Seeking the Solution to Stress
If the twentieth century seemed like the century in which stress first came into its
own as one of the dominating maladies of the human condition, at least in some
cultures, the twenty first century has already shown signs of cementing that
position into one of predominance. The other day I read in a newspaper that in
Britain in the last few years it has replaced back pain as the leading cause for
absence from work.
Stress is actually a term which represents the combination of a number of
features such as worry, greed, envy, anxiety, tension, unhealthy competitiveness,
guilt, frustration, anger and haste. Its manifestations are primarily mental but may
also extend into the physical as well. It can be recognised as a constant state of
mental ‘dis-ease’ in which numerous disorganised negative thoughts flood through
the conscious mind – frequently recurring in a cyclical and apparently non-
productive way. The person who suffers from this may feel these thoughts cannot
be ‘switched off’. This can lead to loss of healthy sleep which in turn appears to
make the situation worse. In severe cases it leads to a collapse. There can be a
sense of distance from life itself.
Frequently its effects are treated with drugs or sometimes with techniques such as
relaxation. Self help books and courses in techniques such as yoga, reflexology
and meditation flourish in the market place as people in their thousands seek
ready made answers. It has also become recognised as a ‘life style’ problem and
there are reports of many more people ‘downsizing’ – giving up more lucrative
high pressure jobs in favour of a simpler life style.
The causes of stress are said to be the increasingly complex nature of life in this
century, the rapidity of communications, the ever more sophisticated technologies
that deliver much but at a high price; the pressure to produce more, to meet ever
more demanding targets, and to produce tangible evidence of results. One of its
most common manifestations is the anguished expression – ‘I just don’t have the
time’. The phrase ‘materially rich but time poor’ has entered in to common use.
In short it may be said to be modern man is engaged in a form of slavery whilst
labouring under the deception of freedom.
This turbulent stream of factors is fed by the complexity of modern interpersonal
relationships, frequently deriving from an ideal of personal freedom and self
expression – the result of which in practise is often disorganised family and
social structures. Questions of ethics have become more complex with
sophisticated technical resources throwing up ever more quandaries, and there is
an often unstated hypothesis that we must resolve these without recourse to any
clear universal moral principles. In short we must make it up as we go along. The
other side of this particular coin is the formation of fashionable, often short lived,
highly prescriptive codes that are taken in such a literal way that they frequently
contribute to, rather than resolve, stress.
To even begin to seek the resolution of the problem of stress we must first
recognise we live in a ‘war torn’ society; a society that is not at peace with itself
- that is to say a society that is fractured internally. The recent invasion of Iraq
produced an overtly ‘war torn’ divided society but we need to recognise and
grasp the implication that in fact so called ‘modern western’ style society is an
internally ‘war torn’ one. To turn and look within is at least to be facing the right
direction. It is an intelligent response.
The Life Within
We seek to avoid pain but pain has a valuable role – it gives us a signal that
something is wrong. Stress has a similar value. Let us embrace its value and seek
the solution to the problem it is alerting us to. I say the solution deliberately and I
will try to make clear why.
The word, or its synonyms, that occurred most frequently when describing stress
Shah Wali Ullah of Delhi amongst others has described two basic aspects of the
human condition. One is the principle of unity that underlies all experience it can
be felt when we begin to recognise the interrelatedness of phenomena. The other
is the principle of diversity which makes unity manifest. This is recognised in the
need to divide and sub divide phenomena into ever finer distinctions. We may
state this polarity in different ways such as: essence and manifestation, ideal and
practical, the whole and the parts, principle and particular, creativity and
reductionism, and simplicity and complexity.
The two are not incompatible; indeed they seem to require each other. Shah
Saheb describes intelligence as the ability to retain both in the mind
simultaneously. When Crick and Watson were seeking to understand the structure
of the human gene, despite their creative grasp their attempt failed because of
small inaccuracies, they required the help of another colleague who, lacking the
vision to grasp the whole, was able to provide the detail that eventually resulted
in a true representation or model of the gene structure.
Of necessity technology lays much more stress on detail – a good original idea is
fine but to make it work the detail must be completely right. Anyone working
with a computer will have some grasp of this. In itself there is nothing wrong in it,
quite the opposite, but it is perhaps inevitable that a society that overvalues the
‘production’ of material resources requiring technology finds itself lost in a maze
of details in its psychic life. The counterbalance of remembering and holding in
the mind the unifying principle that complexity expresses may too easily be
forgotten – and this may be the ‘message’ that stress is giving to us.
Let us describe the situation by analogy. Picture a round length of wood, - a
cone, say a metre long - tapering to a point at one end and expanded at the other
to say 6” in diameter at the other. The tapered end represents the unifying
principle and the other the ‘particular’. We may find ourselves at different times
at different points along the continuum of its length. Sometimes closer to an
awareness of unity sometimes more involved in the particular. However if we
locate our self not along the continuum but at the blunt end we no longer see the
whole length of the wood or its point, only the end which blocks out the view of
If we locate ourselves mentally so completely in the complexity of modern life, in
the overwhelming mass of detail, that we lose sight of the underlying unity, then
stress comes to point out our situation. In theological terms we might say to
remind us of the ever present reality of the unified presence of God.
There is a technique promoted by Mevlana Rumi in which he advises us to treat
negative thoughts as unwanted guests, to treat them with respect as coming from
God but to ask them politely to leave – so that on their return to their source they
may give good account of us. In this spirit it now seems that we have made our
peace with stress and given it due appreciation so now is time to ask it to leave.
To do this we must show our appreciation of it by taking its message to heart. Let
us seek the unifying principle in life in all its diverse manifestations.
Here the issue of distinguishing the inward and the outward becomes important.
To run away literally from our overwhelming commitments may in some
situations be appropriate for a while (the modern equivalent of retreating to a
hermitage) but it misses the main point. ‘Downsizing’ our expectations is better.
Our cave of retreat is be found within.
Let us disentangle the constituents of stress and seek their antidote one by one. It
is the compound nature of stress that gives it its strength.
Focusing on the quality of our inward life rather than on the ‘the goods and
chattels of deception’ can help bring greed to heel. We must aim to transform our
greed for material sophistication to a greed for spiritual and moral values. We
must be greedy to develop the spirit of generosity in ourselves.
We should try to envy not those with more external power, prestige, influence or
affluence, but those who have acquired inward peace, contentment, purity of
thought and elevated moral or spiritual awareness: those who have generosity of
heart, who are mild in disposition and who have found the inner security of faith,
belief and love.
We need to replace worry about our social standing, poverty, ill-health etc with
worrying about the state of our soul and its meeting with its Maker or at least
with the state of our spiritual development. We need to find the faith within us
that lies like a buried treasure in a ruin.
Anxiety sees a solid wall and immediately fears it will fall down. Our anxiety
needs to be not for this or that thing or desired event but that we do not lose sight
of the unifying principle in all our thoughts and actions. Let us be anxious for the
welfare of others not our own.
Let us eschew the actions and thoughts that lead us into feelings of guilt but let us
recognise those things we have done and said that were wrong and resolve not to
repeat them but let us ever have in mind the Mercy of God. Let us acknowledge
forgive and accept the frailty of others rather than criticising them. Let us look for
a solution rather than attributing blame when things do not go as we think they
should. Hazrat Ali said he came to know God by means of the things that did not
succeed. He was also famed for covering the faults of others. Hazrat Sarmad
said; ‘Greater Thy Mercy than my sins”.
Our society has become increasingly self centred. Politicians raise high the
banner of individual choice to gain votes but myriads of egos solely concerned
with their own individual desires must necessarily find themselves coming into
conflict with others equally intent on their personal pleasure or desires.
Let us by all means compete but not for the baubles of this world but for prizes
beyond value. I mean inward grace, beauty, happiness and contentment, humility,
purity of intention, generosity, peace of mind, and the love that brings undiluted
If we are hasty, as we are, let us make that haste towards ‘simple living and high
thinking’ as Zahurmian expressed it. The process required to achieve an objective
is in some respects the objective. Amongst the Sufis there is a state in which the
aim is to have no aim.
The opposite of haste is not laziness it is patience and patience is not idleness or
inaction it is due diligence - especially when our concern is for the welfare of
others. It is to act but to trust the result to God.
Anger adds to the climate of stress, its manifestation as physical or verbal
violence affects not just us but those around us; it often arises from frustration.
Frustration is often unjustified it implies we want something which we cannot get.
But in reality we do not always know what is best for us. Let us feel frustrated
that we have not made the spiritual progress we would wish, not yet achieved
contentment; let us turn the anger towards our own lower nature. Or let us use our
anger against injustice to others not in an uncontrolled way but with measure and
forethought and efficiency.
This then brings our focus from the things of the outer world to the eternal
values. It may be that a little time and persistence is required. One of the most
pressing concerns recently has become climate change. It is right we should have
such concerns but we will only address these once we have addressed the need to
change ourself. The effect of establishing self discipline will benefit not only
ourselves but all we come into contact with. Indeed we will contribute to a
positive mental climate change.
The thought leading to stress is that the short outer life is all we have – this is a
lie and a deception and in your heart you know this to be true. Put this right and
the outward form of your life will by the Grace of God begin to look after itself.
If the architect’s plans are good the house or palace may turn out well - all else
being well, but when the architect’s plans are distorted in the first place nothing
good can be hoped for.
Go back to the drawing board reconstruct your life from within and let stress
return to its source having done its work.
Let us bear in mind the advice of Zahurmian that in our dealings with the world
we should be like a leaf floating on the surface of the stream. This implies
People say that some level of stress is required to motivate us but this is the
language of slavery – let us seek to master ourselves within, with the help of
those who have trod this path before. There we will find a truer form of
motivation – as the Sufis such as Khawaja Muinuddin Hasan Chishti expressed it
- to reunite with our Beloved so that turbulence ceases and we become calm
Jamiluddin Morris Zahuri