by Jonathan Ellerby, Ph.D.
Of all the things that people have in common around the world, stress and suffering rank at the top of the list. Regardless of how much you make, your age, looks, culture, or job, you likely do not escape frustration and aggravation with ease – it’s a part of being on planet earth. Fortunately, we also share the ability to rise above these things, and in many cases we can even learn to heal the stress and suffering in our lives. Spiritual traditions have long been the refuge from stress with simple techniques and philosophies that can transform daily life.
It is easy to feel that stress and suffering are unavoidable or that somehow you are doomed to face them again and again. This helpless feeling stems from the mistaken assumption that our emotions need to drive our decisions and our lives. The strong emotions that create suffering are rooted in either hurts of the past or unfulfilled expectations of the present.
A spouse, friend, or boss that talks to you the way a parent did while in a cruel or impatient mood will trigger the same old feelings, as if you were a child encountering the hurt again. If you have an expectation that people should always be polite or that airplanes should always be on time or that traffic should not be heavy when you are late, then you will consistently encounter the stress of that disappointment.
A spiritual perspective says that emotions like anger, anxiety, and sadness are normal and need to be felt, but when it comes to making decisions and taking action, we need to look deeper. It is possible to be less driven by old hurts and release the tight grip on unrealistic expectations. Learning about the power of perception and the mind-body connection can turn everything around. Here are six timeless techniques for managing or ending stress and suffering.
When stress rises, the body moves in to a reaction mode: the body tightens, the mind races, and it is hard to gain a better perspective. Try taking some deep breaths. Breathe in through the nose, and instead of puffing your chest out, try imagining that you are sending the breath into your belly – push your stomach muscles out. Then, notice where you are tense or tight, and imagine you are breathing it all out your mouth, slowly and easily. When you are in a difficult moment, take at least 2 full minutes to be with your breath.
TWO: Stick to the Facts
One way we create our experience of stress and suffering is through emotional ideas like worry and regret. Instead of keeping our attention in the present moment and focusing on the limited truth we know for certain, too often we spend our energy on worrying about things that haven’t happened, or we dwell on the past we regret. Remember, “sticking to the facts” doesn’t include judgments like “she’s wrong” or “he’s a fool” or “what if I lose my job?” Those are emotional ideas, not facts.
A fact sounds like this “all I know is that he is late, but I don’t know why.” An emotional idea sounds like “he is late because he is selfish and doesn’t care. I must be a pushover.” A fact sounds like this “lots of people are losing their jobs these days, and some fall on hard times, and some find new work.” An emotional idea sounds like this “I am so worried every day I go into work. What if I lose my job and then cannot pay my bills and car payment – I cannot concentrate.” Learn to limit those thoughts, and stick to the facts.
The cornerstone of most spiritual philosophies lies in learning to forgive. Forgiveness does not mean that you pretend you are not hurt by someone or something, nor does it mean you condone a cruel or harmful act. Forgiveness does mean that you are committed to letting go of the energy, stories, and actions you have become caught up in. Forgiveness means that you are committed to letting go and moving on. It doesn’t start with a feeling; it starts with a decision. Start by changing the way you act and think, and then, eventually, the feelings will follow.
For example, if you have been hurt by a coworker or a romantic partner, you can invest a lot of time in complaining to friends, gossiping, and reviewing the offense in your head. Or you can say that being hurt once is enough, see that each time you replay it you are only hurting yourself again, and learn to change the topic.
Each time we encounter stress or hurt there is a small chance to practice forgiveness. The quicker we forgive a situation and accept it for what it is, the quicker we end our suffering and move on to better things.
TO BE CONTINUED in Part Two…
Jonathan Ellerby is one of the experts featured in the documentary Beyond Belief: www.beyondbeliefthemovie.com