Manage Stress from the Inside

Blood pressure up? Not eating well? No time for family & friends? Spouse anxious? Not sleeping? Ah, the things I could tell you about the pressure I’m under right now… but why bother? You’ve got your own stuff to worry about.

Everyone talks about how stressful things are today as if, once upon a magical time, they weren’t. This is life. Still, science has never paid so much attention. Psychology Today describes cortisol, the stress hormone, as ‘public health enemy number one,’ and big pharma would like you to think their drugs are on the front line. However, your body’s been dealing with cortisol for thousands of years. It knows precisely what to do, and does it without any side-effects: it releases endorphins.

Like cortisol, endorphins are hormones. Rather than making you hyper they calm you down. Ideally the two work together to crank you up when you need to be on your toes, then chill you out afterwards. Unfortunately, it rarely works like that. Once it gets going, cortisol hates to quit. As hormones go, it’s a control-freak. That’s why we tend to stay in react mode even after the source of stress has passed. To release endorphins on cue, you have to step in and take charge.

Daily exercise gives you a break and temporarily brings your cortisol levels down, but it doesn’t deliver a finely tuned balance. Vacations, laughter and other diversions are also helpful, but they don’t last and they don’t reach deep into the sources of stress. Alternating levels of stress and relaxation still place unhealthy pressure on your body and mind, making you susceptible to sickness and causing premature aging.

In the end, nothing’s quite as effective as the brain. Subconsciously, it’s involved in all hormonal activity, but you can also focus it consciously on your stress response, bringing the most proactive part of the brain to the front line. Now you’re looking at attention: something that can finely tune your stress balance.

Attention is the principal tool of mindfulness. It keeps you clear-minded and easy-going, less prone to anxiety. This and other mindfulness techniques help you fine-tune your stress balance from moment to moment.

Mindfulness is all the rage today, but there’s nothing new about it. It’s touted as an ancient Buddhist practice but in fact it’s found in every culture. It’s not rocket science. It’s brain science, except that it’s easy. When you see yourself under unnecessary stress, it gives you freedom to stand back and let go.

The only thing is, it takes a bit of effort. Take a class. Practice it. It really will change your life.

Managing Anger & Disappointment

The whole reason I started meditating was to control my temper. I’d been warned by parents and teachers, and paid for it in detentions, canings and the disdain of my family.

Unfortunately, meditation didn’t help the way I thought it would. People say that if you breathe quietly in an empty room for long enough, your mind will grow calm and your passions will fade away; but people are wrong. For a start, emotions are a normal, healthy function of the human mind. You can’t stop them and still be conscious any more than you can stop breathing and still be alive. Secondly, although meditation may slow down your mind, that’s just a prelude; it’s not the goal.

I practiced mindful reflection, and bit by bit, it revealed my mind and its workings. That changed my self-image. It helped me accept my anger, which was the last thing I expected. I wanted to eliminate it, not befriend it.

Until then, angry was who I was. I was ‘known’ as an angry person. It never occurred to me that I was angry for a reason. The evidence was plain. I’d periodically erupt, biting off the heads of whoever was at hand. There was collateral damage.

Mindful reflection taught me that I wasn’t angry so much as disappointed. It was an aha moment that separated honest passion from nervous baggage. Those who said I was an angry person weren’t trying to help me; they were trying to deny their role in my anger. I was angry at my teachers because they were authoritarian, brooked no disagreement and pretended to know everything. I was angry at my family because they made me the scapegoat. I was angry for good reason.

When I realised that my real problem wasn’t anger but frustration, not just resentment but disappointment, I began to see how my reactions had taken on a life of their own. They’d become subconscious, but now rose to the surface where I could disentangle and begin to let them go.

Anger doesn’t stop, and nor should it. It’s a necessary survival mechanism. I get mad at the daily news, the murder of innocents and the brutality of human beings. I get angry when people are disrespectful. I get angry at myself. By understanding that anger, I can express it without being rash—without the collateral damage. I can make my point, gain respect and, if I’m wrong, still find the courage to apologise. Mindful reflection hasn’t made me a paragon of peace, but it has put me in touch with all my passions—not just anger.

Don’t underestimate the power of meditation, and don’t trust popular preconceptions of what it is. It doesn’t mean tying yourself up in unnatural postures and sitting in agonizing silence for hours on end. It just means looking into your own mind and judging for yourself what you find. When you practice it yourself, you see into the peculiarities of your own behaviour, and discover the wisdom that’s available to us all, whenever we take the time to look.


I started thinking about alternative lifestyles years ago when I read a book on macrobiotics. Its eighteenth-century inventor, Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, believed his grain-based regimen was, ‘a science aimed at prolonging and perfecting life.’ What attracted me was the book’s Japanese spin, for the unspoken rule of the early seventies was, ‘Eastern is authentic.’ My goal was to become Enlightened which, I assumed, meant changing who I was. Could macrobiotics guide me along that path?

Unfortunately not. The book called on me to quit dairy foods, and that wasn’t going to happen. I grew up in England’s best milk country. I delivered it in pint bottles before the sun rose. I worked in the cattle auction ring. I loved cheese. My family had a fine restaurant. Cooking was a skill I took pride in, and a sense of identity.

My first time abroad was with my father to the continent. We drove directly from the ferry dock in Calais to a boulangerie. Ten minutes later Dad spread a blanket in a farmer’s field and there we sat, scooping up creamy camembert with fragments of warm baguette. We washed it down with vin ordinaire while he grinned like a Cheshire cat.

This was a new Dad and a pleasant surprise. I was used to him being unhappy and demanding. Although the church consoled him, it had the opposite effect on me. Nevertheless, that July afternoon we broke bread and shared wine, and it was better than any mass I’d attended.

Like many Italian families, mine blurred the lines between food and religion. We were dogmatic about both. We self-identified as restaurateurs. A few years later I abandoned church with little regret, but my bond to the food I grew up on was sacred. Since reading that macrobiotic book I’ve developed arthritis and allergies, and often thought about quitting bread and cheese. Last week, forty years later, I did it: no more wheat; no dairy.

This diet is really for Caroline. I’m piggybacking on her motivation. Her MS has become unmanageable in recent months, and this is the only thing that offers hope. That may sound like a last resort for the desperate, but it’s actually encouraging. The physician who put it together has MS herself, and that sets her apart from run of the mill neurologists. She’s Terry Wahls and it’s the Wahls Diet. What she says sounds right, but the proof is in the pudding. We’re looking for results.

The first change is in perception. Looking back, it seems I was never really hungry before, just chronically unsatisfied. When I get it right, and my spaghetti aglio e olio is sublime, I can’t get enough. I stop eating because I have to, but the craving remains. It’s stressful.

Mind you, with this diet I’m eating all day. Tons of vegetables; lots of chewing. I used to run on empty for a while, then dose myself with carbs. It’s quick and convenient. It’s also over. Now I have a new sensation in my belly: satisfaction. It feels so natural. Sixty years I’ve lived without that feeling; wow.

It’s easier to change perspective when you’ve been dwelling in dark places and one day have a fresh chance. Caroline’s been looking at despair for a while; now there’s hope. Her body seems to be working with her for the first time in years. She’s holding her breath.

Some sort of desperation triggers every dramatic change in life. That’s why this blog asks you to expose yourself to doubt. If you’re picky about the change you want to embrace, your motivation will never reach critical mass.

I’m doing this with Caroline, but for myself too. The Wahls Diet takes over your life and your kitchen, so it’s a family effort. Also, entropy is more noticeable these days and I stand to benefit. I newly respect my body, and the feeling appears to be mutual. My tool as always is mindful reflection. It’s more than a technique; it’s a feedback loop too. The biggest obstacle isn’t distraction; it’s clinging to the familiar.

When circumstances, timing and personal momentum line up, change is effortless. Trouble is, you never know what’s lining up until it happens. How rarely we make a clear decision and accept all consequences.


Be a Man

When I decided to go it alone, I meant it. I pursued it with a vengeance, and with pride. What could be more manly than to face my own demons and straighten them out through sheer strength of will?

It didn’t work, but I didn’t even realize it until I met somebody who was interested enough to listen — really listen. When it all started to pour out of me, I was shocked by the torrent of pent-up emotion. So much had been festering for years.

Old taboos die hard. Most men still don’t reveal their weaknesses, least of all to other men. With good reason they fear mockery, but it gets worse. I felt my strength should be self-contained — that I should figure things out on my own. This, even more than the fear of mockery, convinced me to stay silent … and it shut me down.

Here’s the logic: all problems have a rational solution; emotions are irrational; they are therefore not real problems; problem solved.

Even with all the logic in the world
you can’t figure out feelings on your own

The ease of this illogic reveals the underlying anxiety. It avoids not just scorn, but reality. We expect so much of ourselves that sometimes we just can’t help but pretend. As long as it takes, as hard as it is, persist and it’ll come true.

Women have long experience of sharing their sorrows. They know, on the whole, that strength comes from open hearts. Even with all the logic in the world, you can’t figure out feelings on your own. Ignored, they confound each other, run amok and choke the heart. We begin dealing with them by sharing, at least by seeing others share.

Some emotions, like grief, don’t even have a solution, but silence makes them worse still. Other emotions can be solved, though not once and for all the way men want. The currency of the heart is storytelling, and at our core is the story of who we are. We keep it in check because it’s unseemly to be self-centered, but there’s no escaping our deepest drive: self-preservation.

Some truths seem universal
but in the end they’re all personal

The ancient Greeks turned storytelling into a fine art, and in the Temple of Apollo are inscribed the words, “Know thyself.” It’s been the foundation of thoughtful men and women for millennia. As vague as it might sound to practical-minded men, there’s no more pragmatic approach to life. We’re born from a cocoon and from that moment forth, all we know flows in through the senses. Very little is plain fact; we interpret it all, often wrongly. Some truths seem universal, but in the end they’re all personal. Understanding where they come from is a tremendous resource. Without it we’re impoverished.

Exposing yourself to all this can be awkward. What are my needs? What do I want? How do I feel about the choices I’ve made? What’s possible? How can I improve my lot? These are the questions we’ll explore in my upcoming men’s workshop.

This mindful reflection workshop is just for men, because men need to listen to themselves, and then to each other. The first step is sit together.

The Intimacy of Loss

I love my wife, so it stung the other day when she said, “Hmm … You’re going to have trouble letting me go, aren’t you?”

She’s not walking out on me. You see, she has multiple sclerosis (MS), and she’s referring to the day she can’t walk any more. She’s convinced herself that she can’t handle the guilt of ruining my life, and expects me to leave when she says so.

I knew Caroline had MS when I married her. I also knew I loved her. And I knew from experience what it was to live in a loveless marriage, hoping against hope that if you work hard enough at it, things will turn around. Of course, there is an element of work in marriage, but it’s got to start with chemistry.

I fell in love because of our chemistry. Yes, physical chemistry—she’s a real beauty—but I’m not talking about that, either. We care about the same things, like honesty and depth and clear insight. And we don’t give a damn about the same things, like having loads of money or achieving great, big visible success.

Still, we live well, eat well and enjoy fine wines. However, Caroline’s turning into a bit of a homebody as her legs grow less reliable. Her car’s being fitted for a hand-operated brake. She had a bit of a scare recently, so it’s time.

They say you don’t die from MS, you live with it. Well, they can say what they like. Those are words; we live with the reality. Most of the time Caroline’s full of life, charged up by her work as a personal life coach and filled with the satisfaction of seeing eye-popping changes in her clients’ lives. Still, MS is a chronic, degenerative illness. She’s gone through all the scary attacks of temporary blindness, vertigo, and electrical storms in her body, weakness, profound fatigue and inexplicable pain.

She avoids medications. They’re no cure and the side effects suck. Her mood is usually good, amazing actually. She has a bright outlook on life, and is a great wife and mother.

When I say she inspires the hell out of me, I’m not just being polite. Being with her has changed my life. Caroline’s commitment to honesty isn’t just a matter of telling the truth to others, it’s about telling it to herself, about uncovering fear and the denial that follows hard on its heels. She’s never afraid to scrape away the shiny surfaces to see what’s underneath—like my hollow silence when she tells me to let go.

We had that conversation the other night because I, not she, was down. I was feeling bad for her, and for us. She was stuck in bed and our holiday wasn’t going to happen as we planned.

She’d had a cold for a week, meaning that on top of the regular symptoms, she gets fever, extreme fatigue, and other complications. With MS, the tiniest bug can throw the immune system into a tailspin and make symptoms last much longer. You can only imagine how frustrated, depressed, and cranky that makes you.

She hates feeling weak, mostly because she wants to “be there” all the time, in the best way possible for the rest of us, especially me. She loves me. Actually, we’re pretty goofy when it comes to our affection for one another.

I ask her what she means by letting her go. She looks me coolly in the eye and says, “I mean, when I can’t function any more, of course. I want you to move on.”

What the hell am I supposed to say to that? What would you say?

I almost blubber, but that’s no way to be there for her—or is it? I tell her she can’t possibly know what awaits her. She raises an eyebrow. She knows all right.

I recognize the moment of indecision. I pause, breathe, and return to the present.

Funny, after eight years as a Buddhist monk with the finest Tibetan teachers and forty years of practice, I sometimes feel I should have a leg up on life’s sufferings. To be floored by a moment like this disables all I learned—the meditative techniques, the philosophy, the calm sense of stability.

We fall back on the only thing we ever have—any of us, any time, anywhere. This moment. And in this moment we’re together, even when it’s painful. We broaden each other’s bandwidth.

People cling to belief systems, religions, and fantasies escape moments like this. But I’m not about to tell Caroline that we’ll meet again in paradise and experience eternal youth in some flowery meadow. So in this moment, I explain to Caroline that I’m already letting go—not of her but of the feelings we get stuck in.

My knee-jerk tendency is to wrap myself up in negativity, to indulge in the guilt of being healthy and the powerlessness of standing by helplessly—to suffer intently out of dumb solidarity. Thankfully, my training gets me past that. I can let go. She sees it in my eyes and lets go too, not of me, but of fear and sadness. Acknowledging those feelings enables us to recognize they’re not permanent, that they’ll pass. Once you’re there, letting go is just another step.

Can the sadness return? Yes of course, but we can still take this moment, and we’re better primed next time to let go of the negativity again. It’s special and tangible. The heart opens, and out of it flows the immense presence of this moment. It brings one more shared insight into inexplicable life. This is as intimate as it gets.

I remind her of what she means to me, not lovey-dovey clichés, but real wake-up calls. I tell her that when she gets down on herself for being unable to cook or do chores, she forgets what purpose she’s brought to my life—all the focus, the encouragement, and frankness.

Caroline coaxed me out of my isolation and brought me down to earth. She raised four fine children and has given her clients a sort of attention they never experienced before. None of this is trivial.

It’s not as if she doesn’t already know this. The real fear isn’t losing her body; it’s losing her purpose.

That fear of what she can’t do traps her in the illusion that she’s facing up to reality. But in fact she’s turning away from the reality of here and now. By reminding her of that I break the spell; she recalls where that negativity comes from, wakes up to the presence of fear, and finds the moment once more.

From the day I came into the picture she’s expressed all her feelings, good and bad. From her example I’ve learned not to keep them in. A partner’s there to share your life with, to listen to how you’re feeling, preferably without judgments or abstract solutions.

Don’t edit out the hard parts. If you have to do that, where’s the partnership? It’s off her chest. She’s back, and here we are sharing one more moment together. What else do any of us ever have? The challenge is to make it real.

This post first appeared on the Tiny Buddha website in January 2012

Guilting the Sick

“What will your last ten years look like?”

You may have seen the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s new TV ad. A split screen juxtaposes a series of images: an athletic shoe against a bedroom slipper, a bicycle wheel against the spokes of a wheelchair, the steps of Manchu Pichu against a powered chairlift, a box of fishing tackle against a box of medications. The voiceover man wants to know: “Will you be quick enough for a game of tag with your grandchild? Strong enough to embrace every moment? Will you grow old with vitality…or get old with disease? It’s time to decide.”

Ads like this won’t fix anything by scaring the vulnerable

I watched this with my wife Caroline, herself at genetic risk of heart disease. She also has multiple sclerosis (MS). We exclaimed at the same time, “So health is a matter of choice?” The sight of a wheelchair triggers special feelings for her. She’s been fighting it for two decades, as she has all her MS symptoms. She works hard to accept a condition she can’t change.

The message we were getting at that moment was that it’s her own fault if she ends up in a wheelchair. That’s not a rational response to the ad, of course. It’s a visceral one. It’s surely not what the Heart and Stroke Foundation intended, but it is what happened. They were presumably motivated by compassion, but their impotence is thinly veiled.

Painting reality in black and white as if it’s a simple choice is patronizing and counter-productive. It makes you feel guilty. It makes you wish to God you could change your lifestyle, but there’s more to changing habits than a decision. Ads like this won’t fix anything by scaring the vulnerable. It takes special skill and support to help people change, especially when it comes to the bad habits of a lifetime. Smooth and polished as it is, this ad says more about the frustrations of the Heart and Stroke foundation than about the people it purports to serve.

As medical science has advanced, self-reliance has retreated

We live longer than our ancestors mainly due to clean water and public sanitation. Still, we give most of the credit to medical technology. It can be dazzling, though it’s got nothing for the two and a half million people with MS. When it succeeds at anything we hear of a ‘cure,’ but of course there’s no such thing. Science merely extends life. On the whole, cancer survivors eventually succumb to cancer and stroke victims to cardiovascular disease. When this TV ad asks what your last ten years will be like, the implication is that if you play it right you’ll live life to the full, right up to the last moment. Then, you’ll abruptly and happily drop dead.

So dazzled are we by medical advances that we’ve become druggily dependent on them, so vulnerable to TV advertizing that we’ll fall for anything that’s slick enough.

As medical science has advanced, self-reliance has retreated. The Heart and Stroke Foundation is part of the reason we find it so hard to change. We don’t have to reject medical science, but we do need to take back our power. That sounds like a political decision but it’s really a personal one.

We can change habits, but not in a vacuum. We need to deeply understand ourselves. What we call our ‘self’ is mostly a collection of judgements hatched in different circumstances, a clutch of habitual responses and jumped-to conclusions. Managing change takes skill, support and effort. If you want the last decade of your life to be ten good years, you’d better look to the ten years before that, and the ten years before that. How are you doing now? Are you working systematically on your own mental strength and self-reliance…or are you putting it off for another day?

Caroline doesn’t manage her disease but her attitude. She can’t stop it any more than medicine can ‘cure’ anything, but she can make her life worth living. She’s thoughtful and funny, an inspiration to others. That won’t change if she’s in a wheelchair rather than on a mountain bike. Let’s get real. Death will get us all. What counts is how you live. The Heart and Stoke Foundation knows that, but they’re sending the wrong message nonetheless.