"Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness" -- Richard Carlson
At some point early on during our work together, my clients often express surprise that I don't recommend a particular meditation or technique or hypnosis regimen to help them "control their stress."
While I am certainly not against formal practice of any kind, particularly when it is enjoyable to the person using it, I also don't see it as a necessary prerequisite for thriving in life. To better understand why, consider the following scenario...
You are relaxing on a beautiful beach. The sun is shining, and a gentle, cooling breeze is flowing in over the water. Waves are lapping at the shore, and you are in heaven. After a time, you decide to catch up on some reading and you pick up a fascinating book. You've read this author's books before, and you've always thought the main character was an awful lot like you. Before long, you are completely caught up in the drama of the story, and for the time being the beach and the ocean disappear as you lose yourself in the novel.
Each time you think to yourself that you'll put the book down at the end of the chapter and go back to enjoying the beach, the author hooks you in with the seductive promise of even more intriguing things to come, and you tell yourself "just one more chapter" and go back to your story.
Fear and love and anger and laughter and tears become your experience of life as the highs and lows of the story take you on a roller coaster ride in your own mind, and before too long, you're so caught up in the emotional stress of the book that you think to yourself "I need to do something to relax!"
Fortunately, you've got your mp3 player with you, so you pop the headphones in and click on a peaceful meditation that begins with the words "Imagine that you are relaxing on a beautiful beach..."
The reason I don't promote particular techniques for stress control is because I have come to see a simple truth: There is no stress in life -- there is only stress in our thinking.
When I see that well-being is my nature, the only way I can feel anything other than well is when I am caught up in my own story (thinking). To try and do something to "reduce stress" when it's my own thinking that's creating it would be like massaging my toes as a way of reducing the pain caused each time I drop a rock on them. It's not that my toes won't feel better -- it's just traveling the long way round.
(I once heard someone ask supercoach George Pransky how he could say that their stress, which felt so real to them, was only a mirage -- a trick of thought without any substance to it. George thought for a moment and then responded "Well, it's a real mirage...")
So what do we do when we feel stress if we know (or at least suspect) that it's not real?
One of the most useful things we can do is use it as a feedback mechanism for our own state of mind. If I am feeling stressed, I am out of touch with my natural state of clarity and well-being. And if I know that, I can hold off on putting too much stock into my thinking, world-view or story until I am "back on the beach".
Recently, a friend called me to ask for a bit of informal coaching. Her husband had had a heart attack over the holidays, her daughter was unwell, they were having financial issues and their health insurance was on the line.
Unfortunately, I was caught up in my own drama that week, and I thought to myself that I should postpone our chat until I was in a better state of mind. But based on the way I was feeling in the moment, I knew that my judgment was impaired, and my deeper wisdom urged me along to meet with her anyways.
After she unfolded her story, which included some undeniably difficult real-life situations, she talked about her uncertainty and insecurity for the future. I then unfolded my own story and the uncertainty and insecurity I felt when I looked at mine.
Despite the fact that we made for a miserable pair that afternoon, there was one fundamental difference between us:
She thought the crap she was seeing was actually in the world; I knew that the crap I was seeing was on my own glasses.
We had a nice lunch, she got clear about what actually needed to be dealt with in the moment (which was considerably less than she had been concerned with), and later that evening she sent me this short note:
Thanks for today.
I shall get me back -- I just have to be patient.
And therein lies the key to a deeper understanding of stress and thought and well-being and life. If you go outside and it's snowing, you don't have to fix the weather. You simply put on some more appropriate clothes or go back inside and wait until the storm has passed. Because no matter how bad the weather seems, the sun is always shining in the background...
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