Stress is a part of life. The only time you no longer feel stress is when you are no longer alive. Even then, what is physically left of you is subject to entropy and change. Recent research on mice found that reaction to perceived stressors may even be carried in our genes. Later generations of mice reacted with distress to a scent they had never smelled, but that scent had been paired with pain in their ancestors. Perhaps we pass our narratives down through our stories and even through our bodies. We go on alert in a situation we have never experienced but that distressed our great grandparents. It does make evolutionary sense.

Then there are the traumas that we actually experience in this life.  Our mind protects us by dissociating from them, but they are still there. How do we face these anxieties?  There is a great movement toward “mindfulness” these days, though the concept has been around for thousands of years.  But many think of mindfulness as only quieting the mind and falling into a blissful state away from all the worries and pain.  They get frustrated by the words and thoughts that disturb them as they meditate but may learn to just focus on the breath and let the thoughts go. They may learn to just be with wherever they are – to hear the sounds, smell the smells, see the sights, feel the surroundings and all the rest. They may be able to visualize a lake buffeted by winds that their mind stills the breeze so that the water clears and calms and reflects the full moon in their vision. But still the stressors await when they leave the meditation cushion. Sometimes the stressors and anxieties get louder when the mind starts to quiet, and visions of the trauma come up that had been forgotten.

In taiji, there is the principle of jing. In the jing state, you are calm and peaceful, but you are also aware and ready.  Mark Epstein, in The Trauma of Everyday Life, talks about “bare attention.”  In mindfulness, you are not trying for that calm quiet state alone, but also come to know and come to terms with trauma.  It is not what happens to us that matters so much, but how we react to it.  We learn to let those thoughts in and talk with them and observe them and treat them with respect.  I think it is a lot like forgiveness. To forgive doesn’t mean to say that what ever the wrong was is okay. It means I wish it had not happened, but I am not going to be consumed by it and let it run my life. I learn from it and let it be. The Buddha’s word for mindfulness, “sati” means “to remember.” We let what is bothering us come into consciousness and then learn to cope. As Epstein put it, mindfulness balances relaxation and investigation and is a combination of detachment and engagement. He tells a story about teaching a meditation class in New York City on a Saturday morning and asked the participants to turn on their cell phones.  Rather than be annoyed by the ringing and sounds of the cells, just notice the sound.  He also asked them to just breathe and take note of any sounds they heard and then just let them go.  During the discussion afterwards, a young woman revealed that her father had died a few months before. She had a special ring tone for him, but had not listened to it since his death, that the thought of hearing it had been too painful.  One of the phones that rang during the meditation had that same ringtone. She said that being in the supportive group and being mindful when it rang had given her a different experience from pain. She felt touched and love and a connection with her dad when the phone rang. His memory came flooding back in a compassionate way.

Epstein also tells the story of a monk who had a glass that was very beautiful. The glass reflected the light in such a lovely way, and the monk was very proud of the glass. What made the glass even more precious, the monk said, was that even now, he knew that the glass is already broken.  Nothing lasts, everything changes, clinging to wishes of permanence brings pain.  The time with the glass, or any thing or any one, is even more precious when you come to accept that the glass is already broken.