A Perfect Storm of Stress And Then An Awakening

Twenty years ago Life challenged me to wake up to a fact of life. It was a time when circumstances converged with my bad attitude to create a perfect storm of stress. I had a high powered job at Stanford Medical School butting heads with world class egos, at the height of my career to that point, and one day the world came crashing down on me. The chairman of my department and I didn’t see eye to eye and I got fired. Nine days later I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I was married with four children and had a large mortgage payment that unemployment insurance couldn’t possibly cover.

The doctors told me to prepare for a paralyzed face, being half deaf, and using a walker to navigate across the room. I thought at that time: who is going to hire an executive who staggers into the interview on a walker, speaks out of a half frozen face that drools, and doesn’t hear well. All the signs said: You and your family are doomed. To make matters worse, my marriage, which was already in trouble, was falling apart. All the stress just widened the cracks that were already there.

Then, in the middle of it all, I had an epiphany. I describe it in the Prologue to my book, Mystic Cool.

  • I was trying to hold things together and over nothing my wife and I had an argument and said things that were demoralizing to both of us. I went out on the deck to get away from it all and my mind began to run away with me, imaging all the dire things that could happen. These fearful thoughts quickly eroded the fragile ledge of safety to which my sanity clung, dropping me into a hollow that spiraled down and down, into a dark cavern of the mind. The more I fell, the darker it got. The darker it got, the more frightened I became until I was lost in panic. It was a nightmare into my sanity disappeared.
  • Then, at some point, my conscious mind returned like the phoenix rising out of the ash, came back to life. I felt emptied and spacious, like the soft sky after a storm. For the first time in a very long time, I was at peace. I relaxed into it completely, the way we relax into the relief of pain. Gradually, my mind widened and, as it did, the future stretched out in front of me with wonderful possibility.
  • When I opened my eyes and looked around, the first conscious thought I had was that I was OK, followed by the recognition that I would always be so, if I could just be at peace. When my personality was back intact, I did a reality check. Do I have a brain tumor? The answer was yes. Is the prognosis still the same? Again, yes. Am I about to join the ranks of the unemployed? Yes. Is my marriage on the rocks? Yet I still felt I would be fine. I felt at peace inside, despite the difficult circumstances.
  • The experience stayed with me; the following week was peaceful. I did not think much or talk much, and I did not worry. My anxiety was gone. I went back to work. I had been offered a month’s extension to help transition the department, which initially I had turned down. Now I wanted to return to the office to put things in good order and leave with a good feeling. The usual stressors no longer bothered me. I worked right up to a few days before the surgery, and during that entire time, as I recall, I did not entertain one negative thought.
I think there are a lot of people facing real difficulties in this economy right now that could use a week spent like that. It may be hard to see at such times, but it’s all ours for the choosing. regardless of circumstances.
In the week following my epiphany, I began to see that stress boiled down to one thing — fear. I saw that my stress represented the way I was seeing things through fearful eyes, connecting back to a part of my brain that generated fight or flight. In the months leading up to being fired, I couldn’t perform well because of stress. I couldn’t see opportunities that were there or make moves I should have been making. I couldn’t face the handwriting-on-the-wall because I was too afraid to look. During those months, I felt lousy physically. I was fatigued. I couldn’t sleep. When I wasn’t angry, I was depressed. All these negatives are the neurological signs of stress, indicating fear has taken control of the brain.
I also saw with clarity that when I was at peace I was powerful; powerful enough to change my dire circumstances. Prior to my wake-up, I had not really value peace or relate to it as personal power. Rather, I saw it as a complacent state that dulled my edge. The perfect storm of stress helped me understand that peace is a highly dynamic state. It is an engaging attitude that faces life without being afraid. It is the zone athletes find, the threshold to excelling entrepreneurs call “the top of your game,” and the “effortless effort” mystics cultivate. I even began to believe that a dynamically peaceful attitude could achieve the miraculous, which I clearly needed. It did that too. The surgery was a huge success with none of the disability that was predicted. Today, medical science would credit my state of mind, explaining that it established the mind-body connection that increases the odds for healing. Being at peace also got me my job back. I think my state of mind made me far more attractive than had the fearful attitude that got me fired.
Peace is power, which is why I wish all of us a peaceful day, every day, all day long. The blogs on this site are about how to tap this power.