The Buddha spoke often of the importance of calmness and tranquility. Tranquility -- passaddhi in Pali -- is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, or mental states that support the realization of enlightenment.
Spiritual masters often are caricatured as being unceasingly tranquil, floating serenely in some blissed-out state detached from the edgy, messy world. And, of course, no living creature lives that way. Whatever their spiritual status, living creatures must eat and wash and use the toilet. They stub their toes, catch the flu, and run out of mustard.
(There's an ancient Zen story about a great master who was asked what he did before enlightenment. "I chopped wood and carried water," the master said. And what did he do after enlightenment? "I chop wood and carry water," he replied.)
Maybe because of the caricature, you don't hear much about tranquility in present-day western Buddhism. Yet the Buddha said tranquility is very important. Note that he didn't promise we would become wonderfully tranquil after enlightenment. He said that tranquility is to be cultivated in order to realize enlightenment.
The Importance of Tranquility
The Theravadin scholar Piyadassi Thera said,
"Hard it is to tranquillize the mind; it tre3mbles and it is unsteady, difficult to guard and hold back; it quivers like a fish taken from its watery home and thrown on the dry ground. It wanders at will. Such is the nature of this ultra-subtle mind. It is systematic reflection (yoniso manasikara) that helps the aspirant for enlightenment to quieten the fickle mind. Unless a man cultivates tranquility of mind, concentration cannot be successfully developed. A tranquillized mind keeps away all superficialities and futilities."
You might be thinking, "I meditate to reduce stress. Isn't that the same thing?" Not exactly. Stress is, essentially, physiological arousal, or an overstimulated nervous system. Its opposite is relaxation.
Passaddhi, on the other hand, is calmness of mental properties -- feeling, perception, volition -- and consciousness. It's an ability to be mentally and emotionally still, like a pond on a windless day.
There are two kinds of passaddhi, called kaya passaddhi and citta passaddhi. To understand these, refer to the Five Skandhas. Kaya passadhi relates to the second, third, and four skandhas (sensation, perception, mental formations) and citta passaddhi relates to the fifth skandha, consciousness or awareness.
The Seven Factors of Enlightenment are sometimes described as a progression, with each quality drawing on the one that comes before it and leading to the one that comes after it. Tranquility comes after happiness, which in this case is a deep contentment that comes from putting aside selfish desire. What follows tranquility is concentration, a one-pointedness of mind in which subject and object are absorbed into each other. In the Eightfold Path and Mahayana Six Perfections, concentration is the wisdom path, the door to enlightenment itself.
How to Develop Tranquility
Along with developing the first four factors of enlightenment -- mindfulness, investigation, energy, and happiness -- daily meditation practice is highly recommended. The Buddha also taught that there are seven factors that develop and support tranquility. These are:
A Healthful Diet. Nutritious food keeps you healthy and supports vigorous practice. You might also consider avoiding sugar if it makes you hyper, or any food that gives you indigestion. See also "Buddhism and Vegetarianism."
A Comfortable Climate. In these days of insulated and temperature-controlled homes, this one may be less critical than in the Buddha's day. But if you are prone to seasonal allergies or affective disorder, it's certainly a consideration.
Good Posture. This refers not just to correct meditation posture, but posture whenever you are standing or sitting. Keeping your hips, spine and head correctly aligned really does help your organs work efficiently and reduces tension in your body. It also enables diaphragmatic breathing, which may help lower blood pressure. But your posture should not feel rigid or forced, but natural, balanced, and comfortable.
No Burnout, No Sloppiness. The Buddha said that the effort put into practice should be like the string on a stringed instrument -- tight enough to play a note, but not so tight it will break. The key word is sustainable -- your daily practice should be one you can sustain, through weeks and months and years, without burning out. But don't be a slacker, either.
Association With Calm People. The Buddha spoke of choosing congenial companions rather than people who leave one feeling agitated. Fast forwarding to contemporary life -- these days, you may spend more time with co-workers than with companions. Do your best to reduce agitation and acrimony.
Directing the Mind to Tranquility. Be vigilant and mindful in practicing the first six factors.