Last updated March, 2018.
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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:
Changing these external circumstances might provide temporary relief, but the stress, frustration, and anxiety will always come back. What does this tell you?
It should tell you that external circumstances aren't actually responsible for stress, frustration, and anxiety. That's great news because if they were, we'd never be able to find relief.
The fact is, there will always be external circumstances to blame for our struggles - life provides an endless supply, whether it's other people, objects and things, or situations we find ourselves in. These external circumstances 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.
The path to liberation begins with realizing that 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 accepting 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 root cause is actually easier to deal with than all the external circumstances, though. 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. We let them drag us around, and our attention is held hostage by a never-ending stream of thoughts, emotions, and urges. 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 don't even 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 we are always trying to change, control, or fix. 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, and doing it consistently will allow you to see how profoundly distracted you tend to be. More important, it teaches you how 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 helps you develop the ability 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, lurching from one extreme to the next.
Meditating and mindfulness, however, help you get off the roller coaster.
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.
The secret to everything.
There's a difference between what happens to us, and the stories our minds tell about what happens to us.
The things we deal with every day - from the inability to stop bad habits, to stress, anxiety, and self-confidence issues, to problems with sleep, focus, and productivity - can be traced back to this difference.
It's the root cause of all our struggles.
The good news is, if you learn to become aware of this difference and stop getting caught up in the stories constantly running through your head, life can improve dramatically.
The better new is, we've been teaching people how to do exactly that for almost 20 years now. Tens of thousands of people around the world, and from every walk of life.
Click here to read about "An owner's guide to the mind."