Stressed out

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Part of a series of Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talks given during the Green Tara Winter Retreat from December 2009 to March 2010.

  • When you begin to feel stressed out, slow down and look at what’s going on
  • Discontentment and unhappiness often contribute to the stressed-out mental state
  • Losing track of a virtuous motivation also may result in feeling stressed out

Green Tara Retreat 040: Stressed out (download)

43 Looking at the Mind When Feeling Stressed-Out – Green Tara Retreat 01-28-10

This is the third part for me on the series about fear. What I have done is look at three of the more prevalent types of things that I saw coming up in my life over long periods of time. One is about getting stressed out. I’ve been able to spend some time looking at that. My first question is, “What is going on? Really, what is going on?” If you find yourself getting all stressed out, I think it’s really helpful to slow down first of all. There are so many different kinds of situations and particulars that can be going on.

I think it’s helpful to realize that in some ways it’s a little bit of a dangerous kind of mental state. The reason I say that (and this is where I think the fear comes in for me), is because usually when you’re stressed out, you’re kind of discontent and unhappy. That state of mind can lead to some bad consequences. And it grows. You can get quite angry. And for me, that was one of my fears. When I first was introduced to this, I remember thinking, “I am just going to burst!” What was that about? Well that’s like a pressure cooker inside, where you might be in fear and anger. But what I found that actually was more of a fear for me was a fear of giving up. And I think that’s why they call it stressed out. Because you are going to go “out” some way, you’re burned out, which I think is the worst-case scenario.

When I was working at the hospital, I used to go through different phases and I always thought, “Wow, if I ever get burned out, I’m going to really not stay on with things.” What I realized about that state of mind is that you don’t care. That’s really not a good way to be going about your endeavors. But I think that’s a little extreme. I think stressed out for me is usually not quite fried yet.

Years ago I learned something about stress from a psychology book somebody gave me. They talked about how you have these good qualities, but you’re using them in excess. So you’re kind of getting out of balance. I thought about that, because it was kind of useful at the time. My thought now is that the times I get flat stressed out, I usually start off with enthusiasm and a willingness about a project, or some kind of endeavor. I don’t think those good qualities actually are in excess when I get burned out at all. I feel like what’s happening for me is I have not been taking care of myself. I’ve not been mindful about how I’m taking care of myself, working, and endeavoring. I’d say the initial motivation is lost at the point when I feel stressed out. What I find helpful is in the midst (when I am aware of that), to really decompress, back off from things, get a bigger view and a bigger perspective about things, and do the things I need to make the whole situation more harmonious, both within and whatever the circumstances are around me.

It’s important to check out, “How am I taking care of my body?” and, “How am I taking care of my mind?” In terms of the body, I’ve used this for years and it’s always helped me (and I’ve refined it a little bit). I always make sure when I feel stressed out that I just get my pattern back of getting sufficient sleep, eating wisely, and exercising daily. For me, that takes care of a lot right there, because I’m not spending so much time doing whatever I was doing! Many times I’m just too focused and spending too much time working, I’ve gotten things out of balance.

Then there’s the side of the mind. For the short term (like when you’re right in it), I think it’s really helpful to do things that are very calming. That can be many different things for many people. For me it might be to take a walk or do breathing meditation, which I find quite calming. But I think the main thing is this: to try, in the long haul, to give yourself more balance. Really look at what’s going on, and then try to go back to your motivations and create a sense of delight in what you’re doing. Part of that delight might be the delight of just giving, and getting out of any kind of self-centeredness. Self-centeredness is usually pretty revved up when you’re feeling stressed out. For everyone the circumstances will be different, but just go back and get yourself really calm and try to figure out what’s going on. In the midst of it all, it’s pretty hard to do. It’s better to let things mellow out. When you have a much calmer frame of mind, then try to figure things out.

And then the last piece, I think this is where the Dharma is a lot more useful in a way. For me, in part, it is recognizing that you’re trying to do something virtuous. Then you get all stressed out. If you’re going to give up, you are actually throwing out something that’s actually going to be beneficial for yourself. This is the thing that to me just feels like what’s happening in that moment is what I would call “active ignorance.” It seems to me, in my state of mind, there’s a lot of confusion going on then. That’s kind of a dangerous thing, because to throw out things that are going to be good for you in the long run is not really what we want to be doing. It’s better to practice “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I hope this is helpful to somebody.

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