No, stress is *not* caused by your job or your spouse or the economy or the lack of world peace.
In Part 1 of this blog I asserted that stress in your life is not caused by your boss or your spouse or your children or your job or any of the external circumstances that afflict your life. However, you firmly believe that one or more of these are indeed the cause of your stress. And you try to change these factors expending much emotional energy. In the process you frequently bring even more stress into your life and sometimes get to breaking point and even snap.
So, what does cause stress in your life?
Stress appears in your life because you have a rigid view of“This is the way the world should be” and the Universe pays scant regard to your desires. And you refuse to accept this.
Recall the story of the hapless George who was asked to fire one of his best workers, threatened with being laid off himself, coping with an alienated wife and dealing with a child in trouble with the law. In each case he wanted the world to be a particular way and it wasn’t that way at all. And his refusal to accept it brought about the stress he felt.
He felt himself at the mercy of large forces beyond his control and these forces seemed bent on playing havoc with his life. Try as he might, he was unable to move these factors and he felt impotent.
There is a simple solution to this: Acceptance with grace.
Once you accept, truly accept, that stuff will happen to you and there is nothing you can do about it, stress miraculously leaves your life. We are not enlightened beings so we cannot truly accept this in all its glorious manifestations, and therefore there will always be some stress in our life. However, if we begin to implement this strategy, stress in our life will decrease markedly.
When the Indian sage Sri Ramakrishna passed on in the nineteenth century his disciples scattered. Rakhal, who later became famous as Swami Brahamananda, was walking towards the holy Indian city of Varanasi. It was cold and he had not eaten for days and wave of giddiness swept over him. He lay down under a tree. He thought his time had come and he was at peace with it. The body comes, the body goes and he did not see this as a big deal. He closed his eyes.Another traveler saw him lying down, compassionately covered him with an expensive shawl that he was wearing, and carried on. Rakhal started musing on the benevolence of the Universe that provided him with a warm shawl just when he needed it most. Even as he was doing so a passer-by recognized the shawl as high quality and thought that Rakhal was asleep. He quickly filched the garment and hurried away, doubtless congratulating himself on his good fortune.
Rakhal burst out laughing. How marvelous is this play of the Universe he thought. How unexpected are its twists and turns. Even as I was giving thanks for receiving a warm shawl in this bitter cold, the shawl disappeared. Like life itself, it came and it went. Such are all things in this transient world.
And he was truly joyful as a spectator of this Great Game of Life.
Rakhal’s acceptance of the Universe was absolute and there was no stress whatsoever in his life. You, too, can live a stress-free life if you develop such acceptance and the closer you move towards it, the less stress there will be in your life.
I get tremendous push-back, sometimes fierce hostility, when I put this view forward in public talks. How dare I say “accept” what the Universe presents? What about child molestation? What about genocide and woman enslavement and genital mutilation and rapacious dictators? How can one possibly “accept” such monstrosities? And don’t I know that all the progress in the world has come from individuals who did not “accept” the situation they found? That Jonas Salk did not “accept” polio and therefore we have the vaccine that is on its way to eradicating the disease.
Hold your horses. I have heard it all and many times. The ones who are so quick to denounce what I have put forward are also the ones who have no understanding of what I am really saying.
You have a vision of the world. In that vision there is a major role for you. George’s vision included his company being prosperous, applauding him for his work and the fine subordinates he hired, his wife supporting him and being an enthusiastic helpmeet and his children being diligent workers who would sail into Harvard.
Didn’t happen and he did not accept it. And his rejection was so strong that it caused him to throw up as a physical manifestation.
“Acceptance” means you acknowledge that what you wanted did not happen.
As long as you have a vision, it is incumbent upon you to try to make it happen. The more insistent your vision is, the more effort you should put in to accomplish it. This is required. There is no getting around it. You have to do what you can do and what you think is necessary to materialize your vision.
But what you also do is recognize that, with the best will in the world, you may not succeed.
The Universe has a say in this and it may or may not play ball with you. You know this completely and at a very deep level and are OK with it. And this deep “acceptance” is what relieves you of stress. Whatever the outcome is, you “accept” it and treat it as a new starting point.
It does not affect your wellbeing or make you an emotional wreck.
Instinctively we already know this. This is the reason The Way of a Pilgrim has become one of the greatest spiritual classics of all time. No one knows who the Pilgrim was. His condition was miserable. His account of his travels were discovered in a monastery years after he presumably died and the translation did not hit the Western world till decades later. He braved the Siberian winter with only a threadbare coat. He dislocated his shoulder and had no funds to procure medical attention. He lived with the pain and used it to remind him to pray. He had few possessions and the only one he valued was a tattered copy of the Philokalia.
The Pilgrim’s “acceptance” of his lot was total and his words continue to inspire millions even a century and a half after he wrote his account.
Few persons have ever borne a weight on their shoulders as heavy as General Dwight D. Eisenhower on June 5, 1944. The invasion of Normandy had been postponed to the next day. Hundreds of thousands of troops were ready and on edge. Nearly ten thousand ships and boats were ready to cross the turbulent seas to ferry those troops over. More than twelve thousand planes waited to provide air support. Across the world millions of fighting men waited with bated breath to see which way the tides of war would turn. The fate of billions of civilians would ultimately hinge on the decisions he made as commander of Operation Overlord.
Wouldn’t you say he had good cause to feel the mother of all stress?
And yet he slept soundly. He recounted later that he had done all he could – consulted the most competent meteorologists, assigned the best field generals to plot the campaign in their assigned areas and used the most able logisticians to plan the invasion. There was nothing more for him to do and he “accepted” in advance what the morrow would bring.
Acceptance does not mean that you placidly acquiesce to the myriad injustices that are all around you. In fact, that you are incensed about these injustices is the very reason you need to try your level best to “right” these “wrongs”. But, like Ike, you know when you have done all you can and you make peace with the outcome whatever it is.
Clearly this attitude is immensely helpful at work and in life. Rakhal and The Pilgrim were exceptionally advanced spiritual adepts and Ike was a super disciplined military commander. Is it possible for an “ordinary” person to adopt such a way of life?
Yes, it is! I can speak with sure knowledge because thousands of executives have taken my programs. It takes, on average, a month for a participant to begin changing his – or her – world view. Such a shift is small at the four-week stage, but it is sufficient to bring about a marked decrease in stress. And many progress exponentially from that point on.
And here is another paradoxical benefit. When you sincerely, truly and completely “accept” whatever the outcome is of your action, you frequently obtain the result you want.
It was the semi-final of the 2011 US Open Tennis tournament. Roger Federer, on a comeback streak after a lack-luster year, had outplayed Novak Djokovic and was leading 5-3 in the final set. The crowd was solidly on his side. His serves were lethal and coming beautifully. In fact, he was up because his serves were so difficult to return. They were not rockets like those of Andy Roddick or Ivo Karlovic, but they were sharply angled and frequently just caught the edge of the tape and skidded away out of reach.
Federer had two match points and was serving at 40-15. The game was over – or should have been. The Fed hit a competent serve and Djokovic took a full swing at it sending it whizzing down the line where it clipped the tape and bounded away for a winner. It was a low percentage shot, one that Federer himself would never have attempted. But Djokovic had already “accepted” the outcome and went for broke. And he succeeded but he would have been OK if he had not.
A demoralized Federer, who many consider the greatest tennis player ever, went on to lose the game, the set and the match. And Djokovic demolished Nadal in the final to win three Grand Slams in a single year – a feat accomplished by only five other male players, including Federer himself.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer continues to inspire millions:
“God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.”
The wisdom to know the difference has been the stumbling block for most, and acceptance as outlined above is the missing link.
Try this method. It works!
And, finally, ponder these words by Viktor Frankl who – having lost his wife, parents and sister in Nazi concentration camps – certainly knew a thing or two about adversity:
“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”
Please do comment if what I have said touches a chord in you.