As the holidays draw closer, so too for many, does stress, anxiety and depression. The challenge of these conditions at this time of year grow more difficult as pressure, from within and without, to "enjoy the holiday" increases. Trying to ignore what is happening or distract oneself from it are often the most common methods of managing. And, while these methods might provide a temporary respite, these same methods also increase the power and reach of these conditions.
As practitioners of the way, we have the benefit of learning from the the Buddha, who through his own struggle with the sufferings of life, found a way to understand and in some cases even transcend suffering. In the face of such difficult experiences such as stress, anxiety and depression, what might the Buddha do?
The first thing the practice urges us to do is to listen. Listen intently to the call of the heart. When we feel lost or when facing an unknown possibility, our tendency is to run or to hide. This is our instinctual biology in action, and in situations where our body is in immediate danger, this instinctual reaction is necessary. But in the face of difficult emotional and mental challenges, such instinctual reactions only increase our pain and loneliness. The pain and loneliness, when continued to be responded to with continued instinctive reactivity, will increase and soon we become locked in fear and panic. Instead of following this instinctive patterning, we might be better off stopping for a time--stop the distractions, stop the hiding, stop the running away. We stop and listen to what we are experiencing.
Stopping and listening is difficult, as we are resisting what the cells and neuro-pathways are conditioned to do. When we experience stress, anxiety and depression, we are receiving a call. It is a call from the wisest part of us. It is our wise self telling us that something is not right and it is time to stop and take stock of our situation. And while at this moment when we feel we have no recourse, the truth is that we are the moment of great possibilities. The Buddha when faced with hopelessness began the search for answers, and while he sought great teachers of the time, all the work he did was interior work. That is, he was learning how to listen to his wise self.
This practice in the face of difficult feelings is challenging and often frightening, but we can do it. We can stop and listen to the call of the heart. We can cease the running and distractions and really hear our pained self so we can learn what it has to say. The Buddha, as a result of his practice of listening, faced these difficulties, and learned all about them. The result of his stopping and listening was an understanding of what he needed followed by what actions were necessary. We can do the same with stress, anxiety and depression.
Depression in particular is an experience that circles thoughts and belief about hopelessness and worthlessness, which can make finding clarity very difficult. And yet, depression is really asking us to come in close and look deeply at our situation and our life as it is. When we do, while acknowledging the many contradictory thoughts and associated emotions, move in close and look deeply, we find ourselves at an important crossroads. It is at this crossroads where we have a profound choice. We can choose to let the instinctive reaction take over and run, hide or distract ourselves from our pain, which will assure that the pain returns redoubled, or we can, with compassion, look and listen to our experience just as it is. Through the eye of compassion we can come to understand what is taking place within our body-mind and examine, without running, hiding, or listening to the pre-recorded thought messages that we have given over to in times past.
Once we have stopped, listened and examined our experience, we can make decisions about what our wise self is asking of us. Is it asking for time to reassess the trajectory of our life? Is it asking for more self-care and patience working through our short-comings? Is a difficult, but necessary change of life situation being asked for? Or as a result of our intimacy with these difficult emotions, does it direct us to seeking the help of a mentor, therapist or even a medical doctor? And when we come to an understanding, because we are compassionate with ourselves, we can also reach our for help when we feel the challenge of our emotions and our situation too burdensome to handle alone. In a situation where we feel week, and defeated, we are able to take a courageous step in reaching out.
Toward the end of the Buddha's great search for answers, when he was at his weakest, he reached out to the young girl, Sujata, who offered him a nourishing rice porridge. That ability to reach out, despite having lost nearly all hope, was the action of someone who had heard from his wiser self that it was time for help. When we are beckoned by the call of stress, anxiety or depression, we all have our own Sujata's offering us what we need to nourish our wiser self and continue on a path toward wellness. If the holidays bring with them added emotional challenges, stop, listen, acknowledge and reach out to all the Sujata's that appear before you.
Ven. Myohye Do'an
A blog by the Lotus Heart Zen Meditation and Study Group members