A man went to the doctor and said, "When I turn my arm this way, it hurts. What can I do, doc, so that my arm doesn’t hurt?" The doctor replied, "I can give you some medication, but is it necessary for you to turn your arm that way?" The man shook his head no. The doctor stated frankly, "Then stop turning your arm that way."
In the same manner, we should be cautious about using meditation (or any spiritual tool) to "treat" consequences of unwise actions we continue to perform. For most people, the main source of stress is unwise (often selfish) actions and relationships. To continue to engage such actions and relations and then seek to "relieve" the symptoms with meditation is counter to the traditional intention of this spiritual practice. This reductionist approach neglects a greater treasure meditation can reveal: the realization of that which we truly are.
Stress and the Pursuit of Pleasure
It may be helpful to distinguish between "natural" stress and unnecessary stress. Natural stress is tied to the dynamic of having a body and mind—as these are moved through conditions that are challenging, stress can be a consequence. But natural stress is usually minute compared to the unnecessary stress we self-create by engaging in unwise actions and relationships. Often, the root of these is the selfish inclination to experience and re-experience what is pleasurable— even if this pleasure is attained by avoiding what is unpleasant. We often place pleasurable consequences as higher priorities than what the mind and body must endure to experience these fleeting pleasures. One of the greatest dangers of such pursuit is how it impresses upon the mind the tendency to seek temporary pleasures while neglecting to surrender to a spiritual practice that reveals the unending bliss of realizing the truth of that which we truly are.
Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras is clear in presenting the meditative practice in a larger context, starting with behavior. The first of the eight limbs of yoga, the Yamas, deals specifically with vows of actions we should abstain from since these greatly impede the opportunity to realize Truth. It is no coincidence that these actions create stress: harming others, lying, stealing, blindly chasing sense-based pleasures, and being greedy. As we abstain from these acts, the next limb, the Niyamas, presents virtues we can affirmatively live that are supportive to the realization of Truth. These include: purity/cleanliness of mind and body, being content with whatever life presents, austerities (including peacefully bearing what is unpleasant), spiritual and scripturebased studies, and worship of/ surrender to the Absolute. We may find that by embracing these affirmative observances, we are better able to bear and overcome stress.
If we set our behavior to the standards of the Yamas and Niyamas, we can greatly eliminate stress from our lives. Then, when we sit to meditate, the meditative practice can start to purify our minds from the impressions that suggest acts and relations that create stress. The effectiveness of this is significantly increased to the extent we uphold and deepen our application of living the Yamas, Niyamas and the other limbs of yoga. We may also find that when we eliminate or greatly diminish unnecessary stress, we are better able to deal with and transcend natural stress. A major key to relieving stress is to have less of it. Within this approach, a disciplined meditative practice can be a great benefit.
When we stop twisting our arm in a way that hurts, we cease in inflicting unnecessary harm upon ourselves and give our arm the opportunity to heal. And from a place of less pain and stress, it is easier to be open to the realization that the ultimate freedom is to realize the truth of that which we truly are, which is unending peace and bliss.
Nashid Fareed-Ma’at is a student of various spiritual traditions. He is a drawn to the arts of writing, particularly poetry, and West African drumming. He resides at Ananda Ashram, located at 13 Sapphire Rd. in Monroe, where he regularly leads guided meditation sessions. Connect at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit AnandaAshram.org.