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Home » How to Cultivate Calm in the Midst of Chaos: Lisa Powell Graham (Transcript)

How to Cultivate Calm in the Midst of Chaos: Lisa Powell Graham (Transcript)

Here is the full text and summary of Lisa Powell Graham’s talk titled “How to Cultivate Calm in the Midst of Chaos” at TEDxOneonta conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


I feel like the year 2020 should have come with a warning label. Buckle up, humans. It’s going to be a wild ride. I’m not sure how any of us could have ever truly prepared for all the challenges we’ve faced as we’ve endured the global mass trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet thanks to my mentors who helped me heal from traumas in my own past, I had built up a toolkit of skills well before 2020 that helped me keep my sanity when it felt like the world as I knew it was imploding.

And thank goodness for that. Because the onslaught of bad news these past few years has been more than surreal. It’s been downright overwhelming, exhausting, demoralizing. It’s become way too easy to doom scroll on social media or fall into despair. So if you too have felt overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, or scared at times during these past few years, welcome to the club. You’re totally normal and you are so not alone.

In fact, a 2022 survey conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association showed that a shocking 87% of adult surveyed, that is almost 9 out of 10, agreed that it feels like there’s been this constant stream of crises over these past few years. One crisis after another. We’ve been dealing with the pandemic, plus economic challenges, inflation, and climate change. It’s no wonder we’re so stressed.

Stress and anxiety can compound our troubles and harm our health, yet there are no guarantees that life will suddenly get easier or less complex.

So what do we do when the world feels like a dystopian hellscape? And where are the superheroes when it feels like the whole world is on fire? I want to tell you about one of my personal superheroes who changed my life forever.

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So when I was in college, I had a stalker who repeatedly threatened to kill me. Even a decade later, living in a different city for graduate school, I was afraid he’d find me. Any strange noise at night would send me into a full-on panic attack, heart racing, sweating profusely, wondering if tonight was the night I would die. I desperately wanted to stop living in a state of terror.

So in an effort to quiet my noisy, anxious mind and calm my raw nerves, I began studying yoga and meditation. I know it’s a cliche, but these centuries-old practices were lifesavers for me. There was one yoga retreat I’ll never forget. I’m standing in a yoga studio on the cliffs above Santa Barbara, looking out over a forest that leads to the Pacific Ocean on the horizon. It was magical and serene.

Except Mother Nature threw us a curveball on this retreat. Wildfires had broken out in the trees beneath the cliffs where we meditated in silence. I felt like an extra in an action-adventure movie. From the cliffs, we watched the flame shooting high up into the air just a few miles away. A helicopter swooped overhead, flying back and forth to the pond next to the yoga studio to fill a giant hanging basket with water, which turned to instant steam when it was dumped over the flames.

Our teacher, Dina, calmly filled us in on the status of the fires and assured us we were still safe here on higher grounds. I expected to be way more anxious, but Dina’s quiet strength helped calm my fears. I didn’t panic because she kept us so focused on our practices, and I trusted her to guide us and keep us safe.

As the hours passed, Dina continued to fill us in on the state of the fires, and she led us through yoga poses. She guided us through calming meditations. I was in awe of her ability to stay calm in the face of chaos and peaceful in the face of danger. Finally, the firefighters gave us the warning notice that it was time for us to evacuate. Dina set a new example for me of what it means to be a superhero. Before we left, Dina said, “Include this, too, in your practice.”

These days, as a women’s leadership coach and motivational speaker, I use everything I’ve learned from Dina and from the past 17 years of studying yoga and meditation to help others become their own superheroes. I believe cultivating calm in the midst of chaos is in and of itself a superpower and one that the world needs now more than ever.

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And despite all the chaos in the world these past few years, I would argue that the real problem was never just the pandemic. I think the real problem is that the convergence of so many traumas can make us feel hopeless. We live in a society in which it’s way too easy to numb ourselves, and hope, frankly, is harder to sustain than despair.

Despair lets us give up. We don’t have to do anything. Hope requires us to believe in a better possible future, and it requires us to take action. And while we can never control everything happening around us in a world of almost 8 billion people, I believe we can learn to become the I in the center of the storm. Then we can focus on what matters most in this moment.

We can assess what action steps to take when we receive distressing news, whether it’s a job layoff, a cancer diagnosis, or a fire. Everything changed for me when I learned that being able to return to a center of peace and calm in any circumstances enabled me to make wiser decisions, take thoughtful actions, and create better outcomes for myself and those around me.

That retreat on the cliffs was the first time I remember witnessing someone leading with so much calmness and clarity despite the literal fires raging just miles from us. Dina’s ability to stay calm in the midst of chaos helped me believe that maybe I, too, could embody this kind of peace. And my life has never been the same since.

I don’t have panic attacks anymore like I used to, at least weekly. I don’t sleep with a knife under my pillow anymore or my cell phone clutched in my hand like I did in the years when I was gripped by fear. Most importantly, I don’t live in a constant, debilitating state of anxiety anymore. Even though worry has been my companion since as long as I can remember, as a stressed-out, overachieving, very nerdy little girl, thanks to retraining my mind through meditation, I’ve learned to ignore the catastrophic thoughts that used to pull me down into a rabbit hole of despair.

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