6 Spiritual Steps to Manage Stress & Suffering
It is easy to feel that stress and suffering are unavoidable or that somehow you are doomed to face them again and again. This helpless feeling stems from the mistaken assumption that our emotions need to drive our decisions and our lives. The strong emotions that create suffering are rooted in either hurts of the past or unfulfilled expectations of the present.
A spouse, friend, or boss that talks to you the way a parent did while in a cruel or impatient mood will trigger the same old feelings, as if you were a child encountering the hurt again. If you have an expectation that people should always be polite or that airplanes should always be on time or that traffic should not be heavy when you are late, then you will consistently encounter the stress of that disappointment.
A spiritual perspective says that emotions like anger, anxiety, and sadness are normal and need to be felt, but when it comes to making decisions and taking action, we need to look deeper. It is possible to be less driven by old hurts and release the tight grip on unrealistic expectations. Learning about the power of perception and the mind-body connection can turn everything around. Here are six timeless techniques for managing or ending stress and suffering.
1. Breathe. When stress rises, the body moves in to a reaction mode: the body tightens, the mind races, and it is hard to gain a better perspective. Try taking some deep breaths. Breathe in through the nose, and instead of puffing your chest out, try imagining that you are sending the breath into your belly - push your stomach muscles out. Then, notice where you are tense or tight, and imagine you are breathing it all out your mouth, slowly and easily. When you are in a difficult moment, take at least 2 full minutes to be with your breath.
2. Stick to the Facts. One way we create our experience of stress and suffering is through emotional ideas like worry and regret. Instead of keeping our attention in the present moment and focusing on the limited truth we know for certain, too often we spend our energy on worrying about things that haven't happened, or we dwell on the past we regret. Remember, 'sticking to the facts' doesn't include judgments like 'she's wrong' or 'he's a fool' or 'what if I lose my job?' Those are emotional ideas, not facts. A fact sounds like this 'all I know is that he is late, but I don't know why.' An emotional idea sounds like 'he is late because he is selfish and doesn't care. I must be a pushover.' A fact sounds like this 'lots of people are losing their jobs these days, and some fall on hard times, and some find new work.' An emotional idea sounds like this 'I am so worried every day I go into work. What if I lose my job and then cannot pay my bills and car payment - I cannot concentrate.' Learn to limit those thoughts, and stick to the facts.
3. Forgive. The cornerstone of most spiritual philosophies lies in learning to forgive. Forgiveness does not mean that you pretend you are not hurt by someone or something, nor does it mean you condone a cruel or harmful act. Forgiveness does mean that you are committed to letting go of the energy, stories, and actions you have become caught up in. Forgiveness means that you are committed to letting go and moving on. It doesn't start with a feeling; it starts with a decision. Start by changing the way you act and think, and then, eventually, the feelings will follow.
For example, if you have been hurt by a coworker or a romantic partner, you can invest a lot of time in complaining to friends, gossiping, and reviewing the offense in your head. Or you can say that being hurt once is enough, see that each time you replay it you are only hurting yourself again, and learn to change the topic.
Each time we encounter stress or hurt there is a small chance to practice forgiveness. The quicker we forgive a situation and accept it for what it is, the quicker we end our suffering and move on to better things.
4. Learn from Everything. Another common spiritual perspective that transforms hard times is to look for the lesson in each situation life presents. Even the most unpleasant and unexpected situations can offer you a great chance to learn what to do better next time or what to avoid or heal in your life. This is about the power of optimism and the ability to take a disappointment and turn it into something that makes you a better person.
Failed relationships can teach you things like the importance of having clear boundaries, the importance of good communication, the importance of trust, or how to let go of self-doubt. A loss of work can open a door to find new opportunities, refine your focus on what gives you joy, or show you where you have things to improve.
People who learn from each situation are always bettering themselves and bettering their chances at not running into a wall again. They understand that you will always be happier and less stressed if you learn to define your situations, instead of letting your situations define you.
5. Set Inner Intentions. One of the biggest hooks that catches most people in life is attachment to outer goals and desires. Spiritual traditions have long been warning people about how dangerous it is to place all your hopes and intentions on wealth, sex, beauty, a dream house, and clothing. These things come and go and are based on things we cannot always control. Even the most wealthy find that possessions can be taken away at a moment's notice, and the desires of life often go unfulfilled.
An inner intention is a goal that is based on the type of person you want to be. It is about growing your character. It is about being more balanced and mature. The desires to be peaceful, loving, kind, or patient are all examples of inner intentions. If my goal is to love myself or be kind, then, no matter what happens, I can practice working toward that goal. In contrast, if my goal is never to be alone, I might fall apart every time a relationship ends. Inner intentions are goals we can take responsibility for and influence through choice. Outer intentions are like traps waiting to go off in our lives. Learn to let go of expectations about things that are beyond your control! Commit to one inner intention for the week. Try being grateful, non-judgmental, or kind.
6. Commit to a Spiritual Practice. A spiritual practice is a regular time out from life to do something that helps you to feel at peace, learn about yourself, and connect to a sense of what is important. It is a time apart from stress and helps put pain and loss in perspective. It could be taking a daily walk in nature (without cell phone), meditation before work, prayer before bed, yoga, Tai Chi, bible study, volunteering at the hospital, or working in a garden. The key is to make it regular, intentional, and a non-competitive, non-work related activity. It should last long enough that you get a real break from the rush and demands of life.
My book, Return to the Sacred: Ancient Pathways to Spiritual Awakening, offers examples and descriptions about what it is like to experience some of the world's most time tested practices. My audio program, Your Spiritual Personality, walks you through how to pick a practice and describes, step by step, how 12 universal practices can be used in your own life day to day.