Stress training is common today; everyone from fortune 500 companies to the military recognizes how important it is to give people tools to deal with this potential killer. But, most stress training simply helps people relax. As important as this is, it is not enough because it works only with the conscious or subconscious mind. Meditation, however, enlists the superconsciousness, the infinite awareness at the core of our being. It is from this deep level that lasting changes come.
Unhealthy levels of stress usually come from trying to control the uncontrollable. The “fight or flight” response biologically programs us to respond to challenge with some level of stress. But, not all stress is unhealthy, and in fact, some degree of pressure is vital to our well-being. Without it we become bored and look for stimulation. We watch TV and movies, or play games, sports and engage in activities that have no purpose other to excite the mind. Recent studies show that stimulation for the brain is almost as important to our well-being as food and water. Entertainment moguls know that excitement can be like an drug and use it to hook us on their programs. The next time you watch a TV show or a movie, look for their deliberate attempts to shock you — loud music, sudden scene changes, and odd lighting effects. The nervous system gradually adapts to this kind of stimulation and begins to close down. Soon we feel the need to find more excitement.
In real life, however, we don’t have the same level of detachment as we do while being entertained. At work, or with our health, or finances, excessive change is threatening, and we experience stress. Chronic stress can cause serious health problems such as high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, and a weakening of the immune system. It even causes physical problems such as back pain.
Since the effects of stress begin in the mind, the same event will affect different people in completely unique ways, depending on how they react. But, you have a choice in how you respond to situations and herein lies your power. It has been well said that, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Most stress and pain comes from wishing that things were other than they are. Learn to flow with life and much of your stress will disappear.
Here is a challenge for you. Tonight, before you go to sleep, mentally review your day and try to see how often you wanted things to be different. Did you wish that you could have slept longer? That you didn’t have to do certain chores, that other drivers didn’t behave the way they did, that people at work were nicer? It goes on and on. The more you try to control the unchangeable, the more stress you create for yourself. What is the way out?
We must learn to be more accepting of life. Life is a school and we draw to ourselves the events, circumstances, and relationships we need to help us grow. Every problem gives us with two choices — to expand or contract our consciousness Do we become defensive and self-protective? Or do we see challenges as opportunities to become stronger, to learn and expand. If we contract our hearts, we experience pain, not because conditions have made us unhappy, but because pain is the inevitable result of excessive self-focus. Have no doubt about it, a contractive attitude will produce stress. On the other hand, when we relax and release unnecessary attachments we automatically experience happiness and fulfillment. Eventually, through meditation, we can discover an underlying joy that doesn’t change under any circumstance. And expansion of consciousness is the essence of spiritual growth.
To deal with stress successfully, we must learn relaxation and non-attachment. Physical relaxation helps release muscular tension. Physical tension, through mind-body feedback, also adds to our mental tension, and the most dangerous tension is in the mind. To relax the mind we need to develop attitudes of acceptance and contentment.
Learn to accept that whatever comes to you is for your ultimate good. The truth is that we attract situations to help us learn needed lessons. Think, for a moment, about people and circumstances in your life that you are trying to push away. Mentally say, “I accept you exactly as you are.” Better yet, try to say, “I am grateful for you and for everything in my life.” This will create the mental space necessary to learn what life is trying to teach you. Once we have learned our lessons, we find that conditions change automatically. Acceptance is about learning to live with faith, not fear. It is understanding that we will attract to ourselves exactly what we need. The law of karma states that, good or bad, you will get exactly what is coming to you. Don’t dwell on past events and or future plans. If you stay in the here and now you will realize that you can be happy just as you are. One of the greatest sources of fulfillment is to accept yourself, with all your strengths and weakness. Then, don’t dwell on yourself, but think more of others and their needs.
I was once on a drive in the mountains with my teacher, Swami Kriyananda. During a blizzard our car went out of control and smashed into the side of a bus. Kriyananda calmly got out, walked around to the front of the bus and realized that it was headed to our destination. After arranging for our car to be towed, we climbed on to the bus. The passengers were sympathizing with us over our loss. Kriyananda said, “You know, in a week I would have gotten over any sense of loss and be perfectly happy. Why wait a week? I’m happy now!”
Acceptance might seem like a somewhat passive state. A little like, “Well, even if this is awful, there’s nothing I can do about it I might as well accept it.” But, we can develop a higher more active state of acceptance. The great yogi Paramhansa Yogananda said we should train our minds to be even-minded and cheerful in all situations. This is not merely a nice maxim, but a powerful, life-changing technique. How do we achieve this state of mind? Commit yourself to being happy under all circumstances. Then watch your reactions to events. As soon as you catch yourself being pulled down, reaffirm your decision to be happy. You may not be able to change the event, but you can change your state of mind. Decide also to let go of old baggage. How long do you have to condemn yourself to carrying around old regrets and grudges? Realize, finally, that your highest duty is to love, to love others, to love life, to love the God that dwells within you.
You can make some practical changes to allow you to better deal with stress. On the physical level, make sure your diet is filled with fresh and vital foods. Poor diet leads to poor health. Get regular exercise, but try to do it more for enjoyment. Find activities that expand your horizons — get out in nature or go to events that uplift your mind. Get sufficient sleep and rest, and try deep breathing during times of pressure.
Environment is also vitally important. Look at your home environment to see if it helps you have a positive state of mind. Move your TV out of the center of your life to a place where it doesn’t intrude. Be careful of the music that you listen to. Music has an incredibly powerful effect on our consciousness. Think about where you are happy and relaxed. Are there plants, the sound of moving water, or beautiful colors? Try to make your home environment to reflect that kind of energy. And try to spend more time with those friends who are positive and self-contained, those who can help magnetize you into a state of being even-minded and calm.
Most important of all is that you get more in touch with your spiritual nature. Tune into your deeper essence, the joy and peace that lie within you. As you claim your own higher reality, as a child of God, you will begin to see Him reflected back from everyone around you. Daily meditation is the way to find these deeper states. Especially important is a practice of meditating every morning and evening. In the morning it prepares you to face the day from a state of inner calmness and joy. At night is helps you to release everything and offer all your attachments back into the divine light.