Resources for difficult times

November 14, 2011

Presently we are living in a time of more stress than ever. The world economic forecast is for a “lost decade” of further recession, increased unemployment, and inflation. And we are mired in a war without a clear end, with unprecedented national debt and medical care more expensive than ever. In America, the rates of mental illness are skyrocketing, especially amongst children. Obesity and diabetes among our children is reaching epidemic proportions.

In these bleak times, we need better skills for addressing stress than we ever needed previously. Stress can cause a strong tendency to numb out by watching TV,  playing with gadgets such as cell phones and video games, and other distractions like drinking alcohol or indulging compulsive behaviors. And our numbing further exacerbates the suffering.

The time is now for decisive action, for rousing the willpower to face and feel the discomfort of the suffering of our lives, right now.

What follows is my current prescription for genuine well-being in the current times.

Challenges we face include many varieties of the appearance of scarcity in our lives. We may not have as much money as we’d like. Or maybe our car or home is too old. Or our spouse is looking a little weathered after all these years.  Stress creates the perspective of scarcity. When we are not stressed, we interpret our lives differently: our child’s plea for help with homework suddenly seems more like a rich opportunity for connection and nurturing, as opposed to yet another box to check before being able to return to our numbing out protocols. Relaxation facilitates the experience of gratitude for what abundance we do have: we see the world differently.

Resources in our lives escape our attention when we are stressed: we don’t see the abundance we have right in front of us.

Abundance is something we could explore more fully at this time. Usually we think of external resources and external appearances of abundance. These images tend to be fixed and are usually based on stuff we don’t have right now, further reinforcing the perspective of scarcity.

What if abundance were not a thing but a mental state, simply achievable through committed practice? Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, illustrated this point well in his book Man’s Search for Meaning by describing his experience as a concentration camp prisoner this way: “I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss.” The meditation instruction of the Buddha is still apt today, as a tool for dismantling the suffering we impose upon ourselves, largely due to our constant stream of judgments we impose on reality as-it-is.

This committed practice is paying attention to the breath while not interfering with it. Simple, accessible, elegant. While this practice is foundational and essential for many of us addressing stress, it is not enough for most of us to feel well most of the time. There are many, many other resources that will make our paths easier to walk, such as, getting outside with plenty of exercise, sound sleep, nutritious food and clean water, fulfilling intimate relationships, and meaningful work, to name a few.

The powerful health effect of a tight supportive community cannot be overestimated. Viktor Frankl, whose wife and parents died in concentration camps discovered this:  “I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” This discovery was made while he and other prisoners were being forced by guards to run in a herd down an icy road at Auschwitz. As one man stumbled another would catch his elbow as they held each other up and imagined the faces of their wives.

My recommendations: First, make the time to be with yourself. Practice your resources to get to know what it feels like to be in a state of abundance, as well as your own unique ways of feeling stressed. Commit to your well-being with all the willpower you can muster. Then, be with the people (or pets) you love and give them your best presence you can offer. Laugh, play, be silly. Smiles and hugs are free healing. Try to catch yourself numbing out, and choose to investigate what feeling is hidden under the impulse to distract. Find ways to contribute to your community and reach out to people you trust when you need support.