The Two Faces of Stress
Whether the stressor is physical or psychological, real or imaginary, the individual passes through a characteristic response. The response at the physical level is primarily in the form of an increased metabolic activity through release of ‘hormones’ and ‘enzymes’ that accelerate the metabolism. The result is an increase in the amount of physical energy available to the individual to meet the perceived threat. At the psychological level, the response is translated usually as anxiety, agitation and fear.
Essentially, this response is a habit of Nature meant for the purpose of adaptive growth. Accordingly, the individual makes one of the three choices based upon his constitution and cognitive evaluation of the stressor. These three responses are the fight response, the flight response and the freeze reaction.
The ‘fight response’ takes place when the stressor is perceived as a ‘challenge’ which one must master. Once mastered, it makes the individual better equipped for the future. In other words, stress for him becomes a ‘growth experience’.
The ‘flight response’ is usual when the stressor is seen as a ‘threat’ which one is unable to meet. It ensures ‘survival’ rather than growth.
There are instances when the stressor is regarded as ‘overwhelming’. It may be the response to a novel and unusual situation or an environmental change perceived as far beyond one’s coping resources. During these moments, the individual can go into a ‘freeze reaction’. The freeze response can be itself considered as restorative when the individual may be silently accumulating inner resources and energy for a future fight or flight reaction.
Whatever be the response, it can lead to one of the two results. If the stressor is short lived and of lesser magnitude, the individual masters. He is better geared to meet a similar demand in the future.
On the other hand, if the stressor is prolonged and severe, the individual may succumb to it. His psycho-physiological system may break down under the constant pressure and demand to adapt. The result may be illnesses of various kinds and/or eventually death.
Coping with stress
We have seen the three methods Nature uses to equip an organism to cope with stress. To be effective, therefore, we have to consciously supplement and/or complement the processes Nature uses.
- Supplementing Nature
The fight or flight reaction, as we have seen, is basically a matter of (a) individual perception and (b) the balance of energy between the stressor and the organism.
Perception belongs to the domain of ‘knowledge’ and energy to the domain of ‘power’. Stress management would therefore include:
- (i) Means to increase knowledge
- (ii) Means to enhance power
(i) Enhancing Knowledge
The ordinary way is correct appraisal, understanding and evaluation of a situation.
Knowledge to be effective has to be experiential. It is not enough to merely read books or hear the experiences of others. It is also necessary to practise that knowledge for it to be effective.
Anybody can be a hero in fantasy life. But to be a hero in real life demands something more. It is here that we have the role of training. Training transmits the brain’s knowledge into those cells of the body which need to respond in a given situation. The knowledge of the mind becomes a knowledge of the body, leading to perfect coordination between the mind and the body in a particular circumstance. Practice is the basis of expertise in handling stress.
Another important thing in correct appraisal is to be able to observe precisely and judge accurately without interference from unconscious fears, biases and emotional preferences. All these reactions distort the observation and understanding, leading to inaccuracies in appraisal. One can quieten the emotional or nervous being through the science and art of breath regulation or ‘pranayama’ and ‘a dynamic meditation’ to build peace into the system. A mind at peace sees better and understands better. Thus, it becomes more effective for right action than a mind ruffled by every touch.
Sometimes we are overwhelmed by problems and we do not know how to go about it. Here, we have to try and see things in the light of the highest reason available to us, for most of us do not really develop the true reason and hence are readily swayed by impulses and emotions or weighed down by problems over which we have little control. The basic principles of ‘rational problem solving’ are as follows:
- (a) To place the problem in the correct perspective, that is, to see it clearly. Especially to prevent the enormous colouring by sentiments and desires which further cloud our vision by exaggerating things out of proportion and making us feel ‘done for’ and helpless.
- (b) The problem/problems can be broken into sub-parts, primarily to segregate them into those over which one can exercise some control and those over which one cannot at present. In the latter case, reason itself tells us that it is no use lamenting over things which are not in one’s immediate control. Rather what may help is to take step (c).
- (c) To gather as much information about the problem and its different aspects. The essential thing here is that awareness gives us a greater chance of mastery than denial, blindness or confusion. If necessary, step (d) should be followed.
- (d) A hierarchy can be made based upon one’s needs, aim and aspirations. The problems can then be attended to in a prioritized manner.
Finally, there are other dimensions of knowledge and power about which we can speak a little later.
(ii) Enhancing Power: The Ordinary Way
Power comes by the capacity to receive, conserve and direct energy towards a desired end. If thought is an instrument of knowledge, the will is the corresponding instrument of power.
Will can be developed like muscles. By putting the pressure of will persistently on the body, it can be made to do things that it is ‘normally’ not capable of. So too, we can develop psychological capacities by persisting in the application of will in that direction. The tendency to give up or seek an easy escape is the way of the weak will which is still largely governed by inertia. It is a recognized fact that all our body organs, including the master organ brain, work much below their full potential. Much of our body capacities remain asleep but can be woken up and made to function by a persevering will to consciously control the body organs. This is the basis of biofeedback. To explore and develop our full power and potential is therefore a necessary part of training in stress coping.
If ‘work and use’ develops power, it also causes wear and tear if we ‘overdo’ and ‘overuse’. Therefore, periods of rest and relaxation and a balance between energy output and input are required. Ideally, these periods of rest must be phases when we receive energy, recharge ourselves and restore what we have for future use. Unfortunately, however, we have come to associate relaxation today with a further dissipation of energy in a chaotic and disorganised way. The result is a ‘quick thrill that kills’ soon by exhaustion and tires us out. Television, clubs, discotheques and late-night parties are such so-called relaxations which make the will even more weak and inert. So too drugs, like sedatives and alcohol, give us an illusion of rest but actually lull the organs to sleep, creating a loss of capacities and bring us a step closer to death. A subtle trap here is the many ‘push-button’ comforts which money can buy off-the-shelf. What we buy is sweet poison which tastes sweet to the outer consciousness but makes the body and mind more and more dull since a little stimulus and struggle are necessary for growth.
The science of food that can provide wholesome nourishment, the science and art of a qualitatively good sleep, the role of meditative methods that use positive imagery to relax us, the many relaxation techniques are all essentially restorative and recuperative. It is thus that they indirectly help in the increase of power. The direct method is to learn to conserve energy by not letting it flow out in aimless activities or purely hedonistic pursuits. Speech and sex are two such activities which, if not regulated, dissipate energy. To conserve speech is to grow in the power of thought and knowledge. To conserve the sexual energy is to grow in the power of creativity and execution.
And yet, these ‘let go’ sessions sometimes have their place. In fact, they point to the difficulty of the human being who in the course of evolution has become extremely complex. Man contains in him many habits and movements which are an atavism of the past. These ‘habits’ are part of the ‘herd/cave instinct’ and though they are somewhat anachronistic now, they persist tenaciously through millenniums of conditioning. It is part of our physical inheritance we share with the earth. Though past and outdated, even harmful in the present context, these subconscious elements were once useful to the developing beast and the early life forms. The mind is unable to handle them and the only method it knows is to coerce and suppress. Yet, coercion and suppression is only to chain and maim but not to dissolve them. And at the limit of suppression, they are released in spirits, in forms socially acceptable to the mind or in forms truly hideous and monstrous. The mind is unable to conquer them. Thus, a gap arises between what we mentally know as the right thing and in our doing or executing it. It is here that we begin to reach the limits of our mind and its capacity to equip us in facing life. And it is here that we can choose to linger with this imperfect balance and compromise of sorts or else break free out of the mental limits into the spiritual dimension. If we choose to break into the spiritual way of living, we can arrive at a still greater degree of perfection and mastery.
- The Spiritual Way
The spiritual perception recognizes that man is more than the body and the ego. It sees man as a soul that is upon earth for a progressive experience towards a higher perfection. Thus, it does not cancel the evolutionary law but gives it a higher meaning and purpose that transcends the limited scope of the ego and its self-preservation. Above all, it sees and feels that a Power and Consciousness exists that far exceeds our limited consciousness and thus opens the possibility of help and intervention from a higher dimension. Further, the spiritual vision does not confine life to the narrow cabin of one body but lives in a wide universal vision of the same ‘I’ in all beings and the same ‘I’ assuming many forms and bodies for growth and experience through lifetimes. Therefore, the spiritual view of life is a radical departure, ‘a reversal of view’, from the ordinary mental and narrow egoistic way of seeing, understanding and living.
One thing needs to be clarified. The spiritual way of life is not just the usual ‘passive and quietist self-negating way’. True, the inner poise of the spiritual man is full of peace and quiet which comes naturally to him as he begins to live impersonally and universally. But externally, he can engage himself in the most demanding work, included, as is asserted by the Gita, in the bloodiest of war. This peace in fact becomes the basis of a much more powerful action than the person would be otherwise capable of. So too, the self-effacement of the spiritual person is not at the altar of the collective ego or the social norms of civilisation or to satisfy the ego of significant others. This self-effacement is at the one altar of the Divine. And this self-effacement becomes for him the way for a greater self-fulfilment. For by annulling the lower self of the ego in God, he discovers the higher self of the spirit in humanity. Thus, his actions become at once large and powerful and his ability to combat and cure the anomalies of life more authentic.
Knowledge – The Spiritual Way
We have already seen that knowledge and power are the two ways of facing stress. This applies to the spiritual domain also. However, just as knowledge and power change qualitatively from the beast to the human, so too they change as we ascend from man human to the man divine. The spiritual way of knowledge is not so much through analysis as by intuition, inspiration, illumined revelation. It is holistic and synthetic. It does not weigh the pros and cons of one possibility against another as much as it chooses by an intuitive discernment. Its stress of choice is not based on what will satisfy desire but rather on what is true, the thing to be done even if it involves what men call ‘personal loss’. And though to the outer appearance, ‘this personal loss’ and the frustration of desire may appear as a tragedy, to the sincere man of the spirit, it may even be a cause of delight since it is a liberation and the removal of fetters from his feet. The pursuit of desire which is so much emphasized by present society is in fact a major source of stress to modern man. The stress of the spiritual man is, on the contrary, towards growth and progress — individual and collective. He replaces ambition by personal excellence, competition by co-operation, individual happiness by the collective salvation.
The spiritual understanding, evaluation and appraisal is, therefore, very different. And even in its method, it uses ‘brain stilling’ rather than ‘brain storming’. Faced with a problem or difficulty, the spiritual man does not rush to collect all available data and strategies. He rather remains quiet and still, very still and attuning himself to a deeper truth within, he waits to receive the inner guidance, the subtle indication from his own higher consciousness. Here is a method for receiving of knowledge from above and within as given by Sri Aurobindo where the two methods (brain storming and brain stilling) are clearly compared and contrasted:
“Difficulties and perplexities can never be got rid of by the mind brooding on them and trying in that way to get out of them; this habit of the mind only makes them recur without a solution and keeps up by brooding the persistent tangle. It is from something above and outside the perplexities that the solution must come. The difficulty of the physical mind — not the true thinking intelligence — is that it does not want to believe in this larger consciousness outside itself because it is not aware of it; and it remains shut like a box in itself, not admitting the light that is all round it and pressing to get in. …”
“It is not a theory but a constant experience and very tangible when it comes that there is above us, above the consciousness in the physical body, a great supporting extension as it were of peace, light, power, joy — that we can become aware of it and bring it down into the physical consciousness and that that, at first for a time, afterwards more frequently and for a longer time, in the end for good, can remain and change the whole basis of our daily consciousness. … The need is to have an aspiration towards it, make the mind quiet so that what we call the opening is rendered possible. A quieted mind (not necessarily motionless or silent, though it is good if one can have that at will) and a persistent aspiration in the heart are the two main keys of the yoga. Activity of the mind is a much slower process and does not by itself lead to these decisive results. It is the difference between a straight road and an approach through constant circles, spirals or meanders.”
[Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Letters on Yoga 4, pp. 739-740]
This letter which obviously refers to inner difficulties and the inner change can very well apply to outer difficulties since the one constant factor required to deal with all difficulties (inner and outer) is an inner change. An inner poise of quiet strength and a cheerful optimism full of trust and confidence puts us in a much better state to face life than a state constantly ruffled by a thousand things, restless as a leaf driven by the storm or a rudderless boat tossing over the waves without any moorings.
Naturally, this ‘referring to a light above and receiving the inspiration’ is an experiential truth which the ordinary mind conditioned to the analytical approach finds difficult to grasp and hesitant to accept. But as one begins to live and grow in it, the full implications, of this new kind of knowledge begin to dawn.
Power – The Spiritual Way
In the ordinary way, one develops knowledge and power by training and straining the thought and the will. We can use the same way to go above and deep within. As we do that, we find a progressive evolution in our capacities to think and will. We link ourselves to a greater force and source of knowledge and power in our own being. The usual ‘spiritual’ process advocated for this is to concentrate and focus the consciousness above the head or deep within in the centre of the chest, i.e. the solar plexus, with a will to discover our own highest/deepest/truest self. Such a straining may initially appear abnormal and difficult since we are so accustomed to the opposite way of constantly reacting from our superficial, narrow, limited, surface consciousness which if seen dispassionately is little more than a bundle of pell-mell nervous sensations, thrills of the moment, escapades into fantasies and ‘virtual reality’.
Unable to enter into any greater sense of our self, we make the situation worse by labelling all efforts to go within as ‘imaginations’ and ‘other worldly’. True, in the beginning such efforts to exceed ourselves may cause us to lose our hold on the world as other people see it. But, in reality, it is a losing of our hold on the world as ‘we know it’ (conventionally and habitually conditioned by mind and senses) and in the ‘way we meet it’ (through the egoistic reaction of desire self). But if we have the courage and will to persist in our adventure we touch a point or a source of light and power from where the whole consciousness returns upon the world with a greater knowledge and power. That in itself justifies the uncertainty of the intermediate stage of our spiritual self-endeavour when we seem to be losing sight of the earth and are not yet in sight of the sun.
Yet, the whole process can be facilitated by what is known as ‘surrender’. Surrender is not a self-annulment as some believe it. It is rather a self-fulfilment. Or rather it is a self-loss for a greater self-finding — a loss of the small and limited narrow egoistic self for a larger and vaster self with a surer and truer understanding and grasp of life. This greater Being that is our own highest and true Self is what is called by different names by different people. This surrender and faith which is more of an inner attitude is the spiritual way of power. The smaller and narrower our aim, the less is ‘the power’ released into our system by the one source of power. For essentially there is only one power, but it reduces itself to its own different self-formulations or limited self-formations. We can, by enlarging ourselves spiritually and annulling our ego sense, enter into this one power and allow our life to be governed by that.
Thus, the spiritual way recognizes the ‘power of attitudes’. An attitude of faith and surrender to That which exceeds and transcends us and the world. Along with it, if we can cultivate peace and equality in our being, a regulation of desires, a cheerful optimism and confidence born out of trust, we can create the best possible psychological conditions to meet, face and master the challenges of life. When this inner state is combined with inner and outer knowledge, it makes us nearly invulnerable to the various trials and tribulations that hold our human life at stake — a victim in a sacrificial ceremony. And yet this holds the key to the secret. To sacrifice the lower for the higher, the lesser for the greater, the narrower for the wider is the whole sense and significance of the spiritual way of existence.