Mastering Stress Through Witnessing

The quality of one’s life is highly dependent on becoming proactive in selecting healthy lifestyle choices. Quality of life is measured on a broad scale looking at one’s overall wellness, which  encompasses physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. As many people are now more knowledgeable about developing greater awareness towards improving physical health, most people still endure chronic stress that manifests into disease, depression, reduced energy, and other undesirable ailments.

In a culture that nourishes the Ego and materialism, the bulk of society relates value to the physical and has become disconnected to the spiritual energy within us. With this disconnection, many have become unconsciously ignorant of how chronic stress festers in the mind and body. Not until a debilitating disease or condition arises, do many people finally take notice and seek guidance in changing their lifestyle.

So how we address stress?
 it is impractical to think that one can completely ‘eliminate’ external stress from one’s life. Stressors will always be present regardless of the environment. It is how one allows the stress to internalize and act on the mind and body that is key. Second, it is important to understand and appreciate exactly what stress is and what happens when one allows it to infiltrate the mind.

In its’ basic definition, stress is something that causes mental or emotional strain. The root word in this definition is ‘cause’. A stressor can exist outside the body, but it only manifests as inner stress through choice. We choose to allow stress to transmit from the external to the internal. In many cases, inner stress surfaces without any presence of external stressors. Many people choose to allow thoughts and experiences of the past and future to fester without relevance in the moment bringing forth waves of burdening mental stress.

When a stress stimulus is present, the mind processes the relevance of the stress and elicits a neural response. Through a cascade of neural processes and hormonal reactions, the stress response manifests into a physical reaction where glands, organs, and muscular tissue become activated. This stress response is critical for emergency situations allowing the body to rapidly react and remove itself from this environment. In high stress environments, the heart rate is elevated, blood is shunted to the muscles from organs, and breathing rate increases. Once one is removed from this high stress environment, the body returns to homeostasis – a normal, manageable state of cellular and metabolic function.

It is easy to recognize when these high stress situations arise and one typically removes themselves from stress in order to alleviate the intense physical reaction that occurs. However, the majority of society is in a state of disillusion in living with low, but chronic levels of stress. Rather than modifying behaviors and the environments, most people allow constant stress to manifest, thus allowing a similar key reaction of organ fatigue to continuously occur.

As mentioned, one can not eliminate external stress completely. Instead, one can be empowered through ‘witnessing’. By practicing stillness, inner reflection, and observance, one can connect on a complete level – recognizing that we are not just this body, we are not just this thought, but instead we are a Being separate from the thought, the mind, and this body. The body is just a vehicle to carry this Being and is designed to bring nourishment (food and oxygen) to the mind. We often mistake the thoughts surfacing from the mind as ‘us’ and our existence. Thoughts are simply the vibrations of neural processing, feedback, and recall of stored information.

Through stillness and reflection, we can witness more and more how we can disassociate ourselves from the thought as though we are standing to the side observing a conversation rather than participating in it. As we develop this capacity to ‘stand to the side and observe’, we become highly aware of the physical responses that are associated with these thoughts. With deeper witnessing skills, we more readily see how these thoughts lack importance to the moment especially in cases where past and future generate anxiety, fear, or anger. Why am I having these negative emotions and the cascade of physiological strain when it has no relevance in the present?

The body is highly adaptive to negative energy and stressors. Consider athletes who are capable of working through injury and high levels of pain. But the body can only adapt so far and then it begins to break down. With the combination of the body being highly adaptive and lack of connection to the Observer, many people let these stressors build and build in magnitude.

How do we begin ‘witnessing’? Since most people relate more to the physical, a good place to start in developing the ability to witness is to enjoy regular exercise including consistent yoga practices. Reconnect with the sensations of the body. Observe when the body feels full of energy and free with movement. Fully participate and engage Savasana (relaxation) or Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep) at the end of the yoga practice. Learn how to fully tune into the body pouring conscious release and relaxation into the tissues.

This first step of tapping into the physical connection establishes a strong foundation of recognizing when we are allowing stress to infect the body. Poor energy, headaches, muscle strain, poor posture, shallow breathing, and poor digestion become clear and obvious signals that changes need to be made. We develop a powerful sensitivity to physical strain caused by stress and we start to address ways to reduce the occurrence of these responses versus remaining passively blind with disillusion and conformity.

As this practice of tuning into the physical strengthens, we can begin to incorporate regular sessions of seated stillness. With meditation, we don’t expect anything from the stillness. We avoid pushing thoughts out of the mind. We simply observe and honor how we can distinguish the difference between thought and Observer. With repeated meditation practices, the gaze of the Ego and material existence becomes less over-powering and the window to the inner gaze becomes clearer.

Eckhart Tolle summarizes the practice of observing well: “Be present as the watcher of your mind — of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react. Notice also how often your attention is in the past or future. Don’t judge or analyze what you observe. Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe the reaction. Don’t make a personal problem out of them. You will then feel something more powerful than any of those things that you observe: the still, observing presence itself behind the content of your mind, the silent watcher.”

As the foundation of witnessing and tuning into the Observer grows, we can explore various lifestyle changes for all environments: work, school, home, relationships. We start to bring more relevance to the things that support wellness and shift away from the thoughts and actions brought forward from stressors. We become highly in tune with the balanced state of homeostasis and move towards thoughts and emotions that facilitate positive reactions in the physical.

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