How to Be Mindful in Stressful Situations

Skill and knowledge have no value unless they are accompanied by unwavering composure

Woman aiming with an arrow | Concept of being mindful in stressful situations

Once upon a time there lived a highly acclaimed archer who was renowned for winning every archery contest he would participate in. He was young but boastful. Drunk on arrogance, he decided to challenge a Zen master who too was known for his skill with the bow and arrow. The master accepted the challenge.

During the contest, the young man displayed superlative adeptness when his first arrow hit the bull’s eye, and then he split that arrow into two with his second shot. Highly pleased with his own performance, he dared the old man to match it. The master remained calm and instead of drawing his bow he motioned for the young archer to follow him up the hill. Curious about what the old man was up to, the young archer followed him near the peak of the mountain. There, they confronted a deep gulf, bridged simply by a flimsy trunk of an old tree. The master stepped on the wobbly log and walked to the middle, picked a far away tree as a target, drew his bow, and fired a clean, direct hit. Calm and composed, he stepped off the log quietly, looked at the champion archer and said, “Your turn now.”

As he stared into the terrifying chasm, the young man trembled and couldn’t even step onto the log, leave aside attempting to shoot at a target. Sensing his predicament, the old man looked at him lovingly and, without a trace of superiority, said, “Young man, no doubt you have great skill with your bow and arrow but you have little skill with the mind that controls these weapons. Shooting arrows in contests is not that same as firing them on the battlefield, where violence can arise upon any kind of terrain and under any conditions. If you want to be a real champion, go and become the master of your mind.”

Why Unwavering Composure Matters

For me, the lesson in this Zen story runs deeper than the abyss that terrified the young archer. All my life, I have been taught to focus on learning new ways to succeed, on acquiring knowledge, on gaining technical “expertise”. After all, these qualities are valued in the world. But when disaster strikes, when I am confronted with an unexpected crisis, or when life throws a curve ball, no amount of expertise and knowledge comes in handy — unless it is also accompanied by a tranquil mind. Only if you are calm and composed can you face stressful situations without succumbing to the pressure. And yet, learning worldly skills is given prominence everywhere with hardly any emphasis on the importance of training the mind for peace and calmness.

But then, life is the greatest school with the most unsuspecting teachers on its roll. And my teachers have come disguised as unexpected difficulties and stressful situations — challenges and problems that have stumped me and made me realize that what I most need at that moment is unwavering composure; nothing else matters as much.

Also read » The lion and the crippled fox

Why Staying Calm Helps

I rate the ability to stay calm and composed as greater than any other material accomplishment. Without composure, I cannot help myself or another. But if peace is my constant companion, regardless of how stressful the challenge, how demanding the situation, how dicey the problem, I know I can deal with it. This is what the Zen master implied when he urged the young archer to become the master of his mind.

I understand that steadfast equanimity requires great practice and dedication, especially because it is not given priority in a world that is smitten by material wealth and sense pleasures. But, like the Zen story teaches us, skill — or for that matter riches, fame or power — are of little use without a calm mind. That’s why I consider the ability to stay calm and composed under all circumstances to be the greatest quality. This quality of composure is a flowering of mindfulness. Let me explain.

How to Be Mindful In Stressful Situations

To be able to stay calm and composed in the midst of chaos and uncertainty requires one to be in a state of heightened awareness, which is the quality of mindfulness. When facing a crisis, a mindful person, rather than being swayed by extreme emotions, stays calm and controlled while working the best way out of the situation. Mindful beings are in touch the present moment and also know that their all power exists now in the timeless realm of now. When you focus on the present, you are able to respond better to the challenges at hand rather than being overwhelmed by stress and losing perspective of your situation.

Here are a few steps that will help you stay calm and composed in stressful situations:

1. Acknowledge and accept that you are feeling stressed

Only when you acknowledge the physical and emotional signs of stress — palpitations, feelings of weakness, a stream of dreadful thoughts — are you in a position to do something about it. Accepting your stressful feelings allows you to approach the situation objectively and calmly.

2. Stop and notice your breath

Take a moment to pause and pay attention to your breathing. As you notice you breath, you will begin to breathe deeper and slower which, in turn, will activate the body’s relaxation response and help you regain a sense of calm.

3. Bring your attention to the present

Become intensely present. Look around and notice your surroundings. Also make note of  the sensations in your body as well as your mental chatter. Doing so will instantly ground you and anchor you to the present moment. Now you will have a clearer view of the stressful situation.

4. Question your fearful thoughts

Stressful situations cause our minds to go into an overdrive of negative thinking. But most of these thoughts are simply unfounded fears that can be challenged and disputed with reason. As you question your thoughts, you will be able to look at your stressful situation in the right context.

5. Be your own friend

Avoid self-criticism. Bashing yourself up is self-defeating phenomenon with terrible consequences. Give yourself space to be imperfect. Be gentle and compassionate to yourself like you would be to a friend in a similar situation.


Try following the above steps, the next time you feel immobilized when facing a difficult situation. With practice, being mindful will enable you to stay stay calm and composed no matter how challenging and stressful your situation.

If you wish to learn how to cultivate a mindful disposition, start by reading this article.

Also read » The man who eliminated uncertainty

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This is an updated version of the article that was first published in the May 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing magazine.

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