Thursday, September 20, 2012

Turning stress into positive energy: The inner alchemy

Based on a talk given in Bradenton, FL on Sept 20, 2012

Stress is an ubiquitous part of the fabric of life. It is a subjective phenomenon and it is difficult to quantify. The effects of stress on the body and mind can be perceived by everyone, the triggering factors leading to stress can also be identified. The fundamental source of this energy however, is difficult to pinpoint. It originates deep in the mind. Just as gravity is an inescapable fact of life as long as earth retains its mass, stress is inescapable as long as there is life in the mind and body. It is helpful to look at stress in the form of energy. Energy can be beneficial or destructive. Even destructive energy can be contained and channeled in the right direction. Everyday life offers plenty of avenues to channel this stress energy in a positive and beneficial direction. 

Since individual stressful situations are highly subjective and difficult to quantify, let’s divide perceived stress in the mind and body into four broad groups.

1. Mild stress.
Stressful thoughts can be easily overcome by diverting the mind and one is able to go on with daily work and activities with a smile.

2. Moderate stress.
Stressful thoughts can be overcome with difficulty and one is still able to go on with daily work and activities with a smile.

3. Severe stress.
Stressful thoughts cannot be overcome and one is unable to go on with daily work and activities on a particular day, but is able to recover the next day.

4. Uncontrolled stress.
Stressful thoughts that impair the ability to go on with normal daily work and activities for more than a day.

During a typical work week, divide each day into 3 parts. Eight hours of sleep, 8 hours of work and 8 hours of personal time. Stress can impair the ability to enjoy work and personal time. Although stress can impair the ability to sleep, in general, sleep helps the body recover from the effects of stress.

Using these 4 broad groups of stress, we can come up with a scoring system for stress. Although this has not been validated in controlled experiments, it may serve as a useful guide to quantifying  accumulating stress on a day to day basis. Let’s assign 1 point for mild stress, 2 points for moderate stress, 3 points for severe stress and 4 points for uncontrolled stress.

During waking hours, it is impossible to have the mind free of potential stressful thoughts. If one remains indifferent to these thoughts, they are created and destroyed in the mind without generating unpleasant feelings in the mind and fatigue in the body. The moment one feels unhappy in response to these thoughts, these stressful thoughts have started to take effect on the mind and the body. In other words, any negative emotional import given to a thought is a source of stress.

If this stressful thought is perceived as mild, give it 1 point, moderate 2 points, severe 3 points and uncontrolled stress is assigned 4 points. Make a note of how long stressful thoughts linger in the mind resulting in unhappiness. For example, if mild stress lingers in the mind for 8 hours, then multiply 1 times 8, which gives a score of 8 (1=point assigned for mind stress, 8=the number of hours one feels the effects of stress). If one feels severe stress for 8 hours, then multiply 3 (points assigned for severe stress) by 8 (number of hours that one feels the ill effects), which gives a score of 24.

Now, to get to the final stress score, divide whatever score you get by 8 (the number of hours of sleep recommend everyday). In the above example, mild stress for 8 hours was scored as 8 and severe stress for 8 hours was scored as 24. The final stress score is 1 (8 divided by 8) in the first example and 3 (24 divided by 8) in the second example of severe stress.

Let’s take another example. If mild stress is felt for 4 hours, then multiply 1 (point assigned for mild stress) by 4 (number of hours of stress). Multiplying 1 times 4 gives 4. Now, divide 4 by 8 (number of hours of sleep recommended in a day). This gives a final stress score of 0.5.

The formula is as follows

Point for type of stress (1-4) x Hrs of stress experienced   = Stress score

A final stress score of 1 or less in a 24 hour period may result in little cummulative effects of stress in the long haul. If the final stress score is greater than 1, negativity related to stress may not be not dissipated right away and this may accumulative resulting in chronic stress down the road. Chronic stress may alter normal biological processes in the body potentially resulting in diseases.

The eyes can be thought of as the link between the body and the mind. The eyes can reflect whether the mind is calm or agitated. The 2 nerves that run from the eyes to the visual centers in the back of the brain intersect approximately close to the center of the brain and then diverge again to the back of the brain. When you look at this from above, that is the 2 eyes, the point of intersection in the middle of the brain and the 2 visual centers in the right and left half of the brain resembles an hourglass.  

An hourglass marks the passage of time. Traditionally, two glass containers are connected with a narrow waist. When placed vertically, sand particles slowly drop from the upper chamber to the lower chamber. Now, think of the body and the mind as the two glass containers connected at a narrow waist. The upper chamber represents the mind and the lower chamber represents the body. The narrow waist is the mind - body connection. The sand represents stressful thoughts. Once mental energy is converted to stress, it starts to accumulate in the mind. During waking hours, it slowly percolates down into the body. At the end of the day, during sleep, if this energy is not dissipated correctly and completely, some of this energy is returned back to the mind. The mind being an infinite storehouse, pushes this outside of the conscious realm. This hidden stress may manifest later and slowly disrupt normal biological processes of the body leading to chronic illness. The first step in this long and slow process is the effect of the stressed mind on food intake. When we are stressed, there is usually an imbalance in the amount and type of food we take in. In addition, the timing of food intake is also disrupted. This creates disturbances in the physiological processes of digestion. Smooth and regulated generation of energy from food sources is disturbed. Craving for certain types of food and drink set in, and these may not necessarily be good for health. A stressed mind will not allow one to get a good restful night’s sleep. The mind becomes a busy place full of thoughts. Poor quality sleep may affect the tranquility of the mind. The combination of poor sleeping habits and a disturbed mind leads to more pronounced likes and dislikes in our daily interactions in both personal and professional settings leading to more emotional tension. These are examples of interconnected relationships between the mind, body and our environment that lead to negative consequences from stress.

No matter how mindful we are about not allowing stressful thoughts to accumulate, it is inevitable that some amount of stress gets generated. We may be very watchful about how we think, but we cannot control how others think and act. As stress accumulates in the body and mind, the portion that is not dissipated accumulates as potential energy. If one does not know how to control and release this in a predictable and safe manner, it may recoil inwards manifesting as disease or spill outside resulting in manifested negativity such as angry outbursts and harmful actions.

When the mind is overwhelmed with stressful thoughts, it can be thought of as a river that floods. Dams are built to control the flow of water in rivers. There are many benefits and some downsides to building a dam. Overall, there is a benefit. Just as the true extent of the damage caused by flooding can only be assessed once the water recedes, the real extent of the the damage we cause ourselves and others will be apparent when the stress recedes from the mind. Often, it may be too late to recover from the damage caused. Here, prevention is better than cure.

If we are able to develop and practice techniques to dam the flow of stressful thoughts, these can be released in a controlled fashion just as water escapes through sluice gates from the reservoir created by the dam. As this water is released, electricity is generated and this water can  turn dry parched land into useful farmland. Similarly, as we release mental energy, we can turn negative energy into positive energy. Here is an example to illustrate this point.

We all have experienced troubling thoughts. Some may persist and come into our conscious realm repeatedly. These thoughts may reach a point when it might lead to anger or other negative emotions. When one cannot hold these in any longer, it may come out as an outburst of negativity. Often times it becomes difficult to control this just as it is difficult to control a flooding river. After one expresses negative emotion, there is a temporary sense of relief from the burden associated with carrying that negative emotion. This is usually very short lived. The mistake we make is to forget that expressing negativity causes great harm to ourselves before it harms anybody else. As we experience stress and negativity, we should constantly remind ourselves that the greatest harm would be inflicted on ourselves. The more we practice this, the stronger we get in preventing uncontrolled outbursts of stressful emotions. This is like building a dam across a river that constantly floods. The next step is to find a safe way to discharge this energy. Tell yourself that the only outlet for this energy is through the gates of love and compassion. Initially, these gates may be tiny in comparison to the flood of negative energy that seems to engulfing you. But, just as a dam releases a little water at a time, take your time in discharging this energy. As you are doing this, tell yourself that you are generating electricity that works the muscles that make you smile.

Some may say that this may not be very practical to do. To be watchful about every stressful thought and work on releasing this energy in a positive fashion may be difficult in the course of a busy day. Rather than work on releasing stress energy several times during the day, set aside a “stress hour” at the end of the day. During the day, if any thought troubles you, mentally tell yourself that this would be dealt with at the time of the “stress hour”. Think of this stress hour as a narrow deep river valley where engineers would say is a good place to build a dam. The valley walls act as a natural barriers to water. The beginning and the end of the “stress hour” act as walls that direct the stress energy in one direction. Just as a dam serves as a safe outlet for a river that may be flooding upstream, this “stress hour” would serve as a safe outlet for the flood of stress that may have accumulated during the day. Let this pent up energy discharge slowly through the gates of love and compassion. As you release each stressful thought, thank every one of these stressful thoughts for providing you with the energy to generate positive feelings of love and compassion.

A good place to build these internal gates of love and compassion is at a narrow imaginary point where the body and the mind intersect. The eyes serve as a physical reference point that serves as a gateway to the mind and the body. With the eyes open, the manifested universe is visible. The manifested world extends far beyond the scope of the physical eyes. There is no finite limit. If there is a finite limit to the manifested universe, what defines that boundary and what lies beyond it? Similarly, with the eyes closed, the unmanifested mental universe is perceived. Again, there is no finite limit. If we can’t see the mind beyond beyond the depth of thoughts, we can’t assume that it is the finite limit of the mind. Unless someone can prove otherwise, it extends to infinity. So, the manifested physical world and the unmanifested mental world extend to infinity. Through our eyes, we can project love and compassion both internally and externally. Every human being has the ability to do so, should we chose to exercise this ability.

The infinite internal and external worlds that intersect at the narrow point between the two eyes can be visualized as the symbol for infinity, which resembles an hourglass.

The nature of this infinite reality is described in an ancient Indian scripture as follows-

“There is perfection in pure consciousness and there is perfection in the manifested universe. Pure consciousness is reflected in the manifested universe. When one merges with the other, all that is seen is perfection”
- Isa Upanishad

If one assumes that pure consciousness and the manifest universe are linked, does deep study and understanding of one aspect leading to understanding of the other? It is like asking if one sees what is on the front of the hand, would that allow one to see what is on the back of the hand at the same time? Focusing on the manifest universe and ignoring pure consciousness leads to knowledge of the manifest universe. Focusing on pure consciousness and ignoring the manifest universe leads to knowledge of the nature of pure consciousness. The knowledge of one is not complete without knowing the other.

With the human body and mind, we can get glimpses of the perfection in the manifested and unmanifested universes. We seek this perfection through our quest for happiness. The body and the conscious mind have limitations. The happiness we get through the body and the conscious mind is confined and finite. Rather, if we forsake this finite happiness and use the body and the mind as two wings of a bird and soar into the higher and more infinite realms, there is unlimited happiness to be found. When a bird dives into the water, its wings get soaked in water and become heavy. As soon as the bird leaves the water, it shakes off its wings and is able to fly away. Similarly, when we get very involved in the world, the limitations of the body and mind become very apparent. Unlike a bird that is able to shake water off its wings, we find it very hard to shake off worldly attachments. With “heavy wings” of worldly attachments, it is very hard to fly into freedom.

There are people and situations in the outside world that may cause or provoke stress and at the same time, there are people and situations in the outside world that bring us happiness. The same thing happens in our minds as well, where thoughts replace people and situations. By focusing on stress, one ignores happiness and by focusing on happiness one ignores stress. But by looking at both stress and happiness as different forms of the same energy, one realizes the nature of the underlying energy behind both these emotions.

On a piece of paper draw a picture of an hourglass or simply a figure of eight. Focus your gaze on a point where the two circles intersect. Keep your gaze on this point without blinking. If you feel a burning sensation, gently close your eyes and open them again and fix your gaze on the point where the two circles intersect. After several minutes of this practice, close your eyes and mentally recreate the figure of 8 and focus on the same point where the two circles intersect. The two circles that comprise the figure of 8 are the body and the mind. Now mentally tell yourself that at the point of intersection of the two circles lay the gates of love and compassion Channel any thought that travels through your mind, including stressful thoughts through these gates of love and compassion. Happy thoughts may seem to easily slip through these gates. Stressful thoughts may seem to be too big for this gate. Picture yourself standing at this gate, looking at stressful thoughts and gently inviting them to pass through without fear. As stressful thoughts travel through this gate of love and compassion, they are transformed into this positive energy.