I was in therapy and my therapist said, “so what happens when you make a zillion dollars? You’ll find something else to be stressed about.” And I said, “No way. If I had a zillion, I would just sit around all day and not be stressed.” And she raised her eyebrows in that way that people do when they aren’t going to say anything but you know exactly what they are thinking.
“No, I’m serious,” I said. “I would not worry about a single thing.”
The eyebrows went higher.
10 years ago I had a different therapist. Barry Magid. He writes a lot of books about Zen and runs a Zen meditation group. He once told me the same thing. He said, “if you make a zillion dollars then I’d put you right into the next room for a week and you would have to meditate for a week straight without doing anything else. Maybe even a month.” The next room was his meditation room. I once spent a Saturday with his group on a full day meditation there. 60 minutes of meditation broken up by 5 minutes of walking meditation for ten hours. After one period, in the middle of the day, I got up like everyone else for the walking meditation.
But I couldn’t stand up. My legs were asleep. So I fell down to the floor. Nobody else wanted to break their walking meditation. So I was lying on the floor in that agony you get when the blood starts to creep back into the legs and everyone was walking over me. There was a girl I had a crush on in the meditation group. She was walking over me like everyone else while I squirmed around like a slug. I got really embarrassed. I was even a failure at sitting down and standing up. He told me later that that in itself should’ve been an exercise in meditation for me. Breathing through that humiliation. I stopped going to therapy with him.
One time I was afraid a girlfriend was cheating on me. I walked past her apartment all night. Waiting for thelight to turn on on her floor. Waiting to catch her. Waiting to see if she was happy to see me. Or scared. Waiting, waiting, and waiting. And what would I do? Kill her? Cry? Kill myself? I had no idea. My mind was just in a frenzy. Pacing. I’d walk a mile. Then I’d think, “ok, she has to be back now.” And I’d walk back. Lights still out. Ring the doorbell. Silence. Repeat. All night. I knew it, I thought. She was cheating.
THE WORLD IS ENDING
Every day the news, the Congress, the President, Bernanke, Europe, all try to stress me, personally, about money. Somehow the world is going to end. They each describe different end-of-the-word scenarios. They each have different villains. You can’t even turn on the TV to watch a show to avoid the worst case. How come? Because everyone on TV is rich. Bloated and smiling they are laughing in our faces with their paychecks just because they are in some sitcom or play baseball or whatever.
I watched “Sue Sylvester” from the TV show “Glee” walk out of 11 W. 42nd Street the other day (I think NPR is there and she’s promoting a book.) She smiled at me because she likes to be recognized and the smile helps connect the dots. But she’s not worried. Why should she be? Glee will go into syndication forever. Why should she care about politics or world affairs. She’ll put all her money in New Zealand kiwis. Why would anyone in New Zealand care about Greece?
I would say my worst stresses in the past ten years:
- – Going broke in 2002
- – Worrying about my father’s stroke in 2003
- – IRS in 2004
- – Results of my fund in 2003
- – Results of my fund of funds in 2005
- – Whether or not Stockpickr.com would crash and burn in 2007
- – Worrying about selling Stockpickr in 2007
- – Getting separated in 2008
And I can list ten others and I’m sure I have in various posts. And there’s some I feel like I can’t list because as honest as I am in these posts, some things are just too close and some boundaries are still up.
But I do have a way I deal with stress. At the risk of sounding self-helpish, the ultimate plan for dealing with stress is AAA: Awareness, Analysis, Action.
Awareness means listing the things that you are stressed about.
Stress can have three intensities: Mild, Moderate, Intense. Intense is when you want to kill yourself you’re so stressed. Moderate is when you’re stressed and the stress is probably distracting you from other important activities. Mild is probably the best you can do with any stress. With the AAA method I want to take my intense stresses and systematically reduce them to Mild.
Here’s the 7 things I stress about. Being aware (just simply listing them) is the first step. Awareness takes them out of my mind and puts them on a piece of paper. It’s like when you feel an itch. Often the moment you note to yourself, “Oh! I feel an itch”, the urge to scratch often goes away. So Awareness alone can help reduce the stress.
- – Money.
- – Career.
- – Health.
- – World Health
- – Love
- – Parenting
- – Self-improvement. Am I doing enough?
Take each stress. Ask yourself what are you really stressed about? This takes it from a nagging feeling in your body to, again, something outside of you that you can tear apart.
Money: Do I really need to worry about how much money will it take to make me survive my entire life? I could be dead in a year. Then all that stress will seem useless. Am I abnormally scared about going broke because my father went broke? Am I unreasonably calculating my expenses? Do I really need that house, or those trips, or that particular gym, or that expensive phone?
How much of my stress about money is historical? (Worries today because of events that happened to me in the past and a fear (sort of a post-traumatic money stress syndrome) and how much is hysterical? (Worries today simply because the stock market is down today). What’s realistic? What’s not rational? It’s ok to examine these things and not ignore them. What’s the worst-case scenario?
Make a list for each stress and answer these questions:
– Why exactly am I worried about (e.g. I’m going to go broke without a job)
– What’s historical? What’s hysterical? What’s rational? (Note: you might not be correct in your analysis. It’s just helpful)
– What’s the worst case scenario? Be realistic here. For Health, for instance, the worst case scenario is not that you have a heart attack today but maybe that your health declines because you aren’t putting any attention to it (because you are stressing too much about money). For Love, the worst case scenario might be that your girlfriend is cheating on you this second. That’s pretty bad. The upside? Gives me an excuse to get out and find someone who won’t do that. There might be ugliness in the middle (confrontation, tears, screaming, separating, loneliness) but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel (experience. Love again).
ACTION – There are DON’Ts and DO’s
- – Do the Daily Practice. In my upcoming book I discuss modifications to this to make it a little easier depending on schedules, etc.
- – Be around people who uplift you. Thanks to the beauty of social media, we can extend our friendships outside of our normal circle that is limited to the people who are either around us or easily available by phone. Social media can actually lead to a less stressful life if used properly.
- – Do everything you can to simplify your life in one way today. Over time, these simplifications add up. You dont have to do 100 things, like that one book says. That’s too complicated.
- – Do everything you can to achieve one goal today related to your stresses (e.g. if you eat poorly and are stressed about your health then pick one meal where you’re going to eat a little better. Or send one email to a new contact in your network to improve your career if career is a major stress for you)
- – Do THINK IN OPPOSITES. Assume the worst case scenario of your stress. List the upside.
What makes life so terribly fatiguing sometimes is our simple inability to be ourselves in most situations. We spend so much hard work and effort being a subhuman, a shadow of ourselves. The above helps us reclaim the real us, the one we were meant to be.
- Don’t hang out with people you don’t trust
- Don’t lie to people. About anything. Not even a white lie. Don’t even lie to yourself about whether or not you are following these Dos and Donts.
- Don’t say anything bad about anyone else.
- Don’t harm anyone, even if they don’t realize they are being harmed. This rule supercedes the lying rule.
- Don’t talk at all, if you can help it.
Sometimes it’s all over. When the stresses overwhelm, when you’ve come to the end of everything that can happen to you. Even your own sadness is tired of you, tired of being summoned. In those moments you have to retrace your steps. Find your way back to anything, to anybody. You won’t be choosy. But real life begins again, even if it’s just so you can weep. And from there you piece things together one item at a time doing the above steps.
One more don’t:
Don’t take my word for it on any of this. View yourself as a stress laboratory. Try it out on yourself. Experiment and see.
Will you be happy? I hope so. Will I? The only real answer is: most of the time. But that’s a lot better than never. Which was the case for me for at least two decades.