S1E13 Calm

Do you want to feel calm? Buddhism and Western psychology both aim to cultivate a sense of calm, but often in different ways than we might expect. Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin discuss how a state of calm can impact performance and your daily life, as well as clarify how chasing a state of calm gets us into trouble. They even mentioned Yerkes Dodson performance curve. Check it out!




Pete: This episode, we're going to talk about being calm, which many people come to us and try and learn how to be. And Dr. Nikki Rubin and I, Nikki, Hey,

Nikki: Hi, Pete, everybody wants to be calm. And of course, the first thing I think about is there's a mindfulness app called ‘calm’. My dog loves watching those commercials, with the circle.

Pete: Brilliant marketing.

Nikki: Yeah, brilliant marketing. I got to hand it to him.

Pete: Yeah. Well, the app actually, I know, I've mentioned it here. And so there better be an advertisement at some point. But, we're using it now; they paired up with a big 10. So let's just talk about what it means to be calm. And I think one of the things I want to do is to bring in some of the Buddhism and who, doesn't want to be calm?

Nikki: I mean, yeah, I think everybody, because it feels lovely to feel calm.

Pete: Although, sometimes I was just thinking, sometimes athletes don’t want to be calm, because they think they're not in the zone then.

Nikki: I mean, that's fair. It feels nice to be energized, being calm is not the same thing as being energized. Though, I would have a hard time, finding anybody that would say they don't want to feel relaxed, which, those things kind of go hand in hand.

Pete: Synonymous, yes. And when we teach, is like Yerkes Dodson, the performance curve, this upside down view that says you have to have enough stress, but enough calm. If you have too much of one or the other, then you're not going to perform like less. And there's so many other theories that have been out there. But frankly, I just see a normal upside down ‘U’, where you have to find the sweet spot.

Nikki: Yeah, totally. I want to see how many people are going to Google Yerkes Dodson.

Pete: Maybe we’ll put it in the description.

Nikki: Yeah, I draw that graph for patients all the time, actually.

Pete: Of course we do. Well, that's the thing about us, is that we have whiteboards in our rooms, in our clinical rooms. And I think that when sometimes our clients first come that first day, they're like, “what the…”,

Nikki: For those of you listening that are not familiar, or less familiar with cognitive behavioural therapies, very CBT to have some kind of drawing instrument like a whiteboard in office. I use my iPad now I upgraded, really high tech now.

Pete: Well, for me, maybe we'll start with just when we feel calm. I'll share that I read a lot about different practitioners and what they do, I've talked on here about the Dalai Lama, I'm going to be reading up on Deepak Chopra. And a lot of these really big minds have practices that include really structure so things like 4 a.m. wake up, morning meditation and yoga. And so oftentimes before eight o'clock when the rest of the world is starting, many of these practitioners have already had a full day.

Nikki: Done way more than I've done before for 8 a.m., I'll tell you that much.

Pete: I love the mornings,

Nikki: I know, much more than me.

Pete: Much more than you, oh my god, we're different in another place.

Nikki: I know, another place, we’re different.

Pete: Because I love the morning, and in psychology in the West, we talk about developmentally, like whisking for chicken or the egg. And it's like, ‘I swam, but did I swim because I like the mornings, or did I get familiar with the mornings because I swim?

Nikki: We'll never know. It's an existential question for the ages.

Pete: Nice to reflect on. I was walking past a baseball field with my brother the other day, and I just watched him like gazing onto the field and I saw his wheels self-reflecting of what it was like to be on that field.

Nikki: So is that a place that he felt calm?

Pete: There was his calm, you reading my mind.

Nikki: Yeah, I know.

Pete: So for me the morning does help create calm. I love the morning walk with my dogs. So usually I'm up already, I have meditated, I do a little bit of stretching, and then I take the dogs, out if they let me. Sometimes they want to go out first but, and that walk is just wonderful in the morning.

Nikki: I also enjoy walking my dog. I feel very calm at the beach and I grew up I grew up with the beach. And Pete knows this about me, I love the ocean, I love being near the ocean. So definitely, a place I can feel very relaxed. Though it's interesting, as we're talking about this, and I've got this like little itchy voice in my mind here, that's saying, “I've got some issues with the word calm a lot of times”, because as we said at the beginning of this episode, most people want to fell calm, and lots of people walk into our offices and are like, “I want to be relaxed. I want to be calm”. I can't even tell you how many patients say to me, when they're going through their very, another CBT thing, write down problems and goals, what do they want to work on? One of the things a lot of people will say is, “oh, I want to get rid of my anxiety”.

Pete: Oh, my God, totally.

Nikki: Or, “I don't want to be angry anymore. I want to be calm”. And I'm always like, “Oh, alright, yeah, totally hear you, I get it. Because it's a really uncomfortable,

Pete: Let me guess, you help them operationalize that don't you?

Nikki: I Sure do. And I say calm is a mood state, being relaxed is a mood state. It's not an optimal one, though. And I think that some of what you and I are even describing, like going to the beach or walking the dogs, we might feel calm, though, I would actually probably say that that experience for me is more about feeling cantered, which I think is different, because I can feel cantered, while I'm anxious, Like an eye in the centre of the storm.

Pete: 100%. And it's not a basic emotion. So I think calm is also a higher level emotion. I just had the image of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and so I think depending on who we're working with, you have to have… And one of the things I noticed is sleep. And it's funny, because we read a lot about calm in the research, sleep is one of the most beneficial aspects, or at least to produce calm this feeling.

Nikki: Right, and so I think it's important maybe to clarify, for our listeners that, while calm is absolutely an experience that most of us enjoy, and we hope to have some aspects of our lives where we get to connect with that emotion, we can't positively judge it as ‘this is a good emotion’, we want to chase calm, because that's actually what puts people in this very difficult bind, where they're constantly trying to rid themselves of discomfort and what we talked about, and I of course, dying in a moment here, the Buddhist lens on this.

Pete: Oh my god, I was totally going there.

Nikki: We're having full [inaudible-7:04]. That pain is inevitable part of being alive, discomfort is inevitable part of being alive.

Pete: I think within the Buddhist literature, and within the practice, what I was thinking when you were just saying that it's this enlightenment, and so no one's ever enlightened. And most of the mantras, the [inaudible-7:24] that are out there that you might chant, that we chant, because maybe people listening are not chanting, is that once you feel you've reached that, then you're already distorted. Once you feel like you’ve reach calm…

Nikki: Then the lens has gotten in the way.

Pete: Correct, so you're not actually experiencing something,

Nikki: Because you’re chasing it. Interesting.

Pete: And as we see, whenever there's the adverse of calm, it's because people are so focused on either the future or something that they're holding on to from the past. Almost nine times out of 10, I can help someone figure that out.

Nikki: Yeah, and just so I'm clear, when you're saying that, you mean that when they're not feeling calm, it's because they're focused on the past or the future? So I will gently challenge that and say, oftentimes, and I talk about this a lot with mindfulness with patients. Sometimes, what's happening the present is uncomfortable, like I don’t know, if I'm…

Pete: Waiting on line and the person…

Nikki: Oh sure, and you're bored. By the way, I love this just east coast west coast difference. Pete just said waiting ‘online’. It took me so long when I lived in New York, I was so confused by everybody sitting there waiting on line.

Pete: Because?

Nikki: Because we say waiting ‘in line’. You're waiting ‘in line’. And I was like, “but there's no ‘on’, like you’re standing on a line.

Pete: In Spanish, the ‘on’ and ‘in’, whenever I helped my students, or partner with the ‘in’ and ‘on’, there's no difference.

Nikki: There's no difference, right.

Pete: Limes and lemons.

Nikki: So anyway, it’s just a nice little difference. I got used to it, though., but I still said in line when I lived in New York.

Pete: We hold on to the Buddhist teaching, though, and I'm with you on. But the Buddhist teaching is that there is only this moment. So the idea is that even if you're on the line, once you let go of that present moment, then the pain has left with it. And again, I don't fully agree with it, because if I had my hand on a hot stove, and I go to the next moment, my hands still on the damn hot stove.

Nikki: So this is what I'm very curious about here. And I learned a ton from Pete because my knowledge of Buddhism is only really limited to whatever...

Pete: Don’t say only, stop it.

Nikki: Fine, most of my knowledge is within the third wave, cognitive behavioural realm, which has borrowed…

Pete: And yoga.

Nikki: And yoga, yes. Which I guess, comes from more like a Hindu tradition, technically.

Pete: Relatives.

Nikki: Sure, all connected, so I learned a lot from Pete, and I’m always just picking his brain about this stuff. So what my understanding has always been, though is that in Buddhism, there's a real distinction between pain and suffering. That suffering is what happens when you're not accepting pain.

Pete: That’s right.

Nikki: Is that is that accurate?

Pete: Yeah, I think that's also one of those famous quotes that people like to put up on an image that they post on their social media. What is it like? ‘Pain is optional, Suffering is choice’, one of those?

Nikki: Oh, this is like what I draw on for people actually, and I don’t have social media, but what I draw on for patients that I say talk about westernizing.

Pete: What's Westernizing?

Nikki: But I find it visually very helpful, is that pain, which I always say to people, we could replace with the word discomfort or struggle, is inevitable, minus acceptance equals suffering, and then suffering is optional. So then I'll say to people, “using your like, basic algebraic knowledge, what can we do with this equation?” People are like, “you can add acceptance”, I’m like, “right, it's a zero sum then, pain minus acceptance equals pain.

Pete: I know you don't like social media, and if you had it, if you would ever scroll, you would see a lot. But that's a really helpful tool. To be honest, I feel like that's the Western world interpretation of the eastern practice.

Nikki: So it’s not actually that?

Pete: Well, because again, I think it depends on which doctrine you're reading, because I don't know that there would even be a translation to differentiate pain from suffering, in like Sanskrit or Japanese, or depending on where you're reading, but I'm not 100% on that. That's just my senses we're talking.

Nikki: Yes, that's very interesting to hear, because that's the part that I was getting confused about. Because in this moment, like you're saying, the hot stove, if you're touching a hot stove, that stimulus is painful, that it doesn't matter if you're not focusing on the future or the past, you're mindful,

Pete: It just really frickin hurts. I burned my hand the other day. Oh, god.

Nikki: Terrible. So anyway, back to having senses, sometimes the moment in and of itself is inherently uncomfortable or painful. And I think that's often why people go to the future or the past. is to try to escape the present.

Pete: So I think calm for me is also peace. This is another word where I was having a challenging conversation with someone and I just said, “Oh, I hope you find peace”, and they were so insulted. And I was like, “Well, no, I really hope you find peace.”

Nikki: Why were they insulted?

Pete: I don’t know. You can't make someone else's mind for how they…

Nikki: Well, maybe they heard it as… I mean, I could see and obviously, knowing you, I know this is not at all how you would communicate it, but I know sort of like out in the general world. Sometimes that can be sort of said in like a patronizing way. Like, “I hope you find peace”, which you are so far from patronizing, somebody else's experience.

Pete: I want the whole peace. And that sounds like my little beauty queen statement.

Nikki: No, it's that we all we all deserve some moments of stillness, and I like that we’re using the word ‘peace’ honestly, because that, I connect a lot more with.

Pete: That's why I brought that up, because I think ‘calm’ is also a weird word. When I say it now in today's virtual world, they're like, “What are you saying?”, because the silent ‘L’, and if English is not your first language? Is there a difference in pronouncing, in terms of east west?

Nikki: Well, I would say it's interesting that you just said silent ‘L’ because I was like, I don't think it's a silent ‘L’.

Pete: How do you say it?

Nikki: Calm.

Pete: I don’t think people say that here on the east coast. Calm

Nikki: I think it’s like how we say our ‘O's different.

Pete: Oh, totally. Yeah.

Nikki: I say, psychologist, you say psychologist.

Pete: Well, that’s us in New York.

Nikki: Not bad or good, just different. And then I think, not to say that people couldn't be chasing peace too, but peace is not a mood state. I think most people can understand, if you say peace, they're not as likely to confuse that with being relaxed, calm means being relaxed. And so if someone comes like, “I got to be calm”, it's like, ‘I can't be anxious, I can't be sad, I can't be tired.’

Pete: And I think what we're looking for, and one of the things I love in the work I do is helping to find inner peace, which I think yields calm feelings. The inner peace is like, someone can say something really rude to me., and it doesn't affect me. Because I'm so confident and have this inner peace, which really is about the early morning rise, the meditation, the yoga practice, the acceptance-based strategies, that Eastern principle of just like, ‘Look, we're all suffering, so whatever you're throwing at me is on you’.

Nikki: Yeah, it loses it’s stickiness.

Pete: Totally

Nikki: It loses it’s stickiness and I think, to bring in how that's cultivated in behavioural science, in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy known as ACT, we do, and Pete and I discuss this a lot on this podcast. We do a lot of work in helping people define, clarify and connect with their values. And one thing that I really like about values clarification, as we call it an ACT, is that obviously we're doing that to help people to find, what are they about? What's important to them? And then what are the behavioural steps they can take that are aligned with that? Though, interestingly enough, and I do this as an exercise quite a bit, I'll say to people, if you're ever feeling off your centre, or you're feeling distressed or doubtful, or whatever it is. I'll say, go back and just read your list of values to yourself. And what tends to show up is it cultivates and helps them access that inner peace, that solidness of like, ‘this is what I'm about’ because I say to people, “your values are your insides”.

Pete: Yeah, and also, just general emotion regulation, is another key, because that's part of calm, the more I can say, ‘I feel angry right now’, ‘I feel like I want to punch this person in the face’ or ‘I feel like I want to reach across this customer service telephone call and strangle the other person on the other end’.

Nikki: You won’t.

Pete: Yeah, I won’t. Just this regulation and awareness of that allows me to win. It also creates that calm feeling. I it takes a lot to frazzle, frazzle.

Nikki: Frazzle.

Pete: Yeah, it takes a lot to frazzle me, is that the way that you'd say it?

Nikki: Yeah, frazzle. Well, I think you're bringing up another important point here, which is that, feeling regulated doesn't mean not feeling at all. So again, I hope we're not confusing people here. We're saying, These are calm feelings, but the word ‘calm’ is confusing. So maybe I'm going to clarify a little further, I'm going to operationalize a little further that what Pete and I are really saying is, how to feel cantered or at peace, grounded or regulated. The path to that is to actually start by allowing some of the uncomfortable feelings. So if you're feeling angry, and you want to feel more inner peace, you can't say ‘don't be angry’, ‘let me stop feeling angry’, ‘or let me dive into the anger and ruminate about the thing that's making me feel angry’. You actually have to mindfully and compassionately allow yourself to…

Pete: There comes that compassionate again.

Nikki: Yeah, come crashing in and feel the anger.

Pete: Nothing is linear, that we ever talk about.

Nikki: No

Pete: No, and that's why I often say that what we do is an art. In cognitive and behavioural therapy we have added the scientific method to our practice, and it's still an art.

Nikki: Oh, it's a dialectic.

Pete: There it is again.

Nikki: As my best friends in college, they always tease me. They’re like, “It’s a dialectic”, because I say it that much.

Pete: They get you.

Nikki: They get me, yes. It’s a science and an art. It's both things.

Pete: And also, simplicity is a big piece of calm, which is another Buddhist tradition. And again, I noticed this, simplicity in terms of purging things that you don't need. You don't need two or three of something.

Nikki: That's hard in American culture.

Pete: We just want.

Nikki: And it's a very consumer driven culture that we live in.

Pete: But really, what I would encourage listeners is to think about other things that you can get rid of, because the purging is a part of that calming process. Because the more I can declutter my life, the more simple my inner feelings are as well.

Nikki: First, I want to bring this up. It's why people I think, feel so connected to Marie Kondo. Because, I think the message is sincere, she says you want items that spark joy, its simplicity of things. And I think that's also why a lot of people feel more emotionally regulated when their space is clear and clean.

Pete: I've gotten to a point where I want everything off the floor too, I even put floating vanities in the bathroom because I don’t need vanity on the floor. Just really creating these simple lines, just really simple life. And as we wrap up this idea of what it means to create calm, I'm going to use your tagline, Nikki, so that the emotions are out there. ‘Pain is inevitable and suffering is optional.’

Pete: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Pete Economou.

Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.