I am going to think out loud for a bit…
Recently, I heard a definition of stress that is new for me: Stress is “when the resources of the individual are not sufficient to cope with the demands and pressures of the situation.” I am troubled by this definition.
To begin, let’s go to an extreme situation. Imagine a concentration camp where people are being murdered every day. Does the definition mean that, if only the prisoners had more internal resources they would not have felt stress in that situation? How about an abusive family? If only the children had more resources they could cope with the situation of abuse. Perhaps through mindfulness practices such as breathing and meditation they could deal with being whipped with a belt. Ommmmmm.
Obviously, that was facetious.
But do you see where I am going with this? It seems that the definition above puts the onus on the individual. It seems that this definition comes from an individualistic perspective, perhaps an individualistic society. If only the individual had more internal resources he or she would not feel the stress. Organizations, systems, structures can do what they want, ask what they want of their people, and if the people cannot cope it is their own fault. The individuals need more mindfulness training. It is a perfect set-up for abuse.
I do believe in mindfulness and the power of positive thinking. Yoga, TM, retreats are positive practices, my positive practices. I also believe that some systems continue demanding more and more and then try to blame the individual who cannot keep up with or does not want to keep up with the new, the changing demands. Does the individual have a choice when the demands change? There is mutual responsibility.
Sometimes the system needs to change. Sometimes the individual. Sometimes both. Whatever causes the stress, we cannot blame the victim alone without looking at the system in which the individual operates. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes individuals need to say, “No, I can’t do any more,” without fear of retribution. Often the systems should not ask.
Are you one of the mindful people? I am. Well, I try to be. I love the ideas of presence and breathing and noticing and all those mindful things. I know the best relaxation techniques; I use them personally and with my students. I take time to notice those around me and the sensations within me. Breathe. Be present.
But what about the rest of the day? If we can take 10 minutes to be mindful on purpose that is good. How, though, can we keep mindfulness going as a way of life?
To begin with let’s stop being busy. Some folks wear busyness as a badge of honor. They don’t have time and can’t make time. They fill their schedules and their children’s schedules with so much to do that there is no time to be bored. I loved being bored as a kid- that’s when I was at my most creative, much to the chagrin of my parents. We dug holes and drilled holes and played Evel Kenievel. “Go outside and play” was never a punishment but a liberation: discover, wonder, create, and sometimes get in trouble. How often do you go out and play, whatever that means for you now, with no plan nor agenda?
Then, let’s be aware of our screens. How many screens do you have that keep you busy? Computer? Tablet? Phone? Kindle? Which Joneses do you feel a need to keep up with? The news? A TV show? Facebook? Instagram? Twitter? How much time does that leave for friends and family face-to-face? In my case, not enough. So, I am mindful of my screen time and am trying to reduce it. It is hard, though, when the emails come at all hours and a friend is posting photos on Instagram of his new house in a new country. With email at work I try not to send email from home or on weekends. I cannot be present nor help others be present when I interrupt them with things that can wait. Perhaps we can agree to fewer emails after hours and more face-to-face during hours.
Finally, let’s focus. We know that multi-tasking is a myth yet we still try to do too much (if you are always busy you might be trying to do too much). A Jack of all trades is a master of none. Businesses speak of core competencies: what are the main products and services of your business? If you try to do too many things you may do none well. The core competency of schools is education. Is your school doing too many other activities? How many of them can be done by parents and members of the community so that teachers can focus on the education of the students? Bringing in the wider community brings people together and actually builds community because it does take a village.
Let’s be mindful of how we live life: We only get one chance at today. Name your priorities and live them knowing it is okay to say no. Build community and make time. Me? I’m gonna go out and play and breathe and notice.