The Way to Deal Coolly With Everyday Disasters
Herbert Benson, MD, is the Bill Gates of the equilibrium world: His is the first name mentioned when the subject comes up. The founding president of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, he wrote a book in 1975 called The Relaxation Response, which has sold more than four million copies. He explains loss of equilibrium like this: "When things are bothersome or unstable, that creates the stress state." He defines stress as any situation that requires you to adjust. To adjust is to change, and change is always difficult. In response to stress, our blood pressure rises, our hearts pound. Often we feel hostile, angry, and that's just the beginning. According to Benson, even though there is no drug that can immediately get us back on even keel, we do possess the opposite response, the relaxation response, which corrects the harmful effects of stress.
Imagining a Where's Waldo? solution, I called Benson to ask how a person can locate this response. "Prayers, words, mantras, songs, crocheting, swimming, exercise—anything that involves repetition," he says. "When other thoughts come to mind while you're doing the repetitions, ignore them. Break the train of everyday thought."
It reminds me of the way cranky children are given a time-out and removed from the context of what is causing their irascibility. "The break allows the body to rebound and return to its innate sense of quiet," says Benson. Just as it is the body's inclination to heal itself when it is hurt, so does the body naturally want to return to a quiet state, even when we burden it with worry and agitation. "If you're religious, you can say that sense is God-given. If you're not, you can say it's derived from evolution. In a way, it doesn't matter. The capability is within us." (The techniques are also on his website: massgeneral.org/bhi).
After I get off the phone with Benson, I spend a couple of irritating hours trying to fix my failing printer. Any other day, I'd figure a way around the problem. But today I am on a deadline, and I can feel my heart pound and my guy on the seesaw getting ready to bolt. Taking Benson's advice, I desert the printer and go to the pool at my gym. As I swim my laps, the thoughts of printers and deadlines get lost in the ripples of water. When I return home, I take out the instruction manual and nail down the problem, grateful to Benson that I hadn't acted on my earlier impulse to bang on the printer with my fists. I sit down, no noise in my head, finish the assignment, and print out a copy before e-mailing it off.
A few days later, a friend recommends that I speak to James Baraz, who is one of the founders of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California. I figure that Baraz, who has been teaching meditation for 25 years and does a lot of counseling with teenagers and families, ought to know something about equilibrium. In Buddhism, he explains, equilibrium is one of what they call the four divine abodes, the best places for your heart and mind to find a resting place (the others are loving-kindness, compassion, and joy in the happiness of others). He tells me that upekkha, the Pali word for "equanimity," or keeping a well-balanced mind, is at the heart of his teaching and his practice.
I tell Baraz about my image of the seesaw: how it dips to one side or the other in response to life's little surprises and, much to my own frustration, occasionally bounces out of control. Baraz gets the image immediately but says that the goal isn't to keep the seesaw level at all times. "It's not about getting to one place where things are just fine and there are no mess-ups," he says. "Life is more dynamic than always having calm and peace." He says that if we expand our definition of equilibrium, then dropping pots and collapsing in a heap of laughter on the floor—that is, the tiny daily adjustments and the bigger swings—become part of the whole experience of equilibrium. "There can be something healthy about going crazy," he says. You can scream and freak out, or you can laugh at the absurdity. Realizing you have that choice can be enough to effect a shift. "In an instant, the situation can change," he says. "You're in on the joke, not the butt of it."