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Lions Roar : September 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2012 44 Like medical researchers, Buddhist scholars and practitioners have catalogued the details of this syndrome in order to both treat its symptoms and find the ultimate cure. So what is stress and what do the Buddhist teachings have to say about it? What is our proper relationship to stress? Should it always be avoided or can it be productive? To what extent is it inherent in life or our own creation? What are its symptoms and what is its cure? THE EXPERIENCE OF STRESS The experience of stress could be looked at as a family of unpleas- ant sensations. We may experience stress as pressure, anxiety, or claustrophobia. Sometimes there are so many challenges facing us that it is as though we were drowning. We feel overwhelmed, cap- sized by it all like a sinking ship. Stress may make us feel cornered and that we have no way out. We may simply freeze, or we may stir up so much anxiety that it feels like we are choking to death. With stress there is no air. No space. No looseness or freshness. Under the influence of stress, what once may have seemed easy becomes completely impossible, and no matter where we turn, there seems to be no escape. With stress we become distressed, as though we were being pulled apart and are about to break. When we are stressed, our body gets tighter, as if it is shrink- ing into itself. Mentally, our thinking gets tight and does not flow freely. Emotionally, we are edgy and fearful. The slightest irrita- tion may set us off and we may lash out in anger. Or we might withdraw into ourselves, close off, and shut down. We forget to breathe; it is as if the core of our body is one big ache of pain. Once you start thinking of all the things to be stressed out about, the list goes on and on. It could start with the close-at- hand problems such as the need to pay the rent or find a job. But merely by reading the newspaper it can quickly expand to include global problems such as famine, war, overpopulation, and environmental destruction. We may even use the fact that we are stressed out about such global issues as a credential, as though our stress and worry were a virtue or a proof of our insight, empathy, and sensitivity. When we experience stress, we struggle to find someone or something to blame. We assume that there must be some exter- nal reason we are feeling this bad, and that if we just remove that situation, we will be okay. If there is an obvious external cause, we should simply remove it. We could stop seeing the person who drives us crazy or stop agreeing to put ourselves in situations we know to be upsetting. However, there are many situations we may not be able to do much about, no matter how stressful they may be. FOUR STYLES OF HOPE AND FEAR There are many different maps or geographies of stress in the Buddhist teachings. Because it is considered important to make a commitment to do what we can to improve the conditions of life for all beings, it is necessary to understand how we needlessly tangle ourselves in layers and layers of stress, and how we can begin to unravel some of that entanglement. To begin with, we need to look at the underpinnings of emo- tional stress, which are described in terms of entrenched patterns of thought. Due to such mental preoccupations, we take stressful situ- ations and make them worse. Through our confusion, we change neither the situation nor our attitude but just add fuel to the fire. Classically this is described in terms of an endless cycle of hope and fear that dominates our lives from day to day and moment to moment, from beginning to end. The Indian Buddhist phi- losopher Nagarjuna describes hope and fear in terms of what are called the eight worldly preoccupations: hope for happiness and fear of suffering; hope for fame and fear of insignificance; hope for praise and fear of blame; and hope for gain and fear of loss. Basically, we spend our lives trying to hold on to some things and get rid of others in an endless and stressful struggle. Happiness Suffering Fame Insignificance ARTANDPHOTOS:REMYGEREGA,SBUCKLEY,SERBANENACHE/DREAMSTIME.COM