You just finished writing a book on stress reduction. Does that mean your life is under control?
That's the greatest joke in the world, when we say, "I think I finally got it." I should know better by now.
I had just taken on the book, and I thought I knew how to approach stress. Then my world kind of fell apart. My mother, who had been ill, suddenly dropped into a full-blown psychotic dementia. I have two young children. My husband's job got very iffy because he was down in Seattle in the tech industry. We moved twice during this period, and my blood pressure just shot up. I started doing unwholesome behaviors like eating my stress away. I gained weight. All kinds of things that were just in opposition to anything that was wholesome and helpful.
When I finally started looking at how I was coping with all this stuff, I realized that my body was going into serious overload, and if I didn't stop something terrible was going to happen. So I put off writing the book for a few months just because I couldn't deal with it. Finally I thought, I have to write this book, I have to do it to save me. And it became a very useful experience.
It's like that joke, "How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans."
That's exactly right. The way I look at life is that everything is happening to assist me in my own awakening to my divine nature, but it's hard to remember that when you're right in the middle of hell. Yet that's the time when we most need to draw on the strengths that we've developed over years of practice. So everything that I write about I did. And it helped. I'd been on blood pressure medication for the first time in my life, and I've dropped it down quite a bit. My mother still has a problem, so I have ongoing stress. But you know, my stress isn't any different than anybody else's. Everybody feels their own pain severely and has to figure out a way to deal with it effectively.
Which techniques were most useful to you?
I felt like my life was in crisis all the time. Everything was happening fast, and there was always something new. So I couldn't plan too far ahead. I had to be real present. What really helped me were three little steps to use in a crisis.
The first was to move my body whenever I felt like I was dropping down into anxiety attacks or I felt like I was out of control. I found that if I just walked to the end of the block and back, which could take 2 or 3 minutes.simple movement cleared me enough so that I could focus. My next step was to narrow my focus rather than to spin off and catastrophize or just go numb. So I said, OK, what can I do right now to help this situation?
Can you give me an example?
I would get a call from the hospital-my mother is out of control. My daughter's coming home from school in about 30 minutes, I have no sitter, and my husband is in Seattle, so I am essentially a single mom. So at that moment I would hang up the phone and start to go into major anxiety. And then I would say, OK, first move my body. I'd walk to end of the block and back. And then I'd say, I need to narrow my focus: In the next few minutes I can figure out what to do with my daughter while I go to my mother's. Or if there was nothing I could do to change the circumstances-if I was just being informed of her condition-I'd say, what can I do for the next half hour to remove some of the chaos? Well, I can clean the kitchen. I can walk the dog. I can clean out my purse. It's a small act, but small acts are very empowering.
Taking some action that would be related to the crisis?
Yes. Taking some form of wholesome, life-affirming action or behavior. It could even be, "I need to calm down. I need to center myself."
So it could be taking a bath or calling your friend to babysit or calling your mother's doctor?
That's right. Some form of wholesome, life-affirming behavior that addresses the situation in an intelligent way, or takes care of you in some way-gives you a way of doing something and re-empowering yourself. The problem with crisis is that we feel utterly powerless, and so we're trying to take back our sense of power. It's a fallacy to think that we have ultimate power over our world, because things happen in our lives. What we do have power over is how we respond to them. And so this is a way of responding in a useful and skillful manner.
But what if you were in a car accident or a sudden emergency? Would you have time to do the three steps?
In fact, I was in a car accident about two months ago. I was driving my five-year-old daughter home from school, and we got rear-ended real hard. We pulled over, and of course my first response was fight-or-flight. Hyperarousal. I just started breathing really fast. I turned to check if my daughter was OK-fortunately she was. The person behind us had really smashed his car in. And I stopped for a second, and I thought, "What do I do? I need to move my body." So I stood up and I walked toward the other car. And I thought, "I need to narrow my focus. What can I do right now? Ask this man how he's doing. Don't worry about anything else. Make sure that he is OK." Because he was just sitting there, stunned.
Wow. That was a very generous act-to ask him how he was doing.
Well, I was OK. And he clearly wasn't. So it was a natural response. And then I took action, and I said, "Please come on, step out, let's talk." And then he was able to get out. The thing about using these three steps is that one needs to practice them just like anything. I got a lot of practice when I was dealing with my mom. And once I practiced it, it came very naturally and now I do it all the time.
What stands out to me again is that you didn't accuse the man.you didn't start screaming at him.
No. That wouldn't have been a wholesome behavior. And the whole purpose of these steps is to do something that's wholesome. And I felt empowered because I had moved my body. That created just enough movement for me to take all that anxiety that would say "What the heck are you doing!" and just pump it right out through my large muscles. So I didn't have to suddenly lash out. But that only comes with practice. If I had lashed out-"Oh my gosh, you ran into us! What about my poor daughter!"-which is natural, a person could certainly overreact in a situation like that, then I would try to get my mind back and say, "Wait a minute. Move my body, narrow my focus, deal with what I just said. `Oh, I'm sorry, I'm really upset. I just need to tell you how I'm feeling right now. I'm really scared and upset.' Take action. `What can we do about this? Do you have a cell phone?'" Does that make sense?
I also see that you're a minister. What denomination?
My church is called The Center. It's down in San Diego, and I am up here in Bellingham, Washington. Reverend Marilyn Hall Day leads it. It is an independent church that works with Science of Mind-type principles, so it's similar to Religious Science or Unity. I've been a licensed minister for nine years now. I don't have a church because my natural skill in ministry isn't in running an organization-it's writing and speaking. And basically sharing all my flaws. I find the greatest gift I could give people is to tell them how badly I mess up and then how I dealt with it, because then they feel they can be honest! And then we can all be human together and there's great relief in the room.
What are some of the symptoms of the stress you've seen lately?
Ask yourself one question. Can you tell the difference between a weekday and the weekend? And if you can't-if you're not sure what day it is, you're stressed out. That's a really simple way of asking yourself if you need to cut back on the stress in your life.
Because you're doing the same things on the weekend that you're doing during the week?
That's right. And even if you're not doing it, you're taking the behaviors that you use at work and applying them to your home life. So there's no rest. A person who is stressed out just sees everything as a burden, including the things that should be most supportive to them-their familes, their home life.
So even their spiritual practice or spiritual responsibilities, like going to church or going to meditation group, might seem like another burden.
Absolutely. It's another have-to. And that's the last thing anybody needs, so they're going to reject everything that helps them. They're going to say, "I can't go to church, I can't pray. It's another have-to in my life." And when they do get a moment's time, they just sit there stunned. Or they turn on the television and numb out. Another way you can tell if you're stressed out is looking at your body. Look at your hands. When the body is relaxed, the fingers are somewhat loose and open. People who live in a state of hyperarousal, high anxiety-they're often clenched.
Our body will tell us. Most of us have a place in our body that's the weakest. There's usually a place and when we start to overdo it, that place is the one that starts hammering us. If we pay attention, that place is a gift. It's telling us something. If we don't pay attention, then it just gets worse and worse.
What do you think is the essence of spiritual goal-setting-and what makes it spiritual?
I'd been setting goals for years, and it's a very useful tool for trying to create success in your life. However, I was getting very focused on defining my value based on whether or not I reached a goal. So I stopped setting goals for a while, for about 4 or 5 years. I just kind of intuitively followed my world as it spoke to me. I did that for a while and then I realized I wasn't really doing much. I realized that I still needed to set goals because I had a certain amount of resistance to doing things that were really important to me.just out of fear, concern for time, lots of excuses. But I didn't want to get hooked again into defining myself by my goals.
So I thought, how can I bring my spirituality into this? Well, when we're spiritual, when we're centered in our consciousness, we know that we don't need to set goals, that we are whole and complete right now as we are. But we can use some structure when there is resistance. And so the goal becomes a way to move through resistance while at the same time recognizing that, in a spiritual sense, we are already perfect and complete right now.
Really what counts in spiritual goal-setting is not the goal. It's what you do to get to it. It's the process. It's the growth that happens. It's an exercise in using this life for awakening. So if you're running a marathon, who you are is not defined by that moment of running. It's defined by all of the months that you spend practicing and doing the small steps and taking care of yourself that are necessary to reach that goal.
And how is this involved in reducing stress?
Stress is all about overwhelm. If we use goal-setting [and small steps] as a strategy for dealing with the stress in our life, then we are empowered. And when we are empowered, our stress level goes down. We feel like we can take action, we can do something. We're developing that sense of inner strength and peace that can't be swayed by the many disturbing events that happen in our world. We become a centering light.