Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
When Franklin wrote, “Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents, common or unavoidable,” he demonstrated tremendous wisdom about the power of acceptance. Trifles, accidents—all the things that happen in life that could derail us—are not going anywhere. They are common, inevitable even, and so, Franklin suggests, we can make the conscious decision not to be “disturbed.” Herein lies his definition of tranquility; the ability to remain undisturbed in spite of “unavoidable disturbances.” Tranquility, then, is built upon a foundation of acceptance. And with tranquility, we allow ourselves to build resilience.
For me, the practice of meditation is inextricably linked to my understanding of tranquility. In fact, the word “tranquil” brings me back to a formative experience I had many years ago. When Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield and I decided we wanted to start a retreat center together in the 1970s, someone we knew suggested we look at a place in Barre, Massachusetts. So we took a trip to Barre, and were taken with how pretty, remote and quiet it was as we wandered around. It felt near-perfect, but we were intimidated by how large the facility seemed. We’ll never fill this place, we thought, doubtful that meditation would draw a big enough crowd. In a state of ambivalence, we went to downtown Barre to get a bite to eat and talk over our decision. On our way, we noticed a monument on the town green, engraved with the town motto, “Tranquil and alert.” At that moment, we realized that Barre was the town where we were meant to build our meditation center.
Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents, common or unavoidable.
Knowing ourselves through introspection is about a balance between calm and energy. When we look within, we aim to be “tranquil and alert.” Since I began teaching, I always tell my students that this process of deepening our awareness requires effort, even as it simultaneously enables us to find a sense of calm and spaciousness in ourselves. The very idea of a balanced life is about making a choice—to meet our emotions and thoughts with our full attention, but also a sense of calm.
Calmness or tranquility doesn’t mean we experience a dull version of our experiences and feelings. It simply means we don’t become lost in immediate, habitual reactions. As Franklin wrote, there are “unavoidable” issues we face in life—trifles, accidents and more. We can choose to accept them—to remain “undisturbed” rather than reacting impetuously to disappointments and frustrations. We can choose to relinquish our judgments, assumptions and other distorting patterns of thought in favor of freedom.
In a space of acceptance, we can feel tranquil. We can connect with our feelings directly rather than being driven by our habit to careen toward what is pleasant and run away from discomfort.
What does being tranquil look like? It means we can be at rest. We can relax. We can connect with ourselves and with our experiences more easily. This includes discomfort: tranquility does not, in fact, mean that we experience unequivocal pleasure. When we are in a state of suffering, our mind is conditioned to think something is “wrong”— that we’ve done something wrong to cause our suffering, or that we’ve failed to prevent it. What tranquility allows us to recognize is that pain and pleasure are always ebbing and flowing. And despite the coming and going of pain, we can feel tranquil (and alert). By allowing us to open to the wide range of emotions we feel even right in the midst of a difficult time, tranquility provides us with freedom.
This is true for us as individuals, but also for communities, and even as societies at large. When we can access tranquility, we are better able to pay attention, to look out for ourselves and for others. This is the essence of meditation—the ability to be more attentive and accepting, and create space within ourselves for insight and compassion. Once we feel more tranquil in our own skin, we bring that tranquility into our relationships and attitudes toward those around us. We don’t feel the need to separate from others, through pleasure and pain both. Whomever we are with, very beautifully, we feel like we’ve returned home.