Recently I have been teaching a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course ( MBSR), at the heart of which is an understanding of stress as a reality, and a useful resource to us humans if we can only shift our ways of dealing with it, even slightly.
Jon Kabat Zinn wrote about stress in his ground breaking work Full Catastrophe Living :
Humans he says are remarkably resilient creatures,
- We survive all sorts of traumas and challenges, and even with these we still find moments of peace, happiness, joy and fulfilment,
- We cope through sheer self-determination , imagination, creativity and love, as well as through:
- Involvements and diversions that feed our need for purpose, meaning, joy and belonging, and for stepping outside ourselves and caring for others.
Underlying our conscious engagement with many of these challenges we face is an unconscious, biological intelligence that is Zinn says is nothing short of awe inspiring. This system which has been honed over millions of years of evolution, functions at the level of perception ( our thoughts and feelings about our experience – the internal or external stress event.)
Most of us know something of the FIGHT – FLIGHT – FREEZE –stress responses, deeply rooted in our biology, in the amygdala – the oldest part of the brain. Many of us suffer from excessive stress in our lives – external stress from environment, work, relationships or internal stress from the ruminating mind worrying, anxious, and unhappy – maybe longing or that which we do not have (and even when we get it we find it does not bring us the longed for happiness), or pushing away that which we do not want – avoiding it through over eating, or drinking or overworking, or maybe becoming physically or mentally unbalanced or unwell.
Healthy/unhealthy responses to stress
We often think of stress as entirely negative but stress is useful, essential even – it gets us out of bed in the morning and can keep us safe in times of danger. It can become less useful though when we live in an age such as ours where in the western world at least many of us experience some level of Generalised Anxiety Disorder ( GAD ), that sense of finding it difficult to control our worry about money, health, family, work, or other issues, maybe worrying more than seems warranted about actual events, or maybe always expecting the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern.
There are many unhealthy ways we seek to control or to regulate stress in our lives in addition to denying it exists or pretending that everything is fine. They are unhealthy precisely because in some way or another, they avoid naming, facing or dealing with the relationship problems.
Workaholism is a classic example – if distressed or dissatisfied by family life or relationships for then work can be used as a wonderful excuse for never being at home.
Getting stuck in the Stress Reaction Cycle is neither normal nor inevitable – we have far more options and resources for facing our problems than we usually know we have – creative options, imaginative options, healthy options.
Cultivating a healthy response to stress – taking a mindful moment
The healthy alternative to being caught up in any of our self destructive patterns in our attempts to cope with stress is to pause, stand in a slightly different place, and so creating a sense of spaciousness and choice from where we are better resourced to respond rather than our habitual reacting to life’s challenges. Practising mindfulness does not inoculate us from getting sick. Having a heart attack or being challenged by cancer or other illnesses. In our hearts we already know that disappointment and suffering are part of life, interwoven with other times of joy, contentment, boredom What mindfulness practise can do is create ‘a clearing in the forest of our life’, a different place to stand, where we are better resourced to respond wisely rather than reacting to stress in our lives. As Jon Kabat Zinn puts it ‘We cannot stop the waves but we can learn to surf.’
Nothing new under the sun
All Wisdom Traditions call us in various ways to ‘pay attention’, ‘come into the present’, ‘live in and appreciate the now ’. The current wave of mindfulness with its roots in Buddhism is just one way of inviting us to discover this ancient trans religious and intercultural wisdom, available to each if us without any need for a particular religious or philosophical perspective. Just taking a moment, stepping back and pausing will bring us right in touch with the wisdom of the mystics from both Eastern and Western traditions which assure us
And breath !
So what to do to get in touch with this ancient and ever present wisdom ?
Feet on the ground, gaze softened or eyes closed as you wish, and notice the breath coming into and out of the body – maybe finding it helpful to focus on the lower abdomen, the gentle rise of the abdominal wall on the in breath and the falling back on the outbreath. No worries when you notice the mind has wandered away ..that is perfect, notice where the mind has gone and then with gentleness and kindness escort the mind back to the breath, and back again and again. Do this for one minute maybe several times a day ( maybe try an app such as Calm to remind and support you in this practise).
Finding peace where we are
Learning to give ourselves this moment of pause either routinely throughout our day, or better still routinely and in moments when we are particularly stressed will bring us gently into a wiser relationship to ourselves, others and the cosmos. Happy surfing!