circadian rhythms and glucose metabolism. And that was linked to a meaningful decrease in blood pressure.
Over 40 years ago, Harvard’s Dr. Herbert Benson pioneered the establishment of the relaxation response and other techniques that calm the brain, including t’ai chi, yoga, breathing exercises, repetitive prayer and other meditative practices as a third leg of medical treatment, along with medication and surgery. My grandmother was religious and prayed regularly. Perhaps that contemplative practice calmed her system down and allowed her to remain so even keeled.
I have no way of knowing whether her nurturing for many years influenced my composure over the past 20 years or if she unknowingly passed down a genetic factor that, while dormant in my youth, finally rose to flourish, but I’m grateful either way. I’ve shifted from the ups and downs of the happy-to-miserable roller coaster to something akin to smooth sailing. Like my grandmother, I live by the concept that there’s no point in worrying about what may or may not happen. Life is simply a never-ending series of events that I move through and while I don’t typically have a lot of giddy moments of happiness, I’m also spared the falls into despair. I instead enjoy what could be best described as contentment with an underlying deep joy and feeling of gratitude for the experiences I encounter.
I can clearly see now why people may mistake calmness for coldness because there’s not as much emotional variety as when we’re swinging through very, very highs and very, very lows. But as with my grandmother, there’s a deep and rich loving that is always there and that serves not only me, but others. Drama may seem appealing because of the excitement it generates, but there’s a much deeper and richer experience that lies in the quiet calm of both self-awareness and outer awareness. Mindfulness doesn’t eliminate sadness, anger or hurt to be clear. But it allows us to recognize that whatever our emotional response to events, they will pass, so I think when we’re mindful, we hold on to them less tightly. We may experience discomfort, but we know it is only temporary.
I’m not as mindful as my grandmother was. I still get angry or upset on occasion, but I am usually quickly aware of what’s occurring and can take steps to calm my system back down. My grandmother would be the equivalent of a Zen Buddhist and I have a long way to go to achieve that, but I am fascinated that the connection between my grandmother and I has surfaced.
You may want to reflect on how broad your emotional reactions are to life. Reactivity usually correlates to health problems, either now or in the future, so perhaps it’s time to consider how to calm down. In 2018, the American Psychological Association declared that the US had reached a new high point in the nation’s stress quotient. In their Stress in America survey, they found nearly 2/3rds of Americans were stressed out over the nation’s future and more than half were distressed by the divisiveness that dominated public life. That was pre-pandemic.
In the latest survey in March of this year, the number of people who say they’re significantly stressed about recent events is unprecedented. Inflation, the Russia-Ukraine war and global uncertainty topped the ranks of sources for stress. Perhaps one of the most important factors to consider in your life today is that you cannot change world events. You cannot stop inflation. You cannot do anything to end a war. You can’t end a pandemic.
The one act we can perform is to look at how we respond to these events. Getting upset or angry doesn’t usually change anything externally, but it causes great harm internally. When we’re in the midst of any drama, we can certainly navigate it more effectively if we’re not being flooded with stress hormones, so calmness leads to better responses and decisions.
We can’t really separate nature versus nurture anymore because we now know they influence each other. Our environment, including our inner environment, can influence genetic expression, meaning we can shift our habitual reactions into mindful responses simply by practicing mindfulness and meditation, which ultimately changes the physical structure of our brains and can change both our mental and physical health. Nature and nurture are interconnected, as is everything in life.
We have so much more control over our personality traits, behaviors, thought processes and overall well-being than we have ever known possible before. I can start out with a traumatic childhood and still become a positive contributor to life while someone else can have an ideal childhood and become a criminal or even a dictator, but we now know we really can choose which path we take because it’s not about nature versus nurture. It’s about acquiring and understanding the knowledge that’s available to us and then deciding how and who we want to be.
My grandmother didn’t have the advantage of all of the scientific evidence we have today, but she did have religious knowledge so perhaps that’s how she learned the benefits of equanimity. Or maybe there is a calm gene and she was born with it. Either way, I’m now aware of a mindful role model that was there along and will bring her to mind whenever I feel the temptation of getting sucked into drama pulling at me.
My question for you is, what will you do with all of this knowledge?