The Middle Way of Stress

Judy Lief on what Buddhist wisdom teaches us about stress — where it really comes from, how it manifests, and why we may need it on the spiritual path.

Judy Lief
16 September 2022

Life is stressful. Although some people claim that contemporary life is especially stressful, I am skeptical whether that is so. Living beings have always had to struggle for food, for shelter, and for safety. They have always had the stress of finding a mate and reproducing. The world is no Garden of Eden.

You could say that the question of suffering, or stress, and what to do about it is central in Buddhism. This is the question that set the Buddha on his journey at the very beginning, and over the course of their development, the Buddhist teachings have examined the topic at many levels and from many different perspectives.

Like medical researchers, Buddhist scholars and practitioners have catalogued the details of this syndrome in order to both treat its symptoms and find the ultimate cure.

So what is stress and what do the Buddhist teachings have to say about it? What is our proper relationship to stress? Should it always be avoided or can it be productive? To what extent is it inherent in life or our own creation? What are its symptoms and what is its cure?

The Experience of Stress

The experience of stress could be looked at as a family of unpleasant sensations. We may experience stress as pressure, anxiety, or claustrophobia. Sometimes there are so many challenges facing us that it is as though we were drowning. We feel overwhelmed, capsized by it all like a sinking ship. Stress may make us feel cornered and that we have no way out. We may simply freeze, or we may stir up so much anxiety that it feels like we are choking to death. With stress there is no air. No space. No looseness or freshness. Under the influence of stress, what once may have seemed easy becomes completely impossible, and no matter where we turn, there seems to be no escape. With stress we become distressed, as though we were being pulled apart and are about to break.

When we are stressed, our body gets tighter, as if it is shrinking into itself. Mentally, our thinking gets tight and does not flow freely. Emotionally, we are edgy and fearful. The slightest irritation may set us off and we may lash out in anger. Or we might withdraw into ourselves, close off, and shut down. We forget to breathe; it is as if the core of our body is one big ache of pain.

Once you start thinking of all the things to be stressed out about, the list goes on and on. It could start with the close-at hand problems such as the need to pay the rent or find a job. But merely by reading the newspaper it can quickly expand to include global problems such as famine, war, overpopulation, and environmental destruction. We may even use the fact that we are stressed out about such global issues as a credential, as though our stress and worry were a virtue or a proof of our insight, empathy, and sensitivity.

When we experience stress, we struggle to find someone or something to blame. We assume that there must be some external reason we are feeling this bad, and that if we just remove that situation, we will be okay. If there is an obvious external cause, we should simply remove it. We could stop seeing the person who drives us crazy or stop agreeing to put ourselves in situations we know to be upsetting. However, there are many situations we may not be able to do much about, no matter how stressful they may be.

Four Styles of Hope and Fear

There are many different maps or geographies of stress in the Buddhist teachings. Because it is considered important to make a commitment to do what we can to improve the conditions of life for all beings, it is necessary to understand how we needlessly tangle ourselves in layers and layers of stress, and how we can begin to unravel some of that entanglement.

To begin with, we need to look at the underpinnings of emotional stress, which are described in terms of entrenched patterns of thought. Due to such mental preoccupations, we take stressful situations and make them worse. Through our confusion, we change neither the situation nor our attitude but just add fuel to the fire.

It is one thing to recognize what we would like to attract and what we would prefer to get rid of, and quite another to be obsessed with getting our way and terrified of things going wrong.

Classically this is described in terms of an endless cycle of hope and fear that dominates our lives from day to day and moment to moment, from beginning to end. The Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna describes hope and fear in terms of what are called the eight worldly preoccupations: hope for happiness and fear of suffering; hope for fame and fear of insignificance; hope for praise and fear of blame; and hope for gain and fear of loss. Basically, we spend our lives trying to hold on to some things and get rid of others in an endless and stressful struggle.

You could ask, what’s wrong with preferring happiness to sadness or praise to blame? Isn’t the pursuit of happiness what it’s all about? Isn’t it obvious that gain is better than loss? But it is one thing to recognize what we would like to attract and what we would prefer to get rid of, and quite another to be obsessed with getting our way and terrified of things going wrong. The problem is that hope is joined at the hip with its partner, fear. We can’t have one without the other. When we are caught in this hope–fear cycle, our attitude is always tense and even our most satisfying experiences are bounded by paranoia.

Happiness vs. Suffering

In the first style of hope and fear, we look at things in terms of happiness versus suffering, pleasure versus pain. We hope for happiness, but once we have it, fear arises, for we are afraid to lose it. Out of that fear we cling to pleasure so hard that the pleasure itself becomes a form of pain. And when suffering arises, no amount of wishful thinking makes it go away. The more we hope for it to be otherwise, the more pain we feel.

Fame vs. Insignificance

In the second style of hope and fear, we are obsessed with fame and afraid of our own insignificance. We scramble our way to the top, hungry for confirmation, and when it is not forthcoming we get pissed off and huffy. Then when it dawns on us how hard we need to work to be seen as someone special, our fear of insignificance is magnified. Behind our façade of fame, we suffer from a kind of inner desolation and hollowness.

Praise vs. Blame

With the third style, we are obsessed with praise and fearful of blame. We need to be pumped up constantly or we begin to have doubts about our worth. When we are not searching for praise, we are busy trying to cover up our mistakes so we don’t get caught. But there is never enough praise to satisfy us, and we are never free from the threat of being found wanting. Only if we are perfect can we count on continual praise, but although we struggle for perfection, we can never attain it. The slightest little mistake is all it takes to re-trigger our fear.

Gain vs. Loss

Finally, with the fourth style we are obsessed with gain and loss. We invest in situations with high hopes, and we expect that if things have been improving, they will continue to do so. That quality of hope is so seductive that we forget how easily situations can turn on us. But just as we are about to congratulate ourselves on our success, the bottom falls out, and fear once again holds sway. Our hope falls apart and we are afraid that things will keep going downhill forever. Over and over, things are hopeful one moment and the next they are not, and in either case we are anxious.

These cycles of hope and fear occupy our minds and capture our energy. No matter what is happening to us, we think it could be better, or at least different. No matter who we are, we think we could be better, or at least different. Nothing is ever good enough and we can never relax.

Six Patterns of Stress

Another way of looking at stress is through the teachings of the six realms of being. These six realms are the god realm, jealous god realm, human realm, animal realm, hungry ghost realm, and hell realm. They represent the experiential worlds we create out of ignorance and inhabit out of fear. They describe worlds in which struggle is the underpinning, and no matter how hard we try, we never truly get what we want. It is said that we cycle through these realms constantly and it is hard to get out.

Each of the six realms has its own dominant preoccupation, its own pattern of hope and fear, and its own form of stress. But even when we are caught in one of these realms, there are ways to break free from the fixations that entrap us and perpetuate our stress and suffering.

The God Realm and the Stress of Perfectionism

The god realm refers to a world of refinement. It is one of spiritual bliss, material pleasure, or psychological satisfaction. The god realm is fueled by pride joined with ignorance, which allows you to dwell in a self-absorbed haze. Finding yourself in such a realm is like a dream come true. But when you finally have everything you ever wanted, you worry that it might all be lost. You might create hideouts, whether in the form of spiritual retreat centers, gated communities, or mental la-la lands. But to maintain such islands of perfection, you need to close your eyes to suffering. You need to close off your heart. Since you don’t want your bubble to burst or to experience unpleasantness of any sort, you have to ignore anything that threatens it.

The more you pay attention to gaps in your scheming, the more expansive is your perspective. With your roomier mind, that mentality of striving begins to dissolve into insignificance.

It may seem that this realm has very little stress. But under the surface of spiritual pride and tranquility, there runs a river of fear. You have to hold yourself very tight to prolong your special experiences and to protect them from decaying. You hope that your transcendent experiences will go on forever, but you are afraid that you will not actually be able to hold on to them. The problem is that as soon as you create a protected area and surround it with a wall, whether it is a literal wall or a psychological wall, there will not only be constant struggle but also the stress of realizing that your experience is a manufactured one, not real. However, there are moments when you let go of that striving and something fresh arises. The more you pay attention to such gaps in your scheming, the more expansive is your perspective. With your roomier mind, that mentality of striving begins to dissolve into insignificance.

The Jealous God Realm and the Stress of the Rat Race

The jealous god realm is marked by envy, speediness, and competitiveness. In this realm, you are never satisfied with what you have as long as someone else has more. You are striving all the time, afraid to ever stop, afraid you might get passed by. You have no sense of yourself except in comparison to those who are ahead of you and those who are coming up from behind.

Once you step onto this kind of treadmill, you cannot get off. You are always competing and see everything in terms of winning and losing. Fueled by envy, you are ground up in the maws of competitiveness, trapped in a rat race that never slows down.

If you continue to be obsessed with success and failure, with winning and losing, your actions will be constricted and stressful. But there are times when the actions speak for themselves, and whatever you do becomes more simple and effective. This gives you a glimpse of the possibility of another way of doing things, a way to act more skillfully and with less effort.

The Human Realm and the Stress of Insecurity

The human realm is the realm of passion and longing for relationship. You feel incomplete and look for ways to fill that empty feeling. When you are lonely, you try to connect, but once you make a connection, you feel claustrophobic and disappointed. When you choose one person to connect with, you wonder whether you could have found someone better. Whatever you do, you think there might be something better that you have missed out on.

In the human realm, you are fueled by neediness and desire. You worry about how you are perceived by others and obsessed with your popularity. Although you create shifting coalitions of relationships, none of them is all that stable. You are always insecure, and your mind hops all over the place. On top of it all, you think too much, which complicates everything. In the human realm, you long to feel more substantial and are afraid of your own vulnerability.

If you are always looking outside yourself for some kind of confirmation, you will be stressed out all the time. But from time to time, moments of spontaneous insight arise from within you. This clarity needs no external confirmation. You find that you do not need to second-guess yourself. You can appreciate what you are experiencing whether or not there may be something better going on somewhere else.

The Animal Realm and the Stress of Habit

In the animal realm, you establish habits of stability that are boring and repetitive, but you lack the imagination to do anything else and are afraid to change. You are set in your ways and find new ideas threatening. You might have glimmers of inspiration to change, but laziness and inertia drag you down. You would like not to be stuck, but you keep doing the same things over and over again nonetheless. You are fueled by ignorance and are afraid to rock the boat or to venture out from what is familiar, even if it is unsatisfactory. You create bureaucracies with incomprehensibly mindless regulations and procedures.

A person in this realm may seem to be calm and stable, but this is not true stability. It is more like a pillowy buffer protecting them from facing the energy and intensity of life. The stuck quality of the animal realm is a refuge of sorts. However, it begins to feel very heavy and depressing, and you are afraid that this will never change.

The stress of this realm is not sharp but dull. Your habits of body and mind seem completely solid and invincible. There is a frozen, mind-numbing energy. Murky as this is, there are occasional openings when something sharp comes through. You begin to recognize how painful it is, which is driven home by the negativity and fallout your ignorance has created around you.

The Hungry Ghost Realm and the Stress of Never Having Enough

In the hungry ghost realm, you want more and more, yet never get enough. No matter how many riches you accumulate, you still feel poor. There is always more money, more power, more gravitas you could acquire. If you can’t play with the big boys, you no longer know who you are. You are fueled by greed and are always hungry. Without all your things around you, you begin to feel naked, so you pile on more and more. There is a kind of delight in having the most and the best, but there is no stopping point and no real contentment, no matter how much you have.

In the hungry ghost realm, there is a painful contrast between inner poverty and outer richness. The need to satisfy that inner hunger can come to dominate your life, but it is possible to break that pattern and bring the inner world and outer world into greater balance, so that your appreciation of outer wealth is matched by the recognition of your inner richness.

The Hell Realm and the Stress of Eternal Warfare

In the hell realm, you are always enraged. You find enemies everywhere, and you are always fighting. You are always on edge, ready to defend yourself or to lash out. You are afraid that if you relax, you will be threatened or destroyed, so you strike first if you can. You are either red hot or ice cold. Fueled by hatred, you create wars and conflicts both large and small. You are fearful and in pain, like a cornered rat, and all you can do is attack.

This mix of resentment, pain, and anger makes it hard to even breathe. Seeing the world in terms of us and them, for us and against us, keeps fueling this anger and warfare. But there are moments when you are not caught in those polarities. Rather than living on a battlefield, you begin to open to the textures and nuances of your experience.

The Three Culprits

Underlying all these styles of stress—the engine that keeps them going—is a gang of three culprits. They are: ego fixation, emotional grasping, and habitual actions. If you look into your anger, poverty mentality, competitiveness, or greed, you will find them there. If you examine how you continually cycle between hope and fear, you will find they are the cause.

This threesome is like an internal Mafia to which we pay protection money daily. Once we lose our sense of the whole and identify with this one little part, which we label “me,” “myself,” or “I,” there will be conflict and struggle. In order to prop up and defend that “I,” we need to apply our arsenal of negativity: our grasping, ignoring, hating, and all the rest. And once those energies are unleashed, we start doing stupid and harmful actions. For those actions, we reap consequences, and once again the cycle is set up, as we react to those consequences in the same harmful manner.

Fundamentally, until we penetrate these deeper supports for the stresses we experience on the surface of life, we will continue to be tossed about by hope and fear and cycle through the six realms. Our stress level may fluctuate, and we may have good times and bad times, but there will continue to be an undercurrent of stress in whatever we do.

Stress and Growth

Relating to stress is not as simple as just trying to reduce our stress or to relax. A certain amount of stress is necessary for growth, and at times we need to purposefully put ourselves in stressful situations. It is easy to confuse the virtue of contentment or peacefulness with the pseudo-peacefulness born of inertia and the fear of change. It is an oversimplification of the Buddhist ideal of ease to think that it means the avoidance of stress. Great teachers like Nagarjuna and Sakya Pandita have pointed out that to learn we need to exert ourselves, and that to progress along the path we have to give up our attachment to ease. According to Nagarjuna: “If you desire ease, forsake learning. If you desire learning, forsake ease.” And Sakya Pandita wrote: “The wise, when studying, suffer pains; Without exertion, it is impossible to become wise.” In fact, there is no such thing as a stress-free life. Life is movement, and movement is stressful. Without stress there would be no path, no wisdom, and no attainment. Ironically, without stress we could not be at ease.

According to Nagarjuna: “If you desire ease, forsake learning. If you desire learning, forsake ease.”

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged students to “lean into the sharp points” of experience. What all this points to is that although stress can be an obstacle, it can also be a catalyst for growth. Trungpa Rinpoche routinely placed students in positions beyond their comfort zone and encouraged them to do the same to themselves. He was particularly pointed in his critique of the approach of always looking for comfort, whether it was loose, comfortable clothing, air-conditioned housing, or comfortably unchallenging belief systems. He taught that a bit of discomfort was not just an annoyance but a reminder of the need for ongoing discipline.

Not only do we have to lean into our own stress at times, but we also have to be willing to allow others to learn in that same way. It is hard to watch someone struggle without feeling anxious and wanting to help out—and often that is what you should do. But it is not always so simple. For instance, I was told that if you see a butterfly struggling to break out of its cocoon, and you try to ease its struggle by prying open the cocoon for it, that butterfly will emerge in a weakened state and may even die. The butterfly needs the stress of working its way out of the cocoon to build up strength and to dry its wings. Likewise, a master gardener told me that when you plant a sapling, it is better not to stake it if possible. She said that if the sapling has to secure itself in the wind and weather, it will put down stronger roots and be healthier for it. In this example, once again there is acknowledgment that growing inevitably involves a degree of pain or stress. The hothouse flower or the overprotected child simply does not acquire the tools needed to survive.

Middle Way of Stress

Clearly, a certain amount of stress is part of life, but how much stress and what kind of stress? How can we navigate a course that is challenging but not overwhelming?

The Buddhist tradition acknowledges the reality of stress and discomfort. It is realistic, uncomfortably so, in describing the stress, pain, and suffering that accompanies our individual and collective lives from beginning to end. The simple teaching of the first noble truth, the truth of suffering, may be the most difficult to understand and accept. We keep thinking that if we just fix this or fix that, tweak here or there, we can avoid it. We think that if we were smarter, prettier, wealthier, more powerful, living somewhere else, younger, older, male, female, with different parents—you name it—things would be different. But things are not different; they are as bad as they seem! Since it is unrealistic to hope for a stress-free life, and that would not be all that good in any case, it makes more sense to learn how to deal with the stresses that inevitably arise.

In dealing with stress we need to look at both the conditions we face and how we are dealing with them. It is sometimes possible to remove the causes and conditions that are stressing us out, but other times it is not. So it is important to distinguish between the two. If we can change our situation for the better, we should do so. There is no point complaining about it—it is better to fix it. However, we may be stuck with a stressful situation we cannot change. In that case, we still have the option of changing our attitude.

If our experiences are just what they are, nothing more and nothing less, we can see that they are not out to get us nor are they a confirmation. They are simply the impersonal play of causes and conditions.

We need to be realistic and honest with ourselves so that on one hand, we do not hold back when we could act, and on the other hand, we do not act just to do something, when there is no benefit in doing so. In looking at your external situation, there is no need to cover up problems or look at the world through rose-colored glasses. But you also do not need to stew and fret over all the world problems you are bombarded with daily in the news or let yourself be mentally glued to the endless vicissitudes of ordinary living.

When the great Cambodian teacher Mahagosananda was asked how he maintained his cheerfulness and equanimity in light of the violence and horrors of the Khmer Rouge he had gone through, he smiled and said, “Life is full of ups and downs.” There is great teaching in that statement. If we take that kind of attitude, we can release some of our heavy-handed expectations about how life is supposed to go for us, which frees us to deal more simply with whatever we encounter. If our experiences are just what they are, nothing more and nothing less, we can see that they are not out to get us nor are they a confirmation. They are simply the impersonal play of causes and conditions.

This attitude is different from passivity or detachment in the negative sense of disengagement, defeatism, or fatalism. It instead points to a form of engagement with the world that is intelligent and not merely reactive, that is realistic rather than dreamy. To paraphrase the great Mahayana teacher Shantideva: When you can do something about a problem, then just do it. Why worry about it? And when you do not have the ability or the circumstances to do anything about a problem, why worry? Worrying and stressing about it is not going to help anyone.

Training the Mind and Heart

What I like about Buddhism is that it is so practical and hopeful. You may be the type of person who gets stressed out at the slightest little thing or you may be more hard skinned, even oblivious. But either way, you are not doomed to be under the control of the stresses you encounter because you were just “born that way.” No matter where on the spectrum you start out, you can begin to change your relationship to stress for the better. This is not accomplished by wishful thinking or pretending to be other than you are, but by training your mind and opening your heart.

You can begin to change your relationship to stress for the better. This is not accomplished by wishful thinking or pretending to be other than you are, but by training your mind and opening your heart.

A primary mind-training tool is mindfulness practice, through which you learn to settle your mind and to tame its wildness. As you repeatedly bring your attention back to the breath, you are becoming more familiar with your own mind and it is getting stronger. It is as though your mind has more weight, so it is not easily blown about by every little breeze. It is reassuring to discover that, amidst all the mental commotion and ups and downs, there is something steady and reliable about your mind at the core. When things get tough and you feel stress beginning to take you over, you can draw on that inner strength.

Along with mindfulness comes the tool of training the heart to be more open and compassionate. Compassion practices draw you out of yourself and remind you to think of others. When you feel the force of stress narrowing you down and drawing you into yourself, you can resist the tendency to close down. You can look around you and through compassion get a larger perspective.

Stress is exaggerated when your mind is flighty and unbalanced, and it is also heightened when you are weighed down with self-concerns and preoccupied with yourself. The practices of mindfulness and compassion give you a way to work with both of these problems. It is unrealistic to expect your life to be free of stress, but there is a real possibility that you could transform the way you deal with it. Stress brings to light harmful habits of mind and heart. So instead of viewing it as an enemy, you could regard stress as a teacher, and be grateful for it.

Judy Lief

Judy Lief is a Buddhist teacher and the editor of many books of teachings by the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She is the author of Making Friends with Death. Her teachings and new podcast, “Dharma Glimpses,” are available at