Anxiety part two.
And what Ram Dass had to say about it all.
If you missed it, I’ll give you a few moments to get caught up…
This week, let’s explore a little more closely what it looks like to feel it to heal it.
Remember those poor Aussie swimmers who had no choice but to remove their flotation devices in order to be rescued at sea by my teacher?
Of course they were scared, and of course their sympathetic nervous response had kicked in—they were in real mortal danger.
When stress physiology kicks in, the body has three instinctual responses: fight, flight, or freeze. In many cases, such as being lost at sea, some version of fight or flight isn’t possible. We feel metaphorically trapped, so we go to the third option—freeze, or shut down.
That’s exactly what these swimmers were doing, and it would have cost them their lives if they had let that response continue much longer.
In the freeze state, we check out, or disassociate as psychologists say. We leave our physical and emotional experience and think of something else, while our body is still having some version of the experience we don’t want to feel.
To keep avoiding uncomfortable feelings, we condition our body to tense against these reactions, stuffing them down and distracting ourselves to mask the discomfort.
As a fun aside—most exercise is actually a form of this. Running, for example, triggers a simulated stress response on the body, which thinks we are in actual danger and responds by activating the sympathetic nervous system and the fight or flight response, flooding the bloodstream with stress chemicals like cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine designed to give us more energy to run from danger. We start breathing more heavily and taking in more oxygen in order to increase our storehouse of energy. This causes the body to fill up with oxygenated molecules called free radicals, which eat through the cell walls into the DNA of cells, disturbing bodily immune function and forming the basis of all disease states. The reason we feel good after running is because the body releases bliss chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins to mask that stress response. This is known as ‘runner’s high’. Running’s reputation for helping with stress isn’t because it releases stress—it’s because it conditions us to live with stress. We may feel good in the ‘short run’, but are operating on borrowed time, as our increasing storehouse of stress begins to hijack our bodily and cognitive functions. Respond to this letter and let me know if you’d like to me to go into more detail about exercise and stress in a future edition.
Over the years, that bottled up stress starts to pressurize, like a shaken up can of soda, until it starts causing real damage to our mind and body in the form of disease, cognitive decline, impaired sleep and mood, and so on.
The more we do this, the more we condition ourselves to continue doing this. The cycle becomes automatic—encounter demand which causes stress response, recoil against it, push it down, and distract ourselves with something else like Netflix, sugar, sex, shopping, etc.
Interrupting this pattern begins with being aware of it.
As we deepen and expand our awareness through regular meditation, we can catch ourselves doing it.
Not only are we systematically releasing accumulated stress twice daily, but we’re becoming cognitively more aware of our patterns in the waking state which are causing us to accumulate more stress moving forward.
So we make a new choice—instead of recoiling and resisting, we relax into it, and allow ourselves to feel the discomfort.
Even if we can allow ourselves to feel just 1% more each time, this can produce significant results over time.
Globally revered spiritual leader Ram Dass admitted in 1992 that he still felt every single one of his so-called neuroses:
“In all the years I’ve been doing spiritual practices, I haven’t gotten rid of one of my neuroses. Not one of them. The only thing that’s happened is where they were originally these monsters that used to possess me, now they’re these little shmooes that I invite in for tea. Now they’re my style. I’m just neurotically stylish, instead of like, it’s a big thing. So it just changed its meaning. I was still in my own way, but it became charming, instead of “oh god, there I am again.” It’s just a perceptual shift where you relax a little bit.”
— Ram Dass, 1992
See, there’s actually nothing wrong with getting stressed. It’s an evolutionary response that can actually save our lives.
The problem lies within staying stressed, which happens when we don’t allow the energy to pass through us.
Ever heard the expression ‘bend and not break’?
This is an incredibly evolutionary way to be.
A ball made of granite has an ultra rigid structure, so it’s more impervious to damage, but one impact in the right spot will shatter it beyond repair.
A ball made of clay has an ultra malleable structure, so it’s more flexible, but one impact can flatten it permanently into more of a mess than a ball.
We want to be like a third kind of ball…
A ball made of rubber has enough ‘give’ to absorb impact, but a firm enough structure to return to form. It can get run over by a truck and bounce right back.
How can we cultivate our nervous systems to emulate these qualities of rubber balls?
Let’s discuss these and other ideas in Collective Effervescence, our online group meditation series, at its new time(!) this Sunday September 3 at 9AM LA / 12PM MIA / 6PM EU. Drop in for meditation only (first 30 min) or stay for discussion + Q&A on this and other life topics from the Vedic perspective.
Use the links below to add the full calendar of upcoming sessions to your calendar of choice, and your calendar will stay up to date automagically. Set reminders from the calendar settings page in your calendar program.
This week’s record is a big throwback to the emo era of my high school days with Bend And Not Break by Dashboard Confessional. Wow the nostalgia is heavy. And looking back at the lyrics, Chris Carrabba may have understood more about the avoidance of stress than we initially realized, with lyrics like “I'm talented at breathing. Especially exhaling” and “Try to understand there's an old mistake that fools will mak, And I'm the king of them, pushing everything that's good away”