Ancient Secrets to Stress-free Happiness
It’s no secret that in our culture, stress is an out-of-control epidemic. In fact, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, up to 90% of visits to primary care physicians are for illnesses directly related to stress. Yes, 90%.
With the stresses of career, relationship, finances, and family constantly nipping at our heels, it’s sometimes easy to forget where stress comes from. Despite appearances, it’s not a result of our circumstances, nearly as much as most of us think. The truth is stress is caused much less by our situation than it is by our relationship to our situation.
And, believe it or not, that’s good news.
Because let’s face it: we can’t always control the traffic, the weather, the economy, and the way everyone in our lives treats us; but we can control how we relate to all of these things. It all boils down to recognizing and releasing the unhelpful habits that invite unnecessary stress into our lives. And that’s the secret to keeping stress at bay and living a happier, more buoyant life.
The ancient sages of yoga and meditation understood this, and by taking some cues from their wisdom, we can put ourselves on the road to more joy, ease, and harmony. Here are three stress habits—each listed with their yogic roots—that you might want to consider leaving behind:
STRESS HABIT #1 | LOOKING TO THE FUTURE (chitta vikshepa)
Everybody knows that hope is a powerful thing. But only a few of us realize it can also be a terrible thing—especially when it comes to stress.
You see, while hope can help us focus on a future where our circumstances will be better and our lives more calm and relaxed, it can also prevent us from seeing something much more important—namely, the possibility of a calm and relaxed life NOW.
Making matters worse, our focus on the idealized future can throw us squarely into conflict with our lives as they are today. Desperate to forge our idyllic situation, we thrust ourselves headlong into a battle with everything and everybody around us: perpetually wrestling with events, fighting with circumstances, and struggling with people to get things to line up with our idealized vision for the future. Wrestling, fighting, struggling—all in the name of relaxation.
At first glance, this may all seem a strange way to go about finding a relaxed life, but when we understand why it happens, it all begins to make sense.
The problem is that most of us have come to believe that our stress comes from our circumstances. “My job is stressful, my relationship is stressful, my LIFE is stressful.” we vehemently proclaim. Thus, the logic goes, if we wish to be stress-free and happy, we need to go to war with things to get them to fall in line.
But this notion is far from the whole story when it comes to the true source of our stressed-out lives.
Here’s the thing: your external circumstances—your job, your spouse, your health, your finances—are only one part of the equation. It’s only when they combine with specific internal thought patterns and habits that they become a source of stress. These internal patterns are something we call samskaras in yoga and can be modified in a way that changes the stress equation. Change the equation, change the result. It’s simple math.
But don’t take my word for it, look around. Have you ever asked yourself why some people are eerily calm and relaxed in the very same situation that has you pulling our hair out. Or better yet, why on one day the traffic jam has you in a tizzy and the next you’re cool as a cucumber?
If we pause long enough to think, it becomes obvious that our circumstances aren’t intrinsically stress-producing; if they were, all of us would be affected by them in the exact same way.
This is why the real solution to out-of-control stress lies not outside of you, but within you. And is also where the authentic practice of yoga comes in.
Contrary to popular belief, yoga isn't about bending and breathing as much as it is about creating an inner calm. It's a Science of Mind that empowers us to neutralize the internal sources of stress that are working behind the scenes sapping our happiness and fulfillment.
Our first step is to rein in the wandering attention, and stop postponing our relaxed ease by focusing on the future when things (we hope) will finally line up with our expectations.
Instead, we use a technique called dharana, or concentration, to train our attention to remain calmly present to the here and now—focused on how our reaction to events and circumstances drive our stress instead of playing the blame game and waiting for things to get better.
It is through this practice of concentration that you can develop a kind of Teflon quality where life’s difficulties slide right off of you, and you fall into a more calm and relaxed relationship things just as they are.
STRESS HABIT #2 | IGNORING NATURAL LAW (satya)
Our world is governed by laws: the law of gravity, the law of motion, and the law of supply and demand to name a few.
And there’s a funny thing about laws. When you violate one, there’s a consequence to be paid. Try violating the law of gravity by stepping off the edge of a second story balcony and see where that lands you…ouch!
[note: stepping off of second story balconies is hazardous to your health and should be avoided at all costs].
Of course, the same is true of the law of motion, supply and demand, and a whole range of others natural laws. Yes, if we want to live lives of ease and harmony. It helps to understand the laws that govern our world.
This is why it’s so important to understand a lesser-known law called the Law of the Present Moment.
The Law of the Present Moment states that what is, in this moment, can in no way be any different from how it is—at least for now. Right now, as an example, can’t be any different from you reading these words.
I know, you might be saying to yourself “That’s hogwash, I could have chosen not to read this column,” and it’s true: you could have chosen (past tense), but the fact is you didn’t and here you are, reading.
Then comes the argument “Well, I could just stop reading.” And yes, that also might be true in the future, in a microsecond from now perhaps, but for this moment—for this infinitesimally small slice of time called now—here you are, reading. See?
And so it goes throughout our lives. As each and every moment bubbles up, it is incontrovertibly how it is—and can be no other way for that moment. And this is true whether it finds you stuck in traffic, saddled with the stomach flu, or sunbathing in the south of France.
So why is understanding the Law of the Present Moment so important?
It’s because if we wish to be calm and relaxed NOW, instead of some time out in the future, we must realize that struggle and strain simply won’t do. For no matter how much we rail against this moment, it simply cannot be any different from how it is (for now). That's why in yoga, we have a term that reminds us of this Law—it's Satya. Satya, literally translates as "truth" and refers to the truth of what is. It's a kind of short hand for the Law of the Present Moment, reminding us that the only path to a calm and relaxed now is to find a way to be at peace with it—as it is.
STRESS HABIT #3 | RESISTING THE UNCHANGEABLE (vairagya)
As we’ve seen, The Law of the Present Moment teaches us that as each moment arises, it is fixed and can in no way be different from how it is—at least for that moment.
Of course, this means that while we are quite literally powerless to make this moment better—no matter what it is—we can (and here’s the kicker) make our experience of it worse…and more stressful.
It all happens through a little habit we call resistance. To be precise, mental and emotional resistance is the kind we’re referring to here, and it all transpires through a single, little thought: “This should not be like this.”
We get passed over for promotion. “This should not be like this.” we think.
The dishes are left in the sink (again). “This should not be like this.” we say.
The backache keeps us in bed. “This should not be like this.” we complain.
On and on it goes, we continue to resist our lives, violating the Law of the Present Moment, and sadly paying the price. Consequences, remember?
Here’s how it works.
In the moment you find yourself stuck in a colossal traffic jam, you’re stuck: driving along at four and a half miles per hour, likely sitting in a pretty comfortable seat, maybe listening to the radio, and watching the cityscape roll by. That’s your experience. No good or bad, no right or wrong. Just crawl, seat, radio, city. Period. And while it may not be ideal, it’s not all that bad either; let’s say it rates a six of ten on the old happiness meter.
But here’s where it gets interesting.
When we add resistance to the experience with single little thought “this should not be like this” all of a sudden our experience of our experience shifts—for the worse. Now in addition to the crawl, seat, radio, and city, you have frustration, irritation, and exasperation. And you’re still not going any faster—again, at least for now.
Because of the Law of the Present moment, your resistance has had zero impact on the experience itself—but it has effectively made your experience of it worse. Congratulations, you’ve just manufactured a helping of optional stress and the old happiness meter has plummeted from six down to a two or three.
Worst of all, if you’re like most people, this is no isolated incident. It’s a process that is operating all day long. Day in and day out, you’re unwittingly adding stress to your life at every turn.
Not surprisingly, yoga has a solution for this nasty little, happiness-sapping habit too. It's the practice of vairagya. Typically translated as non-attachment, vairagya invites us to hold on to our preferences and agendas a bit more loosely—especially when they are in conflict with how things are in this moment. It's a reminder that our resistance to the present moment only adds anxiety, stress, and struggle; and its practice is a major step on enjoying a more easeful and happy now (and now and now and now).
Understanding these three underlying principles is an important first step to living a lighter, happier life—free from unnecessary stress. For it is only when we are poised to interrupt the stress-producing tendencies that operate behind the scenes of our experience, that we can optimally navigate the inevitable ups and downs of life.
With just a little work, mountains of stress can be replaced with relative peace, harmony, and ease—even in the midst of the very same life you’ve blamed for your stress and frustration all along. Give it a try.
About the Author Eric Walrabenstein is a nationally-recognized speaker, teacher, and author and is one of the most sought-after authorities on the application of yogic technology for self healing and empowerment in the nation. As the founder of Yoga Pura, one of Arizona’s largest yoga centers, Eric has long been dedicated to making ancient wisdom and techniques practical and relevant for people from all walks of life. In addition to his work in his wellness center in Phoenix, Arizona, he is the creator of BOOTSTRAP, a yoga-based program to help troops and veterans heal from post traumatic stress as well as BetterBox, a subscription box revolutionizing the self-improvement industry. An ordained Yogacharya (preceptor of yoga), Eric's new book, Waging Inner Peace will be released in June. Preorders now being taken.