You'll find this article on page 42 of the magazine.
The Middle Way of Stress
By Judy Lief
is stressful. Although some people claim that contemporary life is
especially stressful, I am skeptical whether that is so. Living beings
have always had to struggle for food, for shelter, and for safety. They
have always had the stress of finding a mate and reproducing. The world
is no Garden of Eden.
could say that the question of suffering, or stress, and what to do
about it is central in Buddhism. This is the question that set the
Buddha on his journey at the very beginning, and over the course of its
development, the Buddhist teachings have examined the topic at many
levels and from many different perspectives.
medical researchers, Buddhist scholars and practitioners have
catalogued the details of this syndrome in order to both treat its
symptoms and find the ultimate cure.
what is stress and what do the Buddhist teachings have to say about it?
What is our proper relationship to stress? Should it always be avoided
or can it be productive? To what extent is it inherent in life or our
own creation? What are its symptoms and what is its cure?
The Experience of Stress
experience of stress could be looked at as a family of unpleasant
sensations. We may experience stress as pressure, anxiety, or
claustrophobia. Sometimes there are so many challenges facing us that it
is as though we were drowning. We feel overwhelmed, capsized by it all
like a sinking ship. Stress may make us feel cornered and that we have
no way out. We may simply freeze, or we may stir up so much anxiety that
it feels like we are choking to death. With stress there is no air. No
space. No looseness or freshness. Under the influence of stress, what
once may have seemed easy becomes completely impossible, and no matter
where we turn, there seems to be no escape. With stress we become
distressed, as though we were being pulled apart and are about to break.
we are stressed, our body gets tighter, as if it is shrinking into
itself. Mentally, our thinking gets tight and does not flow freely.
Emotionally, we are edgy and fearful. The slightest irritation may set
us off and we may lash out in anger. Or we might withdraw into
ourselves, close off, and shut down. We forget to breathe; it is as if
the core of our body is one big ache of pain.
you start thinking of all the things to be stressed out about, the list
goes on and on. It could start with the close-at hand problems such as
the need to pay the rent or find a job. But merely by reading the
newspaper it can quickly expand to include global problems such as
famine, war, overpopulation, and environmental destruction. We may even
use the fact that we are stressed out about such global issues as a
credential, as though our stress and worry were a virtue or a proof of
our insight, empathy, and sensitivity.
we experience stress, we struggle to find someone or something to
blame. We assume that there must be some external reason we are feeling
this bad, and that if we just remove that situation, we will be okay. If
there is an obvious external cause, we should simply remove it. We
could stop seeing the person who drives us crazy or stop agreeing to put
ourselves in situations we know to be upsetting. However, there are
many situations we may not be able to do much about, no matter how
stressful they may be.
Four Styles of Hope and Fear
are many different maps or geographies of stress in the Buddhist
teachings. Because it is considered important to make a commitment to do
what we can to improve the conditions of life for all beings, it is
necessary to understand how we needlessly tangle ourselves in layers and
layers of stress, and how we can begin to unravel some of that
begin with, we need to look at the underpinnings of emotional stress,
which are described in terms of entrenched patterns of thought. Due to
such mental preoccupations, we take stressful situations and make them
worse. Through our confusion, we change neither the situation nor our
attitude but just add fuel to the fire.
this is described in terms of an endless cycle of hope and fear that
dominates our lives from day to day and moment to moment, from beginning
to end. The Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna describes hope and
fear in terms of what are called the eight worldly preoccupations: hope
for happiness and fear of suffering; hope for fame and fear of
insignificance; hope for praise and fear of blame; and hope for gain and
fear of loss. Basically, we spend our lives trying to hold on to some
things and get rid of others in an endless and stressful struggle.
could ask, what’s wrong with preferring happiness to sadness or praise
to blame? Isn’t the pursuit of happiness what it’s all about? Isn’t it
obvious that gain is better than loss? But it is one thing to recognize
what we would like to attract and what we would prefer to get rid of,
and quite another to be obsessed with getting our way and terrified of
things going wrong. The problem is that hope is joined at the hip with
its partner, fear. We can’t have one without the other. When we are
caught in this hope–fear cycle, our attitude is always tense and even
our most satisfying experiences are bounded by paranoia.
Happiness vs. Suffering
the first style of hope and fear, we look at things in terms of
happiness versus suffering, pleasure versus pain. We hope for happiness,
but once we have it, fear arises, for we are afraid to lose it. Out of
that fear we cling to pleasure so hard that the pleasure itself becomes a
form of pain. And when suffering arises, no amount of wishful thinking
makes it go away. The more we hope for it to be otherwise, the more pain
Fame vs. Insignificance
the second style of hope and fear, we are obsessed with fame and afraid
of our own insignificance. We scramble our way to the top, hungry for
confirmation, and when it is not forthcoming we get pissed off and
huffy. Then when it dawns on us how hard we need to work to be seen as
someone special, our fear of insignificance is magnified. Behind our
façade of fame, we suffer from a kind of inner desolation and
Praise vs. Blame
the third style, we are obsessed with praise and fearful of blame. We
need to be pumped up constantly or we begin to have doubts about our
worth. When we are not searching for praise, we are busy trying to cover
up our mistakes so we don’t get caught. But there is never enough
praise to satisfy us, and we are never free from the threat of being
found wanting. Only if we are perfect can we count on continual praise,
but although we struggle for perfection, we can never attain it. The
slightest little mistake is all it takes to re-trigger our fear.
Gain vs. Loss
with the fourth style we are obsessed with gain and loss. We invest in
situations with high hopes, and we expect that if things have been
improving, they will continue to do so. That quality of hope is so
seductive that we forget how easily situations can turn on us. But just
as we are about to congratulate ourselves on our success, the bottom
falls out, and fear once again holds sway. Our hope falls apart and we
are afraid that things will keep going downhill forever. Over and over,
things are hopeful one moment and the next they are not, and in either
case we are anxious.
cycles of hope and fear occupy our minds and capture our energy. No
matter what is happening to us, we think it could be better, or at least
different. No matter who we are, we think we could be better, or at
least different. Nothing is ever good enough and we can never relax.
Six Patterns of Stress
way of looking at stress is through the teachings of the six realms of
being. These six realms are the god realm, jealous god realm, human
realm, animal realm, hungry ghost realm, and hell realm. They represent
the experiential worlds we create out of ignorance and inhabit out of
fear. They describe worlds in which struggle is the underpinning, and no
matter how hard we try, we never truly get what we want. It is said
that we cycle through these realms constantly and it is hard to get out.
of the six realms has its own dominant preoccupation, its own pattern
of hope and fear, and its own form of stress. But even when we are
caught in one of these realms, there are ways to break free from the
fixations that entrap us and perpetuate our stress and suffering.
The God Realm and the Stress of Perfectionism
god realm refers to a world of refinement. It is one of spiritual
bliss, material pleasure, or psychological satisfaction. The god realm
is fueled by pride joined with ignorance, which allows you to dwell in a
self-absorbed haze. Finding yourself in such a realm is like a dream
come true. But when you finally have everything you ever wanted, you
worry that it might all be lost. You might create hideouts, whether in
the form of spiritual retreat centers, gated communities, or mental
la-la lands. But to maintain such islands of perfection, you need to
close your eyes to suffering. You need to close off your heart. Since
you don’t want your bubble to burst or to experience unpleasantness of
any sort, you have to ignore anything that threatens it.
may seem that this realm has very little stress. But under the surface
of spiritual pride and tranquility, there runs a river of fear. You have
to hold yourself very tight to prolong your special experiences and to
protect them from decaying. You hope that your transcendent experiences
will go on forever, but you are afraid that you will not actually be
able to hold on to them.The
problem is that as soon as you create a protected area and surround it
with a wall, whether it is a literal wall or a psychological wall, there
will not only be constant struggle but also the stress of realizing
that your experience is a manufactured one, not real. However, there are
moments when you let go of that striving and something fresh arises.
The more you pay attention to such gaps in your scheming, the more
expansive is your perspective. With your roomier mind, that mentality of
striving begins to dissolve into insignificance.
The Jealous God Realm and the Stress of the Rat Race
jealous god realm is marked by envy, speediness, and competitiveness.
In this realm, you are never satisfied with what you have as long as
someone else has more. You are striving all the time, afraid to ever
stop, afraid you might get passed by. You have no sense of yourself
except in comparison to those who are ahead of you and those who are
coming up from behind.
you step onto this kind of treadmill, you cannot get off. You are
always competing and see everything in terms of winning and losing.
Fueled by envy, you are ground up in the maws of competitiveness,
trapped in a rat race that never slows down.
you continue to be obsessed with success and failure, with winning and
losing, your actions will be constricted and stressful. But there are
times when the actions speak for themselves, and whatever you do becomes
more simple and effective. This gives you a glimpse of the possibility
of another way of doing things, a way to act more skillfully and with
The Human Realm and the Stress of Insecurity
human realm is the realm of passion and longing for relationship. You
feel incomplete and look for ways to fill that empty feeling. When you
are lonely, you try to connect, but once you make a connection, you feel
claustrophobic and disappointed. When you choose one person to connect
with, you wonder whether you could have found someone better. Whatever
you do, you think there might be something better that you have missed
the human realm, you are fueled by neediness and desire. You worry
about how you are perceived by others and obsessed with your popularity.
Although you create shifting coalitions of relationships, none of them
is all that stable. You are always insecure, and your mind hops all over
the place. On top of it all, you think too much, which complicates
everything. In the human realm, you long to feel more substantial and
are afraid of your own vulnerability.
you are always looking outside yourself for some kind of confirmation,
you will be stressed out all the time. But from time to time, moments of
spontaneous insight arise from within you. This clarity needs no
external confirmation. You find that you do not need to second-guess
yourself. You can appreciate what you are experiencing whether or not
there may be something better going on somewhere else.
The Animal Realm and the Stress of Habit
the animal realm, you establish habits of stability that are boring and
repetitive, but you lack the imagination to do anything else and are
afraid to change. You are set in your ways and find new ideas
threatening. You might have glimmers of inspiration to change, but
laziness and inertia drag you down. You would like not to be stuck, but
you keep doing the same things over and over again nonetheless. You are
fueled by ignorance and are afraid to rock the boat or to venture out
from what is familiar, even if it is unsatisfactory. You create
bureaucracies with incomprehensibly mindless regulations and procedures.
person in this realm may seem to be calm and stable, but this is not
true stability. It is more like a pillowy buffer protecting them from
facing the energy and intensity of life. The stuck quality of the animal
realm is a refuge of sorts. However, it begins to feel very heavy and
depressing, and you are afraid that this will never change.
stress of this realm is not sharp but dull. Your habits of body and
mind seem completely solid and invincible. There is a frozen,
mind-numbing energy. Murky as this is, there are occasional openings
when something sharp comes through. You begin to recognize how painful
it is, which is driven home by the negativity and fallout your ignorance
has created around you.
The Hungry Ghost Realm and the Stress of Never Having Enough
the hungry ghost realm, you want more and more, yet never get enough.
No matter how many riches you accumulate, you still feel poor. There is
always more money, more power, more gravitas you could acquire. If you
can’t play with the big boys, you no longer know who you are. You are
fueled by greed and are always hungry. Without all your things around
you, you begin to feel naked, so you pile on more and more. There is a
kind of delight in having the most and the best, but there is no
stopping point and no real contentment, no matter how much you have.
the hungry ghost realm, there is a painful contrast between inner
poverty and outer richness. The need to satisfy that inner hunger can
come to dominate your life, but it is possible to break that pattern and
bring the inner world and outer world into greater balance, so that
your appreciation of outer wealth is matched by the recognition of your
The Hell Realm and the Stress of Eternal Warfare
the hell realm, you are always enraged. You find enemies everywhere,
and you are always fighting. You are always on edge, ready to defend
yourself or to lash out. You are afraid that if you relax, you will be
threatened or destroyed, so you strike first if you can. You are either
red hot or ice cold. Fueled by hatred, you create wars and conflicts
both large and small. You are fearful and in pain, like a cornered rat,
and all you can do is attack.
mix of resentment, pain, and anger makes it hard to even breathe.
Seeing the world in terms of us and them, for us and against us, keeps
fueling this anger and warfare. But there are moments when you are not
caught in those polarities. Rather than living on a battlefield, you
begin to open to the textures and nuances of your experience.
The Three Culprits
all these styles of stress—the engine that keeps them going—is a gang
of three culprits. They are: ego fixation, emotional grasping, and
habitual actions. If you look into your anger, poverty mentality,
competitiveness, or greed, you will find them there. If you examine how
you continually cycle between hope and fear, you will find they are the
threesome is like an internal Mafia to which we pay protection money
daily. Once we lose our sense of the whole and identify with this one
little part, which we label “me,” “myself,” or “I,” there will be
conflict and struggle. In order to prop up and defend that “I,” we need
to apply our arsenal of negativity: our grasping, ignoring, hating, and
all the rest. And once those energies are unleashed, we start doing
stupid and harmful actions. For those actions, we reap consequences, and
once again the cycle is set up, as we react to those consequences in
the same harmful manner.
until we penetrate these deeper supports for the stresses we experience
on the surface of life, we will continue to be tossed about by hope and
fear and cycle through the six realms. Our stress level may fluctuate,
and we may have good times and bad times, but there will continue to be
an undercurrent of stress in whatever we do.
Stress and Growth
to stress is not as simple as just trying to reduce our stress or to
relax. A certain amount of stress is necessary for growth, and at times
we need to purposefully put ourselves in stressful situations. It is
easy to confuse the virtue of contentment or peacefulness with the
pseudo-peacefulness born of inertia and the fear of change. It is an
oversimplification of the Buddhist ideal of ease to think that it means
the avoidance of stress. Great teachers like Nagarjuna and Sakya Pandita
have pointed out that to learn we need to exert ourselves, and that to
progress along the path we have to give up our attachment to ease.
According to Nagarjuna: “If you desire ease, forsake learning. If you
desire learning, forsake ease.” And Sakya Pandita wrote: “The wise, when
studying, suffer pains; Without exertion, it is impossible to become
wise.” In fact, there is no such thing as a stress-free life. Life is
movement, and movement is stressful. Without stress there would be no
path, no wisdom, and no attainment. Ironically, without stress we could
not be at ease.
Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged students to “lean into the sharp points” of
experience. What all this points to is that although stress can be an
obstacle, it can also be a catalyst for growth. Trungpa Rinpoche
routinely placed students in positions beyond their comfort zone and
encouraged them to do the same to themselves. He was particularly
pointed in his critique of the approach of always looking for comfort,
whether it was loose, comfortable clothing, air-conditioned housing, or
comfortably unchallenging belief systems. He taught that a bit of
discomfort was not just an annoyance but a reminder of the need for
only do we have to lean into our own stress at times, but we also have
to be willing to allow others to learn in that same way. It is hard to
watch someone struggle without feeling anxious and wanting to help
out—and often that is what you should do. But it is not always so
simple. For instance, I was told that if you see a butterfly struggling
to break out of its cocoon, and you try to ease its struggle by prying
open the cocoon for it, that butterfly will emerge in a weakened state
and may even die. The butterfly needs the stress of working its way out
of the cocoon to build up strength and to dry its wings. Likewise, a
master gardener told me that when you plant a sapling, it is better not
to stake it if possible. She said that if the sapling has to secure
itself in the wind and weather, it will put down stronger roots and be
healthier for it. In this example, once again there is acknowledgment
that growing inevitably involves a degree of pain or stress. The
hothouse flower or the overprotected child simply does not acquire the
tools needed to survive.
Middle Way of Stress
a certain amount of stress is part of life, but how much stress and
what kind of stress? How can we navigate a course that is challenging
but not overwhelming?
Buddhist tradition acknowledges the reality of stress and discomfort.
It is realistic, uncomfortably so, in describing the stress, pain, and
suffering that accompanies our individual and collective lives from
beginning to end. The simple teaching of the first noble truth, the
truth of suffering, may be the most difficult to understand and accept.
We keep thinking that if we just fix this or fix that, tweak here or
there, we can avoid it. We think that if we were smarter, prettier,
wealthier, more powerful, living somewhere else, younger, older, male,
female, with different parents—you name it—things would be different.
But things are not different; they are as bad as they seem! Since it is
unrealistic to hope for a stress-free life, and that would not be all
that good in any case, it makes more sense to learn how to deal with the
stresses that inevitably arise.
dealing with stress we need to look at both the conditions we face and
how we are dealing with them. It is sometimes possible to remove the
causes and conditions that are stressing us out, but other times it is
not. So it is important to distinguish between the two. If we can change
our situation for the better, we should do so. There is no point
complaining about it—it is better to fix it. However, we may be stuck
with a stressful situation we cannot change. In that case, we still have
the option of changing our attitude.
need to be realistic and honest with ourselves so that on one hand, we
do not hold back when we could act, and on the other hand, we do not act
just to do something, when there is no benefit in doing so. In looking
at your external situation, there is no need to cover up problems or
look at the world through rose-colored glasses. But you also do not need
to stew and fret over all the world problems you are bombarded with
daily in the news or let yourself be mentally glued to the endless
vicissitudes of ordinary living.
the great Cambodian teacher Mahagosananda was asked how he maintained
his cheerfulness and equanimity in light of the violence and horrors of
the Khmer Rouge he had gone through, he smiled and said, “Life is full
of ups and downs.” There is great teaching in that statement. If we take
that kind of attitude, we can release some of our heavy-handed
expectations about how life is supposed to go for us, which frees us to
deal more simply with whatever we encounter. If our experiences are just
what they are, nothing more and nothing less, we can see that they are
not out to get us nor are they a confirmation. They are simply the
impersonal play of causes and conditions.
attitude is different from passivity or detachment in the negative
sense of disengagement, defeatism, or fatalism. It instead points to a
form of engagement with the world that is intelligent and not merely
reactive, that is realistic rather than dreamy. To paraphrase the great
Mahayana teacher Shantideva: When you can do something about a problem,
then just do it. Why worry about it? And when you do not have the
ability or the circumstances to do anything about a problem, why worry?
Worrying and stressing about it is not going to help anyone.
Training the Mind and Heart
I like about Buddhism is that it is so practical and hopeful. You may
be the type of person who gets stressed out at the slightest little
thing or you may be more hard skinned, even oblivious. But either way,
you are not doomed to be under the control of the stresses you encounter
because you were just “born that way.” No matter where on the spectrum
you start out, you can begin to change your relationship to stress for
the better. This is not accomplished by wishful thinking or pretending
to be other than you are, but by training your mind and opening your
primary mind-training tool is mindfulness practice, through which you
learn to settle your mind and to tame its wildness. As you repeatedly
bring your attention back to the breath, you are becoming more familiar
with your own mind and it is getting stronger. It is as though your mind
has more weight, so it is not easily blown about by every little
breeze. It is reassuring to discover that, amidst all the mental
commotion and ups and downs, there is something steady and reliable
about your mind at the core. When things get tough and you feel stress
beginning to take you over, you can draw on that inner strength.
with mindfulness comes the tool of training the heart to be more open
and compassionate. Compassion practices draw you out of yourself and
remind you to think of others. When you feel the force of stress
narrowing you down and drawing you into yourself, you can resist the
tendency to close down. You can look around you and through compassion
get a larger perspective.
is exaggerated when your mind is flighty and unbalanced, and it is also
heightened when you are weighed down with self-concerns and preoccupied
with yourself. The practices of mindfulness and compassion give you a
way to work with both of these problems. It is unrealistic to expect
your life to be free of stress, but there is a real possibility that you
could transform the way you deal with it. Stress brings to light
harmful habits of mind and heart. So instead of viewing it as an enemy,
you could regard stress as a teacher, and be grateful for it.
Judy Lief is a Buddhist teacher and the editor of the forthcoming Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma,
a three-volume series presenting the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana
Seminary teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Author of Making Friends With Death,
Lief teaches a contemplative approach to facing death and working with
the dying and leads an annual retreat for women touched by cancer
entitled Courageous Women, Fearless Living.