Saturday, January 1, 2011

Unconscious Stress Epidemic

If you Google stress you will find 160 million findings. Over two thirds of doctors' visits are stress related. Stress aggravates conditions such as alcoholism, drug abuse, obesity, diabetes, domestic violence, and many more. Inefficiencies in businesses caused by low morale, frequent illnesses, and high employee turnover rate are all costly products of stress. Stress is a simultaneous internal and external attack on humanity's well being, or dhukka, as the Buddha called it. It would safe to say that most of us are suffering from chronic stress. This explains why we experience so much tension and physical pain during zazen.

When we say stress we are referring to a compilation of negative emotions and physical discomfort. We need to understand it more clearly if we are going to work it ourselves. Selye published a model dividing stress into two parts. When stress improves function, such as running, lifting weights, solving math problems or working on a koan, it can be considered eustress. Stress which is unresolved and persistent is known as distress. Distress is the type that leads to anxiety and depression. It is important to recognize what type of stress we are experiencing in order to know how to work with it. One may flea from a stressful event without knowing what type it is and in turn missing a chance to build. It's beneficial to continue working on a koan because the outcome is beneficial. Other times we may need to remove ourselves from a job or relationship because it is causing us distress.

Removing ourselves from a distressful situation may not always be the best move for our well being. We must determine if the stress is coming from something real or imagined. Lazurus made a valid argument by stating that in order for a situation to be deemed as stressful, it must be valued as such. This is to say, the object causing distress must be viewed in such a way to condition the distress. This process of appraisal then directs energy to either manging the problem, which would be function energy or managing the emotions which arise from the problem, which is a dysfunctional use of energy. From this we can see the importance in re-evaluating the stressor and directing our energy in a functional way. We must first recognize that we are stressed, then notice our habitual way of coping with the stress and decide if it's having the desired effect. This way of seeing stress can give us the opportunity to go further into examining our view of objects of which we deem the problem. This is where we can develop the wisdom which will grant us freedom form chronic stress.

Distress can accumulate into a constant worry and depression. This type of stressing is an obsession over the stressors and is also the type of stress we are referring to when we talk about relief. At this point we are conscious enough to know that the stress is dysfunctional. When I google stress relief it pulls up over 3 million results. There many effective ways to relax and let go. This is an important part of meditation practice. We must learn to release the tension and enjoy the moment. The Buddha refereed to this as the practice of serenity, but we must understand that this is only half of the practice. Over time the practice of serenity can become very intoxicating and if not balanced with insight can become highly addictive. The practitioner learns to recognize the stressor and abandons it instead of working with it. At this point it can start to develop problems in relationships and jobs and the practice becomes no more beneficial than that of a drug. In extreme conditions we can start to become deeply unconscious which results in attempt to have complete control over the environment and others. This non-violent passive aggressive form of control can be as equally dysfunctional and destructive as an aggressive form of dealing with stress.

The Buddha talks about developing a pair of skills;

Developing a Pair of Skills
Serenity and Insight

"Two things, O monks, partake of true knowledge. What two? Serenity and Insight.
"When serenity is developed, what benefit does one experience? The mind is developed. When the mind is developed, what benefit does one experience? All lust is abandoned.
"When insight is developed, what benefit does one experience? Wisdom is developed. When wisdom is developed, what benefit does one experience? All ignorance is abandoned.
"A mind defiled by lust is not liberated: and wisdom defiled by ignorance is not developed. Thus, monks, through fading away of lust there is liberation of mind: and through fading away of ignorance there is liberation by wisdom."

In the Words of the Buddha, pgs 267-268

Here the Buddha recognized that a discernment of weather to stay and work with the stressor or to let go must be made in each moment. If we get stuck in one mode that there is no freedom at all. From my point of view both of the practices are wide spread and does not belong solely to Buddhism. Mindfulness has gained a great amount of popularity in the U.S. and science has probed into the cellular level of stress. Research Robert Sapolsky's work with Baboons. This can help us on a conceptual level but not fundamentally. We must dive into our own stress directly if we want to develop any wisdom. The reason for this is that we normally experience stress on an external level. We notice the storm but can't see the clouds forming. By the time the storm hits it's time to take cover. The scientific attitude can be turned inward toward our own being. Obsessions are so strong because they have a strong amount of energy invested in them. We need to remove the energy then naturally the obsession will seize. Removing the energy is easy once we see exactly how it is invested. This is why zazen is so important. We give ourselves the time to watch the clouds form over and over until we find the very moment of creation.

Not everyone is ready for the development of Insight. I have ran across many that do not like the frustration and stress that a koan can evoke. This is OK. It is important to be completely honest with ourselves and get want we want out of practice. But eventually must work with a teacher that holds us responsible to the whole self.

The stress epidemic is huge! This is largely due to it being unconscious stress. We don't need to run from our own consciousness. After all it's only us!

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