Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Bear in Mind: On Managing Stress

Colin's Level 1 class at Bodhi Tree this morning focused on relaxation and stress.  As Colin noted, stress is like a bear.  Long ago, we had real bears on our trail.  (If you work in the BC forests, you may still have real bears tracking you, but this is a rare occurrence in a prairie city.)  In some ways, dealing with real bears was easier, because the outcomes were predictable.  The bear chased you; you chased the bear; it got away; you got away; you ate it or it ate you.  Problem solved.  You (or the bear) had only to manage what was happening at the time.

Most of us now must learn to deal with the stress bears, the ones that live inside our heads. (I am fortunate.  I don't live in a war zone, or in acute poverty, or in physically dangerous locales.  My bears are different than the ones that dwell in those places.  That doesn't mean that my stress bears don't exist, only that I must deal with them differently.) In a consumer society, we are taught that what we are is never good enough.  There's a temporary fix for that, in the form of a product, but the product never satisfies.  That's a stress bear--we never measure up to impossible standards.  Add to that the constant barrage of negativity we hear and see all around us, as well as past traumas and uncertain futures and we are open invitations to be bear fodder.

An event can be stressful (good or bad), but it passes.  The bear wanders off and we're safe again.  Perhaps we learn a valuable lesson, but the long term effects of the encounter don't stay with us.  It's when the bear stays with us that it becomes dangerous, moving into the spaces inside us and refusing to budge.

Sometimes, we continue to search for the bear, long after she's departed.  Where is it?  I know she's around here somewhere.  Over my shoulder?  Under that rock?  Behind that wall?  Over my shoulder? She's probably behind me, right? Anxiety is like looking for that bear. We may have good reason to expect the bear's return, but if she's not here now, we're suffering from what she hasn't done, yet.  That leaves us on constant alert, flooding our bodies with adrenalin, telling our bodies that Something is Wrong!  We're running away without actually getting anywhere.  We tense up.

When we're depressed, it's as if the bear already has us or is approaching and there's no escape.  Might as well give up, now.  There's no hope for us.  Our serotonin levels drop. Our energy declines and we become sad and sluggish.

We are stressed.  Our bodies react by becoming tense and sore.  We're angry and frightened, but we can't admit this, so we say we're "fine."  We're fine, until there are so many bears inside us that they crowd us out or we feed one bear so much that it becomes huge and roars.  When that happens, we can cause ourselves and others some serious harm.

Stress contributes to illness, but it's important not to get upset that we're stressed. Everyone experiences stress.  Stressing about stress makes things worse.  What we need to do is find a way to face our inner bears, tame the beasts, avoid overfeeding them so that they become manageable.  In an ideal world, we are able to send them back to their natural home of The Past.

So what did we practice in class?  Not much.  Simple things.  We drew our attention to our breath. The breath is always there.  It's automatic, but we can control it. We breathe in the present; if we focus on the breath, we are in the Now.

We combined breath attention with slow, easy movements--paying attention to how our shoulders move, how we sit, how our hips flex, what happens when we invert our bodies.  No drama, no hurry.  He explained that this work was rather like shining a light on what is hidden.  We may not like what we see, but the light shows us where we need to do work.  If there are bears in the corners, well, knowing they are there helps us to build a plan to move them out.  This may not happen quickly and it may be painful, but as long as you're paying attention, there are solutions to the problems.

I've been dealing with more than a few bears the past while.  I had and have good reasons to fear them, but now that they're gone, I continue to search for them--anxiety.  A couple of rather large, fierce bears have appeared in my world recently and it took me some time to realize that, in backing away, I'd done the right thing.  These weren't my bears to tame. When fear rose up and I could feel the bears poking around, I knew what to do.  I faced them, went to ground for a while.  I followed my breath.  I meditated, in sitting and in spinning.  Slowly, slowly, the bears are wandering off and I'm ready to stick my head out of the cave again.

This morning's class helped with that.  So, "thank you," Colin, for reminding me on the proper techniques for dealing with stress bears.

P.S. I'm told that dealing with real bears by moving slowly and mindfully works, too.  When all else fails and the bear attacks, you whack them with your tree-planting shovel. When Matt told me that, I responded that the bear would likely see that as pre-dinner entertainment.  There are some things you just shouldn't tell your mother!


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  1. Thank you so much for a great article - I am sharing this with my fiber buddies!
    Wind in Her Hair

    1. Thanks to you both for reading. Colin and the people at Bodhi Tree deserve a big round of applause for all the wonderful work they do.