Stress is discord between expectation and reality.
By instinct, we respond to stress by trying to change reality. If the world or others don’t confirm to my expectations, then I will make them conform. I will remove the discord by aligning reality with my expectation.
This instinct is pervasive. Deep seated. And often largely unconscious.
It also perpetuates stress. The more I try to make reality conform to my expectations, the more the discord increases. More stress rises.
The other extreme is to try to give up expectations altogether. A forced resignation to reality.
But this too leads to stress. Giving up expectations becomes an expectation, which conflicts with the reality of being unable to give up all expectations.
What then? If I can’t change reality to fit my expectations, nor give up expectations, how to respond to stress?
Be aware of it.
Don’t just act out of it. Nor try to dismiss it or cover it up. Be with it. With the sense of discord. With the tension between what you want and what is happening.
You can’t change reality however you want. Nor can you get rid of expectations by fiat.
If you sit with the discord, a third option arises: reality will slowly transform your expectations, which in turn will slowly work on reality.
If you don’t try to control how expectations and reality coexist, but give them space to exist with each other even in discord, they will slowly make friends with each other.
Expectations then won’t try to impose themselves onto reality. Nor reality try to bully expectations.
Both are equal partners. Stress arises when one is seen as more in control. When one is experienced as the aggressor and the other as the supplicant. Stress is the feeling of war between the two.
Peace is the experience of not taking sides. Not favoring reality or expectations. Seeing both as intertwined and inseparable.
Reality is reality. Vast. Uncontrollable. A wild bull which can’t be harnessed.
As a human, as a cognitive being, expectations are reality. Built into me through millions of years of biology, thousands of years of culture and decades of biography. My expectations are no easier for me to control often than I can control the wind or the lightening. Expectations flow through me like lava through an erupting volcano.
Expectations I can easily control are only surface expectations. The more the stress, the deeper the expectations in play and harder to be aware of them, let alone control.
The deep expectations are no more in my control than reality outside me. The deep expectations are just ultimately part of reality. The more I relate to them as reality, as something I can’t just control through my will, the less the stress.
The tension is really between reality and itself: outer reality and inner reality, both vaster than anything I can easily change. Stress is the identification with one aspect of reality over another.
Stress is like identifying with one wheel of a bicycle and seeing the other wheel as an antagonist. “I want it to move when i move, but how dare it makes me move when it wants to move!”
Leave to outer reality what is outer reality. Leave to deep habit and expectations what is deep habit and expectations. Identify with neither. Don’t get caught in their fights.
Give each space and observe them. Be friendly with both without trying to resolve their dispute. Don’t seek the happiness of an easy resolution. Open yourself to the peace of them working it out slowly over time. Be open to new, unexpected solutions and paths.
Stress is like greed: it’s pain and desire can’t be satisfied. Trying to satisfy it only leads to temporary satiation and ultimately to further craving and deeper pain.
Step outside of stress and just observe it. Don’t side with expectations or with reality.
Stress can’t be fulfilled. Through yelling or force or getting them to do what you want or you being better.
Stress can only be dissolved. Deflated through not identifying with it.
Stress can’t be overcome. It can only be side stepped.
Step to the side and let it pass. Observe it as it passes.
Observe the tangle between expectations and reality the way you would observe two wild animals locked in battle. With caution, with respect. Mindful of them and the space of their battle. And mindful to keep your distance and not be pulled into that space.
Do you want to improve the world?– Tao te ching, 29
I don’t think it can be done. The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
When I was 16 I said to my father: “Dad, you care so much about philosophy. Truth. Living a good life. What about all the suffering in the world? The homeless people. How can they be helped?”
He said, “That is not my concern. Nor yours. Just live your life as best as you can, follow your spiritual path. Find the Truth. Focus just on that. Don’t worry about others.”
This seemed to me a bizarre response. How can such a wise person be so… uncaring? Didn’t the young Buddha grieve seeing suffering and death? Didn’t Christ die for us? The spiritual person cares more for others than for himself, so I thought. Yet, the most spiritual I knew as a young sixteen year old was a my father. So how can he say. “Forget about others, improving the world, and live just for your personal spiritual task?”
I said to myself: “There is the philosophy side of him and the middle class, conventional, conformist side. His apathy towards my anxieties about homelessness and injustice and all the pain in the world – that is the conformist side of him. It can’t be the philosophy side of him! It must be his philosophy side being overwhelmed by the conventional side. Why can’t be like Gandhi, or MLK? How can such a strong spiritual person be so…ordinary in terms of his acceptance of injustices and not try to change the world?” I felt sad. For him, for what seemed to his inability to break out of the orbit of middle class complacency. And for me, for my inability to break out of his oribit – for being caught in the pull of his complacency.
But could it be that his response to me was itself a philosophical response? That he meant it as a philosophical response to me? That in his regard at least he was a Taoist, warning me that if I tampered with the world, I would ruin it? That if I treated the world like an object to be saved, I would lose it?
He would have denied this and not identified as a Taoist. I am not sure he even knew about Taoism. To him the Tao Te Ching would have seemed like some Far East mumbo jumbo, far removed from the clear affirmations of the Truth in the Gita or the Upanishads.
Still, the resemblance between what Lao Tzu said and what he said is unmistakable.
Seeking can get in the way of being. Caring about others in an anxious way can be an obstacle to knowing yourself – and to helping others. The peace the world needs begins in oneself. As that peace flows outward without intention or fear, it multiples without effort.
What my father meant wasn’t, “Forget the homeless. Focus on your material goods and satisfaction.” He meant: “Forget the homeless. Let go of ordinary desires, including the desire to help. Be mindful of that desire, as with any desire. Don’t grasp. Don’t get caught in the world of should, oughts, deserves. Be still. Be one with all. Relate to others not as external beings who need your help, but as your own self.”
But if I relate to them as myself, shouldn’t that mean I ought to care about them since of course I care about myself?
My Dad’s point: “Care without caring. Be without striving. Quiet the mind. Don’t give in to the mind as it comes in the seductive form of guilty or judgmental compassion. Be unmoved by the seduction of the mind. Disassociate from your small self, even as it presents itself to you as the compassionate, caring, world directed self, and judges your stillness as complacency.”
Thinking is irrational. Non-thinking is rational. Doing is irrational. Non-doing is rational.
Caring is selfishness. Non-caring is compassion. Selfishness is compassion, and compassion is selfishness.
One who doesn’t strive wins because he never loses. He is everywhere because he is still. He doesn’t fight or push or resist or accumulate because he has all.
He sees a homeless person and sees just him. He doesn’t see himself as privileged, nor the other as unlucky. He sees words and concepts as incomplete, and sees only the Tao as complete.
“How can we tell the difference between complacency and being with the Tao?”
Focus on other’s actions and if they are complacent, and be caught in judgments. There is no healing, no helping there.
Focus on yourself and if you are complacent, and be caught in guilt. There is no freedom there, no growth.
Complacency is a coping mechanism when the natural flow of energy is blocked. Pushing against it makes it stronger. Be with the natural flow. Let the Tao move around and through the coping mechanism. The Tao changes without effort. With effort, the mind strengthens the resistance.
A batter who constantly swings the bat doesn’t hit the ball. Or can’t control the ball if he hits it. Knowing when not to swing, to be still, to let go is the source of strength. The strongest batter is the most patient. He swings through non-swinging. He resides in emptiness and follows the Tao into movement. And into stillness. He surrenders to the Tao. He is free because he doesn’t control.
He resides in himself without being alone. He lets go and never loses what he has.