By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
When the talk is about stress (“Oh, I’m so stressed today”), I remember the executive monkey from my college Psychology 101 course. In 1958 Joseph V. Brady gave electric shocks to two hapless monkeys, one could depress a lever and stop the shock, the other had no lever (no control), but received the same amount of shock because it was yoked to the executive monkey. Both got stomach ulcerations but the executive monkey more and frequently died—23 of the executives died in the original experiment. I remember the pictures in my textbook of the sad monkeys in their restraints, tears coming to my eyes.
In 1971 Weiss got the same effect stressing rats. In his experiments the executive rat suffered more when its responses pressing a bar after a signal of an impending shock were frequent; the executive rat suffered the worst ulcerations when negative feedback was applied, that is, with its response to the signal causing shock instead of preventing it. That is no way to treat close relatives of ours like the rats just for the sake of science; but the findings were useful because they apply to humans.
Findings by Hans Selye of McGill University, Canada, and other researchers show that excessive stress, especially of long duration without relief, known as chronic stress, causes a host of illnesses, such as high blood pressure, severe headaches, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, as well as stomach ulcers. Continued severe stress in war drives many soldiers to depression and suicide. Researchers estimate chronic stress causes or aggravates as many as eighty percent of human disease.
Should we then avoid stress altogether and turn ourselves into vegetables? Well, vegetables get stressed too from lack of water, sunlight, or rock music. No, stress also is how organisms, under the right circumstances, adapt, grow and get stronger. Avoid the stress of exercise and your muscles, tendons, and bones atrophy. Birds with wings tied for a while cease to be able to fly. Astronauts had bone loss and weakness from the lack of gravity until they started exercising in space. Great athletes suffer extreme stress to break world records. Hercules battled the Hydra and other savage creatures; he tackled impossible tasks until he walked up Mount Olympus to live with the gods. Friedrich Nietzsche’s superman was not born that way; he became super with immense effort. Think of Jesus on the cross. Crucifixion was an ingenious Roman execution of traitors and criminals which killed and tortured with splendid effect on the criminal and bystanders. (The old English custom of disembowelment and dismemberment while the criminal was alive equals the Roman feat.) One does not survive disembowelment and dismemberment, but Jesus survived crucifixion and arose from the cenotaph to preach again to his intimate circle, then left the land of Israel not to return as yet. He survived thanks to his godlike response to the pain, hunger, thirst, and humiliation of being nailed hands and feet on a wooden cross, after a mocking trial, beatings and a crown of thorns. His disciples, Paul, Thomas, Judas and the others, dazzled by his appearance after the crucifixion, fervently believed in the divinity of Jesus and carried on with his gospel, tortured and killed in their turn, making themselves martyrs and saints. Verily I say to you, blessed be the stressed, for they shall master heaven and earth.
The price of mastery
To master, you pay a price. The price is a risk to health or even to life. After a splendid concert, a lady approached Isaac Stern and gushed: Oh, Mr. Stern, I would give my life to play the violin like you do. The master responded: Madam, I have.
A master baboon, an alpha, has more stress than a beta baboon and may get coronary disease if he remains an alpha for long, suffering attacks from those who want his position and best access to females in estrus. The worst position is that of a junior or submissive male forced on the periphery of the baboon troop foraging on open ground. Predators, such as a leopard, will often snap up one of these males. The females are in the center of the troop with their babies, surrounded by three dominant males. The peripheral male sounds the alarm and the dominant males run to face the predator jointly, baring their large canines, but in the meantime junior may have become dinner. Becoming someone’s dinner is an acutely stressful experience.
We have a similar situation in our business world where top executives suffer ulcers, heart disease, and cancers (think of Steve Jobs of Apple and his pancreatic cancer) more often than others, in exchange for their position, money, a trophy wife and mistresses. Great athletes and entertainers achieve fame, fortune, and awards at the risk of becoming addicted or suffering serious injuries in the field (think of Tiger Woods and his sexual addiction). Jim Fixx, runner and writer of “The Complete Runner,” died aged 52 of a heart attack after his daily run; three of his coronary arteries were blocked with atherosclerosis. Even sexual athletes sometimes die doing their thing, like Pietro Aretino, bisexual inventor of literary pornography, satirist, and poet in Renaissance Italy. President Bill Clinton (with heart disease) was wise not to have sex with that woman. At the bottom of the social ladder, however, things are worse. Blue collar workers and the under-employed are more likely to smoke, get obese, drink to excess and die young like the peripheral baboons, meat for corporations.
Moderate versus great effort
Is there no middle ground? Yes, you can be a beta or gamma, moderately successful, if you’re satisfied with a moderate share of the nooky. Strive, but not to such excess so as to injure yourself.
Still, great feats seem to demand great efforts and risks. Think of the explorers of the poles or the climbers of Mount Everest. Many lost their lives aiming for their goals, or at least toes and noses. Can I suggest a way in striving for the top without risking grave injury or death? Yes, I can. It’s called a helical climb, like the climb of a car or a train going up a high mountain. The stress of effort should be followed by relaxation and recovery of equal intensity and duration. Following recovery of bodily or mental resources, you pick up the effort with greater intensity than before, but if you don’t have the energy for that, you back off, because you have not recovered sufficiently. Perhaps you have reached a plateau, when you should try a different kind of training rather than persistence to a break. Maybe you have reached your limit, not being a god, and need to give up; but you’ll never know your limit, unless you have stressed yourself towards your limit.
Finding our limits
Many factors limit our ability to withstand stress, create and grow: our native genes, our lifelong experience, our ability to connect with spiritual resources, and our capacity to laugh at obstacles and failures on the way to our objective.
Finding the limits of strength in materials to stress was what we studied in the laboratory of engineering school. We defined stress as the force per square inch applied on, for example, a block of concrete. We increased this force with a hydraulic press until the block collapsed due to compressive stress; that was the limit for that material, a useful number if you’re designing columns for buildings or bridge pylons. We also pulled on steel rods or cables; they stretched due to tensile stress, but after the force went up enough, they broke. We also had torsional tests with similar results. Most objects that we pulled on became longer. Elongation under stress is called strain and is proportional to the intensity of the force applied. Some objects that we stressed, like springs, returned to nearly their original shape, a response called hysteresis. But once broken, the material never returned to its original shape by itself—interesting. Even if the material does not break suddenly due to excessive force, it will fatigue and crack when stressed for a long time, such as an airplane wing vibrating in turbulence, its crystal structure changing, developing tiny cracks, and finally collapsing—more interesting.
Compare the above results to stressing muscles. When you lift weights sufficiently heavy or for long enough, your muscles develop tiny tears. After a day or so, given rest and good nutrition, the muscles repair themselves and become stronger—most interesting. Clearly, living things differ in some fundamental way from inanimate objects. Even large cuts in muscles heal after weeks or months with some sewing and stitching. Tendons and bones require more time to heal, and nerves almost never heal.
We normally don’t damage tissues in people, but we train children, athletes and soldiers by gradually stressing their bodies and minds up to some limit we think is safe and profitable for growth.
Training for growth
We have at our disposal in training many types of stresses, which are due to different causes, called stressors. Stressors can be physical, such as toxic chemicals, caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, heroin, alcohol (a depressant), cortisol, adrenaline, heat, cold, dehydration (thirst), hunger, pain, sleep deprivation, tiredness, radiations (including sunlight), smoke, dust, alcohol, bacteria and viruses, insect bites, snake venom (used for training by American Indian shamans, or holy men).
Exercise is often said to be relaxing and stress relieving. It’s likely to be so if we do it gently as a meditative practice, such as tai chi and qigong, or we do it for fun; it’s stressful if we compete with others or with ourselves to win and break records. Stress reduction in any case comes in when we take sufficient rest after the exercise. A guideline I follow is to rest physically for one hour after exercising for one hour. Mental or psychological effort also requires a commensurate period of rest and relaxation for our nervous system (when we get our most creative ideas).
Psychological stressors are just as numerous, from within ourselves and from without: any rapid change in life, divorce, marriage, death, birth, insecurity, having to learn new behaviors, loss of job, new employment, retirement, graduation, boredom, excitement, horror stories, competitive games (chess, backgammon, Warcraft), frustration, disappointment, depression, fear, anger, jealousy, envy, pride, greed, work, idleness, offending enemies or friends, demanding bosses, freeway jams, warfare, poverty, wealth, politics, business, beggars, solicitors, fundraisers, sullen-sniveling-screaming children, nagging or feuding spouse, conflict of any sort, deadlines—I can go on forever with the list, all stressors subject to raising blood pressure or laughter, depending on your reactions.
Deadlines can often lead to stress which motivates some people to take action. I know people who wait for a deadline to come close for stress to build up their internal energy for meeting the deadline. Use stressors cautiously in training yourself or others, never reaching dangerous levels and allowing for relaxation and recovery.
Some institutions, however, army, navy, air force, law and medical schools, sports teams frequently put young people through dangerous levels of stress. The intent is to weed out incompetents and select the toughest and best candidates. In the film An Officer and a Gentleman, the character of Richard Gere goes through naval academy training, nearly breaking down, but persisting and surviving because he (screaming) “I got nowhere else to go!” Medical interns suffer similarly, some of them breaking down mentally and committing suicide, as depicted in the television series Grey’s Anatomy. Law schools routinely weed out fifty percent of the students in the first year with tough courses and assignments, sometimes impossible ones. In the one semester of law school I attended once, I found often the relevant pages in reference books torn out and I could not complete the assignment. I never had that problem in engineering school. Care to comment?
Stress is a different problem for individuals such as you and me, our children or loved ones, than for groups or populations. Leaders can tolerate losses in the group they command, relying on those who survive for success and victory. Generals send young people to training camp or battle fully aware that they will lose some of them through breakdowns, back downs, escapes, or even deaths. Those that remain in the line will be stronger and will fight on, win, and breed a tougher generation to come. Or perhaps, the quitters will do the breeding, while those who persist die in battle.
At least in hospitals that is how populations of super bacteria are bred, such as Staphilococcus aureus. Hospital officials are overly prejudiced against bacteria, seeing to cleaning, scrubbing, disinfecting, and using antibiotics liberally, causing bacteria populations to adapt and change through natural selection until they become super tough and dangerous. If you want to stay healthy, stay away from hospitals.
If you want a healthy body, you need healthy body cells. Our bodies are complex cultures of single cells, much like bacteria. We are evolved colonies of cells that have differentiated to cooperate better and be more effective so as to survive. When we discipline our individual body cells through proper living, we strengthen the body and boost the immune system. Say to your body cells, “no pain; no gain.” One way to do that is to keep nourishment to the minimum, with an occasional fast. Weak cells die and the stronger ones reproduce body tissues. Stressing your body with calorie deprivation makes you healthier, if you take in necessary nutrients but no more food. Trees that are given such tough treatment with little water produce the tastiest fruits. Such a procedure is sometimes called eustress, good stress.
Good stress allows for full recovery of the organism and further strengthening. We get a cycle of tension and then relaxation. The “stress of life” is not all bad as it seems to some people. Yes, when we face danger, a major challenge, our muscles tense up, our heart rate and blood pressure go up, adrenaline and cortisol hormones surge, blood thickens, cholesterol and blood sugar rise, all of these and other changes get us ready to fight or flee. It’s an old evolutionary response we share with our animal relatives, but it doesn’t work well in the constraints of a modern world, because we’re not allowed to express ourselves by hitting or running. We suffer from bottled up energies and feelings, leaving us with the options of crying (not for men) or turning the situation into a joke and laughing.
Once we have relaxed well enough one way or another after stress, after we have escaped danger, won, lost, given up, withdrawn to sleep or elsewhere, our bodies return to normal and repair themselves. Calm, peace, returns to our mind, our soul is refreshed, rebuilt—sometimes better than before the emergency.
In Japanese boot camps for managers, trainees are stressed with yells and rough talk, wearing ribbons of shame on their foreheads with inscriptions of their failures, as in a story about Japanese and American auto workers, tellingly depicted in the 1986 Ron Howard film “Gung Ho.” How effective are such treatments of young people? Some subjects will rebel and quit; others will submit to the treatment. Those who quit will not change their behaviors; those who submit may change under intense pressure. I know of no other way to change. Sweet talking, which is my choice, doesn’t cut it.
Change of behavior involves learning which occurs in the nervous system made up of nerve cells or neurons. Existing neurons adapt to change, even fresh young neurons appear in the brain adapting more effectively. I mentioned earlier that nervous tissue heals only rarely from damage. For almost a hundred years scientists believed we were born with about 100 billion neurons, never to have any more, but only to lose some every day because of aging, shock, and toxins, such as alcohol. In 1999 Elizabeth Gould and Charles Gross at Princeton showed that in marmoset and macaque monkeys a continuous stream of fresh neurons migrated from the center of the brain to the cerebral cortex and became integrated by connecting with existing neurons. Other scientists confirmed the finding. Fred Gage of Salk Institute in La Jolla showed that such neuronal regeneration in the human hippocampus is related to the degree of cognitive challenge. Use it or lose it.
But don’t use it too much. Excessive or unrelieved stress can have the opposite event on the hippocampus, causing the death of neurons and Alzheimer’s disease. Stressed is best up to a point allowing a return to a body-mind equilibrium, or homeostasis.
What is the limit point is often difficult to determine. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger,” in the Twilight of the Idols, 1888. He was being a German romantic and exaggerating. Short of killing ourselves, trying too hard may damage our bodies or minds beyond repair. Extend yourself a little at a time, allowing your resources to recover completely before further extending your limits.
The cause of stress illness
What causes illness is not stress itself, if reasonably limited in intensity; not letting go of effort after a time to allow for healing to occur– that causes heart disease, cancer, ulcers, depression, even death. To stimulate growth, the struggle and pain must be controlled in intensity, duration, and frequency, with no permanent damage to the body or mind. Match the recovery to the struggle in intensity, duration, and frequency, and approach your limits in these parameters safely, just as a weight lifter progresses in raising weights to avoid an overload and injury to muscles, bones, or nerves. In exercising for a target work slowly, fully aware of your ideal form, closing your eyes if necessary, warm up, breath deeply, get a full range of motion, and strive for balance in using all muscles–or other resources; then before starting up again, cool down and relax.
Stress damages when not followed by relief, when it’s excessive, when it comes on suddenly with no warning and no time to warm up, and when it stops abruptly, without a cool down or winding down of your system.
Andy Potts, star triathlete, does more than warm up or cool down. While running, biking, or swimming, he constantly monitors his heart rate and energy output, and remotely stores his body’s response to stress in a computer for analysis, setting up a feedback loop for his efforts. He looks for a heartbeat of 165 for peak performance, then an adequate recovery at 140 beats per minute and an energy output of 410 watts. (For training, not peak performance, a steady pulse rate of about 80% of the peak is sought.) The trainer subjects Potts to a careful dose of punishment, reflecting the athlete’s response to stress, pushing Potts to near exhaustion and generating data for the next day’s exercise plan; that’s the feedback loop.
The feedback loop for growth
The feedback loop works best when recovery includes relaxation and meditation. Meditation is not lethargy, although we usually do it sitting or lying still. Body and mind function best when relaxed, after a struggle phase, to achieve whatever goals, athletic or others, you want to achieve. Meditation is awareness of everything that is happening to us, physically, emotionally (worry, upset, anger), and spiritually, in our connection with the life force. Breathe deeply focusing on the here and now. Awareness in turn increases our control of resources inside and outside of ourselves. Quiet your mind in relaxation and take full notice of the effects of the stress you’re under, making changes in your behavior before illness or accident strikes.
While some people make themselves ill, injured, or dead with overstress, some of us avoid any significant effort and stress as long as they can, often extending that attitude to others they can influence. When I exercised together with my daughter Alia and she would get flushed and sweaty, her mother would worry about her and stop her. Flushing and sweating is a natural response to vigorous movement and heat, the body’s adjustment to these stressors. Most people today turn on the air conditioning as soon as they feel a little uncomfortable with heat or cold, weakening the body’s ability to handle these stressors. I admire the Tibetan monks who wrap themselves in frozen blankets for part of their training or lie on lake ice until they melt it bringing blood to their skin with mental discipline.
The attitude of some of us is: Always follow the easiest (not the best) way out of a difficult situation. I’ll do all I can to avoid a problem instead of solving it. Let somebody else handle a nasty, dirty, smelly case. If I can’t avoid a challenge, I won’t fight: I’ll cry, sleep, drink, smoke, play, watch television, read pulp fiction, or eat pizza and ice cream. Let relatives or welfare take care of my needs. If nobody comes to save me from trouble, I’ll kill myself. Oh, death, the ultimate escape.
John Donne wrote in his meditations: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved with mankind.” I too am diminished by any living entity’s death, suffering, or stagnation; that’s why I write, coping with challenges, teaching to others the tools of coping.
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” John Donne also wrote. We are social animals, but not like insects. We evolved in troops or tribal units over millions of years, for security, comfort, and reproduction. Being alone, physically or mentally, is stressful because it’s dangerous, or at least uncomfortable. People need people to feel secure, to love, and to be happy. A sense of isolation from others can be devastating.
Involuntary or forced isolation is different from chosen solitude. Moses on Mount Sinai, Jesus and Mohammed in the desert, Buddha in the forest, found solitude from the tumult of crowds and the constant business of life, to reflect, to meditate, to relax, to communicate with God in the burning bush not burning, then returned to the people to teach their message. Here’s my message such as I too have gathered in solitude.
Solitude and isolation
We may feel isolated, but the life force field permeates the universe like gravity inside of us and outside of us, connecting us all. After all, we are parts of this physical universe ourselves. Why do we then often feel isolated from a Higher Force, from our inner self in the subconscious, and from each other, loathing, disgusted, and even hating others or ourselves? Why does a sense of isolation lead many people to great distress and stress, causing ill health, accidents, and slow or instant suicide (sometimes homicide)? As theologians say, what separates us from the infinite compassion of God? As psychologists say, what is keeping us from reaching the gold or coal of our subconscious, which I believe is ninety five percent of our brainpower? As humanists say, what is keeping us from speaking freely, truly, and peacefully to our fellow humans and listening to them attentively? What is doing that are barriers, walls, diaphragms, sphincters, valves in between heaven, the subconscious, and the social worlds, existing from birth for our protection and survival, barriers fortified, raised, hardened, closed tight to avoid rejection, pain, danger, fear, exposure.
To relieve the stress of isolation we need to loosen up these barriers gently, cautiously, with soothing loving oils and massage, groping inside of us and outside of us, until contact is made again fully, as in psychoanalysis, religious confession, or plain relaxation with meditation. In the end we may have an epiphany, a sudden self realization of our potential, or a gradual healing of our spirit (and body) from the stress of isolation.
Let me show you a picture. The vast space of the life force or universal mind is a sphere, touching the sphere of your subconscious mind, attached to the smaller sphere of your focusing conscious mind, sensing other sentient beings and the sphere of the physical universe. Two information valves or sphincters block or allow information and feelings to be channeled between the first three spheres. (Clearly, your skin, with sense organs specialized skin cells, is the valve between the conscious mind sphere and the physical sphere of the universe, the eyelids separating you from light radiations.) When you open up to experience the love of the life force or an another human being, you may be thwarted, rejected, disappointed, or hurt because of your own failings or those of others; then the sphincters tighten up, closing the channels, insulating you from pain and isolating you at the same time. Isolation can become chronic, perpetual, lasting for years, or a lifetime, exacting huge costs on you health, happiness, and overall effectiveness.
You’re doing fine if on occasion you isolate yourself from others, from your subconscious, even from the searing energy of the life force, to protect your body and mind and survive the moment.
Acute stress, chronic stress
When you’re experiencing an acute stress–you’ll get over it with rest, relaxation, and recreation, rebuilding your integrity of mind until your next foray. Your sympathetic nervous system is stimulated into action, your blood pressure goes up temporarily, your hormones surge, your muscles tense up as when you face danger, but these return to normal (or you die) when you relax and your parasympathetic nervous system takes over (after the crisis is the time of greatest risk of depression, damage or death). In chronic or habitual stress, however, your vital fluids and energies get stuck at an unsustainable level, causing continuous damage that cannot be repaired by your body’s or the mind’s homeostatic mechanisms of recovery. Your parasympathetic system doesn’t get a chance to do its work. Push, push, push! You’re a spring that has been stretched beyond hysteresis. Chronic stress is itself a big danger and many of us are habituated to it, suffering illness until this stress is subdued or until we’re dead. Chronic stress has no benefits; it’s a dead end.
How do you know whether you’re suffering from chronic stress? Is your blood pressure up constantly? It may be due to a salt intake that is too high for your metabolism, to renal (kidney) failure, or other causes. Quite often chronic stress is the cause of it. Is your resting pulse rate high? Do you get frequent headaches? Is your blood sugar or cholesterol level above normal? Do you have insomnia? Do you feel habitually nervous, tense, jumpy, or anxious? Do you overeat or eat sugary, starchy, fatty foods? Do you have excess fat deposits in waist, hips, or buttocks? Do you get skin rashes, have unexplained aches and pains in neck, shoulders, back especially, suffer from frequent infections, virus attacks, fatigue when you wake up, heart beat irregularities (arrhythmia), low mood, gastric acid secretions, sluggishness, sadness, boredom, irritability, petty anger, loss of appetite, suicidal thoughts, panic attacks, inability to concentrate, lack of joy in doing your everyday activities? Most likely, you’re under chronic stress; you’re in danger of a health breakdown.
How do many people treat symptoms of chronic stress? Not by treating the cause of it as they should, but by taking palliatives. When sluggish, they gulp more coffee, tea, coke, or other stimulants. When nervous or tense, they drink alcohol. When unable to sleep, they take tranquilizers. When sad, they escape into fantasy. When they have infections, they take antibiotics. When their stomach hurts from gastric secretions, they take antacids. For headaches, they take aspirin. When they’re bored, they seek excitement in competitive games, adventure in horror movies, books, and video games, or pick fights with a spouse, relative, friend, acquaintance, server, co-worker, or boss. For aches, these people take pain killers or muscle relaxants. When nervous or irritable, they take tranquilizers. All these “cures” of the symptoms simply perpetuate the vicious cycle of chronic stress.
Before you can have the benefits of manageable acute stress, before the achievement of any great struggle, before reaching the happiness of inner peace, you need a real cure of chronic stress before it kills you. If isolation is the problem, reconnect. If the cause of your chronic stress is spouse, relative, friend, boss, distance yourself from them or change your relationship with them. If in the morning you don’t to want to lift an eyelid, let alone your body, without your Starbucks coffee, before heading for traffic and work, change employment. You yell, “I need my job; I can’t afford to quit.” Can you afford cancer, heart disease, arthritis, or stroke? You say, “I have young children; I can’t quit.” Will your children be better off as orphans, raised by others? You really have no other choice but to cure chronic stress for good, doing whatever it takes to do the job, or else you’re doomed.
Healing from chronic stress
To heal thyself, you begin by focusing on your life source connection, to strengthen it, to clarify it, to tap its power to the fullest. No doubt the life force exists, though it may not be as fatherly, motherly, compassionate, as some people believe. When you tap it, you naturally re-invigorate yourself, as a battery does when it’s plugged in to recharge. The closer you are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to the life force, the more powerfully the force will affect your adjustment to homeostatic equilibrium, healing, and growth.
After you have re-established contact with the force that created you and all life, come to terms with your inner self through introspection, meditation, yoga, and the help of a good psychoanalyst, airing out long suppressed anger, guilt, and regret. Also get close to friends and relatives who sooth your nerves, support you and cherish you. Distance yourself from disturbing people. Quit all stimulants and depressants, and avoid all games, dramas, and “entertainments” that excite you unduly. If you are often glued to such entertainments, you have a cortisol addiction to kick; enjoy comedies instead. You can include most news stories in things to avoid. Find romance and intimacy if you can. Engage in gentle exercises and activities which interest you but don’t stir up your competitive urges, such as yoga, tai chi, qigong. Enjoy fine art: music (try Massenet’s Thais), paintings, dancing, and cuisine. Follow a healthy diet with delicious food. Take liquid potassium, calcium and magnesium supplements. Try regular massage sessions with a therapist or a massage chair. Chuck every worry you have been carrying around, keeping only suitable concerns. That’s the treatment.
How long will it take for full recovery from chronic stress? It has probably taken years for the syndrome to develop; it may take a long time for it to disappear. As I grappled with personal, family, and business problems over several decades, I developed chronic stress syndrome and, last year, coronary ischemia. I’m still treating my syndrome as I have prescribed to you, hoping to return soon to major challenges in a measured way, cortisol and adrenaline under control, with full recovery after each fight; that is, I hope to do so before I’m stopped in my tracks by the ultimate stressor of us all–aging.
After we have reached the steady equilibrium of body and mind in homeostasis, we can turn to the great blessings of stress, staying duly cautious not to overload ourselves and not to relapse back to chronic stress. Studies at Harvard and other institutions have shown that business executives placed under stress keep becoming increasingly more productive as the intensity of the stress and its duration increase—up to a point beyond which performance declines. What is that point of inflection in the upward curve? When do we know we must end the struggle for now and take our rest? When we can struggle no more, empty of all reserves of energy, the pain no longer bearable.
Herbert Benson, M.D., the Harvard researcher of the relaxation response, shows us how to deal with great stress in his new study, “The Breakthrough Principle.” Briefly, for our great struggles to be effective we must follow them with deep relaxation and meditation in the stillness tapping the wellsprings of our spirit and transforming ourselves into beings of a higher order.
Struggle and transformation
Like a butterfly emerging from the cocoon it made as a caterpillar, after a long rest, we emerge transfigured and winged. Like Jesus in the grave, we stand up and ascend towards heaven. Blessed are the stressed who have not broken or given up too soon, for they master themselves first, then go on to master the ideal world before possessing the physical world.
Why is it that challenge and torture turns some persons into sinners and some into saints? We often say the saint possesses the resource of a sturdy spirit. We don’t know scientifically what the spirit is (we cannot measure it or observe it under a microscope), but we can experience it when we see its magic in others or ourselves, the mind is steady and quiet. If muscles can repair little tears from intense exercise, if broken bones can mend and grow whole, if newborn neurons can emerge in the brain to mend it, how much more resilient and capable must the spirit be a thing so close to the source of life!
Some persons are able to emerge whole and noble from great trials because of their sturdy make up or because of an attitude they have in their approach to pains. Taking pains means doing good work. Christ wounded and parched on the cross transcended his human limitations, becoming more than an ordinary man in the midst of extreme agony. Recovering from his wounds and thirst in the coolness of the cenotaph, he emerged to complete his mission on earth.
The prophet Mohammed sat in deep meditation outside his desert cave and looked up at the brilliant stars. Gabriel, an angel of God, appeared before him and commanded: “Recite!” The illiterate camel driver recited the immortal poems of the Koran, later memorized by his followers and written down as the Muslim scriptures. Inspiration, creative passion, may follow a powerful struggle to overcome an obstacle, if a person afterward allows for a period of tranquility and meditation.
Herbert Benson has shown with EEG recordings that the brain in deep meditation is calm overall, but some parts of it are in a state of high excitation. Benson calls this state of mind calm-commotion. Could it be that in a calm-commotion state our minds approach the divine source of all life, knowledge, and power?
You don’t have to believe in the divine to make use of scientific findings regarding extreme stress and meditation, devotion, and prayer. Direct your prayer and devotion if not to God to your ideal whatever that is: beauty, truth, justice, peace, creation, invention, perfection, wealth, power, happiness. Be well prepared to pay the price of the struggle phase in your transformation. You will not transform yourself, changing lifelong habits, without first engaging in a great struggle. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Luke 9:23 NIV) You can only transform your world into a better place after you have successfully changed yourself to the super human you visualize vividly. A fine human character is like a diamond, formed from coal under immense pressure and heat in the bowels of the earth or in a laboratory.
As a rule you can expect human beings to remain as they are without changing their character. You can trust people, yourself included; you can trust them to be themselves, good, bad, or indifferent in their behaviors according to their established habits. We’re like robots, each one of us following our internal memory programs blindly, helplessly; freedom of the will is an illusion. We break the chain of causality in our lives only rarely, very rarely, miraculously, only under great pressure and stress well directed.
You achieve greatness in any endeavor by driving yourself to exhaustion, but not to a breakdown. Yes, you risk a catastrophic failure of body or mind; taking calculated risks is a part of exploration, growth, and breakthrough achievement. You follow such an effort with relaxation, living the present moment, not thinking of things past or future, in deep tranquility, absorbed in soothing music, in a beautiful natural setting, bathing peacefully in warm waters, or just sitting and meditating. You breath deeply, letting prana or spirit inside. The ideas come then, the fantastic visions which will be realized, the solutions to big problems of design, science, art, philosophy or religion. No block exists to your creativity. Artistic block is fear of failure, fear of losing your capacity to create—fear and block cannot exist after you have been transformed by guided stress and relaxation.
Transformation from stress can work for societies as well as individuals. Economic hard times can stimulate creativity, toughness, growth in new directions in a people of courage and enterprise. The ancient Greeks emerged victorious from their battles against the invading Persians, producing a golden civilization. In America, the Great Depression gave rise to a rebirth of culture, prosperity, and dominance in the world, because many leading people, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, met great danger, hardship, pain, and disappointment with courage and ingenuity.
As long as super humans are willing to take on their shoulders the burdens of the earth, the world will keep progressing. When Atlas shrugged, as Ayn Rand wrote, watch out for a new Dark Age to begin.