Cultivating Space Amidst Difficulty
Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.
- Chogyam Trungpa
Gazing inward, I find a constant experience of restlessness. This is specially the case when dealing with difficult interpersonal situations or when going through personal challenges. Yet even when circumstances appear to be OK, there seems to be a universal, underground current of subtle despair that accompanies my experience.
Rather than what may seem logical, the way through this ingrained dimension of uneasiness is not to sweep it under the mind’s rug, but to bring to awareness such difficult psycho-emotional contents. This requires training, wisdom traditions tell us.
Buddhist traditions, for example, inform us that indeed there’s a pervasive sense of restlessness, pain or suffering in the human condition referred to in Sanskrit as duhkha, one of the marks or seals of existence. The wisdom training necessary to lovingly face what we’d otherwise tend to bypass is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist liberation teachings, said to bring forth the end of suffering and an abiding state of peace, clarity, equanimity, and compassion.
For most, this tender, wakeful, and inclusive awareness comes gradually, much like the natural rhythms that lead the seed to its vibrant, mature expression as a tree. However, rather than following a natural progression into wakefulness and vibrancy, we often get entangled in our limited self-image; that’s to say, the self-reinforcing, conditioned stories we tell ourselves about who we are. It seems that the garden of the mind is in need of constant, careful attention.
Why would we need to keep a close eye to our own wholesome development? Is it due to the original tendency toward suffering found at the mind’s depths? How can we have a positive influence in our own self-sabotaging tendencies and connect to a less reactive, easeful state of being?
In what follows, I’ll address these questions by way of the fruitful dialogue between Buddhist contemplative insights and current advances in neuropsychology.
Delusion as normalized stress
Buddhism, along with other Eastern traditions, proposes that the seat of our persistent restlessness and consequent suffering is found in a deluded sense of self. In other words, we ignore who we truly are. Our identity is born out of an illusory conception and reinforced by a constellation of biographical, familial, and cultural influences. In this way, we can say that avidya or ignorance is the mother of all dis-ease.
This deluded sense of self has two main strategies at hand to ensure its continuation: avoid or repel what it dislikes or cling and retain what it deems favorable. Now the stage is set for a kind of crippled human experience, ruled by maya or deceit.
Perhaps the most alarming news regarding avidya and its creations is that the untrained mind takes illusion as reality. As Aristotle put it, we ignore that we ignore. This self-reinforcing loop is mirrored and reenacted through our own physiology, specifically in our response to stress.
In the landscape of the body-mind, avidya manifests in an array of divertive mechanisms, defensive strategies, and attachment tendencies that prevent us from facing reality as it is. The constant effort to keep these inclinations in place often translates into the deleterious effects of stress.
Stress is caused by perceived threat, and its origin can be found externally (as in dangerous or abusive situation) or internally (as in the mind’s rumination over difficult experiences). When threat perception escalates into a life-threatening situation, stress turns into a traumatic experience with deeper negative effects.
Sadly, the majority of inhabitants of industrialized societies experience chronic stress, making it a staple of contemporary life. It is as if stress has become the palpable, breathable expression of delusion.
I suspect that stress is a key neuropsychological expression of the deluded sense of self that Buddhism refers to, affecting both body and mind, and keeping us bound to unhealthy habits.
The normalization of stress — regularly conceived as an unavoidable outcome of the hard working individual in pursuit of personal and societal “success” — leads us to take illusion (maya) as reality. For example, as we pile up hours and hours of work to earn a paycheck, we may bypass what’s truly essential; our health and that of our relations.
Contemplative interventions that promote stress reduction gradually cultivate the ability to abide in clarity and truth, promoting relaxation, positive motivation, and healthy behavioral change.
As the pervasiveness of stress suggests, contemplative practices are not a commodity for a few chose ones, but a necessity for most. Let us first delve deeper on the unwholesome effects of stress.
When faced with (perceived) threat, the body-mind sets in motion a cascade of interconnected neuropsychological mechanisms that encourage reactivity, fragmentation, and dis-ease. Such mechanisms follow the life-giving impulse of survival, so their role and function turns problematic only when difficult experience is granted a “threat” status.
Perceived threat has a direct influence on three key areas of the brain, namely, the neo-cortex, the limbic brain, and the brainstem. Each area manifests a particular expression of stress: the neo-cortex goes into an enclosed self-referential mode of being, the limbic system gets high-jacked by the amygdala that turns on the flight or flight response, and the brainstem activates a series of autonomic reflexes that characterize a survival response.
Altogether, these three stress modes signal the brain to enter its primitive functioning that highlights danger and negative or detrimental experiences. The brain’s negativity bias, as psychologist Rick Hanson refers to the brain’s survival-driven functioning, tends to exacerbate perceived danger, locking the mind’s attention into past or future scenarios.
This wandering of the mind is correlated to the brain’s default mode network that further fragments experience and actively reproduces worst-case scenarios in the mind’s eye. This is done via a constant inner monologue that focuses on difficult experiences, negative emotions, and future fantasies that, in turn, feed the physiology behind the three stress modes presented above.
Chronic stress and mind wandering make for a potent formula for psychological fragmentation, eroded health and deficient mental functioning. Brain atrophy, anxiety, depression, addiction, dementia, depressed immune response, and post-traumatic stress disorder are amongst the unwholesome effects of stress.
These and other cumulative effects of chronic stress are grouped in the concept of allostatic load. When our capacity to deal with stressors is consistently surpassed, there can be structural and functional changes in our physiology, rendering us unable to adapt to changing conditions and maintain balance. The higher the allostatic load of a person, the poorer its physical and cognitive functioning is.
In simple terms, chronic stress and trauma serve as the basis of most psychopathologies. Living on automatic pilot actively removes us from the ever-flowing currents of life where health and wellbeing is to be cultivated.
The good news is that stress doesn’t have to become a terminal diagnosis, but may actually serve as the basis to initiating ourselves into a wholesome lifestyle.
Cultivating spacious clarity
Following the historical Buddha’s journey into awakening, we may harvest the energies of stress to pursue a more attentive and compassionate life. In his first teaching, the Buddha Shakyamuni shared his insights on the universality of suffering and the means to its cessation. The process of awakening is said to bring forth the essential nature of us all, metaphorically alluded to by the clarity, expansiveness, and freedom of inner space.
Stress, especially chronic stress, may serve as the bells of the temple, so to speak, inviting us to work through the overwhelming perception of threat by means of a deceivingly simple but effective approach; kindly and purposefully paying attention to our experience.
In our day and age, the unfolding of a witness consciousness that allows remaining centered amongst the ups and downs of life is a precious and exotic jewel. This non-judgmental, non-sticky view of our experience and that of others — rather than averting or clinging to it — is set in motion through contemplative practices.
A user-friendly practice to cultivate wellbeing and transform stress into health is advanced by psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, encapsulated in the acronym RAIN. The four steps of RAIN are: Recognize what’s happening, Allow life to be just as it is, Investigate inner experiences with kindness, and Non-identification.1
When in the midst of a stressful situation, say a recurrent argument with a loved one, the first step is to pay close attention to whatever thoughts, sensations or feelings that may arise in the moment. The second step is to allow and let be whatever arises just as it is. This means no trying to make things better or necessarily bring them to halt, but to cultivate presence. The third step, investigate inward with kindness, supposes a curious mind guided by the wisdom of the heart. Openness, receptivity, and gentleness are key. Non-identification puts in practice the spaciousness of mind and heart that distinguishes between whatever uncomfortable contents may be present and the boundless nature of who we are.
Overall, contemplative interventions positively influence the different areas of the triune model of the brain presented in the previous section. Mindfulness practices such as scanning the body, constant focus on an object or experience or attentive and careful eating influence the neo-cortex, reducing the activity of the default mode network. Compassion training (guided imagery that amplifies a sense of kindness, worth, and love toward oneself and others) has a direct effect on the limbic system, lessening the stress and volume of the amygdala. Conscious, embodied practices like yoga, tai chi or conscious dance benefit the brainstem by contributing to mood-control, body-sense, and boosting a sense of wellbeing.
Contemplative practices help reshape and rewire our neuropsychology toward increasing health and wellbeing, promoting neural integration and ease of being. Meditation, movement and breathing techniques, and compassion-based imagery activate the body’s relaxation response, regulate attention, encourage learning and cognitive change, and increase resilience.
Yes, we know that the brain’s default mode tends toward negativity and self-protection, potentially feeding the eroding cycles of stress and reactivity. Yet we’re also endowed with the ability to change our default mode from threat to spacious safety by way of contemplation.
Seen from a spacious perspective, chronic stress is constantly knocking on our body-mind’s doors, inviting us to the adventure of a lifetime, where we’d discover that our true, radiant nature is filled with health, resilience, happiness, and wakefulness. Delusion, then, would become but a fleeting cloud amidst the vastness of inner space.
1. Tara Brach. True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, 2013).