The mask of death
Stress is regarded today as the number one killer disease. The receding frontiers of ignorance in medicine show that almost every known physical and psychological illness is stress related. This growing awareness of the role of ‘stress’ in health and illness has led to a proliferation of anti-stress strategies from the medical market. Many of these, like the stress-fighting pills which contain combinations of vitamins and minerals (the latest fad being antioxidants, especially vitamin E), are pushed for commercial purposes.
Others, capitalizing on the general ignorance combine commerce and creativity in a variety of stress management programs and techniques. The latter ultimately induce a few to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Most, however give up, after the initial thrill of a new experience. Other methods range from dietary manipulation, energy release methods and coping strategies to a variety of exercises, relaxation methods, imagery and visualisation, techniques of meditation, etc.... Yet what eludes us completely is a proper understanding of stress. It seems that we are fighting against a powerful invisible enemy.
We learn to cope and handle stress at one level but it finds us at another. We master stress in one field and find another frontier suddenly exposed before our eyes. We tackle and control, with difficulty, one situation, only to find another more difficult circumstance unfolding in our life. We are perplexed and bewildered by the many faces of stress.
And yet, confusion and bewilderment does not help us. It is essential for us, therefore, to take a clear look at the many masks of stress and see what lies behind it. For knowledge is the first step towards true control.
The many faces of stress
Like everything else, stress can be known and understood at several levels.
At the very physical level (which is most familiar to us) stress is a disease. This may arise either due to an environmental change (e.g. change of weather) or a de novo change in the internal milieu (e.g. viral attack). Incidentally, this change need not always be negative. It may be, for instance, a long awaited promotion, birth of a child, sudden success or victory in a strife situation. Physiologically too, it may not only be a reduction and deficiency but an excess of something essential e.g. the overactivity of a gland. Since the entire body — the milieu interior and the milieu exterior are one, there is a natural tendency in nature to harmonise and balance. So even an excess results in stress!
It is here that we can understand stress at another level. What Darwin saw as ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘natural selection’ was actually a stress that the lower species faced in trying to go beyond. Also actually in ‘survival of the fittest’ the less fit do not die out, since the lesser forms do not disappear with the appearance of the higher. Rather they are strangely strengthened. This is so, since in Nature, there is a spontaneous tendency to harmonise and balance. The emergence of a higher form immediately leads to an interdependence of the higher on the lower — chain reaction and link that helps each species in its own way. If anything, it is the more developed and complex forms that face a greater threat of extinction and not necessarily the less developed ones e.g. the primitive fish survive in the deep, the whale is under threat.
The law, we may say therefore, operating in Nature is not, ‘survival of the fittest’ but rather, ‘evolution of the fittest’. In fact the competitive and aggressive type is in the end self-destructive, and one that is plastic, co-operative and integrative survives. Evolution operates through a process of natural selection. A series of hurdles are placed before us to overcome and march forward or, to fall back and persist or perish. And each individual crossing over opens the possibility for all to overcome the bars. These bars are the various forms of crisis, — physiological or otherwise, that arise when the consciousness is on the way to further growth.
This insight makes stress a little less terrifying. Since we can say that ‘after all it is a game that Nature plays with us to make us strong’, — not only as an individual, (for an individual may break under the duress), but as a race. This brings us naturally, to the third level of understanding stress, — the psychological one. At the psychological level, we may say that all stress is a challenge and an invitation. An invitation to assimilate all that we regard as not ourselves. We are, psychologically, as if closed, shut up in a small and narrow hole or prison of our own making. The bars of the prison are the so many conditions and conditionings we have put in between us and the delight that actually governs the world. We are as if,challenging the vast to enter into the little test-tube of our life. No wonder things crash and break to liberate us from the black hole. And we call it stress!
All life is essentially one. To speak in terms of the latest ‘systems theory,‘ we may say that all living beings are open systems. That is why, living forms grow and evolve! There is a constant interchange of forces through sense and skin, through sight and sound, through thought and feeling and will. We are only one narrow centre through which the universal forces move. We have to learn, or rather we are led to identify with a whole range of forces of which we are hardly aware. All stress, becomes to this view, a stress of consciousness to grow and expand, to assimilate and integrate, to recover consciously once again the wholeness that always exists. In other words, psychologically all stress is a means to arrive at the perfection of oneness in each individual! It comes to widen our frame of reference in which we customarily move and habitually live. The wider the frame, the lesser the stress we perceive and experience.
A corollary to this would be that all stress is essentially liberative. It points towards and attempts to free us from a narrower mould. If the mould is too rigid, it sometimes does break under the duress. The consciousness imprisoned in such a small and rigid frame is released at the cost of the form itself. At other times, the consciousness escapes psychologically or widens, heightens and deepens its self-awareness and progresses therefore, in the same body as a result of stress!
In either case stress then becomes the stress of a new birth, — a birth into a greater and larger state of consciousness; a birth into a greater freedom of the self and the spirit. We may also add that all illness then is an attempt of Nature to work out a greater equilibrium and perfection. All that resists and fails to respond falls ill. That is why illnesses increase during periods of great transition and social upheaval. Stones do not grow. They do not fall ill either! Living beings grow and the price they pay for life is disease and death. When we have learned to live and collaborate consciously with the evolving forces in Nature, then illness and death can disappear.
This of course is self-evident in the evolutionary chain. We see the fact that organisms evolve through a series of challenges.
The stress, as if, brought out from within them a greater potential, latent but unmanifested. The result is a new emergence, a new form, new faculties and a more powerful action. This aspect of stress as having a positive side is now being recognised the world over as ‘eustress’. It is one of the means to grow and develop (though not the only nor the best one). We can then move away from the killer mask of death to an evolving force of love that heals the pain of separation in the gulfs of creation.
Coping with stress
Yet, the question arises — how can we use stress to go beyond? This then we have to do when faced with stress, — to widen, heighten and deepen our consciousness.
To widen is to look at the problem or the threatening situation from a ‘transpersonal’ viewpoint, and not a personally preferential attitude. Preferences limit us. They bind us to ‘conditions of living’ to which we transfer our happiness or sadness. Looked at from another angle, we may say, that each condition we set for our peace and happiness is actually a barrier between ourselves and universal delight. A simple example is a child four or five years of age. There is a natural happiness in him. Even in rags he runs about happily. Yet as he grows up the mind gets conditioned through society, parents, media, everything. He is made to believe that happiness consists in possessing this or that. So strong is the belief that happiness lies in possessions that he doesn’t even question it! He doesn’t even look back once (as an adult) to reflect why he felt so spontaneously happy as a child. The simple and candid trust in life and the feeling of being at home everywhere is gone. This notion of ‘yours’ and ‘others’ has emerged. So he can enjoy only by buying and possessing. He begins to compete, to expect, to desire, to ‘seek’ what was already and always there. The result is stress which forces one to make choices: a global outlook, or a limited awareness? So the work of widening is to remove our consciousness from the difficulty. As a result the difficulty not finding a support in us drops off by itself.
But then, an outlook alone is not sufficient. It may relieve us of the stress of suffering, but not of the problem itself. The difficulty persists, even though it no more touches us in a personal way. To solve the difficulty, it is not always enough to take a certain attitude and then sit passively. Sometimes we may
be called upon to act. And to act is to concentrate, it is to focus and channelise our consciousness in a certain direction. Would this not narrow us and bind us again? This is what is called ‘karma’. i.e. each energy loosed from us binds us to a certain determinism or a chain of cause and effect. But we become narrow only if we channel our consciousness towards a desired result. Instead if we learn to open our consciousness to the height we can consciously lessen the binding effects. This is demonstrated in life by a simple example. When a person kills another for material gain he calls the law of revenge upon himself. Besides he is haunted by fear and suspicion and lives in a nightmare. Whereas, if a soldier kills with the thought of safeguarding his nation, it brings a sense of joy, glory and fulfilment. This is so, because in one case the act was motivated by desire, while, in the other, it was done from an ideal, in a sense of sacrifice. To rise is to act with freedom and force.
So, to widening is added heightening. That is to act always from the summit of one’s consciousness. Additionally comes a deepening of the consciousness. In fact, it is possible to widen and lift ourselves, only if we step back. Our surface activity is full of restlessness and we have to detach ourselves from this habitual superficial nervous thing that has its hold on us. Most of our thoughts, feelings and impulses are a reflex reaction determined by pure habit. The result is, we are all the time open to every shock and passing wave, driven by each casual circumstance and event, and become like a cork on the sea, tossed and kicked about. The reflex reaction has to change into a conscious and deliberate action. This is possible if we learn or habituate ourselves to detachment before action. So after some time it becomes spontaneous. Then we have a clarity of thought and a clarity of the direction we ought to take. Our emotions remain clear and peaceful. We are at ease in every situation, however nerve-shattering it may appear to be.
A technique or a process?
To widen, heighten, deepen is therefore the key to true relaxation. But for this inner change we have to first learn to quieten our surface activity. And it is here that some of the relaxation techniques and exercises find their true utility. All these techniques, including breath regulation, imagery, meditation, are meant to help quieten our outer activity so that we have a chance to open to our own larger dimensions. The same result can be arrived at through other even more powerful and radically effective means, like the devotee who surrenders to the will of God or a man who lives for a high and noble aim and ideal, or a poet, philosopher, musician and artisan who in moments of self-forgetfulness loses his narrow personality in creative work. To those who are closely attuned to Nature, this relaxation can arrive suddenly through a spontaneous identification with a vast landscape, an ocean or the sky. At times, a noble act done in a moment of true love, can open us to a large source of joy, peace and strength. These are things we can experience practically in our life. Thus, as many persons, that many methods. And each one has to choose the means that come naturally to him. A technique pursued for its own sake, as a mechanical routine soon looses its value and becomes invalid. To be true, genuine and sincere is much more important than to be ritualistic. Sincerity liberates, ritual binds.
This is the greatest limitation of stress management techniques. Most of us carry them out for some time moved by a faith in them. This faith, either in the technique or its founder helps us for a while. It draws our attention for a time to our own hidden depths. But soon we fall back into the narrow round of habitual ways of living seeing and reacting. What we try to do in one hour, we undo in the next twenty-three hours! Still, it is a marvel that even that little touch helps us. Just a brief glimpse of our larger Self has a liberating effect upon us. After sometime however, the technique itself becomes cumbersome. The passage to our higher self is lost or closed again and we suffer the effects of stress once more.
It is necessary, therefore to discover what really makes us suffer. Is it an outer situation or our own limitation of perception? Next, we must try to widen ourselves and understand the problem from another perspective, disregarding our ideas and preferences. Then we must act from the summit of our consciousness. For this we should study the law of our being. We should try to understand what constitutes us and seek our own deeper truth through the path or method consistent with our aspiration. The rest then is merely a matter of persistent practice. This may be slow but it is more permanent, as it manipulates not only our surface but changes our congnitive structure, our emotional nature, the movement of life-energy in us. Any outer technique too when done with this deeper purpose, opens an inner door somehow. Once done, the technique itself can be discarded, provided we learn to now live and act from this perennial source. Sometimes only a strong and persistent aspiration to discover our inner strength can force open the door. And there we find ourselves born to a new freshness and light. We walk in freedom, joy, mastery and peace. Stress is taken away from us. The burden of life disappears. The fetters of our narrow personality fall away. The bondage of ignorance that seals the eye of wisdom is removed. Our hearts are relieved of suffering and grief. Awake and conscious, all in us, becomes glad, pure, wide, tranquil and free.
Behind the mask of death
To sum up, we may say that what appears as a stress-related disease at the physical level is at the biological level a stress related challenge to evolve. And what appears as a crisis and a challenge at the biological level is a pressure for liberation and transformation at the deepest psychological level. All that resists this transformative pressure of evolutionary change, — fear, suspicion, greed, desire, etc. — leads to disease, disorder and eventually death. All that responds to the evolutionary urge — plasticity, love, faith, courage, etc. — grows and develops into a higher perfection.
To collaborate with this force of transformation i.e. stress, is to strive towards oneness and integration. The mask of stress is thus torn. The law of death would then cease to exist replaced by the law of transformation and uninterrupted progress.
Dr. Alok Pandey is a psychiatrist looking at illness from a deeper spiritual angle.