Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Spiritual Significance of Stress

The last couple of weeks have been stressful. Harry defines stress as "being responsible for things you can't control." Augie had a similar take: "Stress is when you only have an hour to make an hour-and-a-half drive." When the demands of the situation exceed your ability to realistically control the outcome, that's stressful. That's a slightly different thing than pressure, which means that you're working harder than you're comfortable with, but there's still hope of meeting the goal. Pressure can, when carefully managed, be exhilerating. Management gurus generally agree that pressure is good and stress is bad, the difference between being stretched and being crushed.

While everyone agrees that stress is no fun, practically nobody seems to agree on the spiritual value of the experience. An awful lot of spiritual-minded people see the stress levels of modern culture and see a self-inflicted hell. Why, when so many of our material needs are sufficiently met, do we burden ourselves with so much suffering? All that stress only drags the mind into the materialistic muck, forcing millions of people to spend all their time worrying about things that ultimately don't matter. Wouldn't it be better to lower our expectations, live more simply, eliminate the stress, and use that peace and tranquility to focus on divine matters?

In spite of what you might read in Yoga Journal, eliminating stress is not necessarily synonomous with spiritual awakening. Augie, and his Zen teacher Richard Rose, were big fans of stress as agents of transformation. In their view, all accomplishment (including spiritual accomplishment) was limited by one's character, and stressful situations were the true test of one's character. Stress, by it's very nature, puts you outside your comfort zone, forces you to confront your limitations directly, and occasionally leads you to discover that you were capable of more than you thought. So, rather than avoiding stress, which can lead to comfortably numb mere existence, they would consel seeking out stress as a means of disrupting the status quo, defeating false egos, etc.

There are plenty of critiques one could level at both the pro- and anti-stress camps. While eliminating unnecessary stress can be quite valuable, merely as a way of reclaiming wasted time and energy, I doubt you can ever make a case for eliminating all stress. Life itself is stressful. If nothing else, you have to face the fact that someday you will die; stress is built into the game. On the other hand, stress for stress's sake seems equally flawed. Just because I'm pushing myself past my limits doesn't necessarily mean that I'm getting any wiser or stronger. Something else is required.

No matter which camp you fall into, stress is a wake-up call for awareness. In stressful times, you find yourself asking, again and again, "How did I get here? Why is this so stressful? Is this where I should be? Is the goal I'm working towards worth this pain?" If nothing else, it can provoke reflection and critical analysis of one's life. Times of pressure force you to make decisions about your priorities, and you find out just how dedicated you are to your family, your faith, your friends or your career. Perhaps, in the heat of that stress, you will decide that you need to live differently, and move to eliminate stress that is ultimately not worthwhile. You might also decide that it is worth it, and that mightily striving for a worthwhile goal is not only not bad, but the only way to find any meaning at all. When stress comes, pay attention.

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