Stress, generally speaking, is actually nothing more than a self-trained response we have developed in dealing with problems and uncomfortable situations. Getting rid of stress can be quick and easy, but only if we allow ourselves to change the response. Changing a behavior or trained response, however, is very difficult for most of us.
A Japanese monk once said in regards to people repeating the same mistakes in life, "When a person keeps walking into the same wall, he will usually do it over and over again. It becomes his Zen." Just as we tend to keep pointlessly repeating the same mistake throughout life (despite the ignorance and uselessness of repeatedly walking into a wall), we also tend to repeat the trained response of stress.
Stress Is Learned Behavior
Stress is learned. We learn it from parents, brothers and sisters, friends, society, even from actors in movies and on television -- but ultimately, we must accept the fact that we give it to ourselves; we allow it into our lives. But if we allow it in, we can likewise let it go out.
We live in a busy, fast-paced world, and many people who feel the need to keep up also think they need to appear stressed out so that others around them will think they are working hard -- all to create a picture of being busy or successful. Stress has become in many ways a badge of honor, just as facial sword scars were a sign of bravery for Prussian soldiers. Unlike battle scars, however, stress is purely self-inflicted.
The Stress Addict Can Change
Many of us keep making the same mistakes over and over again in life, not because we want to but because we don't recognize the need for change until a situation becomes extreme. An alcoholic or drug addict usually doesn't see the need to quit until all is lost. The stress addict, too, doesn't normally change until illness forces her to.
"To remove a mountain is easy, but to change a person's temperament is much more difficult," so the old Chinese adage goes. To eliminate stress before it creates an illness is difficult for most people because it involves change. Even though we can feel the effects of stress in our body, our mind does not seek ways of eliminating stress. The trained response of feeling stress has become normal to the body. Perceived as normal, stress becomes part of our everyday life.
Changing the Cause of Stress
Sensing stress, we might decide to take a vacation or do some relaxing activity to calm the stress, but we don't change the cause. The body uses illness to warn us that there is unchecked stress, but our awareness is usually of the illness, not of the underlying stress, its cause, and so we treat the illness and not the stress itself. An example of the tendency is writing with a pencil and pressing so hard that the lead breaks, then cursing the weakness of the pencil point and overlooking the extreme pressure that is the real cause of the breakage: blame the tension in your hand and let it go.
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I don't pretend to offer a recipe for living a perfect life, free from all stress; no one can do that. Indeed, stress can sometimes get us to do things or take care of problems we have long avoided. This type of stress leaves once the task has been accomplished, so this is a sort of stress that can be useful. The type of stress this book focuses on, however, is the kind of chronic stress, the trained response, that creates numerous health problems and is best eliminated.
There are many causes of stress. Most Westerners can trace the majority of their stress to problems with money, love, or sex. Why? Because we become attached to things in our lives, and when we perceive that attachment is threatened, we commonly experience a stress response. Money as a cause of stress represents our attachment to material things; love, attachment to our emotions; and sex, attachment to our deepest self, or the need to express ourselves physically and emotionally to connect to another.
Stress is a Perception, A Self-Trained Response
It's important to remember that stress is a perception, a self-trained response to an incident or situation that appears difficult or threatening. Learning how to change the perception changes the response, and so eliminates the stress. Money, love, and sex are not the problems; rather, the stress we experience in relation to them arises from our perceptions of our relationship to them.
We usually prefer to locate the source of our discomfort somewhere outside of us. The reality is that the source of the stress response is always something inside us. We rarely view the stress response as the problem; rather we see it only as a negative effect of something else causing us to feel stress. I learned this many years ago while I was listening to a psychologist on the radio who was discussing cures for stress. He made a statement that seemed very disturbing to me: "If I could give each of my clients five thousand dollars, I would eliminate their stress. Not having enough money is more often than not my clients' root problem." This is a very sad statement, not only about our culture and times but also about an individual's priorities.
I disagree wholeheartedly with this psychologist's solution. Is money really the root of all evil or is our relationship to it at the root of our stress? In the majority of cases, lack of money is not the problem, lack of contentment is. I've known many incredibly rich people, and they have as much stress as, if not more than, anyone else.
Stressful Relationship to Money
I witnessed this phenomenon with an old acquaintance, a man who made millions of dollars selling luxury yachts. One day while eating lunch with him, I jokingly asked him what it felt like to be a multimillionaire. He answered me in a way I didn't expect: "Earning the money was fun and easy, trying to keep it is what's killing me." He was suffering from ulcers, high blood pressure, and had recently experienced a mild stroke. Money certainly did not guarantee his physical or mental health.
The majority of us need to make money, as our culture and times demand that we do. But what is more important, our health or wealth? Obviously, without good health we can never enjoy our wealth. Many people put their lives in the ironic situation of working really hard to attain financial security, only to spend their hard-earned money on repairing the damage they have done to their health. We are too busy earning a living to actually live.
We might do well to take to heart Benjamin Franklin's advice: "Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." This statement has such a profoundly Taoist sensibility to me that, if I didn't know its author, I would be convinced a Taoist wrote it.
Having Good Health Reduces Stress
Without good health we simply cannot enjoy life, no matter how much money we have. It is obvious, then, that we must learn how to take care of ourselves. We can approach health maintenance in one of two manners: we can treat our bodies like a car, having it fixed only when it breaks down; or we can treat it like a garden, daily tending and nurturing it so everything grows strong. The first approach is "curative maintenance," and the second is "preventative maintenance." Prevention is of course far preferable and a lot less costly.
We as a society have grown ever more reliant on the diagnosis and cures of doctors and much less so on our own efforts to stay healthy. Thomas Edison is reported to have once said in an interview, "All medicine will eventually become holistic." He clearly saw long ago the eventual negative outcome of our reliance on drugs and surgery to keep us healthy. It might be well for us to look at how the ancient Taoists, those hermits who sought to free themselves of all worldly concerns and stresses, approached this subject of stress elimination:
Hearing the sound of flowing water calms the ear.
Seeing the green of trees and plants calms the eye.
Eating food that is fresh calms the stomach.
Smelling the odors of nature calms the senses.
Touching things soft and delicate calms the nerves.
Walk with a staff in natural places;
feel the breath low in the abdomen;
sit with no concern for the world;
live like the wind blowing over the earth.
All then is free and easy, and even if a mountain
fell at your feet, you would give it no notice.
Although the verse's advice was meant for those who sought to free themselves from the bondage of worldly affairs, there is much we who live in the modern world can learn from these words.
Creating Stress-Free Moments
Those of us who are modern city dwellers might listen to a water fountain, go to a garden or park, eat fruits or vegetables in season, smell some flowers, hold a child, take a walk around a lake, close the door, shut off the phone, breathe deep, and relax for a while. In short, we might begin perceiving the good things about our life and embracing those things that make us feel better and that are important to us.
When we look closely at this advice, it is not necessarily just about getting rid of stress but more about paying attention to our self and not to the problems in our life. At some point in our lives, we all need to ask ourselves, "What is more important, me or the problem?" If you take care of the me, the problem will be much easier to solve. But if you focus on only the problem, the me only gets worse. All of us, whether suffering from stress or not, need to devote some portion of our day to just the me. When we do, life miraculously improves and is far more enjoyable.
Unfortunately, many people give all their attention to their problems, take all their time for their problems, and ultimately become their problems. Many years ago I read a passage in an old Taoist manual that really impressed me. It stated: "No one ever need suffer from an illness, as health is nature's gift to man. It is man who fritters away this gift through lack of being aware of his own self." Pay attention to yourself, take time for yourself, and be yourself. It sounds simple, and it is.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Healing Arts Press, a divn. of Inner Traditions Intl.
Tao of No Stress: Three Simple Paths
by Stuart Alve Olson.
Info/Order this book.
About the Author
Stuart Alve Olson has studied T'ai Chi, meditation, and Chinese language for more than twenty-five years under numerous Buddhist and Taoist masters. He is the author of Qigong Teaching of a Taoist Immortal, Tai Chi for Kids, and T'ai Chi According to the I Ching.