This article was last updated December, 2017.
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It's time for another installment of "Question and Answer Tuesdays!"
"I work in a very stressful environment, and I have a challenging situation in my family life that causes a lot of frustration and anxiety. I feel that my stress (and frustration/anxiety) isn't 'everyday' stress, it's constant because of my job and family. As such, I don't know that meditation would really help me. I think I need to remove myself from these environments first, otherwise it will just keep coming. What is your advice in matters like this?"
We tend to blame our struggles - in your case, stress, frustration, and anxiety - on external circumstances:
The fact is, you can change these external circumstances but - while you may find temporary relief - the stress, frustration, and anxiety will always come back. What does this tell you?
It should tell you that external circumstances aren't responsible for stress, frustration, and anxiety - they merely serve as triggers.
There will always be external circumstances to blame for our struggles: people, situations, things. They are the background of our existence, but they are also interchangeable. If you "fix" one that you perceive to cause you suffering, it will be replaced by another in short order.
Everything "out there" is constantly changing. What we find joy in one day causes us sorrow another day, and vice versa. The things we find pleasant don't last forever, and we suffer when we cling to how they "were" instead of how they are. The things we find unpleasant don't last forever, either - but we constantly try to avoid or escape them, or bury them under distractions that ultimately bring more suffering our way.
We spend most of our lives trying to control the world around us. We attempt to surround ourselves with what we like, and shield ourselves from what we don't like. These efforts, ironically, ensure we'll always be at the mercy of the world around us.
As such, we live in extremes, going from "high" to "low" and "low" to "high" as if we are riding a roller coaster. Happy, sad, up, down. Continuously buffeted by thoughts and emotions.
And, we'll always be stuck on this roller coaster unless we learn to address the root cause.
The good news is, the root cause is easier to deal with than all the external circumstances. Instead of having thousands of things you are always trying to control and fix, you only have one thing to focus your efforts on. This one thing is your compulsive mind, and your relationship with it.
Our usual relationship with our minds is that we are lost in them and the non-stop activity they produce. So, our minds constantly drag us around, and thoughts, emotions, and urges hold our attention hostage. All of this conditions our behavior, and dictates our actions and reactions.
Being lost in our minds (being lost in thoughts and emotions) is our normal state. And, because it's our normal state, we usually don't realize it. It's like a fish not realizing it's surrounded by water, because it's always surrounded by water.
This root cause drives us to continuously chase pleasure and run from pain. It chains us to the roller coaster which is fueled by external circumstances that always need to be changed, controlled, or fixed. How do we address it?
We address the root cause by strengthening awareness. What you become aware of, you are no longer victim to. And, through awareness, you can learn not to be caught up in (not to be swept away by) your compulsive mind. How do you strengthen awareness?
You strengthen awareness through meditation and mindfulness. Meditating is a formal exercise you do - building a consistent meditation practice allows you to see how profoundly distracted you usually are, and teaches you to correct this problem through the quality of mindfulness it cultivates. Mindfulness helps you train your attention to focus on what you want it to focus on. And, it teaches you to observe your mind and its activity without getting caught up in it (without getting swept away by it).
This brings us full circle to your question, which is essentially "Why should I try to meditate when I have all these external circumstances in my life that I perceive to cause my problems, struggles, and suffering?"
My answer is, because meditating will show you that those problems, struggles, and suffering aren't caused by external circumstances. And, trying to find lasting happiness by controlling and fixing everything "out there" will only keep you on the roller coaster, hurdling from one extreme to the next.
Meditating and mindfulness, however, help you get off that roller coaster. If you're ready, we've got a free guide to mindfulness and meditation that will help you start.
note - another way to re-frame the above discussion is to use the analogy of "treating the symptoms, not the disease." External circumstances are the symptoms, your compulsive mind and non-stop mental noise is the disease. You can treat the symptoms (i.e., change your external circumstances), but it won't cure the disease.
What if we told you the biggest problem in your life is that your mind is the biggest problem in your life, and you don’t realize it?
It is. But, our online, self-paced program can help you stop being a prisoner of thoughts, emotions, and urges.
Find out more about the ABT program here.
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Don't fall into the trap of believing you or your problems are unique: you aren't, and they aren't. Realizing this can be liberating.