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Dealing with Stress, Part 3


We’ve been looking at a ladder or pathway out of stress, leading from the depths of anxiety all the way up to total freedom from it.

But how easy it is to talk about it! When one is locked in the pit of anxiety and distress, rational conversations about it are of little use. We have cultural platitudes like ‘Worry doesn’t get you anywhere’ and such: how watery and weak they appear, even when our reason tells us that they are true, when we are caught in the swirling tornado of grief or pain. When we are so deeply fraught that we are sobbing, when wherever we turn is a blurred reminder of loss or apprehension, when it seems as though our whole worlds are ending, how flippant and infuriating can it be for someone to suggest that there is a solution!

Part of the problem of stress is that our culture clamps us to it. We have been led to believe that we must experience the full horror of it in order to drain its ferocity, that we must endure it without much hope of it ending but perhaps in the hope that it will be exhausted for a time. Experience suggests that we are the ones who get exhausted and that plunging into the heart of the horror weakens us rather than it.

But what can we do if we are ensnared in the vortex of stress? The first and simplest thing that we can do — and it is usually possible to do this — is observe that we are so ensnared. In the depths of desperate howling and unbearable grief, we can at least recognise that we are in such depths — not at first with any hope of escape, mind: that is not realistic. But simply to acknowledge what is occurring, that is enough as a first step.

In the first stage of Immersion, all seems in motion: there is no peace, no stillness, nothing upon which we can rely; all seems unsteady, in flux, dissolving. We find ourselves surrounded by familiar objects, people, places, but they are foreign to us, useless. It is as though we have been teleported to another world, resembling Earth, but strange and distant, hollow and a little sinister. Nothing is of any help; disorder reigns. Thought is crippled: it’s barely possible to string one coherent word after another. And all the while the storm sings ‘I am All; feed me!’, commanding that we obey it and acknowledge its domination of us.

We don’t want to suffer, but we are going to suffer; we don’t want to lose something or someone, but it seems inevitable. Whatever our stress is caused by — a loss or fear of loss or imminent pain and so forth — it has at its heart an unknown. And we clutch that unknown to ourselves in an attempt to know it. The idea that we can solve the mystery, fill the gap, ferret out the missing thing, reduce the empty ache, lies at the core of our thinking. We hold onto the unknown with such force, even while it is killing us. To say ‘Let it go’ to a person experiencing this is to court insult and abuse — of course they are not going to let it go, they need to resolve it, and they think they can resolve it by gripping it tightly and holding it close.

The paradox is that the resolution of stress lies outside the stress zone, not at its heart. We’ve been tricked, fundamentally.

But our first forward step is not to do too much, all at once. We simply have to look around us and see what is happening: things are in random motion, nothing is steady. Acknowledge that. Do not expect immediate relief from the anguish, just recognise that the anguish is present.

Recognise that you are holding something close, going through something.

If you can do so with any clarity, it will almost immediately become apparent that there are two things present: you, and whatever the experience is. It might be wrapped around you so tightly that it feels like you, but continued observation will lend itself to the conclusion that you and it are separate things, however indistinctly.

That conclusion shifts you from Immersion to the next level of Fixed Orbit.

There’s no more to be done at this particular point — you are in an exhausted state, your reasoning powers depleted, your perception of reality distorted by stress. Simple recognition that the stress is something that is happening to someone — you — is about as far as you can get at first.

You can help this along by going for walks, by getting outside, by looking at things near and far, by trying to put what you are experiencing in some kind of objective context. But don’t expect too much. Once you have isolated the fact that there’s a You and an It, take a rest. Sleep if you can. There’s still a long way to go.

When you wake up, we’ll tackle the next step.

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