1. My Odyssey.

When I am in trouble, I reach for calm. When I need to be alert, I reach for calm. Calm is not only associated with a state of relaxation. It is also a crucial ingredient for managing troubled waters. When you are in the clutches of fear or any strong negative emotion you become less flexible. Who hasn’t heard the expression “paralyzed by fear”? Calm modulates many of my emotions. I could feel calm fear when confronted with a sudden attack. Then, I could be more flexible in thinking through my options. Or, calm excitement when I see the way to win a chess match and don’t want to make a mistake. This essay is about “reaching for calm” as a key ingredient in living. It covers what it means and how practice it.

Car Stalls. When driving my 2001 Honda Odyssey 55 miles per hour on a major highway it stalled. “My God”, I thought. “What if one or more cars hit me this fast from behind”? I slowed my rapid breathing, and then veered to the shoulder and drifted into it.  I tried to restart the car. No luck. Some dashboard lights did flicker on and off.  On the shoulder of a major highway surrounding Washington DC, my car shook as trucks sped past it. I remembered to push the button to activate my emergency blinking lights. I did not want people checking their text messages and think I was in an active lane. Are blinking lights enough to prevent imminent death? I restarted the car after about 15 minutes of trying. I decided to ABORT my trip to a Tai Chi class and head home. This time I decided to take the back roads.

This problem happened before. I brought my car to the shop for it two days earlier. But, there were no tell-tale computer codes and they could find nothing wrong. What do computers know anyway? More than ever, I wished they had spotted the problem.

Car Stalls Again. On the way home, my car stalled again. Ugh! This time on a six lane road with a posted top speed of 35 miles per hour. This time luck flew out the window. The road had a sidewalk instead of a shoulder. My car sat in the right lane with my emergency lights blinking. While in the car, I watched a series of cars traveling in my lane. As each one saw my car, they moved to the middle lane. Some came very close to my bumper before they veered away. I could imagine someone tailgating the car in front of them, not seeing my car soon enough and clipping my car. My body tensed. I slowed my breathing and waited for traffic to wane. Then, I got out of the car.

Photo by Pascal Gambardella

I remembered the three bright orange emergency triangles in my trunk. I lined them up about three car lengths behind my car and then went back into the car. After trying for 30 minutes to restart it, I called for a tow truck. The truck towed my car home. I watched the tow truck operator slide the car off his truck. Then, he started the car. Did I not try hard enough to start it? Yet, I saw the pattern. The car stalls, then restarts at her own discretion. Time to do research. More about this later.

If there was ever a day to be calm and remain so, today was one of them. Throughout this experience, I had brief flashes of fear, anxiety and frustration. Each time, I reached for my calm state. It wasn’t the calm you might have while sitting on flat grassy pasture on a sunny warm day. It was the calm in the middle of a storm.

Need for Calm in Vietnam. I was not always able to reach for calmWhen in Vietnam in 1970, I gave a Korean soldier a double dose of a vaccine. Immediately after giving him the shot, I realized my error and exclaimed in a loud voice “Oh no, I made a mistake!” I can always remember the expression of horror on his face as I ran out of the room. The ability to reach for calm is part of my life-long odyssey in learning how to manage my states of mind and emotion. 

2. Reaching for Calm

Photo by Pascal Gambardella

What does it mean to reach for calm?  I have positive emotions when I perceive things are going well. I have negative ones when they are not. For me, calm is an emotion between positive and negative. As I look at a lake in the middle of a forest, I am calm. Yet, when I reach for calm, I usually don’t go for it as a pure emotion, I want to put it to work to manage other emotions.

Using calm to modulate your emotions helps you become more flexible. But, how do you do that? Here is an example. Suppose you are a martial artist walking down the street and turn to admire something in a shop window. As you turn to continue your walk, someone rushes at you. You don’t have the time to think about what to do. You need a practiced default response. One is to bring up your elbow with your hand above your shoulder and hit your attacker in the top right side of his chest. Believe it or not this stuns your attacker enough to give you some time to assess the situation. But, you need to practice it. After the elbow jab you can choose a more reasoned response. You either fight or RUN like hell. A similar situation holds when reaching for calm. You need a default response and a more reasoned one. The default response helps you calm your mind and ground it in the present. This is a state of mindfulness. Then, you have time to consider your options and perform a reasoned response.

Default Response. Changing how you breathe can affect your state and can serve as a default response. For example, tactical breathing is an effective approach. To do this take 3 to 4 breaths from your diaphragm. For each breath inhale for the count of four. Hold it for the count of four. Exhale it for the count of four.

Reasoned Response. Bringing a calm state to bear on your current state helps you perform a reasoned response. If you do this, you can modulate a state like fear with calm. Here is an example. My body tenses and my stomach aches when I am high above the ground looking over an edge. My wife Claire loves to go to the top of large cathedral towers and roam around and peer over the edge. I cling to the walls.

Several years ago, I was driving some colleagues on a narrow mountain road on the lane facing a steep cliff. Thoughts of tires blowing out and cars veering into my lane brought my mind into a tailspin. Breathe, I said to myself. Next, I imagined I was holding a sleeping baby and needed to be calm to not awaken him. Then, I brought calm to bear on my fear and was in a state of calm fear. I could finally drive along that mountain without tightness in my chest. Luckily, my passengers never knew about my inner turmoil. I use this process, called meta-stating, to help manage my states.

3. Anticipating Problems

In the last section, I discussed how to bring calm to bear on your state when bad stuff happens. What else can you do? You can use one of two opposite approaches when reaching for an outcome. At one end of a spectrum you look “towards” the outcome. Architects do this when they design a building to look beautiful. At the other end you look “away from” the outcome and at the problems that could arise to prevent you from reaching it. Engineers do this when they want to ensure the building can resist 130 mph winds. I move towards outcomes. Yet, I also have a strong “away from” strategy and try to anticipate problems. Most of the time anticipating problems helps prevent tragedies. Or, at least lighten their impact.

Coffee Spill. This summer while on a trip, I spilled a cup of coffee on my laptop. I saw streaks across its screen before the laptop fizzled and died. Lots of coffee poured from the laptop when I lifted it and turned it over. A flush ran through my body. Then it tensed in horror. Even though I try to anticipate problems, I am not always successful. The cup I used was thin plastic and not very sturdy.I did not want to lose my week’s work on a complicated spreadsheet. Has anything like this ever happened to you?

Here my problem oriented approach saved me and I was able to calm myself. First, the “extended” laptop warranty I had purchased included free repairs for a spill. The warranty was due to expire in two weeks. Whew!. Second, I use a program that backs all updated files every two hours to the Internet. That program saved most of my work. Third, before I had left home, I did an image backup of my hard drive. Because of this, I knew I could restore my laptop to its previous state with all my applications.

When I returned home, I sent my computer to a repair center. They replaced most of the internal parts and the hard disk. I restored the laptop to its pre-trip state and copied the changes to my documents that I made during the trip. In this case, my problem-oriented approach was about 80% effective. It saved my data and applications. It also helped me make it easier to reach for calm. I did not anticipate my coffee spill. But I did institute a new rule. NEVER place an open container of liquid near a computer! 

Maintaining Tranquility. This problem-oriented approach also helps maintain tranquility in other areas of my life. For example, Claire and I have separate toothpaste tubes. This enables us to have separate squeezing and lid tightening approaches. We don’t fight over which type of peanut butter to get. We buy two different types. I get crunchy and she gets creamy. You get the point. Anticipate problems and have a calmer life. It does not guarantee a stress-free life. But, modulating stress with calm helps.

4. My Odyssey, continued

Let’s get back to the day my Honda Odyssey stalled twice. After the tow truck left, I turned on my computer and discovered a forum on Odyssey problems. Then, I spent hours poring over the posts. I was desperate for a solution. I did not want to give up my car. Yet, I also did not want to die on the highway. So, I keep searching for solutions. I found two credible causes of its problem. The first is a faulty ignition switch, and the second is a bad fuel relay. I read that having a large amount of keys on your key chain could damage your ignition. I have ten keys on mine. So after seventeen years, I thought I likely wore out the ignition. I decided to take a chance and get my ignition replaced.

Two days later, I had my car repair shop change the ignition. They had me state that it was my choice and it may not solve the problem. I brought the car home and discovered that only one of my four keys could start the new ignition. Ugh! This was a problem none of us anticipated. I had to bring the car to a Honda dealer to get four working keys. The Honda dealer also did not know if replacing the ignition would solve the problem. He said “It could be some other problem deep in the heart of the engine.” After his comment, I managed to get my heart to resume beating. Yet, he did say the fuel relay was a problem with the Honda Accord and not the Odyssey.

Hope. It’s been about three weeks since my car’s problem. I am about 98% convinced I solved the problem. I am now introducing my car to heavier traffic and taking it on longer trips. Nice car. I am not planning any long distance trips with it yet. Throughout this experience, reaching for calm helped me handle the issues with my car. My Odyssey continues.


Here are some resources:

  • Meta-Program, Part 1, Mindmap. The “toward” and “away from” approached discussed in this essay ate opposite poles of the “motivation direction” meta-program. You can see more information about the “Motivation Direction” meta-program in this mindmap.
  • Where Magic Can Happen. Part 2: Embracing Opportunities. I discuss tactical breathing in section 5 “A Resource for Working with Your Comfort Zone.”
  • Headspace. I use this application on my iPhone to meditate and practice mindfulness.


I want to thank Claire Kurs and Joe Brodnicki for their editorial comments. I also want thank Claire, Daniel Gambardella, Shelia Weingard, and Joe Brodnicki for illuminating conversations on this essay’s topic.

I ran a monthly NLP Study Group in the Washington DC area for 25 years. During those years, Bob Quinlan participated and sometimes led the group. Now, he is a retired a pastoral councilor and lawyer. He is also a good friend. He has a very calm demeanor and is an expert in hypnosis. After the Study Group ended in 2009, I would imagine him in the audience when I gave a presentation. For me, he remains a resource for calm.

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