How To Find Peace of Mind

In times of uncertainty, keep your thoughts in the present

On a normal day, traffic in Wuhan looks like this:

Of course, right now, there are no normal days. Not in Wuhan and not anywhere else. So instead, the roads look like this:

Your mind is not a highway, but if it was, it’d look like the first picture when it should look like the second. Especially in times of chaos.

This very second, thousands of thoughts are fighting for your attention. Each one is pushing, shoving, trying to get on top of your mind. However, only one version of yourself can drive in ‘present lane,’ and only one thought can sit in the driver’s seat at any given moment. Which thought? That’s our greatest dilemma.

Most of the thoughts in this mental traffic jam are unhelpful, some outright useless. They came from towns like ‘anger,’ ‘frustration,’ ‘bitterness,’ and ‘despair.’ Usually, these thoughts are the loudest. They honk all the time. They shout at the other drivers. “Out of the way, I need to overtake!” Often, we let them. That’s a mistake.

Others pretend to have our best interest at heart, only to stab us in the back once we hand them the reins. “Buy the fancy car now, who knows what’ll happen tomorrow!” Like a shot of nicotine mellowing withdrawal symptoms, they only appease our short-term anxiety and paranoia, rather than solving our long-term problems.

Thousands of years ago, Seneca said: “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” The same thing can be said about our attention.

Just like we happily give away precious hours to people and activities we don’t really care about, we surrender our mind to the next-best thought or stimulus that comes our way if only it’s loud enough, urgent enough, colorful enough.

In times of uncertainty, distracting mental triggers are ubiquitous, but if we give in to them at every turn, life will toss us around like a tiny sailboat in a storm at sea. We’ll never act, just react, and exist only at the whim of other people and circumstance.

When the going gets tough and the future looks bleak, it’s easy to forget that, as Søren Kierkegaard put it: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” This reality may not always be pretty, not always something we look forward to, but it’s still one to be experienced.

Life is to be lived every day, not in the future, not in the past. This is where most of our negative thoughts originate. We ruminate too much about what’s passed, and we worry too much about what hasn’t happened yet. If we could snap our fingers and make these thoughts disappear, we’d resolve our cognitive congestion in an instant.

It’s not that easy, but it goes to show: The list of thoughts that truly deserve our attention is so short, it’s surprising we’re stuck in this intellectual rush hour to begin with. “I’m still here.” “I should eat first.” “Today, I have everything I need.”

The more you can keep your thoughts centered around the present moment, the closer you’ll inch towards peace of mind. After all, this very flash of time will always be enough. It’ll pass in a second, but you’ll get through it, and that’s comforting.

“Wherever you go, there you are,” Jon-Kabat Zinn says. In his book of the same name, he suggests that, if life takes something from us — health, money, time — we shouldn’t let it take our mind too. The same applies to people. You can’t make your friend unsend that fear-instigating article, but you can choose not to react. You can stay in the present. That’s where you are.

Clearing the lanes in your mind takes a commitment to managing your thoughts. It’s also a commitment to having faith in present-you. Trust yourself. You’re strong. Focus on the road ahead, and you’ll always make it home. This, too, is part of Kierkegaard’s message: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Right now, the present may not make perfect sense. It might feel like driving in the dark, and you’ll be tempted to let negative thoughts jump to the front of your mind. Don’t.

No matter how bumpy the road and no matter how crazy the world may seem, ultimately, life is not about who you could be or who you might have been. It’s about who you choose to be today. Choose the moment, and you’ll also choose peace. Before you know it, we’ll be back to normal days.


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