Stress is something you experience more than you want. A little bit of stress can be useful sometimes, especially if it wakes you up to something crucial that needs doing, and the stress moves you into action in getting it done.
Yet most of the stress you experience is counterproductive. It either stops you or paralyzes you from taking the action that’s needed, or the stress makes the quality of your action unproductive. Or, perhaps most common, the built-up stress you have has created a state of mind of continually worrying about things you have no control over.
If you look at the experience of stress at its most basic level, you will see that it shows up as a contraction of the muscles, shortening and shallowing of the breath, a tightening and scrunching of the forehead, a squinting of the eyes, a racing of thoughts, and overall, a kind of cognitive narrowing of perspective.
The ironic thing about stress and its characteristics is that its very existence is an effort to get rid of itself! This is what makes stress so insidious! Stress continually claims that if you just try harder (stress more) then you’ll stop being so stressed!
So what to do about it?
The first thing you need to get is that stress is characterized by a self-perpetuating forward momentum. Anything you put into that momentum (including the thought “You should just calm down”), will add to the momentum.
The second thing you need to get is that this momentum is a momentum towards a narrowing — a tightening and constricting of experience.
Understanding these two things points you to your way out of stress into more openness, flow, and creativity.
As Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” The key to relieving stress, then, is to invite a different momentum, in fact a reversal to the momentum of stress. But how?
A few years ago I spontaneously came up with a walking practice that’s ended up being quite profound for myself and those with whom I’ve shared it.
The great thing about this practice is it involves something you do everyday already, .i.e., walking.
Set aside 5-10 minutes to walk, ideally in your own neighborhood.
- Start by standing still and placing your eyes on the horizon and/or someplace 50 or more yards in front of you.
- Place both your arms and hands together with your arms straight at eye level in front of you. Then keeping your arms straight and at eye level, slowly move your hands apart while trying to see towards the outer periphery of your vision, all the way to the point that your hands disappear from your peripheral vision
- Practicing holding your focus solely on the periphery of your vision, simply begin walking.
Now the first thing you’ll probably notice is you’ll have lost your sight on the periphery and didn’t notice until after the fact. That is perfect! Simply return your focus back to the periphery as you continue walking, until you notice you have slipped back to the forward focus, and again return to the periphery. Do this for 10 mins (more if desired) and simply notice how you feel.
What you may notice, and find both difficult and interesting, is that the effort it took to bring your focus back to the periphery of your visual field was a relaxation of the forward focus. This introduces a reversal of the forward narrowing focusing moment of the effort of stress. Here the effort leads to opening through a kind of relaxing.
If done regularly, this introduction of a counter momentum can introduce a cascade of effects that counteracts stress.
One is that your eyes stop squinting and the place from which you see relaxes back to the center of your head. Your seeing begins to have the feeling of a 360 degree view.
The other is, as you walk, the front of your body can begin to feel itself open up, in an increasingly pleasant way.
As the practice deepens, you may notice the sense of “being walked” by the body in a way that is effortless, which can feel both supportive and also counteracts the feeling of “it’s all on me and my effort,” which often comes with stress.
I do this every time I walk (simply because it’s so pleasurable) and I recommend the same for you.