Over the past month of my holiday and especially my week of home retreat one of the things I have recognised is how susceptible I am to chronic stress.
I noticed this at the weekend, where we had over 50 new students online for their first weekend of their Masters in Mindfulness with the University of Aberdeen. It was a big group and it was the first time we had started the course online. I felt a (self-imposed) pressure to ensure the students got the most out of the weekend, that they bonded as a group and that all went smoothly. I really care about the success of the program and about it’s potential to benefit the students. The team – special thanks to Kristine – were working hard behind the scenes to make the online teaching work as well as it could. At the end of the weekend, which went wonderfully, I felt a sense of achievement and relief, but I also found the weekend quite stressful and so was quite exhausted.
I noticed stress arising in my practice this morning as all the things I have to do this week exploded into my mind over and over. I could feel the cortisol raising my blood pressure. I could also feel my hands beginning to curl into fists, my arm muscles clenching and my shoulders rising. I was bracing myself for my day of work ahead. I felt a sense of dismay and a contrast between this and my way of being on my holiday and retreat, when the weight of work was far in the distance.
Still, once I recognise what I am experiencing I am able to apply an antidote. I physically relaxed whenever I noticed an increase in physical tension. I was amused by my presumption that thinking about it all now would make it easier in the future. I reminded myself that the best way to take care of the future is to be present now. I truly believe this and so remembering this signals the mind to let it be…..at least until the next ‘oh I must remember to do…’ thought emerges.
I am also amused by my presumption of control. A bought into belief that if I think about it enough I can control it. This is an old habit, and I know the belief to be nonsense. What I increasing know – in my bones – to be true is that how things unfold is a result of myriad causes and conditions, most of which are way beyond my control. Again, when I recognise that I have bought into this old habit – a choice emerges – to let that belief be and instead choose a belief that is a bit closer to the reality of the situation, ie. the causes and conditions belief.
In my daily Buddhist practice I go through the four thoughts that turn the mind to the dharma. The last of these is the vicousness of samsara, the cycle of this life in which we are caught up in suffering due to our belief in a solid and separate volitional self. This teaching uses the image ‘just like a feast before the executioner leads you to your death’ to highlight the uselessness of all the day-to-day things we stress about. I love this image and it generates a lightness within me, that my day to day troubles are not so important. What is important are the things I would regret on my death bed about the way I live my life.
Another teaching I have found useful is about the Buddhist concept of emptiness, which was the focus of my summer retreat. It is a teaching from Trungpa Rinpoche, in Pema Chodron’s book, ‘Start where you are’, which is even more evocative:
“Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like an imprint of a bird in the sky”
Then I recognise, that I have a choice. I can buy into the stressful thoughts and suffer, or if I see them, I can let them be and not buy into them, so that the stress vanishes merely an imprint of a bird in the sky. And sometimes it works!
However, I am just out of a two and a half hour management meeting, which was rather fraught at times. So now I am going for a walk. To look after myself, to de-stress and to give space for reflection. Then a nice relaxing bath this evening. Practical tools for de-stressing are important too!
I hope you all have a week where you can recognise your stressors and not buy into them or at least include some relaxing activities like walking or a nice relaxing bath.