In most cities I visit – London, New York, Bangkok – stress is the topic. The common feature is of a life-style affected by speed and performance; with the underlying message of getting ahead or falling by the wayside. There’s a prevalence of machinery and technologically-controlled infrastructure: cars, trains, traffic lights, tolls, credit cards, and recorded announcements. There’s no one here. So, there’s a lack of social bonding; hence anxiety, loneliness, depression. People find themselves taking drugs to keep going, to have fun, or to get to sleep. There’s insecurity around livelihood ( ‘Will I get fired next week in order to cut costs?’). And so on. This is the stress of urban societies, which amount to more than fifty percent of the population – while the lifestyle that they breed affects even more.
Does the Buddha have anything to offer to remedy this? Well, we can select and extract mindfulness from the Buddha’s Dhamma presentation and encourage mindfulness for stress-reduction. (Note: ‘reduction’ not ‘elimination’.) And it works, at least to a degree. Training the mind to attend to come into the present, moor itself on neutral bodily sensation and bear witness to the mood is a great help. It’s portable and requires commitment to nothing more than your own presence in the here and now. And if you witness the mental messages and programs that it challenges, you learn a few things. You learn what programs and messages you need to abolish or at least put on hold, and that can lead to changes in the way you live.
To present an example: mindfulness based on breathing is a tried and tested strategy because breathing regulates the nervous energy that the mind uses for its thinking, and calms the emotions that feed anxiety, impulsiveness and negativity. So mindfulness of breathing, literally keeping the sensations and energies associated with breathing in mind, is a great tonic. It also regulates energy and encourages the discharge of energy that is a normal aspect of healthy functioning and which gets overlooked. That is, energy has two modes: arousal – powering up to deal with a task or prepare for a challenge – and discharge – returning to rest state after the task is done or the challenge is over. The way it is for humans, especially urban humans, is that the lifestyle keeps presenting new themes for arousal – the next task or challenge, or the next aim or goal, or the new thing to get excited about and buy. And the opportunities for discharge – the recognition of ‘that’s enough’, or that there’s nothing to do or worry about – dwindle to zero. Furthermore, the ‘get-ahead’, ‘prepare for the future’, 'pay off my student loan’, ‘save up for a place to live’ mental messages keep the mind leaping to the next task or challenge or trying to create a stable scenario for the future. There isn’t the recognition that all these aims, which are validated by the society and its way of life, require healthy energy. And energy only maintains health when it can discharge and regenerate. One snag is that the discharge takes longer than the arousal, even when you’re trained in it … and it isn’t stimulating. And meanwhile, you could knock an item or two off the ‘to-do’ list, or hang out mindlessly watching a video. (Unfortunately, watching a video doesn’t discharge energy, it stimulates; so it briefly buries stress, but that’s all.)
So ... get interested in the energy involved with breathing down into the base of your abdomen as you breathe out. Don’t concentrate on the breath, but get interested in how breathing happens, how the body does it. And you’ll notice it’s involuntary, so there’s no strain in doing it, and no sense of having to be good at it. So how does that attitude feel? It’s stress-free. And as far as the bodily feeling goes, there’s a subtle pleasure in really letting go, down into the base of your gut, a ‘sit back and soak’ feeling, as the breath empties out. Then, if you let the in-breath happen, rather than ‘I breathe in’, there’s a light uplift. Further: open your throat (as if you’re about to swallow) and you’ll tend to release the pumping or tension of the diaphragm and breathing gets calm and deep.
To explain that last point: In the natural rest state, the diaphragm is relaxed and the breathing is moderated by the involuntary flexing of the muscles in the lower abdomen. (If you’re not a yogi or a meditator this may only occur when you’re sleeping so you miss out on it.) When you want to go into action, you want more energy, so the diaphragm kicks in to pump a little more and faster than in the rest-state rhythm. When you’re really firing, the diaphragm tightens up; also when you’re under pressure or being impacted. The problem is that those high-pressure lifestyles mean that you’re omn alert or being impacted most of the time, so the diaphragm doesn’t relax. After a while it just locks into an over-active mode and energy can’t discharge – except maybe through an even more violent arousal (such as sport, violence or a rave) that causes a virtual collapse after the event. Not that this is a sustainable means anyway.
More simply, keep your tongue in the floor of your closed mouth, open your throat, extend your outbreath down into the depth of your abdomen, and at the end of the outbreath draw your attention back towards your spine. This adjustment undoes the locks that the diaphragm-reflex operates through. So all that relaxes. If you’re experienced and aware you’ll also notice that a soft energy starts to travel up your spine. This is the vital flow that runs up and refreshes the brain. So all that allows the face muscles and the fascia tissues that wrap around the body to relax and receive refreshing energy. Half an hour of this a couple of times a day is going to improve well-being and performance.
I could leave it there, but that would be less than complete. This process works – within its range. But if we just do this, we don’t necessarily deal with the sources of stress and even suffering. For example, other than one’s global and political concerns (and what am I going to do about it), there are inter-personal conflicts, financial worries, concerns about one’s appearance and what others think about me, as well as the ever-ready Inner Critic/Inner Tyrant, the inner voice that always finds fault with what I do and don’t do, what I am and what I’m not. So even when one does find time to meditate, then a good deal of that time can be taken up with having the troubles of any of the above list running through one’s mind. A main point in dealing with stress is to also allow for a transformation of being. This begins with listening to and deconstructing the negative mental messages that arise when you’re doing your mindfulness practice, or when you’re reading this, or even when you assume you don’t have the time or the energy to practise.
No time? At any given moment, you can create stress, add to it or release it. So what do you want to do with this moment? Tip: don’t create a personal aim in it, or a future. Just ground yourself in your body and be aware of what is happening – without engaging in it or pushing it away.
Not enough energy? You have the energy to suffer and struggle. It even takes psychological energy to feel hopeless! So at this moment can you relax the energy of struggling and just sense how things are right now? In other words: feel the feeling as a feeling. Tip: unpleasant feeling is part of our package. Can you widen your awareness to allow it be there? Then you don’t suffer.
Boring? Yes, there’s not a lot of stimulation in meditation. But where does stimulation take you …? The need for more? A come-down, and then more boredom? Can you develop greater sensitivity instead … like through reflecting on people you know who you feel grateful, kindly or compassionate towards? Can you begin to attune to the finer sensations and energies in your body? Tip: happiness is in you, not in the object. Look inside any material object – there’s no pleasure in the thing, it happens in you – you’ll really benefit (and save money) when you can adjust what triggers them.
Can’t do this? What is there to do, and who judges success and failure? Tip: be aware of the ‘right/wrong’ signal … or the ‘I have to …’ or the ‘everyone else can …’ Just be aware of these messages, feel what happens emotionally and bodily when they start coming in, widen your awareness and breathe out. Don’t even try to stop the messages. Just feel their energy, soften your attitude and feel into your body breathing out … and in ….
What you find is that there’s a lot of stress involved in being a ‘me’; and that ‘me’ is a sense that masquerades as an identity and always wants to have (a thing, a feeling a future) or to be (a success, a wise one, a nice person, etc …) The ‘me’ sense isn’t a real identity, it’s the result of an unconscious activity, a reflex I’ll call ‘selfing’. Everyone who does this selfing gets stress, and people who are able to undo that reflex are at ease.
There’s a transformation that begins to happen when you meet and handle this stressful selfing. And by definition, it’s not just oneself that feels better; this change benefits everyone whom one’s mind can access. It’s obvious really: the more that I can ease out of craving to have something for me, or to be something for me, the less acquisitive, hoarding and selfish my awareness and its concerns become. The more that happens, the more likely it is that I’ll be interested in sharing, and experience fellow-feeling. The more I can experience the happiness of that, the less material things and status I’ll need in order to feel good. Hence the global solution (a step at a time now): enjoy and increase the span of one’s sharing and concern (include all kinds of people, animals and trees) and let the orientation of one’s life find footing in mutual respect and responsive co-existence. This is a more secure basis; we recharge into a fuller life because selfing just doesn’t work. Even people I don’t like aren’t as much an ongoing problem as the ‘me’ and the ill-will that it leaves in the heart.
But although this may make sense as an idea, reflexes don’t follow the ideas; they have to be handled, rather than reacted to or lamented over. And this means acknowledging the ‘feel’ of selfing; it’s a tightening in one’s nervous system that most often puts energy up into the head – and locks it there. So the average person feels that they live in the section of the head behind the eyes and they observe the world (and themselves) from there. It’s a tight place where judgement and the need for control are rampant – even meditators get stuck there in trying to ‘get it right’. Just to sense that happen whenever ‘me’ or ‘mine’ is threatened or about to get, lose, or fail at something – this already gives you an insight. Once you feel it happen, you can see it as a process, a reflex, and not some identity that you have to justify, defend, feel embarrassed by, or even get rid of.
There’s an energy in that reflex, and handling that energy, rather than identifying with the ‘me’ and the scenario that it creates, is a transformation. Because instead of trying to create an open-hearted, calm and wise ‘me’, we can moderate how the energy of our actions occur, so that they can be free of the snag of creating a ‘me’ in the first place. Instead, a self can be formed that is appropriate to circumstances and released when those circumstances change. To take an example: the rate of violent crime in South Africa (where I am now) generates a background of fear: a woman spoke to me of getting car-jacked at gunpoint twice in six weeks; a man living in a rural district revealed handling the fear of attack every night as he patrols his premises locking the doors. The most difficult point is when he has to return to his own front door, and, for a few seconds while he puts the key in the lock, has to turn his back to the darkness and whatever may be lurking there. He has to become a vigilant self, taking steps towards appropriate vigilance is a requirement.
However if that 'self' is understood and handled as an energy, then it be subsequently discharged. We have to power up into being something with safe boundaries, yet the ability to discharge allows us to not hold it longer than necessary. After all, action is part of life – the Buddha himself was active and interactive in a life of constant insecurity – so we need to get a feel for the impulse, the mood and the bodily reflex that accompany action. Then we can purify it of fear, greed, and hatred. That is: if the impulse jumps up, if the mood is marked with a blur of agitation, if the head feels tight and much of the rest of the body is numbed out – an isolated self, a personal ‘me’, will arise and become established as a fixed state of being. Then instead of adopting vigilance and care, we become an anxious person who lives in a frightening world. And that blocks our access to warmth and joy. On the other hand, if the impulse is steady, if the mood is of caring for oneself and others, and if one feels present in terms of body then action can move through the person and be released. We can give ourselves in action without expecting results. And when we’ve done what we can, it’s finished. So action doesn’t have to create a person who is carrying scenarios of how it could be and how it was. We can act – and so there’s some result (in oneself or in others) – but we let that go. We can stay aware and mindful and respond to what arises next. That doesn't create a a permanent person or scenario – there’s action and engagement, but without the embedded stress.