In the UK three out of 4 people have been so stressed at least once over the last year that they have felt overwhelmed, or unable to cope.
This statistic is from a recent report for the Mental Health Foundation which shows astonishingly high levels of stress. Isabella Goldie, director of the Foundation is quotedas saying, Millions of us around the UK are experiencing high levels of stress and it is damaging our health. Stress is one of the great public health challenges of our time but it is not being taken as seriously as physical concerns.
With Mental Health Awareness Week focusing this year on stress, there has been quite a bit of media attention around stress-related issues. As someone who has been going through a bit of an intense time recently, it got me thinking about how meditation helps with working with stress.
Seeing the problem
During a particularly hectic day a couple of weeks back, a friend messaged me wanting to talk through a problem she was having with someone in her family. I did my best to be there for her. I listened, I responded but slowly it crept up on me that I was having to try really hard to have an open heart because none of it seemed as challenging as my own bad time. I was almost resentful that she kept going on about it all! That was a bit of a shock. It brought home to me that somehow what I was dealing with was intense enough to affect my open heart. I needed to re-apply my attention to how I was applying my meditation practice in action.
Here are some of the ways I have been trying to work with managing bad times in a way that enables me to maintain an open heart—a heart that is open and available to what is going on for others, rather than being focused primarily on what is going on for me.
1. Respecting people’s wish for happiness while understanding suffering
It’s natural when you feel down to want to feel better. You just want to be happy and to get on with life. The key thing to remember is that is exactly how everyone else feels as well. Just about everyone we meet wants to be happyand not to experience suffering and pain. We would like things to go well for us and for us not to have to face disappointment, loss, and grief. We work hard to try and avoid having to face things we don’t like and don’t want.
Life shows us clearly that while there is nothing wrong with the wish to be happy it is not as easy as we might hope. No amount of money, possessions or fabulous holidays will protect us from the challenges that life can bring. Every day each one of us is getting older, sometimes we get sick and one day, eventually, we will die.
The truth is that suffering is part of life. We won’t manage to live a care-free life! Nothing is permanent, everything is constantly changing. Our lives are made up of a string of moments that we weave together to try to make a whole, when in fact, we have no idea what each minute will bring. Just because we wake up each morning and go through our usual routine does not mean that the routine is cast in stone. Consider people having to flee their homes to escape, fires, or flooding or volcanic eruptions.
None of this means that we should not seek happiness but perhaps we can open our hearts to include everyone’s wish for happiness, not just our own. Perhaps also we can ease the intensity with which we long for happiness by accepting the inevitability of suffering. When we can acknowledge that things are tough, we give ourselves a chance to learn about what we are going through and how we could do things differently.
2. We are all in the same boat
All of this points to the fact that there is more that unites us as human beings than divides us. We might look different, with our own interests and dreams but joining us is a deep thread of common humanity. We all face worries about how we look, being in work, having enough money, finding love, caring for our families and staying healthy. In addition, we have strong imaginations and the ability to create worries simply from within in our minds. Anyone who has laid awake worrying at 04.00 in the morning will know what I mean.
As we have seen, we all look for ways to escape from our worries but it does not always work. As human beings we have to live with our imperfections, with our bodies that can seem so fragile and easily damaged and the impossibility of knowing all that we think we need to know.
Next time you are on a train, or tram, or plane try this exercise:
- Notice who your neighbours are—take a few moments to scan the compartment, tram or bus and to see as many of the other passengers as you can.
- Take note of the thoughts and emotions that pass through your mind as you do this:
—notice if you make a comment in your mind about someone
—notice the people you feel drawn towards and the ones you do not like the look of
- Try to imagine how they might see you as you sit, or stand alongside them
- Take a moment to be aware that everyone travelling with you wants their day to go well and to avoid any unpleasantness
—just as you do
- Then realize that inevitably for some people things will go wrong during the day
—let that feeling touch you and help you to feel a common humanity with your fellow travellers.
Doing exercises like this helps to remind us of how things are for other people. We are reminded of the deep thread of inter-connectionthat runs through all of human experience, and we are reminded that it is not just us who struggles. Realizing that just as we can be in pain, so can others can help to keep an open heart.
3. Helping others helps you
When we feel down, it can be hard to find the energy to do something for someone else but if we can make the effort, the benefits are considerable.
Research shows that kindness can improve heart function, lower blood pressure, slow aging and strengthen our immune systems. The author and scientist, David R. Hamiltonexplains that through the production of the hormone, oxytocin and the neurotransmitter, serotonin our levels of wellbeing are raised. Anxiety, stress and depression can all be reduced through preforming genuine acts of kindness. In his ground-breaking book, The Healing Power of Doing Good, Allan Luks documented the good feeling that you get from helping others and which is now referred to as the Helpers’ High.Older volunteers suffering from arthritis and other painful chronic conditions found that their symptoms decreased when they were actively helping others.
The thing is that when we can pay attention to the needs of other people, it lifts our attention to the bigger picture beyond our own individual bad time. Stress and worry tend to close us down, whereas thinking of others widens our view and ensures an open heart.
4. Build your resilience
For me the foundation of all of this is my meditation practice. I was drawn to meditation in the first place because I wanted to understand how my mind works. I can’t say that because I meditate I no longer worry about what might happen in the future or go over things that have already happened because I still do. The thing is that I take it all much less seriously than before. I have come to understand that there is a quiet, spacious aspect of my mind that worry covers over, and meditation enables me to access. On one level this can simply be being present to what is happening for me right now—recognising that all I can be sure of is the moment I am currently living. On a deeper level, it is an acceptance of my thoughts and emotions because I know that they do not have to define me—that my mind is bigger than they are. So even when I am facing challenges and bad times, a part of me trusts that I have sufficient resilience to bounce back from it in time.
The neuroscientist, Richard Davidson places resilienceas one of the four skills of wellbeing. When we are so stressed that we say or do something we regret later, or when we are so overwhelmed that we feel threatened by everything we need to cope with, we are experiencing an amygdala hijack. The amygdala is the brain’s radar for danger and the trigger for the flight-or-flight response. During a hijack it over-rides the brain’s executive centres in the pre-frontal cortex. Davidson’s research into the effects of meditation on the brain shows that meditation helps to strengthen the pre-frontal cortex and weaken the right-frontal cortex, which registers depression and anxiety.We now know from neuroplasticitythat the brain can change according to experience and research is confirming that we can learn to increase our resilience to hard times through a regular meditation practice.
What can we take from this?
Having an open heart is not something we achieve and then take for granted. Keeping our heart open is a process and sometimes it is going to be hard. Maybe we won’t always feel we can make the effort but if we want to manage our bad times with kindness, and wisdom then we don’t really have a choice. Our own wellbeing is dependent on maintaining an open heart because within that openness lies many of the solutions we need to work through our bad times.
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HOW TO BE A GOOD FRIEND TO YOURSELF