There is a really simple way you can substantially reduce your levels of stress and be happier and have a much clearer mind. It might sound very simple and it takes just a little effort and awareness on your part. It is not by doing more but by doing less. Doing less of what harms you and is a cause of stress and more of what is good for you. In our life today there are many potential causes of stress. Many people live in a city where there are a lot of things going on (loud noise, visual stimulation, many other people – just think of going by public transport during rush hour). Even if your environment is quite calm there is your computer and phone which is a constant source of stimulation and a potential cause of stress. But most people don’t leave it at these external causes of stress – through the way they are acting they are creating new stress and tension in their mind without even realizing it. All the while thinking the cause for their mental agitation lies in the outside, with external things and other people. In this post I want to create some awareness for how each and every one of us is responsible for the state of our mind – through the way we condition it via our thoughts, speech and actions.
There is a very simple way of living your life with more self-awareness, it takes just a little effort and your life will be so much more harmonious, peaceful and happy. Many people look for peace of mind in meditation. While this is certainly helpful, I would advise to first start by developing awareness and self-regulation regarding your behaviour (thoughts, speech and actions). Why? Let me use a simple analogy; Let’s say you are driving a car and you notice the handbrake is on (not completely, but just a little). You would like to go faster. So now you have two options. You can either step on the gas OR you can release the break. When you use meditation without first becoming aware of where you are causing stress for yourself and taking responsibility for that, that is like stepping on the gas and ignoring that the break is on. If you want to actually move ahead (ie. reduce your overall level of stress and have more peace of mind, happiness and contentment) releasing the break is the most intelligent and obvious choice (learning about how certain things you do are harmful and making a different choice). Of course if you engage in meditation in a holistic way then there will also be improvement in self-awareness and a change in your behaviour. But it is better to focus directly on the cause of stress. You don’t need to watch your breath to train mindfulness. You can watch your behaviour, which has a very big effect on your mental state, and develop self-awareness and mindfulness there first. It is much more important and will lead to better results. Remember when you reduce the causes of stress then you will have a reduction of stress. It will be a very stable improvement and it won’t be dependent on your formal meditation practice.
So now, how can we actually reduce our levels of stress?
The first step is to develop awareness for good and bad. You recognize that there are certain things that are harmful to you in your life and also to other people which you are currently doing. Harming others and harming ourself goes hand in hand. I’ve never hurt somebody or treated them badly and afterwards felt good or contented. Maybe for a little, while the anger lasted, but once my mind cooled back down then it was obvious that what I did was not a good thing and I felt bad for it, I felt uncomfortable or guilty and uneasy. Sometimes this might not be easy (especially if you really dislike someone). But remember, here we focus on your behaviour and how it impacts YOU emotionally. This is about your well-being. It is good to recognize what effect your actions have on other people but it’s most important to see what effect they are having on you, because this will motivate you the most to change your behaviour. This way you can judge the things you are doing, not by an external standard but by an internal one and you will progress quickly. We start developing awareness with our physical actions. Are we taking physical actions of hurting or harming another person? Are we cheating on our romantic partner, stealing something? The physical level of action has the longest delay and it takes quite some getting worked up about something to actually “do” something. So this is easiest to start with. Then comes actual speech and things we say and then thoughts. If you feel like physically your behaviour is good then have a look at the things you are saying out loud. Now after some situation happened where you did something that you don’t feel too comfortable with (obvious or not-so-obvious) take a moment to reflect and put your hand on your heart. Ask yourself: “How am I actually feeling about this?”. Then you wait a few seconds and you give yourself time to really feel it. You will get an answer. You don’t have to ask other people – ask yourself and your own heart. When you feel that: “Yeah, I shouldn’t have done that, I’m feeling uncomfortable, I’m feeling pain and I’m feeling uneasy.” So next time when this happens (you insult another person for example) – maybe mid-sentence you will stop and you will realize what you are doing. And when this happens, this is important, what you will feel is you will feel a calming effect on your mind which springs from refraining from that negative action. You can notice this. Maybe not in the beginning, but gradually you can begin to notice that. Of course you will feel the agitation related to how much action you have already taken. So if you made three insults and then stopped yourself, you will feel a level of agitation related to these three insults. But if you would have done ten more then you are now ten insults calmer and happier! What a relief. We often think that other people are the cause of our unhappiness or stress and then we insult them to let off steam. This feels good for a little while, but it actually agitates us more. When we think in this way we are deluded by our own emotions and not thinking clearly. If you practice what I suggest then you will gradually come to see how this process works. Only by stopping the chain of action that springs from negativity on our mind can we actually affect the root of this negativity and have a real decrease in stress and an increase in happiness. Now if that is not desireable! This is a very simple and straightforward way to improve your life.
The method is simple: Feel for yourself what is causing you harm in the long term – what is an action that you deem a “bad action” because it actually harms you. Then on the other hand when you do certain things: when you do things for another person, you are acting in a healthy selfless way, you are helping someone, then you can feel afterwards and reflect. Again put your hand on your heart and reflect and go like: “How am I feeling now? What effect did this action have on me?”.
So first you develop your awareness or mindfulness by recognizing moral (something that leaves you with a pleasant, positive feeling) and immoral (something that leaves you with a painful, negative feling, stress and tension) The second step is to stop doing those immoral (harmful to you and others) things and start doing more moral (beneficial) things. How do you actually stop doing things that are harmful? It’s like dropping something that is hot. If you are holding a cup of tea and it is too hot (like burning hot) you will drop it (or put it down if it is not too hot, if it is as hot that it is actually burning your hand then you might not even care if it makes a mess on the floor). Also you will only experience relief of the pain in your hand once you drop the cup. And there is no other way to drop the cup than to drop it. It has to be done, not thought or talked about. So the dropping of negative actions is a natural consequence of clearly realising the implications of such actions for yourself. It is based on your own experience. You cannot theorize this or think your way there. This is why I am telling you to focus on what you are feeling after doing certain things. Once you understand it you will naturally stop doing these harmful things. Be patient and give yourself time to learn about yourself and how these things work. Also make enough room to actually feel what is coming up for you. It’s important to do this properly and really be honest with yourself. This is about improving the quality of your life and it’s only you who is responsible for it. No one else can do this for you. As I said, it takes some effort but it is totally worth the effort many times over.
Other things you can look at once you get a general sense of how this works: Lying. You can see where you are twisting the facts, maybe for personal gain or to hurt another person. A habit of lying twists your mind and you might not even know what really happened in a given situation because you convinced yourself of the lie you were telling. Using insults which you are putting “out” but also self-talk, things you are saying to yourself in your head. Slandering other people, putting them down or talking very negatively. Basically if you wouldn’t feel comfortable if the person you are talking about would stand next to you while talking, it is an invitation to be careful about what you are saying. So it is best to start with the bodily level of action and then add what you are saying and to keep refining. As you engage in this process your mind will become calmer and it will also become easier to see where you are doing harmful things and to stop doing them. Someting I would like to add is how we often think that we are putting for example anger “out” onto another person. But anger or negative emotions (as well as positive ones) are like an explosion. The energy moves both ways. Another person can feel your emotion, but it always hits you as well. When you practice what I am talking about here then you can begin to feel this for yourself very clearly. “Anger is not just pushing something out – it is pushing something towards myself as well.” Once you realise that on an emotional level you will be very motivated to stop these actions. We also affect the body and mind in another way – the way we handle food or drugs (alcohol or harder drugs). Again we can use our own experience of the effects of things we are doing to judge whether it is a good thing for us or not. If you really understand that certain things are harmful, they hit you, you feel the negative impact. Then you are going to stop. You are not going to put your hand into the fire if you are actually feeling the pain. You won’t leave your hand there. But you have to develop your awareness. This is where “Meditation” or formal meditation can help. Yet what I am talking about here in this post IS meditation. You don’t have to sit down. By looking (and reminding yourself to look) at your behaviour you are training your mindfulness. It does not and cannot only be trained in formal sitting meditation. If you do this “training of morality”, that’s how the Buddha called it, you are actually training your mindfulness and you are working at the most effective point that you can work at in the start. Because if the handbrake is on: stepping on the gas is not the most impactful action. It’s taking away the handbrake.
I really want to encourage you to try this. It has helped me immensely. Just see for yourself. You can also combine it with what I explained in my recent post on “Smiling Meditation”. The smiling can help you to recognize when unwholesome (harmful) things come up in your mind, and how they get stronger (you lose the smile?!) and at some point you start insulting another person or talking very negatively with yourself and getting tense. Also gentle smiling can help you uplift your mind in general and be more motivated. These two practices can really benefit each other. If you are unsure where to start then begin with paying attention to your bodily actions. After situations where you feel like it might not have been proper, put your hand on your heart and ask yourself: “Was this alright? How am I feeling? Was this for my own benefit, for other people’s benefit?”. And then when you are in a similar situation again, from the understanding that what you did was harmful, you will just drop the negative action. Look for yourself how things affect you. If you do this, it is going to have an amazing effect on your life. You are going to experience a much greater level of calm and happiness. In the absence of causes of stress you are going to have: absence of stress.
I hope this was helpful and that you try it out and see for yourself! Feel free to ask questions, leave a comment or write me a personal message. Also feel free to share this article with someone you think it might be helpful for. I’m very excited about this and about you trying this. See you next time!