What a buddhist nun taught me about stress

Do you often feel stressed, overwhelmed and like you aren’t achieving enough? I used to feel like that constantly, and would blame my job, my boss, society etc. What I didn’t realize then was that I had an enormous power to change my experience.

Last year I went on a 10-day silent vipassana meditation retreat. I had been on shorter meditation retreats before that had given me deep insights, so I approached the 10-day retreat with great expectations.

On the enrollment day there was a short interview with one of the head nuns, and when she asked me what I expected to get out of this retreat, I said something like: profound insights about myself, a greater sense of calm and reaching new levels in my meditation practice. The nun smiled gently and told me “try to just be present and relax.”

Chedi

Time would show that it was easier said than done.

During the first days my body had to get accustomed to the new routine: getting up at 5 am, sitting in meditation for many hours and only eating two meals a day. Additionally I noticed how the mind goes through its own process: when you stop talking and stop getting new stimulation, the thoughts you are thinking become magnified. The way the mind works becomes so clear; it tends to repeat the same thought patterns again and again, and the more attention you pay to certain thoughts the more they reappear.

After the initial days of physical adjusting and mental cleaning, my western mindset began to get a little restless and expect results. I started feeling like I wasn’t achieving enough in my meditations. I felt like I couldn’t go as deep as I thought I should. So for the next days I pushed myself so much so that I created muscle knots in my chest from breathing so deeply and strongly. I put immense pressure on myself without realizing it.

It wasn’t until day 7 – when I was exhausted and frustrated – and just let go completely that things started to change. I stopped expecting to go deep into meditation, I kept showing up, just sitting in the meditation hall, sometimes kind of daydreaming other times listening to the sounds of nature. I became conscious of how crazy I had been acting and I started laughing inside. Then I realized something profound: I and only I had created the huge pressure I had been feeling! And it not only showed mentally but it had actually created physical defects.

That’s when I truly understood the words the nun had said to me: “try to just be present and relax.”

I have been working consciously with my body and mind throughout the last year, and the experience form the mediation retreat has stayed with me. I now understand that by being present and letting go of expectations we can reduce our feeling of stress – and that the ability to relax and release pressure is in our hands alone.

Here are 7 simple tools that you can use to reduce stress:

Light· Don’t believe everything you think
· Put less pressure on yourself
· Breathe
· Do your best, and know that it is all you can do
· Stop trying to control
· Laugh more
· Keep showing up

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Remember to breathe!

 

It is so easy to get caught up with stress, to be busy and to feel overwhelmed. However the best tool to manage stress is something we always have with us: the breath. It is actually so simple, and yet we tend to forget it. We rarely pay attention to our breath during the day.

The last weeks I’ve been reading “The Art of Communication” by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk and Zen master, and it really got me thinking about how much power lies in our breath. If we use it consciously, it can help us reduce the feeling of stress and acquire a greater sense of calmness.

Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to be more mindful in everything we do. The first step is to pay attention to our breath; by paying attention to our breath we bring the awareness back to our body and to the situation we are in right now.

What often happens when we work is that we tend to be so focused on our thoughts, ideas, and the problems we are trying to solve. On our plans, emails, conversations we have had, and meetings we are going to have. We move from one task to another without any kind of break. Quickly the day passes and our mind is galloping away like a wild horse.

 

“Breathing in I am aware of my body, breathing out I release all the tension in my body”  T.N.H

 

It often feels like it is more productive to act fast and get as much done as possible. However I have found that by taking short breaks, looking away from the computer screen, breathing, and changing my seating position, I can work more consciously. I get better at distinguishing between things that are important and things that can wait. It stops me from merely reacting to whatever lands on my plate, and instead I have the opportunity to choose to respond. When we react we are often driven by our emotions, whereas when we respond we act from a more conscious place.

 

“Whenever the phone rings, you can hear it as a bell of mindfulness and stop whatever you are doing. Instead of rushing to answer the phone, you can breathe in and out with awareness three times before answering the phone to make sure you’re truly present for whoever is calling.”  T.N.H

 

It is all about changing your way of seeing things. By consciously trying to be aware of your breath, your body, and your actions throughout the day, you get less carried away by the stream of inputs, demands and pressure that meet you.

 

“When you breathe in mindfully, there is a happy reunion between the body and mind. This doesn’t take any fancy technique. Just by sitting and breathing mindfully, you’re bringing your mind home to your body. Your body is an essential part of your home. When you spend many hours with your computer, you may forget entirely that you have a body until it’s too achy, stiff or tense for you to ignore. You need to take breaks and return to your body before it gets to that point”  T.N.H

 

I invite you to try breathing like this:

Inhale deeply, feel the air going through your nostrils down the lungs, expanding them and expanding the entire trunk of your body; lung, stomach, lower back and waist. Then open your mouth and exhale fully in an even and gentle way. Feel your breath going out, and releasing a wave of relaxation through your entire body from the top of your head and all the way down to the tip of your toes. Notice your scalp, your forehead, your eyes, your temples, face, throat, shoulders, neck, arms, chest, stomach, back, hips, pelvis, legs and feet.

Breathe deeply like this three times, and notice how you feel afterwards. Notice how you come back to your body. How the activity in your mind has slowed down. How the tensions in your body have loosened. How whichever emotion you were feeling before is less strong now. Breathing deeply is such a simple exercise, but the effect is great, and you can do it anytime and anywhere.

 

“Breathing in and out three times is enough to release the tension in the body and smile, and then we can continue our work.”  T.N.H

 

I would love to hear, how it feels when you take time to breathe deeply and consciously throughout your day.