I am stressed out. Stress has been building up in my life seriously in the last year, but I was in denial about it until just recently. Since I diagnosed myself as suffering from stress it has gotten me to reflect quite a bit on it. Stress plays out for a person in two ways, physically and mentally.
Starting about a year ago I started experiencing upper back and neck pain. It would most noticeably appear during meditation and in the mornings when I woke up. I initially interpreted it narrowly as being due to those activities; around the same time as the pain showed up I had stepped up to two hours a day of meditation, so perhaps the pain was due to the additional sitting. Also I was not feeling comfortable on my bed, the mattress was sitting uneven against the metal rail base, perhaps I wasn’t getting proper back support at night. Anji had suggested that I was stressed, but I told her I didn’t feel stressed and I don’t get stressed. It was an ego thing.
My theory of a purely physical problem continued to be my truth until a few weeks ago. I was sitting in meditation and it suddenly hit me that the back pain had a mental component. Almost immediately the acknowledgement of that reality changed the physical manifestation of the stress. I no longer felt stiff back waking up in the mornings (so it wasn’t the bed). I started feeling the back and neck pain during both morning and evening meditation (before it was just evening, which was consistent with my theory that it was due to extra sitting). After the aha moment I felt quite silly. For some reason I had spent a year telling myself that this pain was qualitatively different from the sensations I observe all the time in meditation. It wasn’t a sankara, it was a purely physical condition due to my bed being screwed up. Acknowledging the mental component of my stress immediately changed the nature of it.
Since the aha moment I have been observing the mental side of my stress. I read up on why/how mental stress manifests physically. Essentially mental stress causes the muscles in your neck and back to involuntarily contract. That repeated contraction closes and even damages blood vessels in that area and restricts blood flow. The pain is due to lack of blood flow because your muscles are not relaxed.
After I realized my stress was mental, it was easy to pinpoint the real cause. Work has been tremendously busy in the last year and especially in the last 6 months. All the cliches of getting buried by your startup showed up in a big way. Every day is jam packed, back to back to back meeting or task or unexpected issue with hardly a free moment to take a breath. There are two areas of the company that I have been taking on additional burden, fundraising and dealing with fundamental technical issues. Both have presented what at times feels like insurmountable challenges, and since I’m the only one that can do them, I feel alone on an island with them. Our telephony systems have been churning from one disaster to another for a year and it has taken a massive effort to keep things from blowing up. We recently added SMS alerts when lines need to be watched or restarted. It is a huge stress looking at your phone and seeing the 15 times the system has generated a fault. These alerts even come in the middle of the night, I’ve gotten scared of keeping my phone on. With fundraising, negotiation is a grueling process which is time consuming and mentally draining. In particular I find working with legal documents so difficult, you are scrutinizing every sentence to try to decode someone’s intention. You feel defensive and threatened and scarce.
In the mornings, I frequently wake up anxious as my mind turns onto the million things I need to accomplish that day. I am constantly thinking about things to do, even when I sit. I can’t turn off my mind from thinking about work. Multitasking, sometimes in the mornings I feel numbness in my face as I try to do email while debugging while helping Aartiben prepare food. I feel overwhelmed. Sometimes I’m at work doing something that requires deep concentration like debugging, but I’m rushing to get it done because the whole time I’m nervous that someone or something is going to interrupt me and take my attention away. Every day I feel like I’m racing against the clock to finish the day’s work. One of the major sources of stress and anxiety is that I always feel that there isn’t enough time. It makes every decision heavy and deliberate and burdensome. I feel like I’m walking up a mountain trail that keeps getting steeper and steeper. Things seem to keep piling up on top of itself, and no matter how fast I work the pile keeps growing.
Compounding the stress is a feeling of lonliness. When there’s the tallest pile of shit on me, I feel the most alone. During those times I feel most seperated from my friends and family.
Coping With Stress
I felt like the last month or so I’ve suffered a lot mentally dealing with the challenges at work. It has taken a toll on me mentally and physically. I’ve picked up a few things along the way to help me cope. The fundamental breakthrough was acknowledging that I was stressed, that changed the nature of it from a mysterious physical phenomena to a mental dynamic that I have to see myself through.
I was super inspired by this talk by David Brooks on depth of character. He argues that a life chasing after happiness is ultimately shallow. The mark we should be aiming for is beyond happiness, it’s depth or holiness. Among the ways to cultivate depth of character is to suffer and to struggle internally. People often name times of adversity, not times of joy, as turning points in life. The times where you really had to dig deep and discover what you are made of. Those times come in the midst of intense suffering. So embrace suffering as a teacher and an opportunity to build depth. There’s no way around, you have to go through.
Awakin gatherings have been great group therapy for me. The last several circles I’ve shared about my stress. The other week I shared that there are a few simple things I realized help with my stress. First was to breathe. I observed that the times I felt anxiety set in, my breathing turned shallow. So I started deliberately taking deep breaths during those times to get the oxygen flowing and it has helped tremendously. Second was to listen to music, especially light and uplifting stuff. I have gotten away from music recently because it messes with my meditation, choosing instead to listen to podcasts when I’m at the gym or classical when I’m at work. But the other day I happened to put on Sid Sriram while on the treadmill and just hearing his voice took me to another place. It was so uplifting, it made me feel human after a long time. I realized that part of the stress comes from feeling mechanical, listening to talking heads and having no spontaneity. Music introduces freshness and humanness and brought me back from feeling like a robot. The last tip I shared was to recognize small victories. I realized that when we are facing technical problems at work, when even a small thing goes right, it feels like a huge weight has been lifted. Makes me feel like it’s just a matter of turning the corner and things will be better.
At another Awakin Prakash shared something that stayed with me, a lesson he learned from a spiritual teacher: when we feel tension, that is a signal that the ego is strong in us. We are tense because we feel that we are the Doer. In reality we are all just instruments of the Law of Nature.
The one time in my routine where I still feel totally free of symptoms of stress is when I’m pumping iron at the gym. My back pain melts away, I’m not dealing with anyone, I’m doing something I love and is good for me, I can take my mind off of everything. It’s my last refuge.
I know what I need to do to continue to deal with my stress. I am burned out, I need to get away and unplug and untangle. I need to get more help at work and directly tackle the big problems.
I look forward to reading this post years or even months from now when I probably won’t be able to relate at all to what I’m going through in the moment. Knowing the impermanence of this experience doesn’t make the suffering go away, but it helps detach and put it in perspective.