What does an Iraqi war veteran have to teach you about stress?
There's a story of an Iraqi war veteran who was overwrought with stress and anxiety. As a result, his superior officer ordered him to take a mindfulness-based stress reduction program where he had to learn a progression of guided mindfulness practices to help him become more present and less reactive to his stress and pain. After 8 weeks he felt like he had really benefited and started his journey home to see his family. On his way he stopped at a grocery store to pick up a few items. He quickly moved to the less-than-10-item lane, only to find himself behind a woman carrying a baby who clearly had more than 10 items. He found his mind swimming, "how could she be so rude to get in this lane, I hate people like this". As the seconds passed he found himself growing increasingly irritated and tense. Then she did something that broke the straw of the camel's back. She handed her baby over to the check-out clerk who proceeded to hold and rock the baby. "Are you kidding me" he thought.
In that moment he remembered his non-judgmental present moment awareness practices and realized that his body was tense and his mind had entered that reactive cycle of the past. He closed his eyes, began to roll his shoulders, and brought his attention to his breath to anchor himself to the present moment. When he opened his eyes he realized something different, the baby was actually a cute baby.
As he got to the front of the line he told the check-out clerk, "that was a pretty cute baby". To this she replied, "you like that baby, he's mine. You see, my husband was killed in the war and so I was forced to work full time. That was my mom, she takes care of him during the day and brings him by once a day so I can see him".
I first heard a variation of this story from teacher and author, Jack Kornfield, Ph.D. and was struck by it. In this story we see the power of perception. What don't we see in any given moment? What do we see? The power of perception is very real and shapes our habitual reaction cycles of quick-to-stress, quick-to-anger, or quick-to-depression. How can we better notice when our minds and bodies are getting caught in this cycle, make ourselves more present, and then ask ourselves "what am I seeing, what am I not seeing"? We may notice our mind acting in old thought patterns or the body starting to tense up. Either place may signal us an opportunity to be aware what is happening and bring ourselves out of the whirlwind of our minds and back to the present.
If you're interested in this approach to stress that many health professionals and thousands of individuals are now integrating into their daily lives, look into mindfulness practices. How did this story affect you? Have you experienced anything like this in your own life? As always, please feel free to share your comments or questions.