For many of us stress is the central fact of our lives much of the time. We know that too much stress can “age” us and make us sick. When we feel pressure we start spending energy through anxiety, guilt, shame, rejection or just plain old fear. Each incident is a little death.
Is any of this necessary?
What’s really happening when we “feel pressure” to do or not do something, or to be or not be somebody? What’s happening is that somebody—directly or indirectly—is trying to create this pressure on us. And this pressure doesn’t need to happen in real time. Perhaps it was a parent long ago scolding, blaming or otherwise trying to lay their own stuff on you. Or it was your boss. Or a “friend.”
And that’s what’s—always—going on. The pressure we feel is always the product of someone else’s beliefs about themselves and the world that at some moment were directed at you.
In short, it’s not about you. It’s never about you. It’s always about them. It only seems to be about you to the extent that you accept their judgments about you. The key word here is “seems.” The pressure you feel from others has nothing to do with you.
Perhaps the best description of this whole process was given by Don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements. He says, when we are learning how to interact with the world,
We form an image of what perfection is in order to try to be good enough. We create an image of how we should be in order to be accepted by everybody. We especially try to please the ones who love us, like Mom and Dad, big brothers and sisters, the priests and the teacher. [Also, I might add, our spouse and children.] Trying to be good enough for them, we create an image of perfection, but we don’t fit this image. We create this image, but this image is not real. We are never going to be perfect from this point of view. Never! … Not being perfect, we reject ourselves. … We cannot forgive ourselves for not being perfect.
If you’d like to read more, grab a copy of his book. But right now I’m concerned about reducing the stress that our striving for perfection creates. It’s one thing to understand where the pressure that produced the stress came from—which is an important first step. But It’s another important matter to do something about it right now, in every moment. Fortunately, there’s an easy technique we can all use to stop the pressure and the stress it produces.
Be a witness.
That’s right. Be a witness to yourself. This means we are to witness what happens to us in the world, and also inside ourselves, as an observer only, not as a participant.
It means we’re not to get hooked by someone else’s negative words or actions. It means we’re to stand aside as if viewing a situation through a movie camera. Better, imagine you are sitting in a seat in a movie theater watching yourself on the screen. Just watch.
Instead of taking something personally, our reaction is to be merely, “Oh, that’s interesting.” By standing aside we can watch the remark or situation sail harmlessly by into oblivion. We are the matador who holds his red cape well to the side and watches the bull rush past on his own business.
Remember what we sometimes said as children? “I’m like rubber, you’re like glue. It bounces off me and sticks to you.”
This applies equally to past situations of some hurtful experience that we replay in our minds over and over. The next time you do this, be an observer, only a witness, and don’t get hooked. Just think, “Oh, that’s interesting. But it wasn’t about me to begin with, so I can just let it go.”
Think it won’t work? Try it a few times and see for yourself. It’s an easy technique and it’s very effective. The hardest part is remembering to do it. We get drawn into each moment so easily. We lose all objectivity and get sucked into whatever is happening around or within us—good or bad. We forget to just be an observer.
But to master this skill just takes practice. Be aware of yourself in every moment. Name how you are feeling. How is your body positioned? What muscles are tense? Which are relaxed? What are you thinking? The key insight as you do this is that if you can observe your body, your emotions and your thoughts, then you are none of these things! You are something else, something deeper and much more grand. So if someone pressures you into a state of stress with a negative word or deed, your practice has enabled you to see the different parts of yourself just as an impartial witness experiences an event. Be a moviegoer watching a dull and boring movie.
As an aid to remembering yourself in each moment, tie a string around your finger or devise another way to wake up and be aware of yourself.
And now, the formerly stressful event is one you can objectively deal with. You’re free to think:
“Doesn’t apply to me. I’m not going to react because I’ve got better things to do.”
“This is really about the other person, not me. Maybe they’re having a tough time right now. So what’s my best play here?”
“I’m not going to bite. I don’t have the time or energy to waste on someone else’s stuff.”
You get the idea. The more you practice this, the better you’ll get at it. It’s also a very satisfying, yet humbling, experience. For once you realize another’s comments and actions aren’t about you personally, you also realize a lot of other things aren’t about you either. But this realization is very liberating! You no longer have to act for the benefit of others. You understand that what is uniquely you are your deepest thoughts and feelings that arise moment to moment. These are always there, but the clamor and clutter of the crap we receive from others obscures them. Which brings me to the final point.
In the Christian tradition, as well as in Buddhism and the various disciplines of Yoga, there is the idea of inner Peace. (… that passeth all understanding, but we’re getting there.) This Peace doesn’t just mean no fighting. It means we’re not jerked around mentally or emotionally. It means we’re in neutral—at peace with the world and ourselves, whatever comes our way. (What the mind can’t understand is all the cool stuff that happens only after we’ve achieved this Peace. And this is the real reason this technique is so worthwhile, Grasshopper.)
At the very least it means no outside event leads to stress anymore.
And that’s a very good thing.