Many of us battle with feelings of stress and wish we could cope better with the challenges life throws at us. We often focus on trying to change the things that are causing us stress but this isn’t always possible. So what if we could change the way we reacted to stressful situations, to live a calmer, happier life and feel more resilient? 

Well, the good news is we can actually learn to shift how we perceive and handle situations. Doing this will change what happens internally. With practice, we can change our world. Read on for some ancient Japanese zen secrets for a calmer, happier & more resilient you.

Building resilience
To combat stress we need to build up our inner and outer sources of resilience. Friends, family and our environment can provide vital external resources. Meanwhile, our beliefs, our mental skills and our view of ourself are all valuable inner resources. These are important for happiness and wellbeing.

Reaching back over a thousand years we find claims that Zen practices can develop warrior-like inner resources for dealing with the struggles of life (and, in fact, they were used that way by samurai back in pre-modern Japan). 

A calmer you
Practising Zen can provide an oasis of calm and relaxation in which we can recuperate and recharge. It also develops awareness so we can perceive clearly what we are going through. This is critical because there is a huge difference between conscious and unconscious stress. Hakuin, the great Japanese Zen master, wrote, ‘Buddhas are like water and ordinary people are like ice.’ Our mindfulness, our awareness, is like the warm sunlight, which begins the process of melting away the stress. 

Different types of stress
We all have a range of stressors – some very transitory, like worrying about whether that child on the street might step in front of your car; others are more long term (and ongoing), such as paying our yearly tax bill. Some stressors are external – the freezing cold rainstorm that suddenly lands on you. Some are internal, such as the strange lingering headache that has you looking up symptoms on the internet. When we experience a stressor, internal or external, the body and mind will react to it as if it’s a threat.

Building awareness
Awareness is critical to stress relief. Here is a simple exercise to build your awareness:

Is there somewhere in your body right now that might be exhibiting a stress reaction? You might find tension or discomfort of some kind. If there is, turn your attention towards the feeling and just be here with it. If you can, sit right in the middle of the physical stress effect rather than being on the outside looking at it. Notice what happens. This physical symptom, slowly or quickly, will change. It might dissolve or move somewhere else; it might turn to heat. Trains of memory or emotion might start to come. It might even seem that it intensifies. Whatever’s going on, just stay with it. Awareness is a great accelerator of the change process. Don’t worry if the stress effect doesn’t seem to be changing immediately; the most important thing, the revolutionary step, is that you’re here, you’re aware, you’re allowing.

Coping with stressful situations
Next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, try to remain centred and aware. The more aware you are, the more you will be able to distinguish between the stressor and the stress – your response. The stressor has reality and there may be some way of changing that reality – moving away from it or attenuating it in some way.

The stress response you experience also has its reality. Be aware of your thoughts, feelings and sensations. Simply and unreservedly be with them. This awareness provides a freedom. You don’t have to run away from these thoughts, feelings and sensations, and nor do you have to react to them in any particular way. This presence reduces the strength of your reaction, reduces your stress, even to the point where you can start to find that many things no longer push your buttons.

Establishing this non-reactive space will also reduce the time you need to recover from stressful situations. Things will release so much more easily. 

Practising meditation is a key way to do recover from stressful situations and build our resilience. Here is a simple counting the breath meditation which is a lovely way to start: 

Find a peaceful spot where you won’t be disturbed. First, stretch, wriggle, shake the body. Allow as much stress to discharge as you can and then return your body to an upright, balanced alignment. The key aspect to correct form is the relaxed poise in your trunk, spine long, chin drawn slightly back, hands in your lap, eyes soft and lowered.

When the body is poised and upright you can breathe well. In Zen we rest the attention on the movement of the abdomen, not trying to force or manipulate the breath but simply staying with the sensations generated by this rising and sinking. 

Start mentally counting in-breath, one…out-breath, two. In-breath, three…out-breath, four. And so on, up to ten, when you can start again at one. It’s very simple. Just counting. Just breathing. Any thoughts, feelings, memories, anything at all, can arise, stay around and pass – but your focus point, the centre of your attention, is the breathing deep down in your body. Any time you get distracted and lose count, just come back to your breath and start again at one. As your mind becomes more focused and concentrated, naturally you’ll find your breath softens. As your breath becomes more light and gentle, your body becomes more and more relaxed and comfortable.

Try practising this every day and see how it makes you feel. 

Julian Daizan Skinner is London’s leading zen teacher, founder of Zenways and author of Practical Zen: Meditation and Beyond, available from amazon.co.uk priced at £13.99

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