What’s True, and Not, About Stress (Part 2)

In the first post I began to talk about the spiritual side of stress. That’s such an unusual approach that it might be good to review stress more conventionally first. Stress is made more complicated because mind and body are involved. The so-called stress response is a temporary event with physical markers such as a rise in certain hormones. Once the event is over that caused the response, the stress isn’t gone, however. Soldiers come home from battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, a lingering memory bringing back their stress even more powerfully and repeatedly than when it was first felt. Closer to home, sitting in a traffic snarl while commuting to and from work can create a low-level kind of stress that is constant and nagging.

In other words, physical signs aren’t enough to explain what stress is doing to us every day. You can’t simply “lower your stress” by avoiding pressured situations. A completely easy life without pressure of any kind (if such a hypothetical life ever existed) needs only one deeply disturbing event, such as the death of a baby, to be scarred for years and change the course of a person’s existence. At the opposite extreme, stress can act like high blood pressure, which damages the body through a slight increase in stress on the cell walls that seems innocuous at first glance. The cell performs all of its functions without seeming distressed, and yet years later, a huge array of problems can arise.

So where does that leave us? Is life meant to be stressful by its very nature, full of events that send us into the stress response no matter what we do? Modern medical research has arrived at many partial answers that go part way to a complete answer. For example, three factors make stress more severe: repetition, unpredictability, and lack of control. These markers are observed in a classic experiment with laboratory mice in which a mouse is placed on a pad that delivers a mild electrical shock, not enough to hurt it but simply to startle. If these small shocks are measured individually, the stress they cause is not significant.

However, if the shocks come randomly and the mouse cannot escape them, something remarkable happens. The overloaded stress response in the mouse causes severe damage in a short period of time, leading to illness and a quick death. Humans are more complex than mice, and even though repetition will break down anyone’s resistance to stress (given enough time at the front lines under artillery bombardment, all soldiers suffer shell shock, for example), we are affected more severely if stresses arrive unpredictably and in a way that is out of our control. This helps explain why a child coming from a situation of abuse, with an unpredictable alcoholic parent, for example, can be harmed for life. When you can find no escape and bad things happen out of the blue, stress takes a heavy toll.

So where does spirituality help us in this tangle of confusing facts?

In the Indian tradition there’s a term for events that make an impression: Karma. Literally the word means “action” in Sanskrit, but karmas are actions that change us, for good or ill, by leaving a memory that causes action to change in the future. For the moment we won’t talk about the Law of Karma, which says that actions are balanced in the cosmos between good and evil, or as the New Testament states it, as you sow so shall you reap. Here I’m only concerned with the stressful side of karma, by which certain life events make a deep impression while others don’t.

At first glance karma is far more complicated that stress. There’s the whole mystery of how a good action is rewarded by the universe and a bad action punished. There’s the personal side of karma, where two people go through the same event – a car crash, winning the lottery, getting married – but wind up with completely different results. This tangle of riddles and complexity cannot simply be wished away. Nor is it adequate to lump everything under the same simple rubric like the stress response. The ancient seers of India, the Vedic rishis, embraced the entire issue, but so did Jesus, Buddha, and other great spiritual guides.

Their diagnosis was surprisingly similar to the one accepted by stress researchers: life delivers stress in very complicated ways and is inescapable. Memory stores deep impressions, and the body responds to these memories as strongly as it does to the original stressor. We can easily insert “karma” in the slots where the word “stress” appears. But here the world’s wisdom traditions sharply diverge from modern medicine by saying flatly that suffering in inescapable as long as karma exists.

In Buddhism and Vedanta there are no half measures. A person isn’t asked to increase the good experiences in his life and reduce the bad ones. The entire pursuit of pleasure is considered unworkable. This is bad news for anyone who tries to use stress reduction, yet I am not suggesting that embracing stress or increasing the pressure in your life is advisable. It was assumed in the Bible, the Vedas, and other scriptures that we all try to lead good moral lives by following the rules of decent behavior. Yet this basic moral existence isn’t the same as solving karma, or stress, once and for all.

After offering such a dire diagnosis, the astonishing thing about the ancient spiritual teachings is that they offer a complete solution. They suggest that the world of karma, even though it surrounds us and ensnares us at every moment, is not fully real. Beyond it lies actual reality, which is reached by cultivating the subtler side of the human nervous system. I’ve found it helpful to divide awareness into two kinds of attention: first attention and second attention. First attention keeps us attuned to the affairs of everyday life; second attention keeps us attuned to higher reality. If you remain fixated on first attention, karma and stress are unavoidable. Your focus will be tied to changes in the external world and your inner response to the ups and downs of existence.

Second attention, however, is rooted in the changeless, and thus it protects you from the impressions made by stress and karma. This isn’t the same as zoning out. In modern terminology, second attention is like being centered instead of scattered, calm instead of restless, at peace instead of agitated. Yet these are secondary, really, to the deeper realization that you are not what you seem to be. You seem to be a body and mind tossed about by the winds of change. In reality you are a soul undergoing physical experiences for the purpose of evolving until you fully know who you are.

I realize that this conclusion seems like folly, hokum, or nonsense to committed materialists; it fits into the skeptical scheme of those who ridicule all things spiritual. But this isn’t an issue that can be settled by arguing over it. Each person must go through the process of experiencing second attention and finding out personally if higher reality exists. The proof lies in many areas, but the most crucial is the area we’ve been discussing. If stress ceases to create illness, damage, anxiety, and pressure, if impressions no longer haunt us, if memory loosens its grip, then we can say that the world’s wisdom traditions had something valid to say.

In the next post I’ll cover the practical side of shifting into second attention as the true solution to stress and therefore the solution to the baffling riddle of karma.


Published by The San Francisco Chronicle