Surviving Stressful Times 4

Section 1

Ken: I’ve been throwing out various principles. There is a teaching in the dzogchen tradition. The expression in Tibetan is very, very dramatic; it is impossible to capture in English but it’s, Recognize your own nature, Absolute on one point, and Have confidence and be free. These are very deep instructions.

Trungpa Rinpoche in the late sixties had a mystical experience. And out of that composed a practice which is practised in the Shambhala tradition in which these three principles are translated into the following: See clearly, know what is, act without hesitation.

The first three sections of today were actually loosely structured on this. So, the first section was about seeing clearly, and going a little deeper into that “knowing what is.” And the last section has been roughly about acting without hesitation. I wanted to steer you in a particular direction, because I genuinely feel that there’s one thing that you can take from this workshop: the willingness and interest in developing circles of support, I think, is probably the one thing that all of us can do which will make a difference in our own circumstances, will make a difference in the circumstances of those with whom we associate, and will make a difference in the way this country functions overall. And part of the reason for this is that for the last approximately thirty years in the political arena, the effort has been to direct people to focus their attention on what frightens them.

Section 2

In Buddhism we have what are know as the three marks of existence. Again these are some other deep principles: impermanence, suffering, non-self. We can translate these as [writing on board] focusing on survival, focusing on emotional needs and focusing on identity—being someone. The political advertising has been very carefully constructed to encourage people to think of these three things.

The result of that has been a breakdown in community, a breakdown in shared interest and shared values, increasing isolation, an increasingly competitive environment in which everybody is competing for a piece of the pie, and the idea that everybody should be a star of something. These are very, very deep survival mechanisms. And every attempt has been made to elicit this kind of reactivity in people because by isolating people and by getting them to focus on their emotional needs, people become controllable. This goes back—Goering said it, Goebbels also, in Nazi Germany— it goes right back to Caesar: “Get the population scared, offer them a seeming panacea for their fears and you’ll be able to get them to agree to anything that you want.” This is very time-tested stuff. Machiavelli, you know, you name it.

But it doesn’t produce a good country. It doesn’t produce a good society. It doesn’t produce a good life for the people in the society.

And so focusing on these reactive tendencies, building a society that is focused on reactive tendencies, is counterproductive to the formation of society, of a cohesive, generative, creative, responsive society.

Section 3

One of the things that we’ve seen with the Obama campaign—because I think he was very well aware of this, possibly because of his community organizing experience in Chicago or whatever—is he has been offering a very, very different set of values. Which is one of the reasons why there has been so much response. And one way of characterizing this…I just have to get to my cheat sheets, please…[Ken rustles through papers]. Ah, okay.

Section 4

Rather than focusing on, “How I can survive?” which in stressful times tends to be where we go, instead of that, focus on, ““How can I help?” In times like these we’ve heard from several people that there have been significant losses. So the tendency is, “What am I going to do about this loss?” But if we instead focus on—I want to make sure I get these right, yes—[writing on board] “What resources do I have?” something very different starts to happen. And instead of trying to be somebody, you ask the simple question, which is effectively what you were asking, Sophie, “How can I be effective?” Or make it simpler terms, “What can I actually do?”

Now, whether one looks at this from the neurological point of view, the psychological point of view, or spiritual point of view, there is increasing convergence of these three perspectives. The same thing actually occurs.

From the neurological point of view, brain functioning, when you’re talking about survival, your brain works one way. When you talk about, “How can I help with people; how can I help someone,” your brain works differently, another way.

In psychological terms, when you say, “How am I going to survive this?” What do you feel?

Student: Despair.

Ken: When you say, “How can I help someone?” What do you feel?

Student: Empowered.

Ken: Yeah. So that’s on the psychological.

On the spiritual—survival, well we’re all going to die. You’re not going to survive. It’s done. So you might as well just figure out how you can help. Because nobody survives life, at least not anybody yet, anyway. And, you know, it’s not clear that surviving life would be a good thing either. How many of you really do want to live forever?

Student: Did you have Nietzsche for breakfast?

Ken: Nietzsche? No actually I haven’t read that much of Nietzsche, just bits and pieces here and there. I much prefer Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein is very important. He’s much better than Nietzsche.

Okay, emotional needs. It’s the same kind of thing. There’s a real shift that takes place. So, when it comes to looking at our lives, these are the questions that are going to be more productive in terms of the quality of our own lives, in the quality of the lives of those around us, and in what we create together as a society. Far, far better focusing on these.

Section 5

So what I’d like to do now, just briefly take this a step further, is a kind of guided meditation. What we are going to do is, I want you to take the problem that you have defined in your life, which you did in the last section. And since you’ve got a fairly clear definition of that problem right now, I think that’s probably a good one to take. You can take something else if you wish.

I’m just going to talk you through a process, with a few verbal reminders more than anything, as we sit quietly for the next few minutes. And I want you to observe the shifts. I’m going to take you actually through these three shifts. And I want you to notice what that’s like physically, emotionally, and cognitively. That is, how you feel in your body, what emotions are connected with each of these and what stories, what thoughts arise.

Section 6

So let’s just rest for a few minutes first. Just rest in the experience of breathing.


Open to the situation that is your life. And let the question, “How am I going to survive?” come up. As you let that question arise, what happens in your body? Don’t try to change it. Just note what happens in your body when you ask, “How am I going to survive?” Rest with those physical experiences.

And also, experience what arises emotionally with that question, “How am I going to survive?” And also the various stories that arise in connection with that question.


And now ask yourself instead, “What can I do to help?” What do you experience physically in your body when you ask that question? What do experience emotionally? And what stories, what ways of thinking about the world arise?

[Long pause]

Now, let that all go and just come back and rest with your experience of breathing.


And let the question, “How can I manage this loss?” Let that question arise.


See what happens physically, emotionally, and cognitively.

[Long pause]

Then ask the question, “What resources do I have, or are available to me?” And see what happens there physically, emotionally, and cognitively.

[Long pause]

Now let that go and again rest with the breath.


And then let the question, “How can I be someone?” arise.


“How can I be someone?” See what happens physically, emotionally, and cognitively.


And then ask the question, “What can I do right now?” “What can I do, right now?” And again, what happens physically, emotionally, and cognitively?

[Long pause]


Section 7

Okay. So what was this like? A few comments. Susan?

Susan: I observed the way that, first off, my body reacted, my emotions reacted. You know, it’s…it was very interesting on the contraction and expansion.

Ken: Mmm-hmm. So one was like this, and the other one was like this.

Susan: One was like that. And the emotion of fear, anxiety. And then next was sort of a feeling of expansion, relaxation and empowerment. Feeling empowered. Movement.

Ken: Movement.

Susan: And on a comical note, I wonder if the pharmaceutical industry will make less money in the next couple years because people won’t feel as depressed. The sense of overwhelm.

Ken: We’ll see. Okay, anybody else?

Student: I just would add also the sense, one set felt very isolated, and other opening and connecting.

Ken: Uh huh. Anybody else? How many of you could feel the difference? Okay. How many of you can make use of that? Okay.

Section 8

Those shifts that I’ve described here come from a friend of mine who is doing some thinking about what in the military is called VUCA: V-U-C-A, which stands for volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous. Which are what happens in those situations. He himself was in a situation like this, he had a kidney transplant recently. It’s been successful and he’s in very good health. But he found himself dealing with a volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous situation over a period of several months, a year, really.

And many years ago, he and I put together a diagram, [writing on board] which looked like this. This is an event. Something happens. And when that happens, we can go in one of two directions. This is in the direction of response. And this is in the direction of reaction. So you have a cone which opens upwards. The event is in the middle, response points upwards, and reaction points downwards.

What happens in reaction is increasing tension, mental and physical debilitation from stress, narrowing range of options, constricted ways of thinking. Behaviors revert to survival and other basic instincts, encourage efficiency over effectiveness—you just do things by rote—and depletes resources over time, emotional, physical resources.

Response on the other hand increases relaxation. Mental and physical health improve from reduced stress and better balance; it expands the range of options; broadens ways of thinking; gives opportunity to explore behaviors in new territory, new relationships, new possibilities; encourages effectiveness; and broadens and builds abilities and resources. Not much argument there. So, this is why in Buddhism we look at reaction as the problem and develop the ability to respond to situations.

What does the ability to respond to situations depend on? This takes us right back to where we began our workshop: How can I experience this and be at peace at the same time? Because when you can find peace in your current experience, several things happen. There is an immediate clarification, a clearing. The mind becomes clear; you can see more clearly. And when I say mind here, I really mean mind and heart. You’re clearer emotionally and you’re clearer cognitively. So, you see more clearly, you feel more clearly and because of that what you do is more likely to be appropriate in the situation rather than counterproductive. And so, developing this ability is probably one of the best things you can do in stressful times.

Section 9

We’ve already referred to building the circles of support, which actually create opportunities for you to move in this direction rather than this direction. And there is one other thing that I don’t have time to go into today but I do want to leave you with: When you are trying to figure out what to do, open to the whole of your life. Don’t compartmentalize. When you open to the whole of your life, that’s how you feel personally, what’s personally important to you. What responsibilities, obligations you have to family, to people who are close to you, to friends, to people you work with? What are your responsibilities, obligations to community, society in which you live? What are your spiritual aspirations?What are your personal interests? What excites you, what challenges you, what wakes you up, what puts you to sleep, what shuts you down etc.? Open to every aspect of your life.

When you do that, several things are going to happen. But the most important, possibly, is that you will come to, we could say, an intuitive or an immediate or direct sense of what is in balance and what is out of balance. So it actually points you to what your next action should be. And this goes back to what we were talking about in terms of solution. It points you to, “Oh, this is what needs addressing.” And it may be quite different from what you were thinking needed addressing.

It sounds very simple. Again, much of what I’ve given you today sounds simple. But it’s not particularly easy. It takes practice. And practice means just doing something over and over again. Cal Ripken Junior, one of the best short stops, probably, arguably the best short stop of all time, fielded 1,000 balls every day. This is the best short stop. He gets out there and he fields a thousand balls every day. That’s why he was so good. That’s practice.

One of the things to remember about practice is it’s not about success or failure. That’s why it’s called practice. You’re going to fail at it. You know, over and over again. Of those 1,000 balls, who knows how many he missed. But the practice was there. So this is why it’s important to do things over and over again, so that we become familiar. There is an old Chinese expression which says, “To learn something, do it 10, 000 times.” Then you’ll know how to do it.

Section 10

What I’d like to do is two, three or four quick rounds. I’d like to hear from each of you and we can just pass the microphone around quickly. The first thing is, what is one thing you got out of today? Where’s the microphone? Okay, we can start at this end with Sophie this time. And just say this in one sentence please.

Sophie: To define the problem to another.

Ken: Okay. Frances.

Frances: The response and reaction to an event.

Ken: Okay.

Student: I think it would be interesting to try this guided meditation on an actual problem and see what comes up from it.

Ken: Okay.

Student: The comparative statements, the three comparative statements.

Ken: Okay.

Cara: That it’s really important to listen to your own stories and kind of try to keep some perspective, sort of in keeping with the diagram you drew.

Ken: Okay. Monica.

Monica: How important it is to clearly define your own problems for yourself.

Ken: Okay.

Student: Yeah, if you can’t see what is happening, it might be because you need to step out of your belief system.

Ken: Kari.

Kari: Well, all that was helpful, but the separating goals from results was very helpful to me.

Student: I like the response/reaction. I see that as clarifying…

Ken: The which?

Student: The response/reaction differentiation, I find that empowering.

Ken: Okay.

Student: I like the idea of, the principle of, How can I experience this and be at peace at the same time?

Student: When the definition of a problem locks you into a circular situation, try redefining the problem.

Ken: Randye.

Randye: I’m a little similar. When you define the problem as the situation as it is, it doesn’t go anywhere. The problem is not the situation. The problem is what to do about it.

Ken: Ronnie and Susan

Ronnie: I was reminded how not to react in situations.

Susan: Yeah, being mindful of and aware of how we go into reaction. We’re trained that the conditioning has been to do so for the last thirty years, instead of to go to response. And that that is changing. And that is change.

Ken: Sandy.

Sandy: Paying attention to the sense of emotional constriction as pointing you in a narrowing corner of reaction.

Ken: Okay. Mary

Mary: That much of the time it is not about proving oneself but sharing oneself.

Ken: Very nicely put.

Student: The solution of feeling immobilized is to move.

Student: That there are no absolute truths, that there is only what happens, is a significant point to me.

Ken: Mary

Mary: In dealing with a situation, instead of thinking of it as just survival, but, “How can I help?”

Student: Finding peace amongst the stress so you can see clearly.

Student: I like the idea of using breathing to just experience thoughts rather than trying to do something, stop them or chase them away.

Ken: Okay.

Student: Remembering to open to the whole and not compartmentalize.

Ken: Okay.

Section 11

Now, I always like to get a little bit of feedback on these things. So on a different note, and we’ll just go back the other way, what’s one thing that worked for you about the workshop and one thing that you think can be improved?

Student: The guided meditations were very helpful. I didn’t need as many breaks.

Ken: Okay.

Student: Well—and it’s still not too late to do this in the sense of forming community—it would be nice have an email with everyone who was here today.

Ken: Okay.

Student: And I actually loved the whole thing, so….

Ken: Thank you.

Student: I guess, really being very specific in stating things. And if I’m not stating something specifically enough or if someone’s stating something to me that feels fuzzy, is to make that change.

Ken: Okay. One thing that worked for you Randye, and one thing that could be improved?

Randye: The teachings and how they tied together in the four quadrants of the day. I am not sure what didn’t work for me. I’d have to think more about that.

Student: I thought the meditation worked for me and I say that because I, you know, have problems doing it. But it seemed to work a little better in this room and in this environment in this way, so that was good. And what didn’t work for me? I really don’t have anything off the top of my head, sorry. I’ll get back to you. I’m sure I can find something good.

Ken: [Laughing]

Student: The meditation and breaking up into groups was really helpful. I would love to have gone through all those stages with my group because then I would have a cognitive sense of how to repeat it. I think I know how to repeat it, but I would really like to form a group. So, I just would love to have gone through it with the whole group with your guidance.

Ken: Which stages are you talking about?

Student: What we did defining the problem…

Ken: Oh, all the four stages, yeah.

Student: …and then the genesis and then…

Ken: The solution generated.

Student: …the solution, yeah.

Ken: Yes, that gets a bit difficult.

Student: It can go on.

Ken: It can go, yeah. Well, it’s a whole workshop in itself actually.

Student: Yeah, possibly.

Student: I like the flow of this. I thought that for the number of people and the number of points, the time was a little short.

Ken: Yeah.

Student: What were the questions?

Ken: What’s one thing that worked for you and one thing you felt could be improved?

Student: I thought that everything worked for me. I agree that I don’t think we needed as many breaks and that I also agree that having more time on identifying the problem would have been helpful.

Ken: Okay.

Student: I like the breadth of it, that a lot of territory was covered. I guess what could have worked better for me? I think I could have benefited from a more spiritual context. Even thought there was a lot in here already. But I think the depth could have been even more of…

Ken: Ah, you don’t know how deep some of this stuff is. [Laughter]

Student: What worked for me was I liked people participating and their comments. What didn’t work? The room was little cold at times and that was distracting.

Student: I liked the depth and I did, I agree with the breaking up in groups and I wish there was more time. But, I thought it was an excellent workshop.

Student: I liked the breadth of information and the breaking into groups didn’t work for me. I think sometimes I have a disconnect between what I do naturally and what I have to do in a formalized instruction situation.

Ken: Okay

Randye: I like taking the principles and putting it into personal application, into our own personal lives. That’s helpful for me ‘cause it gives both the structure and then the application of it. The only comments on improvement, there is a little room for improvement in your spelling and in the temperature of this room.

Ken: [Laughter]

Cara: You know if you get hot…

Ken: It’s okay, Cara. Let them complain [laughing]. Nick?

Nick: I enjoyed it. I really did. I’m surprised to say that. I found the meditations a little hard for me, but I have not done that before. I just found my mind wandering. But after a while, it was just peaceful wandering as opposed to stressful wandering. So I would certainly come to another.

Ken: Great.

Student: I really enjoyed finally getting to meet you after hearing your voice and studying your book. And I enjoyed your teaching. I learned a lot. The one thing that didn’t work for me is I’m still really anxious. So I guess I just have to practice. This is just froth on the beer. I’m not enjoying it.

Ken: Ah, wait ‘til you get to the beer.

Student: I’m eager.

Nick: You need a straw.

Student: The breadth of material and the breaking into small groups, and I can’t think of what didn’t work.

Ken: Okay.

Student: I liked the section about defining problems and going through those four different steps. I also liked the discussion about creating communities of support and what people can do to help. So, to go through those questions about survival versus helping and everything else. I thought it may have been more helpful to have more time in the small groups as well. To just kind of dig into that, and allow people to work with that material.

Ken: Okay.

Student: Well I just found the clarifying of the problem part of it very helpful. It was all good. I felt generating that list took more time than it was worth.

Ken: [Laughing]

Student: I felt good about most everything, sir. I think that it is…it’s survival versus “How can I help,” and emotional needs versus, like, “What resources do I have,” because I think that my tendency is to spin out thinking. “I’m so small, I’m so helpless,” all of these things, you know? I get into that survival mode and it’s nice to have a reminder that I do have other resources. And it’s always good to be of service, that’s a good reminder of those things. But I don’t know, I was happy with how everything was run.

Ken: [Laughing]

Student: I liked all of these tools that you had, each one. And then I’ve forgotten a lot of the ones that we did in the morning. Maybe a recap would be good?

Ken: You can listen to the tape.

Student: Yeah. So I liked all of those. I agree that that list maybe was sort of overly long. I’m not quite sure what you’re getting out of it. But everything…

Ken: Okay.

Student: I like the meditations. I think it’s really useful to feel your way through things. I think the one thing is—way at the beginning—you talked about There are no enemies. I think that was something…I would have spent a little more time on that one.

Ken: Okay.

Student: It was all good. Everything worked for me.

Student: I appreciated your translation of Buddhist principles into contemporary words that could be utilized today. And the small group, I would have appreciated more of that. And also coffee.

Section 12

Student: I think we should give Cara a round of applause.

Ken: I want to thank Cara and Ben for their help. And also Monica and Art for taking care of the sound system and making the podcast possible. So, thank you very much. Now, as Cara pointed out we need to tidy everything up.

Cara: We do not need to put the chairs away but if you could put your cushions in the bags that would be most helpful. And if someone could volunteer to take the cushions down to Ken’s car when they’re leaving. And also if you grabbed a book or a CD or both ,or whatever, off the table, please make sure that you make the check out to Unfettered Mind and give it to either Ken or myself. And if you haven’t given me your donation for the workshop, please remember to do so before you leave today.

Ken: Okay.

Cara: But otherwise, thank you for everything.

Ken: Thank you. Thank you very much for your time.

Creative Commons LicenseThis transcript by Ken McLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. This transcript has been edited to make it more readable. There may be minor differences between the audio file and the transcript.