The Tension of Peace-of-Mind

I’m 75. I figure I can reasonably live to age 90. So that gives me 15 more years of life. That’s a fair amount of time when you think of it. I could get a lot done in that amount of time. What will I do with these precious remaining years? I don’t want the final 15 years to slip away like sand slipping through my fingers. I want to live them with intention.

Intention is a funny sounding word. In-tenshun. In-TENSION. I find it amusing, and somewhat ironic, that the word “intention”—meaning determination to do something or to act in a certain way—can be heard as “in-TENSION.” This sounding of the word suggests that a certain anxiety is implicit in the concept of living with purpose. That’s ironic!

Does living an intentional life imply a willingness to accept tension, anxiety, and stress into one’s life? One of my goals for my remaining years—an intention—is to focus less on external accomplishments and more on the internal workings of my mind. I feel the need to cultivate a calmer, more accepting state-of-mind that can face whatever the future brings with equanimity.

Will tension be an inevitable part of my quest for calm?

I had been thinking that the presence of tension would be a bad thing, antithetical to what I was trying to achieve. But perhaps this is wrong. It seems likely that tension is an inevitable aspect of life. Some degree of tension, for example, is needed to resist the gradual slide into passivity and inactivity that seem to plague advanced age. I don’t want to fall into self-inflicted ageist attitudes that would shrink my life, so there is a tension to resist those impulses. When the curtains come down, I want to leave the stage with a bang, not a whimper—a peaceful bang.

Rather that resist or deny the tension, a better strategy would be to learn to live with it. Better yet, we should learn how to work with the tension.

A couple of evocative metaphors occurred to me as I pondered the inevitability of tension. I’ve been thinking about the arts—and music in particular—and the image of a plucked guitar string resonated with me (pun intended).

The guitar will produce no music unless there is tension in the strings. A flaccid string won’t vibrate fast enough to produce the required sound waves. Music—organized sound—is produced by purposeful pulsing that creates tension and release of air waves. We produce music by creating tension on vibrating surfaces, and our auditory system feels this tension and converts it into the electrical pulses that our brain interprets as sound. No tension, no music. How can we turn the tension in our lives into music?

There are no stories of interest without tension. A narrative without conflict has no drive, no momentum. A story without tension is boring. It is the constant ebb and flow of tension and release that propels us through a well-crafted narrative. Interest is sustained by the skillful manipulation of expectation (tension) and resolution. Each resolution, of course, creates a new form of tension and the story is swept forward on waves of pulsing tensions.

Tension is akin to stress. Short-term, acute stress is adaptive and highly beneficial. It alerts us to danger and signals when our body and mind have lost homeostatic balance. When the threat passes and balance is restored, the stress is relieved. The tension abates. It is chronic, unrelieved stress that is dangerous and destructive. There is no resolution, no period of respite in the narrative of chronic stress. The same would be true of tension. It is the harmonics of tension and release that produces the music, not a constant drone of constant noise.

The metaphor of wading into a flowing river also occurred to me. The current of the river creates a tension against our body. It pushes us, relentlessly, downstream. If we resist the flow and doggedly try to swim against the current, the tension is magnified. Swimming upstream requires great exertion and is ultimately exhausting. It is so much easier, more pleasant and fulfilling to flow with the flow. The challenge is to navigate within the flow, to use the tension of the current to propel us in direction we want to go.

For the next 15 years or so I will be immersed in the steady flow of life as it inexorably winds its way toward my death. I will inevitably confront the tensions of change. My body continues to present me with new challenges. Rather than simply give in to limitations, I intend to adapt and adjust. I’ll find new ways to keep swimming with the current as best I can.

My mind, hopefully, will remain sharp. But it needs an attitude adjustment. I have for too long exercised only my rational, conceptual mind. I have neglected my intuitive, experiential mind. I should admit that I have neglected my spirituality. I have been swimming upstream, wanting the world to behave as I think it should behave, trying to construct neat explanations for what, ultimately, is unknowable. I intend to spend my remaining years learning to accept and cherish the world as it is, in all its magnificent and alarming mystery.

My intention is to surf the fluctuations of life’s tensions to harmonize more comfortably with the mysteries of existence. What about you?

Michael C. Patterson is an author, teacher and consultant who specializes in promoting successful longevity, living long, and living well. He explores his ideas about the hemispheric gelassenheit on the MIND OVER MUDDLE series of the MINDRAMP podcasts. Learn more about his work with MINDRAMP at

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