The world is stressful—or is it? People feel stressed, but is the world creating stress? It’s possible to be in this busy world, accomplish what we need to, and feel very little stress. So, something else must be causing stress besides the world around us. In fact, it’s something inside us: our thoughts.
Stress is usually a sign that we need to stop a moment and examine what we’re saying to ourselves. It is often caused by a “should,” a judgment, a fear, a worry, or some other negative thought. Being identified with our thoughts often causes stress because so many of the thoughts that run through our mind are negative and therefore stressful.
Negative thoughts, as I’m defining them, are thoughts that cause tension in our body and a sense of contraction. There isn’t actually anything wrong with any of our thoughts or with having them; they’re part of the human experience. But since we don’t like how certain thoughts make us feel, we’ll call them negative. We could also simply call them stressful, since they create stress.
For example, the thought “I’m going to be late,” although not stressful by itself, tends to be followed by stressful thoughts, possibly about being bad for being late or about what might happen because of it. Such thoughts of self-criticism and worry make us feel contracted, and that contraction is one way stress is experienced in the body.
Stress results from believing the negative stories that our egoic mind, the voice in our head, tells us about ourselves, life, others, the past, the present, or the future. The egoic mind doesn’t just give us information; it puts a spin on it. That spin usually tells a story about what something, such as being late, will mean personally to me and my life. And then feelings are triggered. The egoic mind is not a neutral voice, but often a voice of fear, panic, judgment, blaming, and shaming.
The irony is that we think we need such thoughts to function when, in fact, they interfere with handling life and make whatever we’re doing less enjoyable. For instance, if you think you’re going to be late, you’re likely to be rushing, imagining negative scenarios about arriving late, and feeling any number of feelings. Meanwhile, you’re not giving your full attention to whatever you need to do to get there and get there safely. As a result, you’re more likely to forget something or have an accident, and you surely won’t arrive cool and collected.
Stress generally isn’t caused by circumstances, such as being late, although it often coincides with some circumstance or event. Rather, stress comes from the egoic mind’s negative interpretation of circumstances and the negative feelings that come from that interpretation. The egoic mind interprets and draws conclusions about facts and events. These conclusions are stories that the egoic mind makes up about facts and events, and these stories are usually stressful.
These spins on life nearly always leave us feeling bad, because the tales the ego spins tend to be negative. The ego has a fearful outlook and is not wise, so its stories aren’t trustworthy or useful. The egoic mind is not a friend or a wise mentor. It doesn’t help us or provide real solutions. Instead, it is the cause of human suffering.
The voice in our head takes on many different guises. Sometimes it seems like our own voice. At other times, it may scold us like a parent, joke with us like a friend, or tell us what to do like a boss. It often dialogues with us or with some other inner persona. When you take a good look at this voice, you see that it’s made up of a menagerie of voices representing different personas, or subpersonalities. These voices often argue with or contradict each other. They’re quick to give advice but have little wisdom.
The voice in our head is often confused, fearful, doubting, complaining, resistant, demeaning, argumentative, bullying, and judgmental, which is one reason it’s difficult to be a human being. We all carry around with us troublesome and trouble-making voices, which speak to us incessantly. If you had a friend who spoke to you like the voice in your head does, he or she probably wouldn’t be your friend for long. And yet, we identify with this voice, that is, we agree with it, believe it, and even give it a voice. In fact, it becomes our voice (and then the problems begin!). We do this because we’re programmed to do this.
Although the egoic mind often seems like your own voice, like what you think and believe, this voice is only masquerading as you. It isn’t actually you or your voice but the programming you were given. It represents the conditioned self, not our true self. We are programmed to get our sense of self from our thoughts and to believe that our thoughts are who we are.
However, in reality, we are what is aware of the thoughts that run through our mind. We are what is conscious of our thoughts and of everything else we experience. This awareness, or consciousness, is the constant in your life, while all of your thoughts, feelings, self-images, sensations, experiences, and everything else in life come and go. Awareness is even constant in sleep, since you are always aware that you slept.
This awareness is often referred to simply as Awareness. Other names for it are Consciousness, Essence, the authentic self, the Self, Silence, Stillness, the Observer, the Watcher, or the Witness. Of course, there are many other names for it as well. I sometimes call it the Noticer, although it’s more than just a noticer of life, as it is who we are and therefore life itself as it moves through us.
To be clear, Awareness is not the commentator that we hear in our mind, which may seem like an observer, as it notes what’s happening moment to moment: “The mail isn’t here yet. It’s really windy today. I’m hungry.” Awareness is what notices the commentary of the egoic mind and everything else. Awareness doesn’t describe or note what it’s aware of like the egoic mind does. Awareness is silent.
Awareness, who we are, can become so focused on an object, such as a thought, feeling, or self-image, that we lose the sense of being the witness of those things. Awareness often gets lost in, or identified with, what it’s aware of or focused on. It zooms in on one small aspect of experience, and then we forget that we are Awareness. We become identified with the object that we are aware of. Temporarily, it feels like we are the object of our focus rather than what is aware of the object.
For example, if Awareness focuses on a feeling of sadness, you become sad and even identify yourself as sad: “I’m sad.” Or if you focus on the pain in the finger you just cut, it seems like all that exists is that pain. Then if you focus on some other sensation, that pain can seem to disappear, as your attention gets lost in a new sensation, that is, until you pay attention to your finger again. When Awareness is focused so narrowly, it loses track of everything else that’s going on. This is what happens when we get lost in thought: Our thoughts become our reality, and the rest of reality drops into the background.
But Awareness can never really be lost in any object of focus. Although it constantly moves in and out of identification with objects, Awareness hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s always here, aware of whatever it’s aware of. All we have to do is notice what is aware of whatever we are focused on, and we’ll zoom out and become identified with Awareness instead. For instance, if you notice what is aware of the pain in your finger, you’ll regain your perspective on it: The pain in your finger is just one of many sensations in your awareness.
Spiritual evolution is about re-discovering, or realizing, ourselves as Awareness through disidentification with the thoughts, feelings, self-images, and physical body that Awareness has identified with. This identification creates the false self, the sense that we are something other than Awareness, that we are an individual with a particular identity.
This distinction between Awareness, or the true self, and a programmed, or false, self is important because the false self, or ego, is the generator of all stressful thoughts. The ego—not the true self—is what is behind the voice in your head and any self-generated stress you experience. The true self, on the other hand, is the source of peace, wisdom, and love. (Isn’t it great that our true nature is peace, wisdom, and love?) Our true self doesn’t have a voice like the ego has but is experienced in the stillness in between our thoughts, which is why our true self is often simply called Stillness. It is pure, quiet, clear, and empty, like a motionless pool of water.
So, what does your mind tell you that makes you feel stressed? Maybe it tells you that you aren’t good enough. Maybe it tells you that you aren’t doing something fast enough. Maybe it lists all the things you still have left to do. Maybe it tells you that someone doesn’t like you. Maybe it goes over how much you have in your bank account or how your stocks are doing. Maybe it reminds you of something someone did in the past. Maybe it imagines a terrible future. The list of possible stressful thoughts is endless, and we aren’t conscious of many of them.
Take a moment, if you will, to ponder the things your egoic mind most often says that cause you to feel stressed and unhappy. You might want to write them down and add to this list as you become more aware of them. Everyone’s egoic mind has certain favorite “tunes” it plays repeatedly. What plays most often on the radio station of your mind that causes you to feel stressed? Is it the “Hurry Up” song, the “There’s Never Enough Time” song, the “I’m Not Happy” song, the “Everything’s Terrible” song, the “I’m Not Good Enough” song, or the “It Shouldn’t Have Happened” song?
Notice the relentlessness of some of the mind’s messages. It repeats the same thoughts again and again. A small fraction of the thoughts we think each day are new. Most of our thoughts are the same thoughts day after day. So, how useful can they be?
The egoic mind’s radio station is undoubtedly one you would turn off if you could. Since you can’t turn off this commentary, what can you do? You can turn down the volume, and that will make this voice easier to detach from and less bothersome. Awareness of this commentary is the first step in turning the volume down. Become aware of the commentary and recognize it for what it is—the egoic mind’s chatter. And notice that it doesn’t serve you. That realization will help you detach from it.
The next step in turning down the volume is to not give the egoic mind your attention. Instead, give your attention to whatever is happening, whatever you’re experiencing through your senses, and whatever is arising within you that is truer and more positive than the mind’s commentary, such as intuitions, insights, gratitude, wisdom, and inspiration.
The antidote to stress is changing the channel we are tuned to. When we are tuned in to Stillness instead of our egoic mind, we feel expansive and happy rather than contracted, unhappy, and stressed. When given a chance—when not drowned out by our mind’s chatter—our beautiful being can be experienced, and it’s experienced as peace, joy, compassion, gratitude, acceptance, wisdom, strength, and love.
Stillness’s channel expands us rather than contracts us. It broadcasts signals and messages that guide us in directions that make us happy and fulfilled. It also broadcasts positive feelings, such as peace, love, gratitude, compassion, acceptance, and encouragement, which can counteract the mind’s negative thoughts and the feelings that arise from those thoughts. We know when we’re tuned in to Stillness because we feel relaxed, at peace, content, and accepting instead of stressed. So, why stay tuned to The Stress Channel when another one is available?
At first, Stillness’s channel may not come in as clearly as the ego’s because Stillness communicates more subtly and not as loudly as the ego. But as we get better at tuning in to Stillness, the signal gets stronger, and the egoic mind’s chatter becomes weaker. The more we tune in to Stillness, the easier it becomes and the less compelling the egoic chatter is. We really do have a choice about what we listen to.
Stillness’s channel can only be heard when we’re present in the moment—when we’re fully absorbed in whatever experience we’re having, not in our thoughts. Being present means being attentive to our sensory experience: what we are seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, and sensing in our body as well as sensing more subtly and intuitively. To tune in to Stillness, all we have to do is be, experience, notice, and naturally respond to what’s arising in the moment.
To tune in to The Stress Channel, we just have to start believing our thoughts again. The good news is that we have control over our level of stress. Eliminating stress is mostly a matter of tuning out the negative (what causes us to contract), tuning in the positive (what causes us to expand and be at peace) and just being, experiencing, and dancing to that music instead of to the mind’s chatter.
Stress may also be a sign that we aren’t making choices that support our health, happiness, well-being, and fulfillment. The ego often pushes us toward goals that aren’t ultimately fulfilling, ones that don’t really fit for us but are driven by fear and a sense of lack and not being good enough. Or the ego might limit us by talking us out of pursuing goals and activities that would make our heart sing. When we aren’t in touch with Stillness, we often make choices that leave us feeling stressed, exhausted, unhappy, and even depressed, and we might not pursue something we would love to do.
There are lots of reasons to tune out The Stress Channel and to tune in to Stillness. Stress is not only unpleasant and unproductive; it affects our health.
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