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  • Written by  Josh Korda
  • // Thursday, 05 January 2012 21:54
Josh Korda

Six Ways To Reduce Stress

One of the most common reasons we turn to spiritual practice is to reduce worry, anxiety, the mental agitation that can be life's most consistent challenge. As the Buddha taught in the Sabbasava Sutta and elsewhere, while certain dangers in life are avoidable, most stressful events are inevitable, and our challenge is to learn how to skillfully tolerate each day's fresh "mosquito bite".

Actually, days without difficulties and challenges are often days without growth, for its the roadblocks and setbacks that force us to develop new, successful coping strategies. So a good start to reducing stress is to begin approaching challenges as valuable learning opportunities; once we find a way to adapt to situations without adding unnecessary stress, we have tools that are always at our disposal.

What follows are six useful approaches to facing our challenges without adding stress and suffering into the equation.

1. Repurpose roadblocks as timeouts for sanity. We can learn to use situations as opportunities rather than feel trapped by them. Rather than worry about being late for work, or an event, while waiting for the subway, we can use these intervals as openings to be mindful: we can close our eyes for a moment and scan the body, looking for areas of tension that can be relaxed. We can check how we're breathing; shallow, incomplete breaths can make interims more difficult to endure than they need be. To ease into a deadlock, we can take a few deep full breaths that register in the stomach and chest.

2. Refocus on appreciating our virtue. When our mistakes or missed opportunities prove to be wearying, the Buddha counseled wise reflection: Silanusati, bringing to mind the times we were helpful to others or refrained from saying something harmful; Santinusati, remembering how we've attained peace during our meditations, and how such serenity is still available to us. Even mudita (Sympathetic Joy) need not be limited to appreciating other people's well being: we can take time to appreciate everything we've skillfully accomplished and attained, our hard earned abilities.

3. View setbacks from larger perspectives. The key to wisdom is understanding that all things arise and pass. We tend to view setbacks as though we'll be trapped in them forever. Its important to stop and ask: Will we really care about this a year from now? Will we even remember this situation? Most likely we can acknowledge similar, previous events we found stressful, only to find they had no lasting effect on our life.

4. Forgiveness is key. The Attadanda Sutta informs us that most people live like fish in small puddles, competing with others for ever dwindling sources of fleeting pleasure. It's inevitable that, in being driven by craving and fear, people will act out on mindless, hurtful impulses. At the very least, on a daily basis our toes will be stepped upon. These are what the Buddha called life's first arrows: the harm others do to us. But the greater suffering derives from the second and third and fourth arrows we shoot into ourselves: we relive the slights we've endured, imaging different ways we should've reacted, turning our grievances into lasting resentments. The Buddha taught that resentment was akin to holding a burning hot coal, waiting to throw it at someone, without realizing we're the ones getting burned.

The process of forgiveness is rarely easy, but with practice it is possible: Tibetan Buddhists have endured countless atrocities following the 1959 Chinese Invasion, yet their spiritual leaders counsel forgiveness—which doesn't mean letting those that have committed offenses off the hook of course. We forgive by reflecting on how we need not add any more suffering to the mix; by noting that our anger is not punishing anyone but ourselves; through understanding that those that act harmfully must bear the karmic results, that no one gets away with anything; and by remembering how we have at times caused harm to others (even if the harm was less injurious) and by forgiving ourselves.

5. Express our feelings. The sangha (spiritual community) is a refuge primarily due to the connections it affords us to share our thoughts and feelings with other spiritual practitioners. When we keep our fears hidden from others we can perceive life through a lens of being alone in the universe; our thoughts can seem unique, without the possibility of being understood by others. Once shared, however, our obsessions seem less imposing: we find that our fellows have experienced variations of the same concerns, doubts, confusions, etc. When we open ourselves to others, there's always the possibility that we can learn from others' trials and struggles, and that our challenges might make others feel less alone and unique as well.

6. Take a vacation every day. Remember, a daily meditation practice is our opportunity to put aside our responsibilities, obligations, concerns, to drop out of the race, and to find inside our beach chair by the ocean. The breath can be our calming waves, offering us a time to relax our shoulders and soften our bellies. We don't need to buy a travel package, go anywhere, spend anything, suffer any side effects: it’s as expensive and as dangerous as closing our eyes and allowing ourselves time to check in with a peace that unconditional and always available.