Coping with Stress - a fourfold Buddhist Perspective

Stress, Stress, Stress

Constant stress has become an important factor in our lives today, and so it is very important that we learn how to cope with it. A recent study shows that nearly six out of ten Germans perceive their lives as stressful, and one out of five feel that they are continuously under pressure.

Since we are probably all very busy, I first have to thank you for taking the time to read this at all! 

Stress, Stress, Stress - Buddhist Mindfulness as a remedy for stress

Do the Buddhist teachings help against stress?

You may wonder how a Buddhist perspective could be helpful here. After all, the Buddha lived more than 2500 years ago in India. Is it possible that his teachings have something meaningful to offer for our modern urban life-style?

A lot of medicinal studies about the effects of Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) actually suggest they have. MBSR is a method to cope with stress that draws from various Buddhist techniques, and is steadily gaining popularity.

The Buddhist approach

Being a Buddhist who suffers from stress, we can of course apply the Buddhist-derived MBSR methods. Still, since we are already on the Buddhist path, our aim is presumealy not only to eradicate stress. We can apply the methods as an integral part of our daily practice in Buddhism.

The Buddha compared himself to a physician. Accordingly, he compared the need to understand the sufferings of sentient beings to the diagnosis. His teachings, the methods that eradicate suffering, were described like a cure. Nirvana, the cessation of suffering that one strives to attain, finally resembles the goal of the treatment. 

The whole Buddhist path is focused on overcoming suffering in its various manifestations. Stress is of course one of them. If we use the various techniques for coping with stress, but do so in the framework of a Buddhist path to liberation, we will probably follow the fourfold approach laid out by the Buddha:

  1. Know the problem
  2. Identify the cause
  3. Use appropriate methods
  4. Define the goal of the treatment

1. Know the problem

From a purely physical perspective, stress can cause a lot of problems. While it may temporarily allow us to function better in a case of emergency, constant stress has a very negative influence on our body.

If we develop a habit of being under stress all the time, it means that we are in a constant “fight or flight-modus”, and our body  is exposed to stress hormones all the time. 

It will be more and more difficult for us to relax and we might get stomach problems, headaches, or have trouble sleeping. On the long run, stress can also really make us sick.

If we look at the mind, the effects of stress are directly perceptible: it makes us feel bad right here and now. As a Buddhist, it might be difficult for us to acknowledge that we feel stressed. We might think that we are a failure. After all, aren’t Buddhists meant to always feel happy and relaxed.

It is very important to clearly look at one’s own situation. If one is stressed, it is like this. There is no point in trying to upkeep one’s masquerade of a happy, relaxed Buddhist. The same holds of course true for our basic ignorance and negative emotions like anger, desire, pride, jealousy and delusion. Pretense will not help us in our development.

The Buddhist path is not about making others believe that we are good practitioners. It is about actual transformation, i.e. improving our state. The only witness of the process that really matters is oneself. 

2. Identify the cause

In fact, if we don’t pay attention, our Buddhist practice might easily become another cause for stress. The present time we live in is a time of constant overexpectation: We need to be super-man at work, an ideal mother or father for our family, a perfect lover for our partner, and of course also a second Buddha on the cushion.

We already have this strong habit to prove ourselves in society. If we approach our Buddhist practice with the same ambition, we can only fail. We will always try to prove ourselves, but our practice will not develop properly, and instead we will become more and more exhausted.

When we start practicing, we are tempted to really make an effort. I did at least. We may try to sit for hours right from the start. If we force ourselves beyond our limits, we will become exhausted and may feel uncomfortable about our practice or even see it as a burden.

Instead, doing a little bit with joy every day will make our practice grow stronger. If we stop our practice with a good feeling and would have liked to continue a little bit, it is very likely that we will sit again the next day. Our practice will remain fresh and joyful.

From the Buddhist perspective, the main cause for the different types of suffering that exist are of course self-clinging. The three poisons, that is aversion, attachment and ignorance, as well as their various offsprings like stress and so on, develop on this basis.

We also may encounter different manifestations of stress such as worrying about our job, finances, family, or keeping track of the many things we believe that we cannot do without.

Still, all of these are all based on the main cause of self-clinging, of attributing some sense of a solid reality to things and ourselves. 

Imagine that you are about to miss an important deadline in your dream. You will be very stressed out while dreaming. You are  trapped in your little dream world. If you wake up and realize that it was just a dream, you will be able to relax again.  

Is it possible to get rid of stress?

Our life is not so much different from dream. Of course, we all have to try our best to keep our deadlines at work, but it is up to us how we deal with a situation. We all react differently if things don’t work the way we want them to.

As the great Indian Buddhist master Shantideva said: 

“Why should one feel unhappy about something if you can change it? And if you can’t, how could being unhappy be of any help?”

There are some people who are always relaxed, no matter how difficult the situation is. Others however freak out when the slightest inconvenience occurs. An example: here in Vienna, the public transportation system is fabulous and subways run every 3-4 minutes. Still, some people react strongly when they miss their train, while others don't seem to care at all, peacefully waiting for the next one.
stress and mindfulness - the picture shows a busy subway-station

That two individuals can approach the very same situation differently indicates that we might be able to see things in a more relaxed fashion than we are doing now. We can learn to relax and not to be stressed all the time.

In my next post, I will discuss the last two points of the fourfold Buddhist approach and take a closer look at the techniques for coping with stress.

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