A recent article published in the The New Yorker titled, “The Really Big One”, is predicting the worst natural disaster in the history of North America.  The article predicts that any day now, the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami may strike, and in geologic time, we are overdue. FEMA projects that this natural disaster will kill 13,000 people, injure 27,000, and displace millions.  The odds are one in three that this cataclysmic event will happen in the next 50 years. Due to the lack of an early-warning system in the Pacific Northwest, residents will be alerted by a cacophony of barking dogs.   Next will come the ground shaking followed by an eerie silence. Then a wave will destroy everything west of I-5.

How can one protect oneself from such a cataclysmic event?  The answer lies in ancient wisdom and modern psychology. The only thing we can do is be here now.  The present moment is the only thing we have ever had control over.

In modern psychology and the philosophy of Vedanta, there are three universal stressors, or troubles, that confront all humans. Cataclysmic stressors are natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. These events are uncontrollable. Then, there are objective stressors, for example getting rear ended in a car accident, a sprained ankle, or a fever. There's nothing you can do about those events. The last stressor that universally afflicts all humans is subjective mental stress. Subjective stress is perceived stress about all of the things that are out of your control. The late Stephen Covey calls this worrying about your circle of concern, or the things you have no control over.  Instead, focus on the circle of influence, or things you can directly control, like your attitude. Subjective, perceived mental stress is avoidable and managed through a shift in perspective. It is therefore optional.  

Modern psychology defines subjective or mental stress as an, “emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes”. In our society, one is releasing stress hormones in a traffic jam, in line at the grocery store,  at a business meeting at work, or reading the Annals of Seismology about the big earthquake that will wipe out the entire Northwest. This chronic stress leads to disease.  Research shows that chronic stress leads to premature aging by shortening telomeres and increasing oxidative stress. Unless the events are cataclysmic or objective (environment-based), then all other events are one’s subjective interpretation of reality. This subjective experience of stress that leads to unnecessary suffering is our number one killer. It is important to manage and interpret stress in a healthy way and avoid unnecessary pain and suffering that comes with chronic mental stress.  

Adults can learn from what comes naturally to children. When you look at a child expressing joy, happiness, love, creativity, inquisitiveness, spontaneity, boundless energy, and a zest for life, realize that this is our natural inheritance! Most children are free of mental stress, this is our natural state.  Pain and hardships are universal and exist in human life, whether you're rich, poor, black, white, male or female.  However, mental stress, worrying, and anxiety over events (the really big earthquake that will destroy the great Northwest) creates suffering. This type of mental worrying that creates suffering is unnecessary. How can we manage stress and avoid unnecessary suffering? Meditation and mindfulness can show us the way.

When practicing meditation, we are able to manage and interpret life’s stresses in a more effective way.  Dr. Joseph Campbell states, “We cannot cure the world of sorrow, but we can choose to live in joy.”  We have no control over an earthquake, tsunami, a rogue wave, or getting rear ended by a drunk driver. We do have control over our subjective experience of reality. We have control over the present moment. We can bring peace and calm to our body, here and now, through our in and out breath. We can witness our thoughts, release them, and reduce stress hormones by engendering the relaxation response. The power to choose mental stress or deep relaxation is as close to us as our next breath.  

In an upcoming blog I will share my favorite meditation exercises.