All of us will have periods in our life when we are under extreme stress or emotional strain. This could be due to caring for somebody who is very sick or emotionally wrought, having been in major conflict with close friends or family, losing our job or experiencing significant financial difficulties, going through major changes in our life, or simply feeling overwhelmed with everything we are responsible for. We live in samsara, and samsara is a stressful place. During the periods of significant stress, we often find ourselves “getting in the zone” and just dealing with everything coming at us. We know it is stressful and hard, but we are in a heightened state and focused on dealing with the external crisis at hand. But then after the crisis has passed, we find ourselves crashing down.
It is not uncommon at such times to feel depressed, excessively frustrated with everybody around us, or to become uncharacteristically selfish. We become depressed because the stress hormones are no longer sustaining us and everything we had been repressing while we were in crisis mode comes roaring to the surface. We become excessively frustrated with everyone around us because we have been dealing with so much for so long, we have reached our limit and just can’t deal with anything anymore – we are simply sick of dealing with problems, and want them all to just go away. We become uncharacteristically selfish because while we were in crisis mode we were completely focused on helping others with their ordeal, but then when it is over we become acutely aware of our own needs and wishes that we have been repressing while caring for others. Working through all of this is what recovery from stressful times is all about.
The first thing we must realize is all of this is entirely normal. We oftentimes expect ourselves to be perfect, and then feel it is some sort of failure when we come crashing down. We are not yet Buddhas, we are humble practitioners making our way along the spiritual path. Stressful situations are just that – stressful. They push us beyond our comfort zone and beyond our capacity to deal with easily. We shouldn’t expect ourselves to handle the stressful situation perfectly, nor to not have to go through a recovery process once the crisis has passed. We need to accept where we are at and view the recovery period as an opportunity to fully process all that we just went through. If truth be told, from a spiritual point of view, the recovery period is when we experience the most growth. Crashing down or becoming excessively irritable or uncharacteristically selfish are all the natural byproducts of having repressed some of our delusions during the crisis period, and the recovery period is when these come back to the surface to give us a chance to work through them. This is when the real spiritual growth occurs; and when we get to the other side of it, we will be spiritually stronger than we have ever been before.
Second, we should not feel guilty about taking care of ourself during our recovery period. We sometimes mistakenly think because we are would-be bodhisattvas, it is selfish of us to engage in some self-care. This is completely wrong. If we think about it, the entire spiritual path is a process of self-healing. We have been deeply wounded by aeons in samsara, and the spiritual path is one of recovery from that trauma and its causes. What matters is our motivation for taking care of ourself. If we are doing so with a desire to recover and therefore be in a better position to care for others even more in the future, there is no fault. Sometimes our pride starts to kick in where we think we shouldn’t need to recover or have some self-healing time. As Jonathan from Queer Eye would say, “sorry sister, it doesn’t work that way.” Admitting to ourself we need to rest and recover and heal is is the first step to getting better and not a sign of weakness or failure, but rather a sign of inner wisdom.
Third, we need to tend to the basics of our bodily needs. It’s normal that we are exhausted, so there is no fault in catching up on our sleep. Fatigue is cumulative and it can become a chronic condition if we don’t take the time to rest. We don’t need to feel guilty about this, thinking we should be up and about helping others. We are helping them more in the long-run be recovering our strength through rest. Likewise, it is important to get some exercise and move our body. It’s enough to go for long walks out in nature, the point is physical activity helps reset our inner winds and get us out of spinning in our head with our thoughts. And we should make sure we eat. Sometimes when we are recovering or are very down, we lose our appetite and eat less and less. This can further deplete our strength, and with it our confidence and ability to recovery. It doesn’t matter if you eat your comfort foods you normally try avoid when you are trying to eat healthy. In other words, recovering from stress is probably not the time to begin that kale diet! Ha ha.
In this regard, there is also no fault in using medications to help us recover. We do have bodies, and bodies have hormones that can get out of balance. It is not some failure of our spiritual practice to sometimes need medications any more than it is to take regular medicine when we become physically ill. Sickness – whether physical or mental – is sickness, and medicines can help. We created the karma to live in a world where medicines exist, and Geshe-la says clearly there is no fault in taking that aspirin while we simultaneously work on our patient acceptance. This is especially true after a period of extreme stress. The stressful period created an imbalance in our hormones, and when the stress is over, things come crashing down and we swing to a different kind of imbalance. These are physiological facts, not spiritual failures.
Fourth, remember your guru at your heart and your Sangha at your back. Gen-la Dekyong’s favorite prayer is “please remain at my heart always.” There is no failure in needing or seeking help. We take refuge in all three jewels, not just the Dharma jewel. Our guru stands ready to bless our mind and fill it with the strength and wisdom we need. All we need to do is remember him at our heart and request his help with faith. Keep your prayers simple, such as “give me strength,” “help me see the light,” and “please heal my mind.” We likewise need to make an effort to reach out to our Sangha friends who we trust. Sometimes our pride is the biggest obstacle to doing so – for some reason we don’t want them to know we still suffer and become deluded. That’s ridiculous, we all fall down, and we all could use some help picking ourselves back up. Oftentimes, what we need more than anything else, is simply somebody who will listen to us without judgment. Simply verbalizing what we have been bottling up inside often helps to see it all in perspective, find our own answers, and let it all go. So remember your guru, talk with your spiritual friends, and hug your teddy bear without shame.
Fifth, take the time to reflect back on the stressful period to unearth and work through everything you previously repressed. When we are in crisis mode, we are often so busy “helping others” deal with their situation, that we don’t stop to check how we ourselves are doing in those stressful situations. This is normal because when others are in crisis is sometimes not the most appropriate time to be saying, “but what about me!?” But after the crisis has passed, we need to ask ourselves the question, “how did that situation make me feel?” “What was I and what do I think about all of that?” We need to ask these questions to bring to the surface everything we repressed. Once on the surface, we can the use our Dharma wisdom, the blessings of our guru, and the support of our spiritual friends to gradually work through it all. In many ways, the primary task of the recovery period is to deal with everything we have repressed. Our feelings of depression, irritability, or selfishness are actually all just everything we repressed coming back to the surface.
Give yourself the time you need to work through all of this. It is hard work. It is a bit like spiritual retreat. Those who have never done retreat often think it is going out into the woods and getting away from it all for a blissful period of relaxing mediation. HA! It’s usually quite the opposite. Retreat is often spiritual surgery we are performing on ourselves. We go deep into our mind, find the cancer that has been spreading within, we take it out, and then sew ourselves back up again. After long retreats, people are often quite sensitive to the slightest thing and then think, “I guess I failed in my retreat because now I am more sensitive than I was before I entered into it.” Others, expecting us to come back from retreat all zen are likewise equally surprised by our heightened sensitivity. But when we recover from a physical surgery, it takes time, we are sore, and often very cautious and sensitive. It is the same after a long retreat.
The recovery period after stressful times is, in the final analysis, a form of spiritual retreat. It’s hard work, but when we get to the other side of it, we are stronger, healthier, and much more empathetic to those who suffer. By working through our struggles we learn how to help others work through theirs. This is how we gain the wisdom we need to help others, and is an inescapable part of the spiritual path. Recovering from stressful times might not be fun, it might not be easy, but it is definitely spiritually worth it.