Sheikh Saadi was passing across a wasteland when he saw someone sitting under a solitary tree. ‘Who is he?’ enquired the Sheikh, surprised to see someone at noon in a desolate spot.
The court philosopher accompanying him replied, ‘None of any consequence, sir.’
But the Sheikh was curious. They went closer only to find a hermit eating gruel in solitude. The court philosopher now recognized the man whose wisdom was praised by many in distant lands.
Pitying his condition, the court philosopher turned to him and remarked, ‘If only you had learned to please the king, you would not have to eat gruel for the rest of your life.’
The hermit looked up quietly, and said, ‘If only you had learned to eat gruel, you would not have to please the king for the rest of your life.’
Though the situation appeared stressful to the court philosopher, the hermit was perfectly at ease.
In any stress, one has to deal with the response of the organism and the mind’s perception of the problem.
The Response of the Organism
Whatever be the external circumstances, once the organism perceives it as stressful, it responds habitually. The response itself is atavistic, a carryover of a collective past which we find difficult to outgrow. The cave man and the beast still linger in our consciousness and come out in moments of real or imaginary threat. What is interesting is that in the modern age the danger may not be physical at all. It may be, for instance, the threat of losing one’s face or one’s job, or failure in an examination. Yet the body is involved. The limbs tremble, the heart pounds, the mouth dries up, the muscles cramp, the whole system is tense, frightened and fidgety. And even when the threat is over, the body may react to any associated stimulus or even the thought of the problem. Though no longer externally apparent it still lurks in the consciousness. A memory, imagination or foreboding can draw it out. The organism suffers, the balance of life is disturbed and sickness results.
Techniques have been developed to help the body cope with stress. The market is flooded today with sophisticated gadgetry and innumerable methods to relax. Each helps a little but none cures. These methods can work in various ways: they give us a sense of widening through imagery, habituate the body to stressors through repeated exposure, develop the right response, etc. The physiological responses can also be stabilized with the help of asanas and pranayama. But the roots of the problem remain. They surface again in sleep through dreams and nightmares when our waking consciousness is quiescent and one may wake up with a headache or a tired feeling. Even worse, one may unexpectedly find oneself face to face with a heart attack or paralysis.
Perceiving the Problem
True, the body functions best when it is introduced to certain healthy habits. Yet this also is not sufficient.
For the roots of the malady lie in our psychology, i.e. the peculiarities of our preferences, value systems, attitudes and beliefs, hopes and ambitions, perception and cognition.
It is we who give the value to an event. In itself, a happening has no absolute value. It is our past learning, associations, preferences and a host of other factors that determine our evaluation of the event and thereby its capacity to produce stress.
We often say that attitudes should change. Little do we realize that it is no use talking about changing attitudes unless one changes the aim. Attitudes are only certain standpoints taken by the mind based upon its beliefs. These beliefs translate themselves to our mind as an aim or an ideal that we pursue. Thus, for a soldier living for the nation’s glory, it is an honour and a pride to die on the battlefield. To another who has joined the armed forces for mercenary reasons, such a death means the end of all hopes and ambitions and is an extremely stressful situation.
The aim itself is something that changes as we evolve. At a certain stage of our life we may feel that amassing wealth, becoming a writer, a doctor, an executive, a musician, etc., is our aim. Later as we grow, we realize that these occupations providing comfort, knowledge, fame, happiness, etc., are not really fulfilling. The true source of fulfilment lies within us. The profession, chosen as an aim, may not give what we truly want. Thus, the comfort of money is often mixed with the curse of an illness; the knowledge gained through books is often shadowed by error and doubt; the price of being a top executive may be too high and the fall as steep as the ascent; the happiness through music may be marred by our incapacity and limitation. In more complex personalities, we often find a many-sided seeking, a branching out into many aims and pursuits, making the problem still more complicated, even though the rewards of success are richer.
Here we may ask, how is the aim related to our practical life, its many situations, the baffling problems and their solutions? We have already mentioned that what is danger to one is an adventure to another, what is rest to one is boredom to another, what is learning to one is conditioning to another, what is ease to one is stress to another, what is sacrifice for one is freedom for another.
We often associate quality of life with the comforts of living. But the quality of life actually depends upon the intrinsic values rather than external successes. A cultivation of such intrinsic values helps one to spontaneously outgrow many stressful situations.
To understand how the quality of life is linked with our aim and motivation it would be interesting to study the interaction of our temperamental predisposition with the environment.
Indian psychology understands this through the concept of svabhava and gunas.
The svabhava or temperamental predisposition is influenced by gunas (universal determinants of behaviour) to produce personality types.
The gunas are:
Sattva — the mode of harmony, balance and intelligence;
Rajas — the mode of action and movement; and
Tamas — the mode of inertia.
These three gunas are present in every individual in varying degrees but one or the other predominates in a particular personality type.
The tamasic character denotes inertia, resistance to change and indolence; the rajasic signals qualities of courage, kinesis, dynamism, high ambition, need for activity, urge to accomplish, strength, swiftness, etc.; the sattvic points to qualities of benevolence, goodwill for all, sympathy, compassion, just dealings, fairness, etc.
In human nature, each movement may be oriented towards the height or the abyss. Thus, a capacity for immobility has peace and calm on the positive side while indifference, apathy, inertia, dullness, sloth, bondage on the negative side. Similarly, dynamism has courage and strength as its positive aspects while possessiveness, vanity, arrogance, desire and ambition are its negative aspects. In a nature turned to ideals, harmony, humility, benevolence, sympathy, clarity of understanding, righteousness, freedom, wisdom are the positive aspects whereas pride of knowledge, cunning, deceit of logic, doubt and deception are the negative echoes.
The idea in the Indian psychological perspective was to match the personality type not only with action but also with the aim and motivation associated with the action. When one’s actions are in conflict with one’s temperament or svabhava the dissonance precipitates stress.
According to the Indian tradition, a spiritual seeker has another source of stress. He strives to replace his ego-centred personality by a soul-centred personality. In this process, not only his action but his svabhava too undergoes a change.
All stress is not necessarily bad to be avoided or escaped from. Instead one can understand its meaning and message through introspection. Once observed, it can be rightly oriented. As long as we are identified with the surface foam, we are bound to the mercy of each passing wave. At best we can only manipulate the surface reactions and responses of our nature but cannot change them. Hence the different techniques to manipulate our nature cannot fundamentally alter its course.
A workaholic ambitious executive suffered stress and had a nervous breakdown in his mid-forties (a period when there is a natural reorientation of life’s goals termed as ‘mid-life crisis’). The treating psychiatrist prescribed some medications, gave a few relaxation techniques and counselled him to divert his mind from work by playing tennis regularly. The man was happy and felt relieved for a couple of months. But he soon came back with the same problem. He was stressed after playing tennis. This time, he was asked to take off from work and go on vacation. He returned with depression added to his anxiety. A deeper probing revealed that the executive faced an inner conflict. He realized that he often felt that he would fail. Tennis diverted his mind for some time but he began competing and wanted to win every match. The vacation could have helped him but being away from work confirmed his foreboding of failure. Believing that he had ultimately failed, he suffered depression. This person basically had a rajasic character which helped him to be a successful executive and later helped him to recuperate, albeit temporarily, through playing tennis. He suffered from stress in the following circumstances:
(a) When the negative effects of dynamism (namely, arrogance, possessiveness, vanity, etc.) outweighed the positive effects (namely, courage, strength, etc.) as happened in his job and later in his game of tennis
(b) When, instead of conforming to his rajasic character, he drifted into tamas (doubts, despondency and inertia). In addition, his mid-life crisis brought in another element — the necessity to reorient himself. This in turn came into conflict with his character and preoccupations.
The first need, therefore, was to give a positive turn to his mid-life crisis by looking from within and facing the challenge. This man was gradually led towards a new orientation and aim. With that, his phenomenal formations of thought, patterns of desire, feeling and action changed and he felt much relieved.
Do we mean to say that the outer circumstance or situation precipitating the crisis has no value at all? From one standpoint the outer circumstances are not the primary or main thing. They can be viewed as an objectification of our inner state. Essentially an external event appears disagreeable and stressful when the inner urge does not match with the environment. Thus, pursuits of pleasure in a hedonistic society may appear stressful to someone whose nature is oriented inwards. Yet the external circumstance then becomes an occasion to unmask one’s conflicts and potentials.
One may understand it by the analogy of a TV set. The picture that is displayed represents the event of one’s life. The channel can be likened to the station one attunes to out of many universally relayed vibratory modes. The channel button serves to draw a particular set of images. The images displayed give an indication of the channel we have knowingly or unknowingly selected. To change the image, we have to change the channel. If we identify with the scenes and images too much, it becomes difficult to shift to other channels. It is a subtle law of Nature that difficulties aggravate unless we detach ourselves and open to higher possibilities.
Often the shock of painful external events wakes us to a deeper inner life. We question and seek to understand what we never felt necessary or important. We arise and move towards a new possibility which was earlier nearly impossible. All stress, therefore, also has an evolutionary perspective.
It comes to liberate us out of the bounds of narrowness to wideness, out of the limits of senses to a higher and larger horizon of faith and experience, out of the dullness and sloth to a higher and truer life, out of the chaos and turmoil of the surface to a deeper reality and awareness. The more rigid and resistant we are to change, the greater the stress. The more plastic and clay-like we are to the evolutionary nisus, the easier it is to cope with stress.