How to Protect That Special Time You Put Aside for Yourself
A fictional character inspires a new equanimity practice.
Posted Mar 13, 2019
I’m always on the lookout for new ways to cultivate and protect that peaceful state of mind often referred to as equanimity—the ability to remain calm and even-tempered in the face of life’s struggles and challenges.
Recently, I was listening to a chapter from Alexander McCall Smith’s Sunday Philosophy Club series (an interesting title since no philosophy club has ever met in any of the 13 books in the series). McCall Smith is one of my favorite authors. Readers may be familiar with two of his other series: The #1 Ladies Detective Agency and 44 Scotland Street.
The Sunday Philosophy Club books take place in Edinburgh; the principal character is Isabel Dalhousie. I feel as if we’re good friends because we think alike in so many ways. One example: As we engage in the mundane tasks of daily living, we both tend to get lost in elaborate daydreams about why humans (including ourselves) behave as they do.
The 11th book of the series is called A Distant View of Everything. In one chapter, Isabel has a scary experience: After an evening concert, she’s walking home alone on a footpath in a park where she’s always felt safe. A man on a bicycle suddenly veers off the path and tumbles into the water. Isabel immediately goes over to him. This is typical behavior on her part—she’s always ready to help people in distress.
However, this time, the bike rider is hostile toward her, even as he allows her to pull him out of the water. Then, when she turns to leave, he says to her in a threatening voice: “Where do you think you’re going?” When she ignores him, he repeats those words.
This puts her on high alert and she immediately starts assessing the environment, looking to see if there are people nearby to call out to or whether there’s a house close enough that people will hear her if she screams. She’s scared and her adrenaline is flowing. Then, suddenly, a group of people appears on the path and she’s able to fall in step behind them, knowing that the bike rider will leave her alone now.
Here, I pick up Alexander McCall Smith’s words about what she did after she got home:
She tried to put it out of her mind. That was the only way to deal with things that would derail her. If she pondered them, then such things could consume her, dragging her down, ending the equanimity that prevailed at the center of her world. She had a firewall, and she would keep it in good repair. This young man and his threatening talk had not penetrated it. It was still intact.
I was intrigued that McCall Smith used the word “equanimity” because it’s a major focus in my own life. I cultivate it every day (some days more successfully than others), and I’ve written about it several times in this space. When Isabel was in danger, she knew it was essential to be on high alert. And, when the danger had passed, she also knew it was time to move on emotionally.
It’s in the “moving on” that many of us (including me) can falter. Instead of putting the past behind us, our minds go over and over a stressful event, reliving every moment. This means we continue to cling to any fear we might have felt, which only serves to prolong our suffering.
Of course, it’s a good idea to reflect on what happened to see if we might have responded more skillfully. (In Isabel’s situation, I don’t see how she could have responded better during that time she felt in danger.) But having engaged in that reflection, we’ll feel more at peace if we can put the event behind us.
And that’s where Isabel’s Firewall can help.
Erecting a firewall as protection from stress and anxiety
Since reading that chapter in McCall Smith’s book, taking refuge behind a firewall has become a major practice for me. In fact, I’ve expanded it to include both past and future events that are a source of stress, whether that stress is experienced as mild dread or as full-blown anxiety.
Here’s how I use it:
Whenever possible, I set aside evenings to be my “special time”—a time to take a break from my concerns, both past and future. During that time, I do whatever I can to relax and enjoy myself. I might listen to an audiobook or thumb through the pages of a favorite embroidery book or watch television.
So, why do a need a firewall? Well, I may have set aside an evening to relax and enjoy myself but, invariably, my mind wanders into stressful territory by beginning to ruminate in one way or another. Sometimes, I’ll start going over something from the past that’s bothering me. Other times, I’ll begin worrying about—and dreading—one or more unpleasant tasks that await me the next day (such as a medical test or a difficult interaction I need to have with someone).
This is when I need that firewall. It protects me from spending the evening immersed in these stressful thoughts. When I start going over past events or when I begin to dread what I have to do the next day, I say to myself: “Not now. I’m behind my firewall. I’ll deal with this tomorrow.” Lately, I’ve taken to saying: “Nope. Closed for business until tomorrow.”
And, sure enough, come the next day, I take care of business, including those unpleasant tasks I’d protected myself from worrying about the evening before. (I couldn’t have done anything them at that time anyway, so they definitely belonged behind that firewall.)
Of course, even after I’m behind my firewall, if I receive a call or a text from someone in need, I’ll respond. After all, I’m the one who erected the Firewall, so it’s up to me to have the good sense to know when to break through it. This rarely happens though.
I’m grateful to McCall Smith for including this passage in his book. Now I have my firewall and it’s how I cultivate and protect my equanimity during those times that I’ve put aside to relax and enjoy myself.
Here's another post I wrote on equanimity: How to Cultivate Equanimity Regardless of Your Circumstances.