Talking Dharma – Talking Growth
Relating to worry is not as simple as just trying to reduce it by relaxing. A certain amount of stress is necessary for growth, and at times we need to purposefully put ourselves in stressful situations, but that does not mean that we have to worry ourselves at the same time. It is easy to confuse an apparent virtue of contentment or peacefulness with the superficial peacefulness born of inertia and the fear of change, so it is helpful at the outset to know that stress and worry are not the same thing. It is an oversimplification of the ideal of peace of mind that is the consequence of the awakening experience to think that it means the avoidance of stress. Dharma communicators throughout history have pointed out that to learn and move forward on the Dharma journey we need to make an effort, to exert ourselves, and that to progress along the Dharma journey we have to let go of our attachment to taking the path of least resistance. There is no such thing as a stress-free life on the authentic Dharma journey. Without stress there would be no journey and no wisdom to be realized.
An effective Dharma communicator will always be encouraging you to embrace fully the ups and downs of the journey. Stress can be both an obstacle and a catalyst for growth and that will depend on whether or not you try rejecting it or embrace it for what it is, as it is. It’s always helpful to step outside of your comfort zones because the moment you settle down into a comfortable spot on the Dharma journey, it won’t take long before you doze off and the thought of on-going practice will be long forgotten. Sometimes you just need to recognise that a bit of discomfort is not just an annoyance but a reminder of the need for a commitment to ongoing practice.
Not only do we have to embrace our own stress at times, but we also have to be willing to allow others to embrace theirs. It is hard to watch someone struggle without wanting to help out. Sometimes that can be helpful but it can also be unhelpful most of the time because we are not allowing them the opportunity of learning something for themselves in accord with their own experience. We really do need to be aware of this tendency to try and save everybody from themselves. I was once told by a wildlife expert that if you see a butterfly struggling to break out of its cocoon, and you try to ease its struggle by prying open the cocoon for it, that butterfly will emerge in a weakened state and may even die. Apparently the butterfly needs the stress of working its way out of the cocoon to build up strength and to dry its wings. I Also saw a gardening expert on tv once who was advising that when you plant a sapling, it is better not to stake it if possible. He said that if the sapling has to secure itself in the wind and weather, it will put down stronger roots and be healthier for it. In both of these examples of nature there is an acknowledgment that growing inevitably involves a degree of stress.
As always on the Dharma journey we are looking to find the middle way in relation to stress. Clearly, a certain amount of stress is part of life, but how much stress and what kind of stress? How can we navigate a course that is challenging but not overwhelming? The Buddha acknowledges the actuality of stress and discomfort. It is realistic, uncomfortably so, in describing the stress, pain, and worrying that accompanies our individual and collective lives from beginning to end. The first principal assignment that understands the actuality of worry may be the most difficult to understand and accept. We keep thinking that if we just fix this or fix that, tweak here or there, we can avoid it. We think that if we were smarter, prettier, wealthier, more powerful, living somewhere else, younger, older, male, female, with different parents, whatever, things would be different. But things are not different. They are as they are and we will either like that or not. That is what we do when we are on auto pilot of habitual patterns of thinking, speaking and acting. Since it is unrealistic to hope for a stress-free life, and that would not be all that helpful in any case, it makes more sense to learn how to deal with the stresses that inevitably arise.
In dealing with stress we need to look at both the conditions we face and how we are dealing with them. It is sometimes possible to remove the causes and conditions that are stressing us out, but other times it is not. So it is important to distinguish between the two. If we can change our situation to make it less stressful we should do so. There is no point worrying about it if we are in a position to change it. However, we may be stuck with a stressful situation we cannot change. In that case, we still have the option of changing our attitude towards it to reduce or eradicate the worrying aspect of it. We need to be realistic and honest with ourselves so that on one hand, we do not hold back when we could act, and on the other hand, we do not act just to do something, when there is no benefit in doing so. In looking at your external situation, there is no need to cover up problems or look at the world through rose-colored glasses. But you also do not need to worry yourself to death over all the world problems you are bombarded with daily in the news or let yourself be mentally glued to the endless worst excesses of human behaviour that you bear witness to.
A Cambodian Dharma communicator when asked how he maintained peace of mind and equanimity in light of the violence and horrors of the Khmer Rouge, smiled and said, “Life is full of ups and downs.” And isn’t that exactly what life is? If we take that kind of attitude, we can release some of our heavy-handed expectations about how life is supposed to go for us, which frees us to deal more simply with whatever we encounter in a way that is appropriate to the experience. If our experiences are just what they are, nothing more and nothing less, we can see that they are not out to get us nor are they a confirmation. They are simply the impersonal play of causes and conditions. This attitude is different from passivity or detachment in the unhelpful sense of disengagement, defeatism, or fatalism. It instead points to a form of engagement with the world that is intelligent and not merely reactive, that is realistic rather than wishful thinking. When you can do something about a problem, then just do it. Why worry about it? And when you do not have the ability or the circumstances to do anything about a problem, why worry? Worrying about it is not going to help anyone, let alone you.
Always remember that the Dharma journey as set out by the Buddha is a simple and practical one. It’s unhelpful to over think it, to intellectualize it. You may be the type of person who gets stressed out at the slightest little thing or you may be more hard skinned, even oblivious. But either way, you are not doomed to be under the control of the stresses you encounter because you were just born that way. No matter where on the spectrum you start out, you can begin to change your relationship to stress in a more helpful way. This is not accomplished by wishful thinking or pretending to be other than you are, but by training your mind and the development of insight, primarily via awareness meditation practices and living in awareness. A sustained meditation practice will help you to you learn to settle your mind and to tame its wildness. As you repeatedly bring your attention back to the breath, you are becoming more familiar with your own mind and it is getting stronger. It is as though your mind has more weight, so it is not easily blown about by every little breeze. It is reassuring to discover that, amidst all the mental commotion and ups and downs, there is something steady and reliable about your mind at the core. When things get tough and you feel stress beginning to take you over, you can draw on that inner strength.
Along with awareness of the breath there is the awareness of kindness. In this practice we are opening ourselves up to compassionate living. This practice is designed to draw you out of yourself and remind you to think of others. When you experience the force of stress narrowing you down and drawing you into yourself, you can resist the tendency to close down. You can look around you and through kindness see a larger perspective. Stress is exaggerated when your mind is distracted and unbalanced and it is also heightened when you are weighed down with self-concerns and preoccupied with yourself. Both awareness practices give you a way to work with stress and worrying about it. It is unrealistic to expect your life to be free of stress, but there is a real possibility that you could transform the way you deal with it. Stress brings to light unhelpful habits. So instead of viewing it as an enemy, you could regard stress as a teacher, and be grateful for it. Stress is not a waste of time but worrying about it is.
If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me how much stress they are under I would be very rich indeed. It would appear that it is endemic within our culture and has much to do with the economy, business, family, and all sorts of things. When I checked the dictionary definition of stress I found this: “Stress is the consequence of the failure to adapt to change.” This makes so much sense from a Dharmic perspective. Stress is the result of inflexibility and non-acceptance. In other words, it is caused by strong attachments to certain things, to certain ways or outcomes, to expectations. When there is strong hope or expectation, there is also a fear that this expectation will not come to fruition, or that things may not go according to your plan or your wishes. One of the most common reasons why people tell me that they have lapsed with their Dharma practice, they’ve stopped meditating, stopped attending Dharma classes, stopped meeting up with other practitioners is because they don’t have time. All I can do is encourage them to get back into their daily practice. When you are stressed, you often appear stuck and indecisive, so a little time spent meditating is really helpful. When you remind yourself of the Dharma of impermanence and the amazing opportunity of life and how important that support network has been in the past, maybe it will create that moment to re-engage even if external situations are not that helpful. Without this embracing of stress it is easy to be overwhelmed by the ups and downs of life, but with acceptance we can take a lighter step and get less caught up in its debilitating effect.
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