Hello, Dear Hearts. This time I’m going to talk about “How to Cope with Stress: Preparation for Practice”. This is something to deepen your understanding of how to apply your attention towards your own participation in your own life. In this way you can actually consider the ways you are participating in the events that are happening inside of you, around you and that involve you in the process of being alive.
The three words I want to focus on are distress, stress and suffering. Notice how stress is part of distress – the two are clearly related. Distress and stress are also suffering. To prepare for practice you want to be able to sit inside this triadic structure.
One of the deepest and most ironic aspects of working with suffering (overwhelm is a kind of suffering) is that in order to overcome your suffering you have to meet it, greet it and get to know it. You have to acknowledge it. You have to understand it. You also have to recognize that distress is actually happening in you. Often within the cultures and societies we find ourselves in (whether that be family culture, our country’s culture, our community culture or an institutional culture) there are many, many layers that we have to sort through before we can come into our own self and approach our suffering as an authentic encounter.
This is where we’re headed; authenticity. Because authenticity is the space for happiness. Authenticity is the space for truth. Well-being happens when we are honest and clear with others and with ourselves. And we do so with kindness, compassion and care. So, you are not alone in the middle of this triadic structure of distress, stress and suffering. There is also kindness, compassion and care. Let’s consider the deep connections we find here.
First of all, we do not need to run. We do not need to escape. We do not need to hide. Most of all, we must not run away from our suffering. Running away is a recipe for disaster. Avoiding or hiding from distress is the source of addiction and pain for us as well as for our loved ones, our community and the planet.
One of the ways for us to prepare for practice is to be ready to meet with ourselves, to meet with our distress, our stress and our suffering, with compassion and care. We prepare ourselves to meet with the ickiness and the ugliness, the difficult-to-see aspects of ourselves, all the ways we’ve disappointed ourselves, all the ways we’ve disappointed others, our reactions to others, our deep, deep hurt, and our grief at the methodologies of caregiving that we may have had to endure in our lives.
So, this is the call – to meet with ourselves in our own pain and suffering with care and compassion. We can do this. We are all human beings and we are all capable of happiness. We are all capable of well-being. The question is one of intention. Consider your intention. How deeply are you committed to finding a way out of suffering – your own suffering as well as the suffering of others? Now this may sound like an easy question, but there are deep layers involved here.
According to some belief systems, suffering is good. According to some, we are on this planet to sacrifice ourselves. I won’t go into imagery here, but I’m sure you can see it. There is deep suffering in this narrative; ridicule, scapegoating, broken promises, torture and death. We may have been taught that this path is not only acceptable, but honorable.
We may have learned at some level and at some point in our lives that without suffering our lives have no meaning. Now I’m not saying this is good or bad, but I am asking you to take the time to examine what may be some deeply held assumptions. I discussed this in Chapter One of Nature’s Narrative: Well-Being in Body, Speech & Mind.
It is possible that you may need to confront and engage with some deeply held, unquestioned, unrecognized and unacknowledged assumptions about your life, about how you should live your life and how you should not.
Not only are you preparing to meeting with distress, stress and suffering in your life with care, compassion and kindness but you may also want to consciously engage in the ways you, your culture and your family think and feel about distress, stress and suffering, care, compassion and kindness. I’m not asking you to go out and take to the streets. I’m not asking you to have a heart to heart with your partner or with your family. I’m not asking you to do anything. But I am asking you to prepare to be present for yourself by engaging in a form of self-inquiry.
Now in the world view I have put together, there are two approaches to preparing yourself to be present for yourself and to find support. My own practice is part of a tantric tradition that emphasizes the world of the senses – the body. We are here in this human body to engage with our six senses. The sixth sense we might call intuition. In the book, Nature’s Narrative, I call it consciousness.
Our senses are the medium through which we engage in this material life, in this incarnation in which we find ourselves. “Sensual Practice” is the term I use for the practice of awareness that begins on the outside of us; taking a bath, washing the dishes, going for a run, hugging a child, driving a car, eating, sleeping. All of these encounters/activities in your life are sensual encounters and offer you a space to connect with awareness. And yes, sex is part of that, but just a small part of the myriad encounters we have in a day.
Each of us is a different person. Some of us may approach coping with stress from the sensual side of the equation, from the outside of the body and in Sensual Practice. At the other end of the continuum and on the inside of the body is what I call “Awareness Practice”. These are the two foundations for well-being; “Sensual Practice (on the outside) and “Awareness Practice” (on the inside).
Eventually we want to integrate these two. That may not happen right away. You might have little flashes of this integration as you begin, but as part of your preparation for practice you begin at one place. Pick a spot on the continuum. You may start on the inside and work with awareness practice. Or you may start outside yourself and in the midst the activities of your world which would entail sensual practice. Sensual practice and awareness practices are two sides of the same coin.
Whether you come from the sensual side (coming to awareness in daily activities) or whether you come from the awareness side (coming to awareness in seated practice), as you move to the center of this continuum, as you come closer to the center of this mandala that we find ourselves in and as you walk (one breath at a time) towards the center of that flowering, you will find that sensuous practice and awareness practice are one and the same. But this takes practice. Your teacher/trainer would never send you off to a marathon the day after you decided to run.
Instead you might spend a year training. You build muscle, you build your coordination and your techniques. You build these and then you enter into a marathon when you feel you are ready. Being in the field of well-being takes training. Eventually you will be able to integrate sensuous and awareness practice in order to inhabit well-being reliably.
But you are not going to be able to do this right away. You may have flashes of it, but those flashes are not practiced and they do not hold. The idea here is to be able to enter into well-being consciously and with purpose. You are going to start building the muscle for your integration of sensuous and awareness practice with an eye on the whole – the marathon.
The Sweet Spot
That ‘whole’ is the sweet spot you find at the center of the continuum we have been discussing. You’ve got sensual practice on one side (participating in the world outside your body) and you’ve got awareness practice on the other (participating in the world inside your body).
As you move toward the center of this line, you find there’s a sweet spot where sensual and awareness practice become one. And the more practiced you get, the wider that sweet spot becomes. If you ever played tennis you know there is a circle at the center of the racket where one can feel a lovely resonance. That spot is where it all comes together. There’s harmony here and it reverberates through your whole body. This harmony enables flow. You’re giving, you’re receiving; you’re receiving, you’re giving. There is balance.
This ‘spot’ is where we are headed dear hearts, but we need to practice.
This is not going to happen overnight. Once you find that sweet spot, you start to sense what it feels like. It feels like an opening, there’s a space like something’s opening up. There is also a sense of revealing because this process is showing you who you are (awareness practice). And the practice is allowing others to reveal themselves to you (sensual practice).
The experience is also reviving and empowering.
In Buddhism it’s called refuge. When you are in awareness practice at your seat on the floor or in your chair, when you take that 10 minutes a day, this is where you take refuge. This is where you renew your promise to the sacred, to the divine, to these higher connections to yourself.
Because you are sacred and you are divine.
And don’t let anybody tell you anything different. If that is actually the case – examine this! Pay attention to these tapes, these voices and these habits of mind.
This place for revealing yourself to yourself is profoundly empowering. And it takes practice.
So how are you going to do this? You know yourself better than anyone knows yourself. I was in class the other day and one of my students asked me, “Why do we need to pick the same place to practice?” Such a good question! It is on account of our limbic system – the reptilian nature of our being as found at the base of your brain. When you work up a routine and when you come back to the same place – this builds a primordial sense of trust. There’s an unconscious signalling going to the baser elements of your being that tells you – this is a safe place. This is why animals return to their den.
This is your den. This is your refuge. This is your nest. Your refuge and your nest are where you engage in awareness practice.
And awareness practice is going to work differently for each person in different ways, with different words, and with different significance. Your nest could be the left side of your couch, not the right. It may be the right side – not the left. It could be a chair in the corner of your room. It
could be a corner where you have a cushion.
It could be on the floor at the bottom of your bed. But whatever it is, make that place your source for awareness and the place where you return again and again and again for your awareness practice. When you sit in your nest, every cell, every fiber of your body knows what to do. You may not know what to do because you are so scattered and stressed. But you go to that place and you sit and your body knows the routine. Our body is working unconsciously to tell you and your whole being that You. Can. Settle Down.
You may not even be aware of this settling down until you engage in awareness practice over a period of time. It may take three months before this communication starts happening inside your body. You’re actually building new neural pathways in your brain.
So get your tools in order. I take a cup of coffee when I wake up in the morning to go to my nest. I have a cup of coffee with me.
In the morning I will make my coffee first, brush my teeth, then take my cup with me to sit. Because in my mind it works for me to have a ‘conversation’. I’m having a cup of coffee with myself and I do myself the favor of giving myself enough quiet time to ‘hear myself think’. This goes a long way to help me deal with stress, distress and suffering with care, compassion and kindness. I have found a means of support. And I make this a pleasant encounter – something I can enjoy with all my senses.
I use botanical oils. I also use incense. I use a candle. I have a saucer of water. I have a purple cushion. Whole cultures have developed a range of means for your support. Find your tools. But whatever tools they are, make them certain. Make them available and reliable. Make them part of your routine. It could be something very, very small. You might bring in a momento or a photo to put where you practice.
Another one of my students asked me, can I do this in the bathtub? This is sensual practice. If the only place you’re capable of sitting with your own suffering, with your own stress and distress, is in a bathtub? Then do that.
But tell me. What does this say about your approach to your life and to others? Are you so enmeshed in the phenomena of your day that you cannot turn towards yourself – be a friend to yourself – for three minutes, five minutes, or ten? Can we just have a look at that?
Perhaps it is a matter of respect. Unless you respect that triangle of stress, distress and suffering in your own life and approach this with kindness, compassion and care, you certainly cannot be with the stress, suffering and distress of others. Nor of the planet. You are turning your back on yourself. On the planet. And on your community.
We as a human species must be able to be aware of distress within ourselves, of the distress of the planet, and of the stress and suffering we are encountering amongst ourselves, in our environment, amidst our families, with our colleagues and in our communities. Our planet is in deep distress. Can we take our awareness practice to that? With care, compassion and kindness?
Preparation for practice is bringing courage and respect to the prospect of being able aware of ourselves, being aware of the suffering we carry in ourselves and of the suffering we extend to others.
Perhaps you have a place on your couch and you’ve got a little cloth coaster that helps you feel good. And so you put that coaster on the arm of your couch and you have your mug or your tea cup that reminds you of your mother (in a good way!). You have created a space of significance. This space has meaning for you. This is your nest.
So take your ‘muggy mug’ that I talked about in the previous blog on overwhelm. And perhaps you can simply sit here for a minute, for three minutes. Don’t go turn on the TV, don’t go to your phone, simply sit there. Perhaps you can feel yourself turning away from all that external stimulation as you begin to turn inward. Start with one hundred and eighty seconds.
If you can do that, you’ve got a start.