Calm by The School of Life

'Rather than strive to empty the mind, a favoured route to calm involves looking more carefully and slowly at our own agitated experiences with the aim of clarifying our underlying concerns.'


If you read my blog, you'll know that I subscribe to everything that The School of Life puts out there. I'm a full-blown School of Lifer, if that's even a thing. The description of this book resonated with me as soon as I read it. If there's one thing I need more of in my life, it's calm. I struggle with severe anxiety, panic attacks, and have ongoing problems with distress tolerance. My hope with this book was to gain more insight into the underlying agitations that make being calm and living calmly more difficult for me. 

The book is split into four main chapters: relationships, other people, work, and the sources of calm. Within each chapter are deep dives into things like romantic expectations, unintended hurt, ambition, and patience. The sources of calm discusses at length tapping into our senses such as sight, sound, and touch, as well as the Sublime, and looking back on history. 

The introduction states "Calm has a natural and deep appeal. Most of us long to be more patient, unruffled, at ease and capable of reacting with quiet good humour to life's setbacks and irritants. But we are often still only at the beginning of knowing how to be calm."

It goes on to talk about how our response to agitation these days is focused on emptying the mind through meditation. The aim of that meditation is to push away the agitation, and The School of Life mentions that this response suggests that our anxieties have nothing in particular to tell us. They suggest that we should "learn to interpret it more skillfully, decoding certain valuable shards of information that our panicky moments are attempting to transmit to us." So rather than meditating, emptying our minds, and pushing away our anxieties, we should aim to look more carefully at our agitated experiences and listen to the content of our troubles. 

I had key takeaways from every section in the book, but a few spoke to me more than others. 

There's a section called In Defence of Teaching, and it talks in detail about how we can get irritated by the fact that others don't understand the critical things we need them to know. We assume that people should know these things, and when they don't, we get irritated, which interrupts any flow of calm we otherwise might have had. "We carry a heavy background grudge that someone doesn't yet know something they have never been given a chance to learn." For example, I might get stressed out if my partner doesn't load the dishwasher in the way that I like it done, but the truth is, perhaps he never learned to do it in that way. Or maybe I expect a work assignment to be completed in a particular format when my colleague has never done it in that way before and is unaware of how to do so. 

This section concludes that some of the most irritating and agitating moments in life are just failed teaching moments. 

In the Work chapter, the Ambition section was particularly eye-opening. I have a lot of ambition, and this section states "for all its positive aspects, ambition is a deep driver of agitation and distress in life." What I took away from this part of the book was that I might have all this inner drive and ambition but what causes me the greatest amount of distress is that I don't know what to do with it. I find myself constantly feeling like I should be doing something that I'm not yet doing, should be working in a career or field that I'm not yet in, and should be content in areas of my life that I am not yet content in. This all causes a great deal of agitation and disrupts any sense of calm. The section mentions, "There are going to be long, tricky processes involving a lot of crossings out, a lot of changes and repositioning of material as we try to understand ourselves."

Finally, in The Sources of Calm chapter, the section on Touch resonated a lot with me. This section talks about the power of a hug. It talks about what a hug can provide, why it might be needed, and why it is so powerful. "A hug is a symbol of what we are missing in our hypercompetitive, individualistic culture: a positive admission of our dependence and fragility."

I own more than ten School of Life books, and I'd definitely place this in the top three, although each one speaks to me on a different level. I took a bunch of notes throughout this book, and made highlights on almost every page. I highly recommend checking out this free excerpt from the book, courtesy of The School of Life. 

I also recommend checking out these Calm Prompt Cards. I don't own them (yet), but I do have the Career Crisis Cards, which are fantastic. 

These Calm Prompt Cards contain ideas and observations to help us handle these frustrations. Through ironic humour, consoling cultural references, and a small amount of pessimistic wisdom, they help to summon up our best and calmest selves.

About The School of Life

The School of Life is an organization built to help us find calm, self-understanding, resilience and connection - especially during troubled times. They place an emphasis on the need to understand ourselves better, so that we can secure serenity and make optimally reliable decisions, particularly around love and work. 

Calm is available to purchase in hardcover at Indigo or in e-book format on Kobo. It can also be purchased and delivered worldwide through The School of Life directly.