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
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 was complexity.
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
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
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 joy.
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
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
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 forever.
Jamiluddin Morris Zahuri