What is stress & how do we work with it?
Buddhist Spirituality and the Practice of Meditation.
Buddhist Spirituality & Modern Life. Part 1: Stress & Meditation.
Meditation is a pragmatic approach toward being human.
Rather than discarding anything, the path of meditation invites us to look at whatever arises free of our personal spin. It is a process of befriending yourself by allowing yourself to be as you are in that moment. We do not act out or suppress anything. On the meditation cushion there is nowhere to run.
In meditation, we hold the space as both sides of our internal conflict pour into one another. In this moment, who we are ceases to be a problem. We discover a thread of continuity. It is this uninterrupted and indestructible thread of experience that unites wisdom and ignorance, heaven and hell, or nirvana and samsara. It is the ground from which we emerge.
This radical non-duality has profound implications. First of all, rather than insanity being some solid condition, it is revealed to be the product of an evolutionary chain of events.
In other words, every situation—even the dark and desperate—is workable. Stuck is an illusion.
Second, sanity or wisdom is not some commodity that we have to create or produce—it is self-existing. Awakening is effortless; it is a process of consenting to who or what we are, rather than the indefinite task of becoming me. Finally, we do not have to work our way back through our narrative into the past in order to reconnect with sanity. It is available in every moment of every day. It is the ground from which every moment of every day arises. Confusion is not an obstacle to insight; it is the path to awakening. Wisdom is just the observation of confusion.
What is Stress?
We tend to associate stress with personality. It was the research of Stanford biologist, Robert Sapolsky that revolutionized the way we think about stress. He discovered that stress was an innate feature key to the survival of our species. He uncovered the thread of continuity that connects stress with basic intelligence.
Stress is not a personality trait. It is a natural mechanism found in most sentient organisms, which is triggered during life and death situations.
Sapolsky defines stress as follows, “a stressor is a challenge to homeostatic balance—a real physical challenge in the world—and the stress-response is the adaptation your body mobilizes to re-establish homeostasis.” A stressor is a challenge to the biological balance that supports life, while stress is the body’s response to that challenge. In short, stress is the fight or flight mechanism triggered in life or death situations. But, at least in theory, once stability is restored the stress response should dissipate.
For example, there is an antelope peacefully grazing in an African meadow. Then, suddenly a lion appears from behind the brush. It is the stress response that shuts down all of the antelope’s auxiliary functions, such as healing and ovulation, and redistributes that energy to more visceral features relevant to the antelope’s immediate survival. It is stress that dilates the pupils, increases the heart rate and the energy reserve by secreting stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol), in order to power the muscles instrumental in running and fighting. Once the lion is out of sight, the antelope replenishes its calorie reserve, and reinstates its auxiliary functions. It returns to a state of rest. For obvious reasons, stress is not only helpful, it is key to our survival.
Ummmm, why do I react to a talkative cash register attendant like an antelope reacts to a lion?
Well, just like the antelope, we get startled or panicked. There is a sudden shock or trauma—a burst of energy we are incapable of consciously relating to. This much is obvious. Only, in our case, seldom is there a lion or any tangible threat to our life. With humans, stress is triggered by a psychological event. Your expectation of a speedy check out is not met, and suddenly you are knocked off balance by your re-entry into reality. Then comes the stress inducing realization that you are going to be late for your meeting. To make matters worse, the cyclical nature of human psychology and the inability of our conscious brain to control more primal regions of our anatomy transforms stress into a chronic or habitual tendency with catastrophic effects.
If stress is natural, why is it unhealthy?
The stress response shuts down all secondary features, including healing, while your body is busy trying to defend itself against the psychological attack you’ve launched against yourself. As a result, it is not clearing plaque from your arteries, fighting off infection, or repairing the effects of metabolism. Therefore, not only the quality of your life deteriorates, but your actual life span shrinks. Neurotic stress dramatically increases the risk of heart disease, heart attack, gastro-intestinal complications, depression, anxiety, obesity, and a host of other health problems. Plus, it increases the likelihood that we will develop secondary health problems—complications resulting from unhealthy coping mechanisms—such as, alcohol and drug addiction, diabetes, and sleep disorders.
Why do we experience neurotic stress but antelopes don’t?
First of all, the conditions have to be operable. Essentially, we are talking about the development of confusion within the confines of stress: If basic sanity is the foundation, where did insanity or confusion come from? Or, if stress is fundamentally intelligent why do we experience it as a form of neurosis?
Insanity is a point of view disconnected from the revelation of direct experience. The development of insanity begins with a subtle but profound shift of awareness: We mistake the direct experience of Self with the tendency to think about our selves. This is triggered by the installation of the word ‘I.’ The word ‘I’ has no symbolic value; it is incapable of pointing past itself. It is only capable of referring to that which made the reference. Therefore, we get stuck in a self-oriented or self-centered cycle of thought. But ‘I’ did not just fall out of the sky. It was installed when we uploaded language. So, the conditions are made operable with the acquisition of language. Antelopes do not have words. Therefore, they do not have neurotic stress.
Now the stage is set for development of neurotic stress…
“There is a sudden shock or trauma—a burst of energy we are incapable of consciously relating to.”
We become obsessed with ‘that’ eruption of energy. It is our tunnel vision that transforms the spacious or fluid quality of energy or life situations into ‘that.’ This fixation appears to solidify space, but, in truth, it just creates a blind-spot. Like watching a shiny new car drive down the street, we ignore the space surrounding the object—the undefined, unformed quality of Being that constitutes our basic nature. This ignor-ance—the refusal to look at the blind-spot—is the basis of confusion.
The fixation with ‘that’ implies ‘this.’ The implied ‘this’ is nothing more than a self-conscious recognition of the blind-spot; while ‘that’ represents the quality of life. So, ‘this’ is cut-off or disconnected from life. It is empty. Furthermore, this blind-spot is associated with ‘I.’ So, I am empty or discontented—without content or meaning. I feel lifeless. This transforms my life into the search for meaning, content, and vitality.
How is this a life and death situation?
It is important to remember that this entire situation, apart from the basic eruption of energy, is played out on a psychological level. So, we’re talking about a psychological death. The material used to construct this psycho-scenario is thought. Following the acquisition of language, thought is largely in part governed by the rules of grammar. These rules require that a subject and object be verbing with one another in order to form a complete sentence. So, self-completion or the attainment of meaning, purpose, or content is contingent upon the co-dependent relationship between “that and this”, or self and other.
Just as left and right depend upon one another for definition, “self” requires the reference point of “other” in order to establish personality. ‘I’ acquires form, identity, or a role to play through relationship with objects in its environment. By labeling someone an enemy, ‘I’ obtains direction or a role to play. When ‘I’ names other “wife,” it spontaneously attains the title of “husband.” In a mind governed by language, ‘this’ is defined by its relationship with ‘that’, and vice versa.
When the relationship with ‘other’ is threatened, the identity of ‘self’ is also called into question. “I am the husband.” This one simple statement has far reaching implications. It is impregnated with a series of expectations: “I am the bread winner. I am the head of the house hold.” So, when the husband gets laid off, and it is his wife’s pay check that puts food on the table, his identity is called into question. ‘I’ no longer adds up, because it cannot fulfill the self-imposed expectations of a husband. From an established ego’s point of view, its life is being threatened.
How does neurotic stress become chronic stress?
The sophistication of confusion or the birth and development of ego is how the life and death situation is dealt with. Interestingly enough, it is also how it was created.
The ego is a pattern of consciousness. It is the conscious brain’s attempt to manage the stress response or eliminate threats to its stability. Unfortunately, the thinking brain is incapable of accessing the unconscious mind for the same reason a baby cannot give birth to its mother. The stress response originates in the amygdala, which is located in the oldest part of the mind, the limbic system. The un-conscious is pre-conscious—the primal mind happens before the ego. So, the ego is incapable of turning off the stress response.
To make matters worse, ‘this’ is defined by ‘that.’ The ego was installed to manage traumas. So, the fact that the alarm is still sounding is, from the ego’s point of view, a traumatic event. It calls into question the legitimacy and therefore the identity of the ego. We are stuck in a vicious cycle. “There is a sudden shock or trauma—a burst of energy we are incapable of consciously relating to…”
Revolving around the notion of ‘I’ as it does, ego-centric consciousness cannot consent to its own death. It is incapable of acknowledging its own impotence, because it cannot entertain any other possibility apart from itself. This is why ignore-ance is the basis of ego. ‘I’ is a sign that can only reference itself. Therefore, it will always nominate itself for the job when the alarm sounds…even if it was the one that pulled the chord!
Neurotic stress is chronic because the criminal is in charge of the crime scene.
Is there any way to obtain freedom from self?
While the ego might be intrinsically ignore-ant, it is not stupid. In fact, the ego is brilliant. When the cycle is re-triggered, rather than giving up or trying the exact same thing again, it comes at the threat from a different angle. All egos are essentially the same. On the basis of ignore-ance, they establish separation, and define their position in relationship to other. Once they have their footing they begin to develop their own unique properties. In an effort to more successfully manage their environment, egos develop personality programs or defense mechanisms.
These personalities are like costume changes. They still seek to control or manage the situation, but with their own style. Fundamentally, they emerge from basic intelligence, but they are tainted by self-consciousness. It is insecurity—the self-conscious wake of the trauma—that characterizes these personalities. It is a lingering thought in the back of our mind that remembers when we got hurt. It knows that we are defenseless, completely vulnerable. It is this simple fear that drives the ego, and each of these personalities is a sort of echo of that fear.
“There is a thread of continuity. It is this uninterrupted and indestructible thread of experience that unites wisdom and ignorance, heaven and hell, or nirvana and samsara. It is the ground from which we emerge.” These various styles of neurosis have their origins in our physiological inheritance or instincts. In other words, each of these personalities is grounded in the voice of basic sanity. In order to move beyond the debilitating cycle these personalities mask, we will have to reconnect with this voice of basic intelligence. This is the voice of the body.
In the next installment we will explore anxiety and the path that restores freedom. Click here to join my FaceBook group and be notified when the article is published.