The following is the transcript of the discussion section of Dr. Jordan’s CD “A Peaceful Inner Life, How to Manage Stress and Create Inner Peace Through Mindfulness.”
If you would like a copy of the CD, including sections on meditation and progressive relaxation, Click Here.
Hello, I am Dr. Richard Jordan. Thank you for allowing me to share with you some ideas on how to live a Peaceful Inner Life. In Part I, I will be discussing these ideas, and in Part II, I will provide you with some basic tools and techniques. So, let’s get started.
People who live peaceful inner lives perceive themselves as relatively stress-free. Why is it important to “manage” stress? Well, the obvious reason is that we generally enjoy our lives more and live longer this way. There is a large body of medical research that clearly indicates that a high level of stress in one’s life is the single biggest risk factor for heart disease, outweighing any other factor, including diet, exercise, and weight.
In a more recent study, a group of women sere surveyed to measure two things: the levels of stress in their outer lives, that is, objective levels of stress, and the levels of stress that they perceived they had in their lives. The study also used a unique way of measuring the degree of aging of the cells in the women’s bodies. The findings were clear. There was somewhat of a connection between objective levels of stress and rate of aging, but there was a more clear connection between perceived levels of stress and aging. This study proves what we have known intuitively for quite some time. It is not so much our life situations that cause us to suffer and age prematurely; it is our way of being with, or relating to, our life situations that matters.
It seems to be the nature of life to have stress and pain, so you might as well give up all hope of eliminating stress from your life. You are not going to achieve a peaceful inner life by eliminating stress from your outer life situation. So, the real question is…how are you to relate to, or be with, the stress and pain?
Part I – How to Create A Peaceful Inner Life
Because words and their meanings can be a little tricky sometimes, let’s talk a bit about the meaning of “inner life.” One way of looking at our lives is that we have an inner life and an outer life. Our outer life is basically our physical/material life situation, that is, our families, other people in our lives, our work and office environment, the place in the world that we live, the homes in which we live, the way we take to and from work, and so on. These things are quite tangible. We can see how our outer life is, how it changes, and we can see other people’s outer lives.
Our inner lives tend to be less tangible, a bit more vague and unseen by others. For now, let me suggest a working definition for “inner life.” Let’s say that your inner life is the way you think and feel about yourself, your relationships, and your outer world. It is a source of information, beliefs, and emotions that you use to define yourself when you are not defining yourself according to your outer experience.
To help illustrate this, imagine a typical day for a typical man with a wife, family, and job. Here are some of the ways he might be defined by his outer experience: When he awakens next to his wife, he is a husband. When he kisses his children and leaves for work, he is a father. When he drives to work he is a motorist. When he is at work, he is perhaps an employee, a boss, or a salesman. When he stops for lunch at the deli, he is a customer, and so on.
But as he goes through his day and his life, there is a “somebody” at home inside. When we talk about inner life, we are talking about that somebody inside. Sadly, in our Western cultures, many of us live our lives with little awareness of who is inside. If I am not my job, if I am not my family roles, if I am not my clothes or my car or my money, then who am I? How we answer this question, how we design and decorate our inner hearth and home, is the real key to a peaceful and graceful life.
So, it is a very powerful thing to be able to choose how we identify ourselves inside, because this inner identity guides us in our ways of being with the world outside us. If we have no consciously chosen inner life, what we feel and believe depend for the most part on what is happening around us. You might know people for whom this is true, people who might be described as “easily set off,” “too sensitive,” “unpredictable,” or “Mercurial.” Because so much of what happens in our life situations is unpredictable, if we have no inner hearth and home we find ourselves buffeted about by changing life conditions just as a sailing ship with a broken mast.
There’s a story that comes to us from China where there’s a lot in that culture dealing with luck and fortune. Once upon a time there was a farmer who had a beautiful black stallion. All the neighbors would proclaim, “What a fine horse you have there! What good fortune for you to have such a fine horse.” The farmer would say, “Wait and see, time will tell.” One day, the horse jumped the corral fence and ran off into the forest. All the neighbors said, “Ah what bad luck, you’ve lost your horse.” The farmer said, “Wait and see, time will tell.” A few weeks later, the horse comes prancing out of the woods, and behind him are two mares who happened to be pregnant. And all the neighbors said, “What great fortune you have,” and the farmer said, “Wait and see, time will tell.” So the mares gave birth to these beautiful fine young foals who grew up into these strapping young ponies, and it came time for them to be broken. The farmer had a young son who decided he was going to break one of the horses. So, the time came for the boy to climb on the back of the pony, and as ponies do, the pony lurched and bucked and spun and kicked and spun and bucked some more, and finally threw the boy off his back and onto the ground. On the floor of the corral was a big rock, and that rock broke the boy’s leg. The neighbors all proclaimed, “Ah, what bad fortune,” and the farmer said, “Wait and see, time will tell.” And about that time the king of this land decided to declare war on the neighboring land. So he sent all his men into the countryside to gather up all the healthy young men to help him fight his new war. When the king’s men came to the farmer’s house, they did not take the boy. So, there are many messages in this story, many things to be learned, but we must imagine that this farmer had quite a peaceful inner life. He seemed to be in acceptance of his outer life situation, no matter what was happening. He possessed equanimity.
So, equanimity is a powerful component of a peaceful inner life. Another powerful component of a peaceful inner life comes to us from the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus. Epictetus over 2000 years ago wrote a book called the Encouridian, which translates into “The Art of Living.” The first sentence in the book goes something like this: “The key to happiness and success in life is to recognize what is in one’s control, and what is not in one’s control.” Some of you may be familiar with a more modern version of this idea, the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Much of the worry, stress, anxiety, and suffering in the world stems from a pre-occupation with things that are out of our control.
So, the formula thus far for a peaceful inner life is this: Develop an awareness of what is in your control, and what is out of your control. Take appropriate action on what is in your control, and accept what is out of your control. I know, easy to say, hard to do. We may have a lifetime of doing it another way, so we have some habits to break. This is a practice of awareness and acceptance that requires a strong intention and discipline. I believe that the best “power tool” for supporting this practice is mindfulness meditation. I will be offering you one simple version of mindfulness meditation later.
Another challenge for many of us in achieving a peaceful inner life is that we are pre-occupied with misfortune or traumas from the past, or we are worried or fearful about the future. That is, we are not living in the present moment. We may be troubled by negative beliefs or assumptions about ourselves; we may be troubled by unexpressed emotions; or we may be suffering from the unhealed wounds of abuse or trauma. Your practice of mindfulness, or awareness and acceptance, may help ease these things, but if you find that you are truly stopped by such ghosts of the past or fears of the future, I recommend some outside help, such as a therapist or healer.
Before we go on to the meditation, let’s review some of the common wisdom and advice on stress management. Any of these tools are great if they work for you. Reduce or eliminate alcohol, caffeine, and refined sugar. Breathe deeply. Eat a healthy diet. Exercise regularly. Get enough rest and sleep. Include pleasant sights, sounds or music, and smells in your daily routine. Include fun and humor in your life. Avoid unnecessary negative stimulation, such as the evening news before bedtime. Use guided imagery or visualization. Note that I have not gone into detail on visualization in this discussion. If it works for you, that’s great, and there are plenty of resources that offer visualizations for stress management. However, it is estimated that roughly 20-30% of us cannot visualize, that is, cannot close our eyes and get a picture or image, so I would rather not suggest something here that will not work well for so many.
One final tool I want to mention is contact with water and nature. Some of us naturally have that built into our lives, but for some of us it is quite absent, and it may not be that obvious just how much it is missing. This can be an insidious form of stress, from an existence that is mostly limited to four walls or inside a car. If this is true for you, try getting out among trees and plants regularly, and immerse yourself in water.
I invite you to begin now to design your practice of creating a peaceful inner life. Start simply, and set yourself up for success by not taking on too much. Wouldn’t it be ironic if you ended up more stressed because of all the time demands of your stress management program? I recommend, at a minimum, that you start with 20 minutes a day of meditation, ideally first thing in the morning, plus exercise as vigorously as is comfortable for you at least two to three times a week. The reason that meditation and exercise are so important is that they both have been shown to be effective at increasing one’s sense of well-being and resiliency. Increases in serotonin levels have consistently been measured in people who meditate and/or exercise regularly. If you want to include more tools in your practice, all the better, but make sure you do your best to stick to these two basic components even though other tools may come and go. Actually, a little variety is a good thing, so mixing up the tools might be fun, and you will discover what works best for you.