Editor’s Note: This is part two of an excellent review of how stress affects our lives and our health. Part I is available here.
This part of the column deals with living in the present moment as a way to deal with stress. It is actually very difficult for many of us to live in the present moment. We either get so focused on the past or so concerned about what’s going to happen in the future or both. But being or living in the moment can so increase not only our awareness of what is happening in our immediate surroundings, but also our awareness of ourselves, i.e. our thoughts and emotions and our bodies. Our society is so goal oriented that we are always focused on doing, being busy accomplishing and producing results. We forget, or in some cases never learned, how to just “be.”
For months after I retired, people would come up to me and ask, “So what are you doing now?” I thought that after 28 years of medical practice, 10 years of school and professional training, I didn’t have to be doing anything. And so I began to answer, “I’m not doing, I’m being.” This would usually engender a puzzled look and an “Oh, OK” reply and then the person would cease and desist and change the subject. Just being with yourself without any distraction, particularly difficult with all the gadgets we have, can get you in touch with what your real thoughts and feelings are. This can be a scary prospect, but also such a potentially enriching one. How many of us don’t really stop during the day and give some time only to ourselves where we can get to know ourselves better and appreciate the many gifts around us, most of them not material ones, and the many gifts we have internally? We can get anxious about doing this practice because we are not productive by society’s standards and also because we may meet who are real selves are. But the rewards of this approach are many and worth the effort.
Two authorities on this subject, Dr. Nathaniel Branden, a psychologist who studied self-esteem, and Thich Nhat Hanh a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, are quoted in Vitality and Wellness. Dr. Branden said,
“Chronic tension conveys the message of some form of internal split, some form of self-avoidance, or self-repudiation, some aspect of the self being denied or held on a very tight leash….Relaxation implies that we are not hiding from ourselves, not at war with who we are.” (p.51)
Thich Nhat Hanh said,
“We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living…. We are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.” (p.51)
It is important to be in the present and not get lost thinking about the past or worrying about the future. This approach alone can relieve a lot of stress and help us be creative about dealing with the problems we face.
One of the reasons it is so difficult to be in the present moment is because we are so aware of time pressures. Dr. Rechtschaffen developed his concept of
“Time- Shifting” as a response to the time stresses we all feel. He describes it in Vitality and Wellness as a process where we can find “many ways in which we can joyfully create more time to enjoy our lives now.” (p.89) Essentially, Time- Shifting “synchronizes the rhythms in our inner and outer worlds….it helps us to speed up or slow down the pace of our lives in response to what’s happening around us.” (p.69) This means at times you speed up because the circumstances demand that you do, and at other times, you slow down because it suits you, even if the others around you are moving at a frantic pace. The end result is that you give yourself more time to enjoy your life. Time- Shifting gives you more “time awareness…. to enjoy your life by living it in the now….The basic principles include: slowing down, noticing what’s happening in our inner and outer worlds, and taking time to experience our physical and emotional states.” (p.72) In a sense, time shifting brings us back to our own lives as an antidote to the stressful message society gives us to be busy and moving and productive and distracted.
Dr. Rechtschaffen puts an emphasis on experiencing one’s feelings and emotions as a part of the time- shifting practice. It’s part of taking time for yourself, even if it’s only a few minutes. We often tend to ignore our feelings and emotions during the day so that we can keep going, focusing only on the task at hands. We may also ignore our feelings and emotions because of the discomfort and pain that may result from paying attention to them. But unnoticed and unacknowledged feelings and emotional reactions can cause stress themselves. Meeting one’s self by being present to how one is feeling can be satisfying as well as stress-relieving. It complements the time- shifting practice of slowing down periodically to notice what is happening in our external environment as well. This, too, can lead to enriching moments that give us peace and a sense of connection to the world around us.
Some of the techniques Dr. Rechstchaffen recommends in Vitality and Wellness (p.87-88) are:
- Set boundaries – setting aside time for yourself that it is totally yours with no interruptions. He suggests reading, exercise, journaling, meditating, spending time in Nature.
- Create a ritual – meditating, prayer, looking at a beautiful object or an attractive scene in nature, join a spiritually oriented group.
- Honor the mundane – find meaning and value in the everyday, such as cleaning, cooking, brushing your hair, taking your medication, walking the dog, paying bills. This also can be a form of meditation.
- Be spontaneous – go out to dinner or a movie last minute; take a trip to a nearby place you’ve never been; take a day off.
All of these practices shift the emphasis from taking care of others and meeting their demands to taking care of yourself. Creating time for yourself and using it for your own growth and rejuvenation is an excellent way to soften the time stresses we all have. Dr. Rechtschaffen has a whole book on time-shifting that discusses his ideas and practices in more detail; the title is Time Shifting: Creating More Time to Enjoy Your Life.
Finally, a meditation practice is a powerful tool to help manage the stresses in one’s life. Meditation is being recognized more and more as a way to achieve an inner peace, a sense of calm, insight, balance, diminished stress and tension, heightened awareness, not only of your own feelings, but also of many aspects of your environment you may have ignored. It is a gift you can give yourself every day, even if for a few minutes. Like Time- Shifting, it helps you return to yourself away from all the pressures, demands, and distractions of your usual daily life. And meditation can also connect you more with your own body and what you are feeling physically. From the medical viewpoint, meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure, decrease pain, increase immune function, and decrease anxiety and depression.
A particular type of meditation, mindfulness meditation, can be enormously helpful by encouraging one to focus on the present moment, a process that may be quite difficult, given the constant distraction of our society. In fact, many people rely on technology (from TV to iphones) more and more because of the escape it affords from the reality before us in our physical environment and the reality of our inner thoughts and feelings. Jon Kabat Zinn has written extensively on mindfulness and mindfulness meditation in his books, Wherever You Go, There You Are (ROUGH CUT) and Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness.
He stresses the importance of being in the moment through mindfulness meditation, certainly while practicing it, but even during the rest of the day when you are not meditating. A regular practice promotes your being in the moment throughout your whole day. The end result of being in the moment is awareness. This awareness not only enriches your perceptions, but also engenders a calmness and receptivity because you are more open to yourself and what is around you. It is a prime example of “being” instead of “doing.” Another aspect of mindfulness meditation is not trying to change anything, be it your thoughts, observations, or what you experience. It’s just a matter of noticing all these things for what they are and nothing else.
Acceptance is such an integral part of mindfulness meditation – acceptance of having thoughts, which you are encouraged to let go of while you concentrate on your breathing during meditation, acceptance of who you are, and acceptance of how things are in the moment. As pointed out by Sogyal Rinpoche in his famous and insightful book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, mindfulness meditation can diminish our negativity, difficult emotions, and the possibility of responding aggressively. Because of the generous acceptance of our thoughts and feelings, we begin to feel better and encourage our own healing to occur. Mindfulness meditation practice can foster a certain equanimity that allows one to meet life’s ups and downs, highs and lows in a more balanced and calm way.
Teachers of mindfulness meditation emphasize that one of the benefits of the practice is developing the ability to step back from your initial reaction to challenging events, or people you meet, or things people say or do to you. This is part of the process of awareness that mindfulness mediation fosters. I had just finished my second week of the Penn Program for Mindfulness course when I had an enlightening experience while I was sitting on a park bench in the Square I love in Philadelphia.
While I was having coffee and a muffin, I suddenly noticed small white blossoms coming down, some of them heading for my coffee. My initial reaction was, “I don’t want this stuff in my coffee!” but because I had just been taught to step back, I stopped fretting and looked up, and there was this magnificent shower of blossoms. It looked as if it were snowing in the middle of May. I would have totally missed it otherwise, if I had given in to my initial reaction.
As I was looking up, I felt a bump against my back and there was a squirrel that had jumped up on the bench to steal a big crumb of my muffin that had fallen on the seat. Again, my first reaction was, “Get away from me; you may be rabid.” But again, I stepped back and just looked at the squirrel who was sharing the bench with me with the big crumb in his mouth and who was staring back at me as if to ask if it was OK to take its prize. I indicated it was. The squirrel jumped off the bench, but returned 2 or 3 times to the grass behind the bench, just to look at me. My imagination told me some communication was going on, and I would have missed it all if I had gone with my original reaction. “Stepping back” through mindfulness is a wonderful way to confront stress.
Finally, mindfulness meditation can deepen your own spirituality. It encourages you to be more open to see beneath the surface, not only in yourself, but in your connection to others and to the whole world. If you’re mindful, you’re better able to sense the richness of a beautiful scene in Nature, the warmth behind a friendly smile, the feelings expressed in a heartfelt conversation, the similarities of life experiences between two people who on the surface are quite different. It is a very spiritual experience to feel part of something bigger than yourself, and mindfulness mediation can help you do this by first connecting you to your own body, thoughts, and feelings and then by making you more aware of your connection to everything around you.
I once sat in my cherished Square the morning after a snowstorm. The sky was blue, and fluffy snow was blowing from the tree branches. It seemed as if it was still snowing. Some creative person had made 10 snowmen, each a little more than a foot tall, with twigs for arms and stones for eyes. Each one was sitting on a different bench. I quickly got a cup of coffee and sat there myself enjoying the company of these snowy beings. It was a wondrous moment – I felt connected to Nature, the person or persons who gave the gift of their creativity, the beauty present after a snowstorm, and the stillness of the universe. As I sat there, at least 5 or 6 people rushed by, either on their phones or preoccupied with being on time for work or what they had to do that day. None of them saw the snowmen at all. Maybe if they had, the experience might have had a positive effect on their day.
So how does one go about practicing mindfulness meditation? Jon Kabat Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living, goes over the process in clearly delineated detail. A very quick summary is found on pages 111-12 of Vitality and Wellness.
Essentially, you should find a comfortable chair to sit up straight in with both feet on the floor. The room should be quiet and free of distraction. You can concentrate on your breathing, being aware of each breath in and each breath out. You can also concentrate on a word or phrase and repeat it over and over again. What commonly happens is that thoughts come into your mind, anything from your grocery list to something that happened or something you’re planning to something or someone who upset or pleased you. The aim is to acknowledge the thought and then let it go and concentrate again on your breathing or the phrase or word you’ve chosen. These thoughts that come up are the “monkey mind” at work, and it is totally normal.
Even seasoned meditators can struggle with intrusive thoughts while they’re meditating. The point is to let go of the thoughts and not judge yourself. Rechtschaffen and Cohen sum it up beautifully when they comment, “Don’t strive for results – it’s the antithesis of being present to the moment. Be accepting of who you are – all that you are – and what is happening to you in the moment. And finally, let go – of all the thoughts, feelings, and situations that the mind wants to hold onto…” (p. 113, Vitality and Wellness)
Here are the words of Jon Kabat Zinn, taken from Full Catastrophe Living and quoted in Vitality and Wellness (p.114), that best describe mindfulness and being in the present moment: “The richness of present-moment experience is the richness of life itself. Too often we let our thinking and beliefs about what we ‘know’ prevent us from seeing things as they really are. We tend to take the ordinary for granted and fail to grasp the extraordinariness of the ordinary. To see the richness of the present moment, we need to cultivate what has been called ‘beginner’s mind,’ a mind that is willing to see everything as if for the first time.”
Finally, there are other practices that can reduce stress – yoga and tai-chi are physical practices that have calming effects and allow one to be in the present moment, thus helping to diminish stress. There are also physical benefits to these practices. Rechtschaffen and Cohen also mention affirmations and guided imagery as practices that can help stress reduction. Affirmations involve repeating positive statements and thoughts as a way to change a negative thinking pattern. Guided imagery resembles meditation in its calming effect and its effect on the mind’s activity. It is essentially a guided spoken meditation that can utilize any of the senses and results in relaxation, a calming feeling, and possibly better coping abilities. The guided imagery can be experienced through CD’s or classes where there is a live leader, such as in meditation centers or workshops. In choosing a practice, the important point is to choose one that works for you. But you have to try a practice regularly before deciding whether it is helpful or not.
To summarize, I’d like to quote a comment on stress posted on the Penn Program for Mindfulness website : “Stress affects your health. It affects your day to day functioning, physical and mental well being and interactions with others – your quality of life. Sadly, stress limits how you view yourself and how you engage in the world. Ultimately, you miss the texture and richness that provide meaning, and bring joy and fulfillment to your everyday experiences.” Stress can limit not only how we view ourselves, our work, and the world we live in, but also how we are able to enjoy our lives and relate and connect to others. If stress becomes chronic, it can even be connected to the onset and/or course of an illness. It is therefore important to lessen the stresses in our lives and approach stress in a way that fosters self-care. The attitudes you develop toward stress and the techniques and practices you utilize to cope with it can be crucial for your happiness and your health.