We live in an age characterized by an increasing sense of insecurity. The specter of a fragile economy looms over us, and our workaholic culture is rampant with greed, deception, and “image is everything” messages. The different forms of pressure we encounter in our daily lives are generally manageable when they are low in intensity and don’t arrive all at once. The challenge is when they manifest at the same time and compound one another. When we are anxious or stressed, we often make poor choices that only make things worse.
When we have a bad day at work, for example, or we come home to a tense interaction in a relationship, we may find ourselves parked in front of the TV eating foods we are normally mindful to avoid. Unhealthy food selections may be comforting for the mind, but ultimately they decrease our energy levels and can undermine our sleep and our sadhana, leading to more unhealthy choices.
If these normal challenges are combined with a traumatic event like the loss of a parent or a breakup with a longtime partner, our decision-making can unconsciously lead us into a downward spiral for weeks at a time. Emotional upset, combined with harmful choices that affect our physical well-being, can make us more susceptible to disease or cause us to lose our willpower and look for happiness in the old places that bring temporary pleasure but ultimately deplete us. Hafiz said it well in this stanza of the poem Cast All Your Votes for Dancing:
Learn to recognize the counterfeit coins
That may buy you just a moment of pleasure,
But then drag you for days
Like a broken man
Behind a farting camel.
The teachings of Yoga offer us practical ways to both cope with stressful times in life and to maintain our momentum toward the ultimate resolution of all our suffering—the experience of the unchanging joy within. The first step in this direction is the cultivation of equanimity through some regular meditative practice. Before we can expect to have the clarity and presence of mind to respond in a mindful way to a challenging situation, or a string of them, we must build in ourselves a strong, balanced foundation.
A tree grows slowly with very little change in appearance that can go unnoticed over the course of a year. We do not see the growth of the root system underground that gives the tree its ability to withstand strong winds. In the same way, a regular practice of calming and focusing the mind in some way develops a steadiness deep within us. Even if we don’t feel especially focused, we are getting the benefits. This concept has even been verified in recent scientific studies.
Like any new habit that we want to sustain, a meditative practice is best developed gradually by starting with a very doable but committed effort. Practicing this way develops willpower, a baseline of calmness, an ability to observe our own thoughts and feelings without being swept away by them, and the power of choice. By choice, I mean our ability to consciously choose how to respond to a situation instead of falling into an old and unhealthy pattern.
This ability is invaluable; we can be present to both what is happening around us and to the feelings arising within us, and make wise decisions that cause no harm to ourselves or others. Imagine, for example, when being criticized unfairly, having the poise to choose not to be defensive or take it personally. Instead, we may be able to observe that the person saying hurtful things is upset or suffering in some way.
Another benefit of a regular practice is that, during a stressful event, we can use the same methods we use when meditating to promote physical and mental balance. Slow, steady breathing and the inner repetition of a mantra can be effective allies when fear or anger rise up and threaten to take us over.
When facing difficulties, there are three mindful strategies we can take that reflect different aspects of our being. The first strategy is to act with compassion, both toward ourselves and others. When we are struggling, we may be tempted to become defensive, circling our wagons in order to protect ourselves. If we withdraw in defense, it builds armor around our hearts and prevents us from being fully engaged with life. Sri Gurudev beautifully encapsulated this idea when speaking about the root cause of disease, by pointing out the “I” in “Illness” and the “We” in “Wellness.”
It can be a very simple but powerful guideline to ask ourselves in a time of crisis, “How can I act with compassion toward the others involved, while at the same time maintaining my own well-being?” If we lose our cool, we won’t be of help to anyone. If we can take care of ourselves with the intention of sustaining our ability to serve others, then we have already brought a more peaceful presence into any situation.
If we can maintain a little equanimity, we can make use of a second approach—analyzing the situation. This can be done in a number of ways. For example, we can make note of where we have no control—like tasks we are assigned at work or what another person thinks about us—and where we do have control. It is often the case that the only place over which we do have control is in how we respond, and we can focus our attention there versus obsessing about what we wish would not have occurred.
We can also analyze whatever strong feelings arise in a time of difficulty, like frustration, anger, or anxiety. Sri Gurudev often pointed out that the root cause of our distress is fear, either over not getting something we want or of getting what we don’t want. If we can see clearly that we are suffering from our own expectation of some desired outcome, we become empowered to change the situation by simply letting it go and accepting things as they are.
We may become more successful at letting go of something we are holding onto if we replace it with something else. If we can step back and see the thoughts disturbing our minds, we can consciously adopt healthier thoughts that won’t cause us harm. Many of us have experienced losing someone we love and likely reacted with sadness or depression. Deep down, there may be a fear that we will not be happy without that lost relationship intact.
Sri Gurudev taught us that, even as we grieve, we may benefit from thinking of the lost loved one as having graduated from this school and moved on to the next grade up. We can picture the person free and at peace as he or she continues on an educational journey. We can also experience healing in our hearts when we send our loving thoughts and prayers to the person rather than dwelling on our own loss.
The third coping strategy can be used along with the others or if nothing else seems to help. It is simply to surrender. The act of surrendering can take many forms, but they all involve an acknowledgement of the truth of our suffering and a humble admission that we need help. Using whatever form or concept we have for a Higher Power or Divine Presence, we can pour out our hearts and open ourselves to the Grace that is no doubt there for us if we are receptive.
We can find relief in remembering that our lives and the events around us are always unfolding according to some Divine Plan that is often beyond our ability to understand. Especially if we have developed a faith that all that comes to us is ultimately for good, we can pray for the support to accept even that which makes us suffer. Humbling ourselves this way helps us escape the false sense of control that our ego likes to sustain and opens us to learning in new ways. Humility can also make it easier for us to simply ask others for help.
Opening our hearts this way to others and to God relieves the unconscious sense of separation that may be a root cause of our unhappiness, compelling us to search for fulfillment in myriad ways. In a sense, all the difficulties we face teach us to let go of the things that we believe we need to be happy and guide us to find the unchanging source of peace within. If we can see this principle at play in our lives, challenges become easier to accept, knowing, as Rumi put it, that “each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
~ Rumi ~