Having one of those days? The Buddha can help.
Stress is a big problem these days. Stress-related illnesses are common ailments in the twenty-first century. Modern life seems geared towards creating stress in us, whether it's at home, at work, at school, or at the supermarket. We are stressed out with the pressures put on us by our parents, partners, children, work colleagues, neighbors, and just about everyone else. We don't have to meet those that bother us, either: politicians, business moguls, and celebrities can cause irritation to us. And it's not limited to human beings, either. Animals such as pets or strays can make us stressed. Even the weather can get us down, raining when we want the sun, dry when we want the rain, etc.
A particularly stressful day might include an argument with a partner, discipline issues with the children, and the dog hassling to be taken for a walk. And that's before even leaving the house! This is followed driving the kids to school and being late for work due to the daily traffic jams. At work, the boss is extra demanding and a disagreement with a colleague causes friction. Upon returning home through a rain storm, there's nearly an accident, and clothes get drenched in the process. Finally at home, a burnt supper lies slaughtered on a plate, not exactly the reward one might expect after such a day. The evening news presents story after story of crooked politicians & petulant celebrities. At last in bed, exhausted, insomnia strikes - the final nail in a coffin of stress!
Some things we can improve in our lives through positive action, reducing stress in the process. We can relate better to those around us, spending more time with our loved ones and listening to their concerns, responding in appropriate ways that lessen stress for all concerned. We can perform to the best of our ability at work, being conscientious workers, minimizing the possibility of conflict with work colleagues. We can go to bed early and get up early so that we not only get enough sleep, but also have enough time to get the following day off to a good start. We can be more selective with what we watch on TV, and when we watch it, so that potentially stressful programs don't affect us so much. These are general steps we can take to improve our lot in life and reduce stress; but, there some things we can't change, like other peoples' behavior, the weather, and the stock market!
This is where Buddhism comes in. Buddhism contains many teachings & techniques that can lead to a reduction in stress. Indeed, the ultimate goal of the Buddhist life, nirvana, is described as the complete absence of any kind of stress. To achieve enlightenment isn't immediately achievable for all of us, however - when was the last time you met someone you thought was a living buddha? - but nevertheless, Buddhism can help us to significantly reduce our stress levels if we learn a few of its basic teachings and techniques. The core teachings of the Buddha are called the four noble truths (ariya-atthangika-magga), and are as follows:
- Life is stressful (dukkha, often translated as 'suffering,')
- The cause of stress is craving (tanha, often 'desire.')
- To end (nirodha) craving is to end stress.
- There is a path (magga) to end suffering.
From these truths (which are called 'noble' because they lead to nirvana, or enlightenment) can help us to understand stress better. They don't refer to specific types of stress, nor to medical conditions that cause acute forms of stress - for the latter, please refer to a qualified medical doctor. But, for the majority of us suffering from your run-of-the-mill stress that permeates life, Buddhist teachings can be of profound help. (And, in conjunction with medical assistance, they can be of use to those of us with clinically-diagnosed stress, too.) In essence, they can be summed up in the following statement by the Buddha: "I teach stress and the ending of stress." The latter is achieved through first recognizing the existence of stress, understanding its causes, and letting go of them, thereby letting go of stress itself. And there are a number of ways to do this.
One simple exercise, traditionally ascribed to the Buddha, is called mindfulness-of-breathing. It is normally practiced sat cross-legged, but can be done sat on a chair, as long as we re sitting in an alert posture. With eyes closed, focus attention on the breath as it touches the nostrils, watching it go in, and then come out of the nose. To begin with, this can be very difficult as the mind will wander away into its own reveries. It's important to return attention to the breath as soon as this is noticed. A helpful method is to count the breaths from one to ten, starting again each time the mind drifts or ten is reached. Mindfulness-of-breathing can be done for ten to fifteen minutes, ideally twice per day. But, even once a day will be of benefit, calming as well as focusing the mind. This will not only reduce stress when meditating on the breath, but will seep into the rest of one's day, making one more resistant to stress.
Having practiced mindfulness-of-breathing for some time, it will be able to establish the mind in a calm and focused state easily. This will enable one to go to the next stage of the practice: looking at and analyzing stress. When calmer, the ind will not so easily get stressed, but underlying causes of stress will be there, and stressful states will still occur, if less often than before. When they do, a calm & focused mind will be able to look closely at particular forms of stress and their causes. When their causes are clearly seen, which will be certain types of craving, then the latter can be let go of, leaving no causes for the further arising of those kinds of stress. There are many other techniques we can use to the same end, some of which are described in other articles in this blog. Please use the search facility to the right of this page to explore for more.
An example of this is realizing that a specific form of stress is caused by the desire for someone to be different to the way they are. Fighting with those aspects of reality that we cannot change will lead to stress, but seeing that a person we cannot avoid causes stress, and that we cannot change them, can be the cause of stress reduction, if we let go of the desire for them to be different. Reflecting, "So-and-so is the way they are, and that's not going to change," can lead to letting go of the craving for them to be other than they are. With this acceptance comes a lessoning of stress. This technique can be applied to many causes of stress that we experience, reducing the suffering that we are normally victims of due to our ignorance. By looking into the nature & causes of our stress we are developing wisdom, the cure for ignorance. Buddhist enlightenment is taking this process to the very core of all our ignorance & suffering - but that's not within the scope of this particular article! For now, let's leave it here. A little daily meditation & reflection can do wonders for our stress levels.