An Ancient Approach to Manage Stress in the Modern World
By George Mera
Are the demands of everyday life beginning to exceed your ability to cope with them? Doubting your capability to control situations and circumstances can trigger a hormonal threat response. This alters your body's normal metabolism, raising heart rate, respiration and body temperature, all of which can leave you anxious and irritable.
This entire mechanism can be distilled down to one word, stress. Whether caused by being in a traffic accident or opening your 401(k) statement, the response is the same, differing only in intensity. To effectively combat and manage stress, fundamental changes in your perception of yourself and your life circumstances are necessary.
Implementing these changes requires some insight as to the nature of stress and the way that the human mind-body connection functions. For many centuries, physicians and scholars throughout the Far East have recognized this symbiosis. Indeed, the culture’s entire philosophy of health and medical care is based on this holistic perspective.
Stress is inherent in every human being. It is the way we respond to a real or imaginary threat. It is the fight-or-flight mechanism which enables our bodies to initiate the chain of biochemical reactions in response to a hazard, whether real or perceived. While your mind and emotions develop through the learning experience of life, instincts were given to you as a survival protection tool.
Based in the primordial or ‘lizard’ part of the brain, stress reaction functioned since the beginning of time to protect us from imminent perils to our physical being, but in the modern world this mechanism is triggered by the pressure of business responsibilities or relationship troubles. Regardless of the cause, the adrenal gland produces the hormone cortisol to cope with the stress. An excess of cortisol in our bodies can periodically weaken the immune system, and can be very dangerous for other bodily functions, seriously compromising metabolic equilibrium, referred to as homeostasis.
When stress is handled properly it is beautiful, like painting a surrealistic panorama with different symbols, situations and colors that sometimes don’t make any sense. In this canvas the profane and sacred run side by side; the profound, the trifling, the rational and the mystic all have their own space and they melt together as a masterpiece of your true life, revealing itself more clearly if we step back and observe quietly.
We can also paint this scenery in dark colors, so obsessed with what we don’t have, wishing our lives, the world and our minds to be different, feeling so cold and alone in a world we never asked for. In this negative state of contemplation of reality, the puzzle of our lives never fits and living becomes a chore instead of a joy. Unfortunately we are not born with the tools to deal with stress. That we do not inherently possess the guidance or strategy to harmoniously conduct the turmoil of glands, emotions and chemical reactions on which we respond to a situation depends on many factors.
Some of these factors are the way you have been indoctrinated to this world by your culture, the environment you were raised in, your physical constitution, and the experiences of the past. The painting lessons were not provided to us as part of our education. You can have the highest IQ and it doesn’t mean that you know how to manage your personal demons.
Stress is the way we interact with the outside world and the form in which we communicate this experience to ourselves. The world in which we lived for most of our lives has unexpectedly changed and since most of humanity lives for the future, the expectation of controlling our lives has dramatically shifted. Hesitation is present in the collective consciousness of this world, and our sense of power to control any situation has been bruised.
There is a famous Chinese story of a wise old farmer, who owns a beautiful white horse that he uses to work in his field. One day the horse escaped and all the neighbors went to his house to express their empathy. One of them said what bad luck he had. The old farmer was not concerned. He responded, "Bad luck? How can you possibly know?"
The next day the horse came back with seven wild horses following behind. Everybody went to the farmer's house to express their happiness. They said what good luck he had. The farmer was not excited but responded, "Good luck? How do you know?" The next day his only son was trying to tame one of the horses, fell down and broke his leg. The neighbors went to the old man house and said, "What bad luck you have, there’s nobody to help you now." He responded, "Bad luck? How can you possibly know?"
The next day the army came to recruit new soldiers for a war. They took every young person in the village except the farmer’s son because he had a broken leg. Everybody said, "You saved your son life. What good luck!" He responded, "Good luck, bad luck? How do you possibly know?"
This old man had tools to deal with the stress and we all need to find them. If you don’t find these tools in your culture explore others. Do we see the present situation of the world as good or bad luck? Are the obstacles insurmountable or rather a door of opportunity to enrich our wisdom and explore other avenues of possibility?
In every good situation exists the seed for something bad and in every adverse situation exists an opportunity to grow. The problem is that we don’t have the perspective of time so we react emotionally, with anger or happiness, and then we think it should be the opposite.
First we need to pause, reflect, think and then conduct the emotional energy in the right direction. This is very easy to preach but not that easy to achieve because we are emotional beings. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have emotions but rather that you endeavor to not have emotional imbalances.
Our emotions are biochemical reactions to events, environments, and situations that are occurring in and around our lives. In most cases when a situation is presented in front of us we have the choice of how to react. We sometimes allow people to interfere with our inner peace and we keep quiet, or we permit ourselves to react with anger at the traffic jam. We decide to yell at our kids. These are choices that we make.
Behind your reaction there is always a habitual behavior; a pattern that most of the time, we don't want to change, explaining to ourselves, "that is the person who I am, people have to learn how to live with me. If they love me they need to adjust to my personality and accept me as I am." It's a lost cause to try to change other people's behaviors. You can only change your own behavior, if you are not really happy with the way your life flows.
Ancient masters in Chi Kung, Tai chi and Yoga recommend that you be centered in order to manage an anxious mind. It’s not easy to find the center for some intellectually- oriented people. The center is in their heads, for others who are emotionally-oriented the center is in their hearts. These two centers have been developed but the physical center needs to be rediscovered and that is in your abdomen. This is the reason that breathing techniques are emphasized, because when you breathe diaphragmatically you are always touching your center.
When you are centered you are natural and loose, when you are centered you are in balance, when you are balanced you are at ease. When you are centered you find your spine. When Prana or Chi (vital energy) is accumulated in the abdomen it will stimulate a flow of awareness to the heart and mind centers, then meditation is possible. Then the mind can be in the present moment. The mind has plenty of space to move in the past or future but doesn’t want to be in the present.
Japanese and Chinese people want the mind and actions to be natural; in choosing between something artificial or natural they will always be in the side of the natural. When you emphasize the natural your style of behavior will change. You feel that your actions are not in contradiction with what the whole universe is doing, that you are following the Tao or the Way. This might look like passivity but is actually cleverness. You are not the leaf that the wind blows; you are conscious of your path in life.
The Japanese have some aesthetic elements that are indicatives in any arts and should be present to mitigate stress because living is an art.
The first concept is Sabi, the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in the reliability of nature. It also means loneliness. As a common belief, being isolated is the worst punishment for any human being. In the Oriental arts it promotes sanity; we all need to have a moment to ourselves. The clearest example is the painting of the lonely crow on the tree branch.
The mood Sabi is the impression we have in some Zen gardens of being in an isolated mountain in the middle of the city. Any sane person has to have privacy, space to be alone. Wherever you are, if you realize Sabi then you create your own mountain.
The mood Wabi is always used with the term Sabi, it is the feeling of finding significance in simple things that we take for granted and in that way we find consolation. Suppose you are depressed; life is not going well and suddenly you observe to your surprise a simple flower which has a lovely intricate design. Or you are sitting on the beach disappointed about the future. You are watching the endless movement of the ocean waves over the rocks and then you realize that this has happened before you existed and will continue after you leave this world. This awareness will shift the mood of depression into reassurance that life is amazing and nature is eternally reliable.
Tadao Ando writes “Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It's simple, slow, and uncluttered - and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet - that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent”.
Richard R. Powell summarizes by saying "It (wabi-sabi) nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."
Another mood is Mono Aware This is a Japanese term used to describe the awareness of mujo, or the transience of things, and a bittersweet sadness at their passing. Everything is about change and nothing can be held onto or possessed. This feeling of transience is the root of the Buddhist philosophy of poverty which is different than the Christian that is in opposition with richness and is unpleasant and to be avoided.
Aware doesn’t mean to eliminate all the clinging in life (because we would not be humans) but to look for a more simple and natural life with only a little clinging. Aware is the touch of regret of nostalgia that life is fleeting but the merriness of all the good moments still echoes.
Anther mood is Furyu. Some people translate the term as elegance, but its meaning can encompass concepts such as moving like the wind, or a style as when an artist is following a certain school. He or she is said to possess the family wind.
Furyu is "going with", but more than passivity it involves self awareness. If you are fishing and your mind is only in catching fish then it is just fishing, but if at the same time you are aware of and one with the environment then it is Furyu.
It is a particular kind of style that could be called the elegant poor man or the aristocratic bump.
Another mood is Yugen, profound grace, great mystery or darkness. Zeami Motokiyo wrote that it is "...to watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds. And, subtle shadows of bamboo on bamboo."
Yugen gives you a glimpse of this fantastic and magical world that we had when we were kids, the idea of a paradise island that we all keep in the back of our minds, the place that is waiting for you, and the inspirational place where we feel at home and there is nothing else to look for; no worries, expectations, plans or goals. This is not escaping from reality but we all need to have this paradise world in ourselves.
Image a fish preserved in salt. Before you cook you wash off the salt. Education is a necessary evil that makes you a good person and a responsible citizen but it puts you into a box. All these philosophies are a way to wash the salt and take a heavy weight off of your shoulders so you can breathe and be a natural human being again.
When the impetus seeking fulfillment slows down, we can perceive that the significance of life is life and the meaning of it is what is happening in this present moment.