While we are coming up with all manner of modern methods for dealing with stress, none of them are that new. They are almost all re-workings of ancient techniques because the problem was the same then as it is now.
Are you ready for another age-old paradox ?
Our greatest ally, our most intimate of friends, our most treasured resource, and our very identity itself, is also our worst enemy…
So, because the problem has been the same for as long as we’ve been writing things down, the techniques are the same, and even older.
Keeping ourselves elevated
If we look at the pure data from neurological research we see striking correlations between the practices our ancestors prescribe and what we now know to be healthy brain activity.
We want to be elevating serotonin (well-being), oxytocin (connection), and dopamine (satisfaction) - the archetypal ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters.
And lowering cortisol (alertness), adrenaline (action) and testosterone (fear) - arch enemies of the feel-good pathways…
This is the common aim of all the following practices. They are ancient, relevant, and important things to weave into your life.
I guess on Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" they come under food, water, and shelter, but if one good thing can be said of our culture, it is that we are endowed with masses of those.
Fear of their future acquisition is a great way that the mind hijacks those practices.
And conversely, these practices are a fantastic means of debunking that ‘futuring' stress.
Building the brain that generates consciousness
Most stimulants increase brain activity. Whether your vice is cocaine or coffee, chilli or tobacco, you will find any relief from the mind very difficult with these running the show. But the same can be said of most refined foods - too much sugar, starch, meat, salt, etc. will stimulate the body via the immune response, nerve stimulation, and neurotransmitter disruption.
Replacing these foods with kinder, more natural versions, such as fruit, leaves, and decent oils, etc., leads to a healthier nervous system, less inflammation, and potential calm. Over 90% of the serotonin we use is made by gut flora, and these foods happen to work there too.
Action : Obviously our detox retreats are the best way to get to know food
Applying awareness to the physical
While anything is better than simply letting the mind caused trouble for us. Carefully putting the body into specific postures means that we are applying our attention to something fundamentally worthwhile. Getting it to stretch, flex, hold and breathe, we do good for the body as well as focusing the attention.
Exercising these muscles (both physical and mental) trains us into understanding that we are in control of our abilities, while increasing physical strength and flexibility, mental focus, stress resistance, and a sense of well being. You could chose a martial art as an alternative, as long as it is a mindful one.
Action : Book yourself a few Yoga classes until you find a teacher and style to suit you
Sitting still, doing nothing
The Chinese ideograms that make up this word also infer that this 'not-doing' is more than just doing nothing if it is done with awareness.
Without the constant stimulus of the outside world, we quickly come to understand that we are not our internal chatter, and become aware of the presence of something that is watching this monologue: something closer to that which we truly are. So whether this endless narrative fades away, stops altogether, or continues forever, we have a chance to no longer identify with it in quite the same way. It is no longer in the driving seat. So, the question quickly becomes ‘who is’ ?
Action : Head for the simplest approach (avoid cults !) - Vipassana is 10 days of pure awareness practice by donation.
20 mins in nature = 1 hour in meditation
We all know this feeling of our shoulders dropping and our breathing calming from simply walking through the woods, the view from a mountain peak, or the waves upon the shore.
Science might say it is just the negative ions generated in such situations, while other sources point to the quietude, or being away from the disruptive electromagnetic frequencies of modern devices. But we have known about the healing capacity of nature for millennia, so while the the exact mechanisms elude us, the method is sound.
Action : Take a walk in the woods and sit and listen to the birds, rather than the mind
The ‘bridge’ between consciousness and physicality
Whether we ‘study’ through a profoundly ancient system like Chi-Gong or Pranayama, or whether we simply catch ourselves and deliberately breath deeper many times a day, it always generates a greater sense of ease, relaxation, stillness and calm.
The nervous system is directly wired to the diaphragm, and so breathing is often spoken about as the ‘bridge’ between mind and body as we can institute direct control over it, and it has an almost immediate effect upon our physical/mental state. Controlling our rate and depth of breath is the fastest way to change a sympathetic nervous response into a parasympathetic one.
Action : Find a chi-Gong class or explore Pranayama with a decent yoga teacher
Sport and Exercise
The socially acceptable drug addiction
The sense of presence and physicality that something as innocent as sport can produce has tremendous stress-busting effects. The thinking mind could never operate the body at such high speeds and blinding precision.
These actions are indicative of a much more integrated and less troubled existence. As we empower this deeper consciousness, the supposedly higher state of mind is forced offline, bringing the required ease and presence that keep sport a useful means of beating stress. Of course it is also fantastic fitness practice (except golf I guess), and elicits endless waves of feel-good endorphins - watch out, they are pretty addictive.
Action : Martial arts that combine physical prowess and mindfulness
Play and Creativity
Children laugh 170 times a day, but adults on 30 ;-(
Children are our best guides in so many stress-management techniques. We can only emulate their present, immediate, and uninhibited nature, but emulating it is proving to be a great start. Spending time rolling about on the floor (with or without children) just being silly has numerous merits for the body and mind - check out 'sacred clowning'.
Pointless creativity, focused on the therapeutic benefits rather than any beautiful result is now widely known and used. Children spend a lot more time laughing, and it has found its way into laughter workshops as well an upcoming identifier for the likelihood of cancer survival.
Action : Check out Sacred Clowning workshops, or get the crayons out
Music & Voice
The hippies were right about this one !
Whether we have the confidence to do it in public or not, we all love to sing. It has a remarkable effect on neurology, lighting up both sides of the brain - in fact, when opening the cranium, a mortician can tell immediately if the deceased played a musical instrument because of visible changes in brain anatomy.
Alongside that, even in our song-inhibited culture, singing together remains one of the most communalising of events - because the shared sound seems to entrain brainwave patterns within the individual and the group - truly harmonising on many levels. Notice how this practice includes breath control, deliberate attention, and connecting to the real-time world outside.
Action : Find yourself a choir, chanting group, or a guitar
Community & Family
A simple sense of belonging !
We are instinctively communal creatures. All this individuation we are witnessing in the last generations is very new. And evolution has has neither cerebrally prepared us for it, or emotionally predisposed us to it. We long for connection, and the further we get from each other the more twisted those longings become.
Picture lonely teenagers sending each other smiling selfies instead of actually meeting up. We light up in each other’s presence, and the more intimate, long-lived and authentic those connections, the more meaningful and reliable. Our history, across the planet, is one of community, family, village life. It take a village to raise a child, and also to hold an adult.
Action : A set of solid friends that support your onward growth are gems
Love & Sex
Honoured by mystic schools, suppressed by religions
Intimate connection, sensuous contact, and adoring expression are all massive enhancers of trust, relaxation, openness and compassion. Even if this love is diverted onto a pet, the neurological and experiential benefits are there - thus pet therapy - but when it can be fully reciprocated through another human, the merits mount.
Sex is in many ways the pinnacle of this principle, and the trust, intimacy and investment that it takes to reach orgasm in the presence of another is one of the highest states of consciousness, bliss and neurotransmitter fireworks that we can reach without using external substances. The sense of connection is obvious.
Action : Start reading into Taoist sexual practices, Tantra, or Deepak Chopra
What better way to start the day ?
As a stand alone practice, this does not require an external focus. It is simply a sense of fullness and contentment. A sense of being gifted. Starting with one’s life. One’s very existence. Moving to encompass our state of health, the fortune of our safety, our relative wealth, our cultural privilege. Our family, friends. Our very breath, and life itself...
It is simply generating a sense of thankfulness. And again, the neurotransmitter rewards evidence great changes in consciousness - if we can reach and sustain any sense of authenticity with this practice. Simply saying the words is a good place to start, but really meaning it - that is where the key to this practice lies. See previous post...
Action : Take a walk in the woods and sit and listen to the birds, rather than the mind
Faith & Prayer
Statistically faith adds years to one’s longevity !
Ever carried the world on your shoulders ? Had your heart sunk at the state of the planet ? How you gonna pay the mortgage next year ? Wouldn’t it be nice to give that responsibility away to something bigger ? Much bigger… We don’t have to be talking about the guy on the cloud with the big white beard here. Just a sense of not being alone. That the buck doesn’t stop with you. That you don’t have to control the whole universe.
Most of our culture today would call themselves Atheist (there is no god), yet would actually mean Agnostic (believing in an unpersonified creative presence). Question this deeply in yourself and you’ll find a helpful resting place. A knowing that you are actually wrapped in the arms of a benevolent, mysterious, miraculous universe. And then, being able to say “please help me” or "thank you” becomes a useful practice.
Action : Ask yourself regularly what started all this, & what created what
Being Active in it
All of these practices and situations are being lost in our society as profiteering becomes ever more prioritised. But although the society is made up of individuals, the individuals are not made up of the society.
The loss of these activities points to all the ills of modern life - the brain degeneration, the social decay, the loss of ethical standing, the bickering and backbiting inherent in modern, ‘dog-eat-dog’ city life. The staggering lack of empathy that makes corporate business possible would not survive in a world where everyone knew and cared about each other - and that is village life.
The health of the individual is mirrored in the health of the community. And this in turn is mirrored in functional brain health of those individuals.
Thus the cultures that survived for millennia were those whose practices and cultural norms were chosen, and designed (or simply evolved) for the benefit of the village, the individual, and their brains !
Lose the personal connection between individuals, and we lose the sense of family amongst them - fertile soil for all manner of atrocities.
Getting it Going
Getting a regular rhythm with any practice is the key to deepening with it. Especially important (and difficult) on days when we don’t feel like it. But doing it at these times shows us the ‘monkey’ nature of the mind. They will bring you the peace and ease you are looking for. The sense of connection. The faith that we have everything we need in the present moment. And that all that you can control is your own mind.
What a relief ! You don’t have to control anyone else anymore !!!
Act from that accompanying sense of gratitude
Conduct yourself authentically in the world with compassion.
Take care of your soft, tender heart, and let the world take care of itself.