In writing this post, I realized that Monty Python provides the I-Ching of life wisdom. If they don’t say it, it may not need being said. So I’ve let them expound upon my points wherever possible.
Always Usually look on the bright side: Our brains are programmed to constantly be on the look for potential problems and ruminate over solutions. This isn’t without its advantages. However, as your brain takes flight with this problem anticipation mode, it can begin to taint how one sees the world.
My high school psychology teacher told us a story of what he called the “gestalt of expectations.” The story goes like this: One is driving across southwestern America and there’s a gas station coming up, but one still has half a tank. Being from the East, one doesn’t realize how rare service stations can be in the desert, so one passes it by. Of course one runs out of gas (it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise.) As one is walking back toward the service station, one begins to obsess over how the service station attendant is going to screw one over. After all, the unknown individual knows one is in a desperate situation. The more one walks under a burning sun, the more one inflates the gas station attendant’s ill-intentions, and one suitably escalates one’s mentally rehearsed response. Finally, disheveled and weary, one reaches the service station. A concerned-looking attendant bursts out of the station to meet one, saying, “Geez, you look beat, what can I do for you?” And that’s when one punches him right in the nose.
The good news is that one can gradually train one’s brain to take a more positive perspective. A neuroscientist, Rick Hanson, has written a few books on how one can go about this cognitive rewiring. Buddha’s Brain is probably the most well-known of these books. The book lays out the science behind the brain and negative thinking in particular, and then goes on to present suggestions as to how one can change this cycle and yield the benefits of a more positive outlook. While the title of this book makes it seems like a religious tract, it’s really secular and scientific. If you’re still concerned, you might check out the more secularly titled Hardwiring Happiness.
2.) Make rest part of the process–and an essential one at that: Duh? Yeah, it sounds self-evident, but too many people think of rest as the slacking off that one does between doing “useful stuff.” What isn’t valued is given short shrift. Don’t think of rest as a necessary evil. Equating rest with goofing off results in two problems. First, the obvious one, people don’t get as much rest as they should. Second, while one thinks he or she is resting, one may be under chronic stress (the bad kind) as one’s minds churns over what they should be doing and the adverse impacts of not doing it. Just as one should have rests built into one’s workout for maximal effect, one should have rest times built into the day, week, and year.
3.) Find your bliss, and just do “it”: You probably think that by “it” I’m referring to sex. Actually, sex isn’t a bad “it,” as its go, but it’s not the only it. Exercise, work the heavy bag, do a vinyasa (yoga flow sequence), go to work solving the problem at hand, or practice your Silly Walk. This also sounds like a “duh!” kind of statement, but far too many people wallow when they feel overwhelmed. What do they wallow in? Negative feelings. They worry that they can’t possibly hit the deadline or find the perfect solution. They worry that they’ll let someone down. They get angry at other people, the world, or a god or gods for putting them in their present predicament. They bristle at the unfairness of the universe. All of this snowballs into a stress monster–to mix my metaphors up nicely. If one can’t meditate or keep one’s mind on one’s breath, one may find relaxation in exhaustion. It’s all about inertia. It’s hard to get moving when one thinks one’s world has gone to shit, but that movement will make one feel much better–even if it doesn’t seem it can solve the problem at hand. One might need to change one’s life’s course altogether and become a lumberjack.
4.) Don’t create false monsters: Remember what Michel de Montaigne said, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.” As this is really just expanding on a point in item #1, instead of elaborating, I will offer you this Monty Python skit to consider.
5.) Exhale: Each exhalation trips the “rest & digest” circuit (i.e. the Parasympathetic Nervous System [PNS]) just a little. Granted, this subtle relaxation effect is easily overwhelmed by the countervailing forces of stressors and even the antagonistic effect of inhalation with its–also minute–fight or flight mode (of the Sympathetic Nervous System [SNS.]) Still, if you don’t know what to do, controlling your breath while elongating each exhalation is a good start. This will help in two regards. First, it helps the PNS gain a little ground. Second, it’ll break your conscious mind’s obsession with the problem (or potential problem) at hand. One’s mind will wander and one will lose track of the breath, but the more one practices quietly returning one’s attention to the breath the better off one will be. Becoming frustrated with these diversions only strengthens the stress monster–so don’t do it.
The bible of the rest and digest mode is Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response. This book was first written over a quarter of a century ago, but it remains readily available. It’s telling that Walter B. Cannon’s work on “fight or flight” mode predates Benson’s work by such a long time. In other words, the medical and scientific community were researching the body under stress for decades before it ever occurred to anyone to think in terms of rest mode as a state that could be studied and advanced–as opposed to just being the normal state of affairs. This should give one an insight into how the human mind goes about considering problems.
6.) Recognize that stress is like cholesterol–there’s a good kind as well as the bad: Acute stress can serve one well during instances of danger. We have this response for good reason. The problem is chronic stress. When one’s body is in a stressed state, it’s not taking care of general maintenance tasks like healing itself. That’s fine in a short term, but problems compound over time. Chronic stress brings a high likelihood of illness because the body isn’t dealing with its run of the mill chores as it should be.
There are a number of books that expand upon this issue and which offer advice for keeping one’s stress of a healthy type. Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is among the best. It’s a long book and goes into great detail, but Sapolsky’s sense of humor helps to continue reading when the scientific minutiae might seem overwhelming. Another book on this topic that I found to be quite informative was Lissa Rankin’s Mind Over Medicine. Rankin is a medical doctor, and so she offers a little different perspective from that of Sapolsky. (The latter is a biologist / neurologist.)
7.) Realize that you are a speck in a vast universe and, so, how big or long-lasting can your problem be?: Yeah, it’s a double-edged sword because it’s–in a way–a demoralizing thought as well as a comforting one. Therefore, one should first watch this bit of Monty Python wisdom:
But then one can keep things in perspective through the realization that one is not yet dead.