What’s True, and Not, About Stress (Part 3)

In two earlier posts (which I hope you will go back and read) we found that stress is a complicated matter that intertwines body and mind. Mechanical stress is simple. If you put pressure on a car engine or airplane wing long enough, it will weaken and eventually break down. But human beings are set up differently. The more we use our muscles, for example, the stronger they become, and if we fail to use the heart or brain enough, they atrophy. The damage caused by stress requires a deeper look than any mechanistic model can provide.

I proposed that the world’s wisdom traditions fill the gap. This doesn’t mean that ancient views of karma, although they have a lot to say about how stress works, should be adopted wholesale. Spirituality evolves along with everything else, and it’s up to us to find our own path. In the ancient world most people were ground down by excessive physical demands, and their lives brought primal suffering in the form of starvation, exposure to the elements, lack of basic sanitation, and so on. By comparison, the stress we face today is different but not milder, since every life still contains pain, suffering, anxiety, doubt, insecurity, and the other woes that were confronted by the great spiritual guides of the past. At the very least, spirituality contends that human existence is meant to be free of such suffering.

Karmic impressions (vasanas in Sanskrit) are basically the same as stress. Something sticks to us – a memory, a fear, a trauma – and keeps coming back in repetitive ways. Long-term depression and anxiety are repetitive; so are stress disorders, addictions, and obsessive-compulsive behavior. The reason that modern therapies have not solved these maladies is that they don’t easily fit a medical model. No one is infected with an addiction; there is no vaccine or surgery for depression. Attempts are made to squeeze stress-related symptoms into a manageable scheme so that a patient can be handed the right pill after a fifteen-minute consultation. I won’t discount that some relief is offered, but for the most part drug therapy only masks the symptom without touching the cause of distress.

How do we get stress to stop sticking to us? How do we erase karmic impressions? How can we let go of past pain? These are profound questions, and they give ordinary people a strong reason to look into spirituality (and therapies where the medical model has merged with the findings of wisdom). Personally, I don’t find that the kind of spiritual answers involved in prayer, faith, patience, hope, and reliance on God work very well, much less those beliefs that deem suffering to be spiritually valuable for its own sake. Far more workable, I think, is the kind of spirituality that focuses directly on consciousness. Meditation, mindfulness, self-reflection, focused intention, energy work, hands-on healing, and yoga all have their part to play. Karma or stress – call it what you will – is rooted in consciousness. We know this because karma and stress are unique with each person, forming patterns that no two people exactly duplicate.

If there is a state of consciousness that frees us from stress and the repetitive behavior that keeps us bound to the past, it should be a first priority to seek such a state. In the Indian tradition suffering is born of duality; healing is the end result of attaining unity. Duality comes down to the divided self, caught up in desires, thoughts, drives, and impulses that form a confused and conflicting inner landscape. Unity is a self that is intact, clear, without contradictory impulses, and present in the moment. Unity consciousness may be much more than this – it could be a state of grace that brings a person into intimacy with God – but without the basics, higher consciousness does us no good, in terms of freeing us from distress.

I’ve laid out a worldview rather than going into details, even though people always want how-to advice. The reason for being so general is that accepting a new worldview is the most important thing you can do. What is more basic than the decision to leave the battlefield rather than continuing to fight? Internal conflict is the problem, and doing more of the same, warring against yourself, judging against your bad impulses, suffering over your mistakes, projecting blame on others, finding that your highest expectations keep falling short – these are all forms of inner conflict. If you keep repeating them, you will persist in duality and the suffering it brings.

I almost never refer readers to my own writings, but two books, How to Know God and The Book of Secrets, lay out the big picture of how higher consciousness works, while a practical manual, Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul, gives the details.

Here, in three posts, I’ve tried to show that stress is, in fact, a spiritual issue. Materialism with its mechanistic explanations and conventional medicine are not complete enough to solve this huge problem, and in many ways they point in the wrong direction. It takes a shift in consciousness to end suffering. Such a shift is possible. The way to accomplish it is known and has been laid out in the world’s wisdom traditions. With that knowledge in hand, we can direct our lives in an evolutionary direction that was all but unknown a few decades ago. The solution to stress is inside each of us, waiting to be discovered.

Published by San Francisco Chronicle