Stress & Spirituality

[The content of this article originally appeared in “Asian LEADER Fortnightly,” 8 August – 21 August 2018, Issue 412]

Most of us today are feeling stressed out, stretched and overwhelmed with the pressures of our high impact lifestyles. We live in a world engineered to bring us every comfort and convenience, designed as it is to make our lives easier. And yet, we still struggle to find a simple balance within this chaos.

Why is this? Why are we still unable to uncover, even at the most basic levels, this elusive sense of well-being, peace and happiness we all so eagerly desire?

Why? Perhaps it is a matter of perspective.

What we are failing to understand is that all these states we seek should not be a goal to strive towards; but rather the foundation and bedrock from which we function and govern all our affairs. To do it any other way is detrimental and counter-productive; not only to our own peace and harmony, but to that of those around us as well.

Stress– the result of our attempts at this reverse-engineering– is a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, stroke, lower respiratory diseases and accidents. In addition, an estimated 75-90% of all doctor visits are a result of stress-related issues. Are these statistics likely to go down? Is our current approach to dealing with these conditions truly effective? Or, are we simply treating the symptoms rather than the root cause of the problem?

To address these issues more effectively requires an alternate paradigm of health and wellness. We must understand these concepts from a broader perspective than merely looking at the physical health of a human being. We need a new paradigm. Rather than building more hospitals, having more operations and developing more medications, we need a culture of health. A synergy needs to transpire between health professionals and people from various other fields, all collaborating together to achieve a balance in the human system.

The word health comes from the Anglican word which means whole or holy. We cannot speak about health without invoking the sense of a human spirit. If you were to ask the sages, shamans, and wisdom keepers of all times and cultures at once to tell us what constitutes the human being, they would likely give us a consistent answer that, on some level includes a combination of mind, emotions, body, and spirit. You cannot separate one from the other. It all comprises one beautiful package.

Most modern cultures, and hence most approaches to healthcare today give more emphasis to the ‘body’ than anything else. Perhaps this is because the body is most readily measurable. We can measure height, weight, cholesterol levels, blood pressure– and just about everything else– right down to the very building blocks of DNA! We have a really sound understanding of the way the body functions.

However, unless we honour the integration, balance and harmony of the mind, body, and spirit, along with their emotional connections, we are bound to end up with a dysfunctional society, as we clearly see today. An ailing or dysfunctional society can never be great and healthy due to the inherent limitations of such dysfunction. Only a healthy society can truly be great and prosperous. In order for us to effectively address the health challenges we are facing as a society we must introduce spirituality back into education and healthcare.

We act as if stress comes from external factors (e.g., a manipulating boss at work, bickering children, a washing machine that doesn’t work, an insensitive comment by our spouse, a traffic jam, or other pressures of life). But stress actually comes from one place and one place only– our inner reaction to and/or thoughts about each of these moments. It is the inner meaning, judgments and “monkey-mind-chatter” about what we are perceiving which causes us the stress – not the actual external situations.

To illustrate this further – suppose for a moment that your son or daughter is behaving in what you see as a particularly bad way. What is really upsetting you? It is not the external actions they are taking, but rather the meaning that you are giving those actions. Your inner dialogue might be telling you that you have failed, or are not good at parenting. Subsequently, you may be fearful about what people will think of you. This triggers angry feelings about having invested so much time and energy in your son or daughter’s upbringing, only to have them fail to act in accordance with your expectations.

Anger and fear are known as the survival, or fight & flight emotions. They are useful and needed within the boundaries of physical survival. However, this built-in adaptive response mechanism is clearly having a dysfunctional effect on the human spirit in our example.

And so it is in life. We are continuously putting our bodies in a state of unnecessary stress by harbouring such unresolved anger and fear. It would be better for us to be more aware of what is happening within us. If we are generating illnesses from within, then it is important that we make internal corrections.

Humankind as a whole is presently experiencing a spiritual crisis of untold proportions! In order to deal with this massive dysfunction we need to be open to spiritual cures. Such inner resources as faith, optimism, patience, forgiveness humour and compassion can be our saving grace.

These resources can be thought of as the muscles of the soul. Like our physical muscles, they will atrophy if not used. It is important that we all exercise these soul muscles, or else they will lack the strength to cope when we really need them.

With all we go through in the journey of life, with its’ constant challenges and tests, a certain level of internal fitness is prudent. Life is like the seasons– constantly changing. We must have the inner resources to weather these changes and be able to rise above each experience as a stronger, more resilient human being.

If we continue to live from the position of being humans on a spiritual journey, then we’ll remain stuck in a victim’s mentality. Consequently, we will feel that we are being punished or abandoned. Life will continue to become increasingly difficult, as we feel more and more hopeless.

On the other hand, if we shift our perspective to one of spiritual beings on a human journey, then we move from living life as a victim to living life as a victor! If we change these core perceptions, everything else will change. With this newfound perspective everything– the good, the bad and the ugly– remains open to experience. If we can learn from all of this, then each situation will prove to be a valuable lesson for us.

Stress is a perceived disconnection from our Divine Source. However, we can never truly be disconnected. Nevertheless, if we have unresolved issues of anger and fear clouding our judgement we will feel like we are disconnected and cut off from our Source. We want to learn how to handle stress not only with our mind, but also with our human spirit. We want to maintain a harmony and balance.

The human being is like a very sophisticated machine. Failure to operate the mechanism properly can result in many problems. When we have such a complex and sensitive machine we cannot and should not be operating it like a blacksmith. Doing so makes attaining peace impossible.

The implications of understanding the nature of stress and addressing it from a place of greater spiritual clarity invites a profound experience of the magnificence of who we truly are. We begin to have a deeper, fuller, richer and more connected journey through life. To be honest, this awakening will not cause us to wake up tomorrow living an effortless, more peaceful, and happier life. However, we will begin to spend increasingly less time distressed, and cease to accept stress as our inevitable reality.


–Sayyida Bano

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