Apotheosis episode 25: Be the flagpole, not the flag. When the storm rages all around, you can either get tossed around like the flag – or stand tall and steady like the flagpole.

Episode 25: Be the flagpole, not the flag

Ryan D Thompson Ancient, Buddhism, Calm, Skills

Key ideas

When the storm rages all around, you can either get tossed around like the flag – or stand tall and steady like the flagpole. Meditation can train our minds to stay calm even when everything else is not, helping us respond with clarity.

  • We cannot avoid setbacks, discomfort, or other difficulties in our lives. These turbulent winds will continue to blow no matter how hard we fight against them.
  • Pointing out the futility of trying to stop the wind, Buddhist meditation master Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche describes another option: rather than being the flag, getting beaten around by the winds, we can be the flagpole. The flagpole stands strong and steady no matter how wildly the storm might rage.
  • We don’t have to react to every thought or feeling we have; and we don’t need to react to everything that other people say or do. Some things are worth our reaction, while others are not. When we do react, we’re far more likely to achieve positive outcomes if we stay calm.
  • Buddhist meditation practices like object-based meditation help to train the mind, much like exercising a muscle. These practices help us to cultivate a sense of calm, even when the winds are howling all around us.


Picture yourself at the airport during the holidays. The place is packed, a frantic mess of travelers scurrying in every direction. Crazy long lines at security, and you even get pulled aside for another search. When you get through, there are long lines at every restaurant, and when you get your food, it’s… well, not very good and highly overpriced. Your patience is frayed by the time you finally reach your gate. There’s nowhere to sit, with every seat filled with people and their maxed-out carry-on luggage. You stand there waiting and waiting… until finally, after a while, you hear an announcement. You naturally expect the boarding call. But instead, you hear, “We’re sorry, but due to adverse weather conditions at our destination, this flight has been canceled.” 

Now be honest: how would you typically react to this situation? I’d guess that “frustration,” “anger,” “annoyance,” or something along those lines comes to mind. And how much time do you think elapses between a negative event like this and your reaction to it? Is there a gap? Or would you say your emotions tend to arise almost instantly?

I’d wager that the gap between the stimulus and our response is nearly nonexistent for most of us – myself included. Something happens, and we almost instantaneously react. If the incident is reasonably minor, like a flight delay or even cancellation, it’s one thing. However, our ability to stay calm under fire and make rational decisions matters a whole lot more when the event is more serious, affecting people’s lives, safety, and welfare.

The ability to maintain a cool head can make the difference between success and failure – or between life and death. So that’s a skill worth building.

This episode is part of a series on cultivating calm under fire, focusing on insights from Buddhism. Buddhist monks are like the Olympic athletes of calm. Fortunately, we don’t have to shave our heads and wear robes to enjoy the benefits of greater peace. Buddhism offers practical methods for training our minds to avoid being swept away by turbulent thoughts and emotions.

To make sense of these practices, it helps to start at the beginning – with what sounds an awful lot like bad news. One of the fundamental ideas in Buddhism tells us that we can’t avoid discomfort, setbacks, or other difficulties. They are a fact of life. This apparently bad news is the First Noble Truth the Buddha shared. Fortunately, the Buddha’s insights don’t end there; in the other three Noble Truths, he proposes a solution. While we can’t avoid discomfort or disappointments in life, we can change our relationship with them. 

Our strong expectations for things to be a certain way produce suffering. We grasp onto our views with a vice-like grip. We can find freedom from suffering by loosening our attachment to having things always go our way. Meditation is the practical method for letting go of those attachments.

Think of it this way: ordinarily, when something undesirable happens, our minds erupt in turmoil. We mentally fight and resist this thing with all our might. All too frequently, though, our resistance only makes things worse, like thrashing around in quicksand only makes you sink faster. Instead of calmly finding a way out, we waste precious energy fighting, complaining, and sinking deeper.

In this case, we’re attached to the idea that “this shouldn’t be happening to me. It’s not fair. I don’t want this. I should have something else.” Letting go of the attachment means first acknowledging that, “yes, this is happening. This is the reality I’m in.” With that realization, we open the door to clear thinking and effective action. 

The bad event could be anything: the flight cancellation, an unfair article about our work and its impact, our funding drying up, or whatever it might be. 

When I was in Peru working in the Amazon, I spent some time with loggers deep in the jungle at a sustainable forestry concession. One day, I was talking to one of the loggers. Meanwhile, he was being swarmed by bees. I mean, the bees were totally covering him, crawling all over his arms, his face, his head… and yet, he didn’t react. Didn’t phase him. Most of us would likely be flipping out – the moment an insect touches our skin, we launch into instant reactivity. The irony is that our thrashing around fighting against this undesirable thing makes it more likely we’ll get stung than if we had just sat there calmly.

We know that bad things are going to happen at some point. So we might as well be prepared for that fact. 

When bad things happen, we have a choice: we can allow ourselves to be swept away by reactivity to every little thing. Or we can let go of the unrealistic view that things should always go our way – and calmly determine the right action for this situation.

Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche puts it like this: we can be the flag, or we can be the flagpole. The flag gets beaten and tossed around by the winds that inevitably blow. In contrast, the flagpole stands steady and firm regardless of how fiercely the storm might rage.

Training our minds through meditation prepares us to be the flagpole, not the flag. 

Mingyur Rinpoche teaches many meditation techniques to cool the fires in our minds and hearts. One of the common approaches involves resting your awareness on an object. It could be just about anything: your breath, the sounds around you, colors and shapes, the feeling of your heart beating, or even thoughts themselves.

One important note about these practices is that we’re not forcing ourselves to be calm, trying to suppress the emotion. Instead, we use our mind’s tendency to be distracted to our advantage. We give it a job. As Mingyur Rinpoche describes, our ordinary mind is like a monkey – bouncing from branch to branch, from one stimulus to the next. Our minds are wild. If we try to force the monkey to stop, it will resist. “Get out!” we say – but it will only fight back and get stronger. Likewise, we don’t want to just chase after whatever it tells us to do. “Yes, sir!” as Rinpoche describes.

There is a third option: we can give the monkey a job. We tell the monkey, “hey, check out those sounds around you! Look at those colors!” That is the purpose of object meditation: we train the mind to be aware of a specific object for a set time. When the mind inevitably wanders, we notice that and gently bring our attention back to the object. 

Another important note about these practices: they’re not instant remedies. It’s not like a pill we can take that makes us instantly calmer. Rather, it takes consistent practice over time. Much like training the body, we can’t expect to run a marathon without putting in the effort. Likewise, we can’t expect our minds to go from being beaten around like the flag to the stability of the flagpole overnight.

It helps to experience this practice rather than think about it conceptually. So if you’ve got a few minutes, here’s a quick object-based meditation. The great thing about this practice is that you can do it “anytime, anywhere,” to use another of Rinpoche’s favorite phrases.

First, find a comfortable seated posture. It could be on a cushion on the ground or in a chair. Then check your posture, ensuring your spine is straight to promote alertness; and your muscles are relaxed to avoid being too tight. Feel this nice balance between the straight spine and the relaxed body. Next, bring your attention to your breath. Just feel your chest rise as you take in a breath. Feel your chest contract as you exhale. Feel the air on your nostrils. Hear the sound of your breath. Repeat this for a few moments. When you’re ready, turn your attention to the sounds around you. There’s no need to judge them, label them, or follow a storyline about the sounds. Just listen. Notice. Good, bad, indifferent sounds… doesn’t matter. They’re just soundwaves reaching your eardrums. It’s just a signal reaching your brain. Just listen. It’s natural that thoughts will occur. Your brain is a thought-producing machine. That’s ok; when you notice you’re lost in thought, gently bring your attention back to the sounds around you. 

Ok. Even just a minute of this practice – observing your breath, feelings in your body, or sounds – can be helpful. You can do this many times throughout the day. Just pause, observe, and notice the moment. Then go back about your day. Introducing little gaps like this help to calm our minds. Repeated practice over time helps prepare us for the storm – to be the flagpole when the winds start howling around us.

Well, that’s all for now. Join me again next week as I continue this series about calm under fire with some perspectives from Stoicism. In the meantime, check out the Project Indra website. I recently did some major revamping of the site to make it easier to find information related to specific skills for impact leaders. You can subscribe there for irregular newsletter updates, and feel free to subscribe to Apotheosis on your favorite podcast platform. And if you have a moment to leave a review or a quick rating, that’s always very helpful. Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License