Depression and anxiety are very common in modern Western society. We all feel sad and on edge sometimes, but for many people these feelings can be overwhelming and return periodically to cloud their lives. Job restructuring and insecurity, heavy workloads, rapid change, unstable international conditions, balancing home and work commitments, time constraints, new technology, high divorce rates — what practical suggestions can we offer those suffering from the stresses of modern life?
Of course, not all stress is negative. It can be a means to stimulate growth. As a potter friend once put it, "A clay pot sitting in the sun will always be a clay pot. It has to go through the white heat of the furnace to become porcelain." We need to be under some degree of strain to force us to move forward from our comfort zone. Stress seems to be an inevitable part of life in the present cycle when humanity is challenged collectively to make such progress. Hindu traditions teach that we are 5,000 years into a cycle of 432,000 years, called the kali or "black" age, where the forces of materialism have great strength. The Vishnu Purana tells us that in the kali age experiences crowd in on us rapidly, life is short compared to other cycles, and the ethical standards expressed by the majority may be fairly low. Should we despair in such a situation? No! — for this is the cycle with the greatest opportunity, where opposition to spiritual values is intense and, therefore, students of life's mysteries can learn the most. "You cannot build your spiritual muscles by pushing against the air," as the same friend told me — but how do we approach life's stresses positively?
We live in a dualistic universe. Wherever there are negatives, there must also be a positive aspect. Wherever we can, let's try to learn the lessons from harsh experiences and try to work harmoniously with the evolutionary forces of nature. Sometimes this might be as simple as making a positive start rather than being overwhelmed with the darkness of the moment — lighting a single candle rather than cursing the darkness. When our higher nature sends us forth on life's journey, it never projects us into situations which are beyond our capacity to handle, and a few kind words at the right moment may encourage a suffering person to search for inner strength in the face of life's challenges.
Katherine Tingley's meeting with H. P. Blavatsky's spiritual teacher in the foothills of Darjeeling, India (reported in The Gods Await, pp. 123-9), has much to teach us about coping with the stresses of life. As they spoke together on a hillside overlooking a farmer's field, he suggested the following amongst many other valuable ideas:
Purity of thought: We may surround ourselves with contemplation on spiritual matters even when our hands are busy with everyday tasks. One of the teacher's students or chelas was plowing a field, and the Master said that the team of normally unruly oxen were always calm for the chela because they were immersed in the atmosphere of his concentration and contemplations. Further, we should not live in dread of life's experiences, but go cheerfully on our way coping with the tasks at hand rather than being overwhelmed by distant goals. The teacher said that a joy in the spiritual life could actually make the very atoms of our body lighter!
Try not to worry: We should fight the tendency to let worries and anxieties of our everyday consciousness weigh us down. Blavatsky's teacher said that hopelessness and anxiety can bring our body's atoms "down halfway to death. But they can be quickened to a kind of immortality by the fire of the divine life and attuned into universal harmony. Men anywhere could get rid of all that burden of unnecessities, and carry themselves like that young chela does, if they had the mental balance."
Live in the Now: Think of the immediate moments and seconds of which the path of our lives is composed. Don't exhaust spiritual energy by worrying about what might be somewhere far along the path. Rather, we "should let the beaming thought pour itself into each arriving moment and be indifferent to the morrow. One can find in every instant of time, if one has the desire, the door into worlds of golden opportunity, the gateway to a glorious path stretching out into the limitless eternal."
Prepare for the day's challenges: In the early and sacred morning hours, we should take a little time to connect with the higher self through holding a beautiful thought in our minds, reminding ourselves of our mission to help others, and pondering on overcoming our most difficult challenges for the day ahead. In this way we may bask in the sunlight of the soul before moving on to worldly duties. In particular, the teacher remarked that the first three hours of daylight provide a valuable opportunity in this regard, as he who is ready to step out with the sunrise and work with the sun "has the cooperation of a force he little knows of — the vibrant blue light behind the sun."
Spend time in natural surroundings: Nature is the great healer when the distractions and stresses of daily life crowd in. If we walk into the silence of the forest, listen to the symphony of the wind in the leaves, gaze in wonder at the stars, listen to the music of the birds, or walk by the rhythmic wash of the seashore we may free ourselves there "from old trying memories and from all anticipations of trouble," making ourselves "at one with that light in nature."
The Buddhist tradition speaks of the value of positive thought to neutralize negative energy. If we adopt the habit of thinking beautiful thoughts when negative thoughts creep into our minds, such thoughts will be to some extent altered for the better when they inevitably return to us. William Quan Judge called this process the "cyclic impression and return of thought." He once wrote offering advice about a friend suffering from recurrent bouts of unexplained depression:
we can only have these good results by producing opposite impressions to bad ones. . . . So, take this occasion of despondency. What he should have done was, that being the return of an old impression, to have compelled himself to feel joyous, even against his will, and . . . he would have implanted in himself another impression, that is of joy, so that when this thing returned once more, instead of being of the same quality and extension, it would have been changed by the impression of joy or elation and the two things coming together would have counteracted each other, just as two billiard balls coming together tend to counteract each other's movements. . . . You cannot rub it out if it has been coming, but when it comes start up something else, start up cheerfulness, be good to someone, then try to relieve some other person who is despondent, and you will have started another impression, which will return at the same time. It does not make any difference if you wait a day or two to do this. The next day, or a few days after will do, for when the old cyclic impression returns, it will have dragged up the new one, because it is related to it by association. — Echoes of the Orient 1:500
This sage advice is similar in many ways to the recommendations of contemporary stress counselors, including such luminaries as American clown-doctor Patch Adams, who uses humor and cheerfulness to help treat his patients. In his autobiography* as well as in the film starring Robin Williams, Patch describes how he evolved his use of humor to help cure illness, first dressing as a clown on his hospital rounds with children, and later also with adults. For many years he worked in the poor parts of American cities from his own hospital/ home providing free medical care to anybody in need. His proud boast was that he had never taken any fee in thirty years of practice, yet had never gone hungry! He has evolved an unusual mixture of good humor, conventional and alternative medical treatments, and selfless service to others that has attracted the attention of physicians throughout the world. Patch and his team of "clown-doctors" have extended their work to troubled areas of the world such as Russia, former Eastern Block countries, and war-ravaged Afghanistan, bringing the healing medicine of laughter into the lives of thousands.
*Gesundheit: Bringing Good Health to You, the Medical System, and Society through Physician Service, Complementary Therapies, Humor, and Joy (1993).
Dr. Shane Yates and Patricia Cameron-Hill, two of Australia's leading management and personal improvement educators, offer some sound practical advice on positive approaches to handling stress based on modern medical research and the work of Patch Adams. They see good humor and positive attitudes as the most powerful weapons in our armory against negative stress and give some commonsense advice: (1) Access humor by developing the habit of seeing the funny side of every situation so that you can acquire a light-hearted attitude to conditions likely to bring you down. Watching funny videos/DVDs, listening to comedians, and being around good-humored people can help. (2) Make friends and make time for other people: call them, listen to them, share interests, develop the habit of living outside yourself. Supporting and giving to others are great healers. (3) Be happy — publicly! Put on a bright, cheerful exterior if you can. Commit random acts of kindness and be ready to lend a hand, perhaps volunteering for a couple of hours per week. (4) Change patterns of thinking: instead of talking negatively to yourself, look at your positive achievements at the end of each day. Events in themselves are not always stressful, but the way we think about our experiences can be. (5) Stay physically fit: there is no doubt that we can handle stress better, enjoy life, and have a more positive attitude if we feel fit. This may involve a walk with the dog, playing with the kids, or a formal fitness program for twenty minutes three times per week. Physical fitness also promotes a sound night's sleep, another essential aspect of handling stress and depression.
Good humor, positive attitudes, thinking about others — stress and burnout don't seem to affect people who have these attitudes towards their work and relationships, where others may feel crushed by similar levels of stress. Patch Adams exemplifies this approach in his own life, which has had its fair share of tragedy and challenges privately and professionally. He continues his work today towards the establishment of hospitals in the USA and elsewhere based on his philosophy of good cheer combined with medical treatments from many traditions. Let all of us, then, who have been touched by
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)