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Shambhala Sun | September 2012

The Secret

I really didn’t want to write this editorial. I couldn’t think of a way to write it that wouldn’t reveal my secret—my secret regarding the greatest source of stress in my life.

My life is pretty good. No, better than pretty good. Beyond just having a job, I have right livelihood, and on Monday mornings I look forward to getting to the office. Not only do I have enough food to eat, I frequently have avocadoes, mangos, and even fancy cheese. I have a roof over my head, too, and though it’s not exactly my dream house, we’re painting and fixing up. Best of all, I have people who love me—a warm, wonderful husband, an incredible mother, intimate friends. Nonetheless, in the midst of all of these people, things, and situations I am so grateful for, I still experience stress. As Kathleen Dean Moore so succinctly puts it in this issue, “What I experience is the ironic stress of the privileged, which is stress nonetheless.”

So now for the secret I didn’t want to tell you: the greatest source of stress in my life is the gap between what I think I should be and what I think I am. Niceness, productivity, smarts—the truth is I always fall wildly short of my expectations.

Of course, I didn’t want to admit any of this because, with the cat out of the bag, I feel a little vulnerable, a little naked. But I’m admitting my secret to you now—to the thousands of you—because I managed to admit it to one coworker. “Yeah,” he told me, “that’s my source of stress, too.” I believe he said it with a shrug. As if to imply, no surprise. As if to imply, that’s most people’s secret. And come to think of it, that makes sense. After all, the core of my problem is ego, and the buddhadharma clearly points out that ego is the core of everyone’s problem. And one thing we know about ego is, it always feels bad about itself. It’s always stressed.

In her teaching “The Middle Way of Stress,” Judy Lief unpacks the workings of ego through the lens of four self-involved and stress-generating couplings, which are traditionally known as the eight worldly preoccupations: hope for happiness and fear of suffering; hope for fame and fear of insignificance; hope for praise and fear of blame; and hope for gain and fear of loss. According to Lief, we tend to cycle through these styles of hope and fear and “basically spend our lives trying to hold onto some things and get rid of others in an endless and stressful struggle.”

Yet Lief teaches that there is real hope for relief and that it lies in practice. Her basic suggestion is getting to know our own mind by following the breath— by repeatedly bringing our attention back to our inhalations and exhalations and thereby discovering that there is something steady and reliable about our mind. Then when life gets stressful, we can draw on that inner strength.

Following Lief ’s teaching, you’ll find ten additional practices and techniques for working with stress in a variety of ways and in a variety of situations. On the surface, some of these practices and techniques may seem like they don’t apply to you. For instance, you may look at Jessica Morey’s piece, “Chilling Out, Naturally,” and see that it’s geared toward teens. But if you look more deeply at the practice Morey suggests—and give it a try—you may find that it’s helpful no matter what stage in life you find yourself.

Whether you’re suffering “the ironic stress of the privileged” or are up against truly tougher issues, my hope is that you find some relief in the Shambhala Sun’s special section on stress. I know I have. For me, the biggest relief I’ve taken from these pages is the acknowledgement that we’re not failures or deficient for feeling stressed out. Stress is simply a natural response to an uncertain future, to juggling too many responsibilities, and to the sky-high expectations we place upon ourselves.

Life is stressful and, no matter what we do, that blunt fact will never change. Yet we’re not powerless. The way we think about stress and the way we react to it—that is always up to us.

—Andrea Miller, Deputy Editor

From the September 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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