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The Way Of The Yogi: Where Does Stress Come From?


Have you ever wondered why you sometimes wake up and sail through your day without any sense of stress, frustration or angst - while on another day stress and angst seem to be the themes of your existence? Is it in the water? Are we just the victim of random events that propel us without choice into unhappiness and stress? Do we have a choice in the matter?

Seekers, including the ancient yogis, have asked this question for thousands of years. Why do some events bother me while others do not? Why is it that the same event on one day seems to pass without a thought, when on another day it seems to become the very source of my entire life's suffering? And, most importantly, what, if anything, can I do about this?

Where does stress come from?

Most of us perceive stress and anxiety as coming from an outside source. You are stuck in traffic going 20 miles an hour on the freeway, and all you can think about is how the traffic is driving us crazy. Outside source to blame for our internal state. You step on the scale and it tells you your weight is five pounds more than 2 days before-your mood plummets. Outside source to blame for internal state. Your daughter announces that she will be moving back in with you indefinitely. You have budgeted the entire year to a penny-for yourself alone-and can finally afford that course you have been longing to take. Well, not anymore. Outside source to blame for internal state. We all have criteria for what we think will make us happy. For some of us, it is losing weight, finding the perfect partner, gaining the approval of our peers, or having lots of money. But there is a hidden subtext to our criteria for happiness that is often the root of the very suffering we are trying to avoid. Implicit in the desire to have money is the fear of being poor. Implicit in the desire to have a partner is the need to not be alone. Implicit in the desire to be thin is the implication that if I'm fat, I am not allowed to be happy.

By becoming attached to the idea that life needs to be a certain way in order for me to be happy, I sow the seeds of my own potential unhappiness. If having money means being happy, not having money means being unhappy. If I equate a partner with happiness, then being alone means being unhappy.

We are all programmed with a random set of criteria-conscious or unconscious mostly programmed by our past experiences, our culture, family-and even past lives-which determines the unconscious "rules" by which I decide whether I can allow myself to be happy and stress-free or not. If my "rules" are fulfilled - if I weigh 125, I am within the parameters of being allowed to feel happy - so I do. But if my "rules for happiness," which I myself have set, are not met, if I should get on a scale and see the number 130, I will not allow myself to be happy.

Do you see how this works? It is each of us-not-life that determines our level of happiness. How our life circumstances measure up to our criteria determines our level of happiness. In essence, each of us decides whether we can be happy or not. No life circumstance, no person, no event determines our level of happiness - we decide for ourselves.

This does not mean that we cannot have preferences. The trap is becoming so attached to our preferences that we cannot let go and allow life to show up as it will. Life has no allegiance to my criteria or me. It will show up how it shows up - like the rain does. The events of life have moved in their own rhythms and ways long before I was born and will continue long after I die.

Things happen. They are not personal. But we take them personally. We take the impersonal events of life-events that are much like the rain - and personalize them. We say, "God, if you love me you will not make it rain today." Then, if it rains, we decide we are mad at God. How is that? God is in every moment as it is unfolding now. How can I put any criteria on how God should show up? And who am I to decide God loves me if one thing happens and that God hates me if something else happens? This is all pure fabrication - another example of how we set up criteria for how life is to show up and then suffer when our criteria go unmet.

Rain will rain when it rains. It will happen when the meteorological conditions are present. We are the ones who put conditions on the rain and say, "If it rains, I will be unhappy." Okay, now I am unhappy - it rained. Whose fault is that? Is it the rain's fault or is it my fault? It's mine. I am the one who decided that reality should be different than it is.

The Reality Management Program

Yogis saw that our "rules" about how life needs to be in order for us to be happy are the root of all suffering. From the point of view of yoga, we have two choices. Choice number one is what I call the Reality Management Program. We spend our life energy trying to get all the people around us to fit our criteria do, say, act, just how we want so that we can feel happy. We train people around us-our close friends and our loved ones. We let them know, verbally or non-verbally, how they need to act in order to get our love. We do it at work as well. We put our entire sense of self into the success we achieve. We try to make reality fit our idea of success-more money, better title, recognition. People spend their whole lives just working on getting reality to fit this picture of "success" so that they can be happy.

Realizing that the Reality Management Program is an uncertain strategy for lasting happiness is something that each of us has to recognize for ourselves. After many years, lifetimes even, of struggling to find contentment in this way, some fortunate people start to realize that for the amount of energy they are putting into the Reality Management Program, it is not producing lasting happiness. It is a dead end. Only when the individual realizes this, can the spiritual journey begin.

If Reality Management doesn't work, why do all of us do it?

Take a look at some of the criteria that regularly operate in your life. The ones that you say, "If only _ then, I would be happy." Now imagine that you have that thing that you so yearn for. Imagine how you would feel. Happy? Content? My guess is that, for a moment at least, you would experience a state of "not wanting anything more." A state of contentment in which, for that moment at least, you feel complete. Nothing needs to be different than it is and you can completely be at rest. I would call this state the state of Being in which we experience-everything is okay, nothing needs to be different completion or wholeness.

I suggest that the reason we all stick so fervently to Reality Management is that in our own convoluted way, we are searching for the state of Being. We are searching for the experience of completeness, of not wanting anything more, of integration. We are searching for that which is the purpose and meaning of yoga-wholeness-could we but realize it.

With the Reality Management Plan, we are depending on outside circumstances to create an inner state. Since outside circumstances have a life of their own, this is a gamble. With choice number two, the Way of the Yogi, we begin with the assumption that the state of being we are looking for is already present. It is not a state that can be added to or found by achieving anything outside since it already is here.

Choice number two, the Way of the Yogi, comes down to this.

Be free from the need for anything to show up differently than it is in order to be happy.

If anything you do has a subtext of "in order to," you are in reality management. In the Way of the Yogi, we sincerely devote our lives to letting go of any conditions we have about how life needs to show up. We practice relaxing into the moment no matter what is taking place. When we face situations that we normally would react to, we catch ourselves and say, "Can I relax with this?" "What about this?" It is not about perfection, it is like a game. Watch what catches you can pull you back into reality management. By and by you will notice that just by putting your attention on this intention you will be able to relax with more and more things happening in your life.

How does the physical practice of Hatha Yoga tie into this? The physical practice of yoga is useful in two ways. First, the practice is intended to put demands on the body and mind in laboratory conditions so that we can see our habitual tendency to try to manage reality. We try to escape from the discomfort, physical, mental or emotional in the pose in much the same way we do in life. As we learn to better allow for all sensations, emotions, thoughts to be present without needing to comment, fix, judge, rationalize, or change the experience in any way, we are in practice for life circumstances where we are called on to do the same. Second, as we progressively learn to bypass the tendencies of the mind to manage reality, we drop into the state of being that is always present. In the absence of striving to achieve anything or make anything happen we experience the Being that we are. Yoga becomes the practice ground for learning to live from choice number two-the Way of the Yogi.


This article was originally published in Sacred Pathways Magazine

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