Happy Fall and an abundant Thanksgiving! It’s been a busy and wonderful summer and now that most of us are again dealing with work, school and the upcoming holiday season, I feel it is a good time to write about stress and how to manage it.
Most of us experience stress and anxiety as something that is caused by events outside of our own personal awareness
“If my boss would only back off I’d be able to relax.” More generally, it goes like this: “if only circumstances beyond my control were different then they are, I wouldn’t be worried and upset.”
If we carefully analyze our response to the events of daily life it doesn’t take long to realize that stress and anxiety are entirely caused by our own thinking. It is our own response to the world of unpredictability and ever-changing circumstances that causes us stress, not the event itself. A closer analysis of our own internal process reveals the following:
1.Something happens that we don’t have direct control over.
2.We become aware of this event through our five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and/or touch
3.Based on how this new awareness makes us feel in our body, we identify it and give it a name that is based on past conditioning; sad, scared, angry, happy, etc. Most often when we go to stress and anxiety, it is because the emotion we are experiencing is some version of fear.
4.In micro-seconds, we search our memory and tell ourselves that this experience means ____________; fill in the blank. So we do. We fill in the blank based on our personal and collective history.
5.We then start running stories in our mind about what is going to happen next. At this point our stress and anxiety start to overwhelm us; “This event happened and now some doomsday scenario is going to play out if I can’t do something about it. It is like playing old home movies in our mind. And some of these movies are so old that they are on super 8 film! (For you younger people out there super 8 was pre-VCR.)
Now to be fair, all of this happens in unconscious mind unless we become aware of this ongoing process. If we do learn to recognize this process then we are no longer run by it and can learn to control our mind. We can break this bad habit right after step 3 and learn to respond differently to the ever-arising and unpredictable events that make up all of our lives.
One of my teachers, Dzochen Ponlop Rinpoche, calls this process “minding the gap.” He says there is a gap between step 3 and step 4 above. With practice we can learn to slow this process down and “mind the gap.” Once we learn to “mind the gap” we no longer need to be run by our fear and can choose not to run those old mind movies any more. Instead he teaches us that we should rest in the gap that exists between feeling and making meaning out of feeling.
When we are able to “mind the gap” we get used to feeling our fear and we no longer have to react in our old conditioned ways; stressing ourselves out by running our mind movies. Fear is an emotion. It doesn’t inherently mean something. Historically, when all of us were still living in tribes as hunter/gathers, fear was the signal that we were in danger of being eaten by a tiger, some other large carnivore or other life-threatening situations. For most of us in today’s world that is no longer the situation. However, that deeply ingrained response is still in our DNA and as a result we tend to react to modern situations in our home and workplace with as much adrenaline as we would if we were in danger of being eaten by a tiger. This sets off a stress/anxiety response and we can’t just run away on our two legs to solve the problem. Thus we tend to feel trapped and our anxiety goes through the roof.
So practice “minding the gap.” When you find yourself getting stressed out see if you can:
1.back up to the emotion and say to yourself “I feel afraid.”
2.stop the VCR in your mind.
Be willing to feel your fear. I guarantee you it won’t kill you and feeling fear does not make you a weakling or a sissy. Rest into it. You’ll be surprised at how fast stress and anxiety go away when you mind the gap.
I’ve had the honor of teaching some of your how to manage difficult emotions during our work together. I’d be equally honored to share these wonderful teachings with the rest of you.
For those of you who are interested in learning more about working with difficult emotions Dzochen Ponlop Rinpoche has a new book Rebel Buddha which comes out next week; on November 9th. And as a bonus, he will be here for what promises to be a wonderful all-day event on November 27th, at the Boulder Theater. You can learn more about the event and purchase a ticket at the Rebel Buddha website. I plan to attend myself and I hope to see you all there.
So dare to be daring; let your inner Rebel Buddha out to the world and let yourself experience the fact that you too can stress less and still succeed and thrive.Stress Less for Success: Turn Stress And Anxiety To Play by Larry Cappel,