I have had a long career in human potential, collaborating with two of the great pioneers in psychology — Carl Rogers and Gerald Jampolsky. In directing community based health centers, I have worked with people facing some of the most stressful situations any human being will ever face: from people on AIDS and cancer wards, in grief groups with parents who’d lost children, at San Quentin prison working with ‘lifers,’ in refugee camps in Bosnia and Croatia with people who had lost everything, and with people in organizations overwhelmed by stress and anxiety and coping with a life that is tragically out of balance.
These people have taught me much about stress and the fear that underlies it and how stress and fear block the realization of a higher potential. But more profoundly, they repeatedly re-demonstrated to me the capacity of ordinary human beings to make an extraordinary shift in attitude to transform their experience from feeling overwhelmed by circumstances to a way of being that made them larger than circumstances.
This very shift in attitude generates the spiritual resilience that can move mountains. Stress and fear block spiritual resilience and traps us in the problem. Stress creates a condition in which the brain becomes cognitively predisposed to blindly doing the same useless, unproductive things over and over. We can break that vicious cycle - and relatively easily – by practicing simple principles that support a more peaceful, coherent and open minded way of relating and living. That’s not my opinion; it’s hard science.
I went through my own ordeal with stress and fear. Twenty-five years ago my life was engulfed by a perfect storm of stress. I was fired from a high level job I’d reached after years of climbing the proverbial ladder of success. Nine days later I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I was the father of four and struggling financially because of a variable mortgage rate that had gone through the roof. To make matters worse, my marriage was on the rocks, in part because for years I’d been wedded to my career more than to my wife. Instead of pulling us closer together, the stress of this situation only widened the cracks in our marriage. During the first few weeks of this storm I was beyond stressed. I was terrified.
Then, in the midst of this calamity I reached a point where I questioned which was worse: the enormous set of problems happening out there or the one enormous problem of fear happening in me. Somehow I managed to raise my mind above the fear and stress to a place of peace and quiet. In the stress-free atmosphere that ensued I began to see things very differently. I could actually recognize steps I could take that could open to possibilities and opportunities, all of which fear and stress obscured. I realized that when I was frightened all I was able see were problems cast in gloom and doom. The contrast between fear and peace was vivid and palpable, like night and day. I made a decision to work at letting go of fear whenever it raised its ugly head and to strengthen my willingness to be at peace as I faced whatever I had to face that day. I was determined to give my head every chance to heal. I was surprised and relieved to discover that choosing to be at peace wasn’t as hard as I thought. Actually, it made everything easier. Eventually, my change in attitude changed the outcome. The surgery was a complete success, sparing me a life of disability and my career took a whole new direction, one more aligned with my heart. None of this would have happened had I remained stressed and frightened.
Take this to heart: You don’t have to lose everything and then have an epiphany to gain the insight that can end stress as you’ve known it. You simply have to value peace more than fear. You simply need to make peace first and foremost as you approach life.