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Deepak: Well being is something we all desire but staying healthy and feeling good can be quite a challenge especially with the stresses that pervade every aspect of our lives today.
Everyone is aware that regular exercise and eating healthfully are two essential steps to well being. In this series you'll learn about a third step, relaxation. Not just sitting around but some specific activities that trigger your bodies relaxation response. You'll learn about the importance of deep relaxation for reducing the harmful effects of stress along with a series of easy to do relaxation skills. And through our weekly questionnaire you'll gain an awareness of how stress may be affecting you.
So get a paper and pencil ready and join us as we take the next step to well being.
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In this fast paced, technological, and secular society more and more people are turning for insight to one or another form of spiritual exploration. Are we expressing a need for something deeper to help us cope better with the stresses of today's world? What part does spirituality play in our overall sense of well being?
In this program we'll explore how religion in the widest sense relates to the stresses of modern life. This weeks questionnaire will help you evaluate your own spiritual issues in relation to some of the deep human needs addressed by religious insight and we'll see how relaxation plays a role in enhancing our openness to prayer, meditation, and spiritual experience.
Eli Bay, director of the Relaxation Response Institute in Toronto is a pioneer in the teaching of relaxation skills for stress management.
Eli: In the rush of life with its pressures and rapid changes our religious beliefs and philosophical world views often seem like distant musings unrelated to the practical necessities of life. Our attention is so narrowed down by all the details that it's really hard to see the larger picture. But in periods of greatest stress, uncertainty, crisis, suffering we instinctively turn--at least temporarily-- to whatever spiritual resources are available to us; the familiar beliefs we grew up with or maybe even a totally new philosophy.
We reach a threshold of stress at which point we realize our usual resources are too limited, too inadequate, to really deal with the situation as we face it. Overwhelmed we're forced to give up our struggle and to face the mystery of life squarely in the eye and in that letting go we open ourselves up to new possibilities and there's room for huge shifts in our thinking and in our perceptions.
Suddenly the insights into the great issues to which religion has addressed itself can take on a whole new meaning to us but we can learn to relax and let go consciously in such a way that helps us to access and enhance our spiritual understanding through the vehicles of meditation, prayer, contemplation. Deep relaxation is the foundation of much religious practice.
Mary: Certainly in the Christian belief to God, to Jesus, and to the Spirit prayer, the ability to focus inwardly itself is a deterrent to stress.
Dr. Ashi: You are really restless until you establish your prayer as a Muslim. Whether you are at home, or work, or you're traveling, or wherever you are you are keen to have that presence even for a short period of time with God Almighty. Once you have it you'll feel at ease.
Mr. Sunim: Buddha or Buddhism means being awake or being mindful so in other words if you're not aware--if you're not mindful or even wasteful--that means you are asleep spiritually speaking. So that is the whole point so when people become aware of the stress or unhappiness then that's kind of where we can help them right there to become aware of other things that are lacking in their life.
Mary: I believe that the spirit of God is always alive in us whoever we are as human beings and whatever we rely on as God in our lives. I believe that we find ways often of closing out that potential, allowing that life to become real in our lives. Business, accumulation of competency, or wealth, or things and we close ourselves to that potential within us.
And so when I'm doing ministry with patients in hospitals or when I'm working with my students and helping them to learn to do ministry my role is often to encourage that person--or encourage the student to work with the person-- to find that base--that place-- and to own the fact that you are powerless unless you look outside of yourself. So it's that inner looking--that inner searching-- to recognize that you don't have all the resources and all the answers within yourself and to use that experience of God caring and loving and supporting as a source of strength or of dealing with stressful or difficult situations in their lives.
Dr. Ashi: When you are hungry you will need --spiritually speaking--prayer to satisfy your spiritual hunger. This is exactly how prayer looks to us as Muslims and there is a beautiful signal you do once you enter into prayer. You do this; just like this and say "Allah Akbar" which means God is Greatest.
And this is very important do you know why; it means I am putting everything else behind my back and I am concentrating on one object--on one thing--which is God and God alone. And this in itself starts the process of eliminating worries. Why worry; if you have put all the worries just behind your back then this is the first important step and then you start the prayer by "Allah Akbar" God is Supreme. If God is supreme to me and I believe really that He is supreme then everything else is minor.
So it doesn't make any difference for the Muslim; wherever he may be he has to concentrate on prayer for a few moments. This is only to fulfill the best of the human being; to reactivate him if you like, to give him better potential. [music] [music]
Mr. Sunim: In Buddhism we have fall in love with truth or for holy truth. The first of holy truth is unhappiness, or pain, dissatisfaction; it simply states in life there is pain, there is unhappiness, and there is dissatisfaction. If Buddha was alive today in Canada or in the West he may say stress is the first novel truth because stress is so widespread and everyone knows what is stress.
So much so actually I wrote something and posted on the door over there saying, "Stop rushing!" Working people if they can spend five or ten minutes everyday without worrying about anything it's a healing. It's kind of--if there is any miracle--that's a miracle if you can sit quite and still for five minutes without worrying about anything. Lighting candles and burning incense has a very deep spiritual significance particularly in relation to meditation practice.
For instance candles they have to burn themselves to give out light--to transform darkness into light--and they do so in silence and so is meditation. And incense too has to burn itself down to ashes and it does so in silence to diffuse fragrance. There is no real difference between personal transformation and societal transformation; it's like lighting candles you see. Once you are lit then it does not illuminate yourself but it illuminates your neighborhood--your environment.
Sheila: I think being relaxed has allowed me to go back to the ways that I felt ten or fifteen years ago. I felt that those doors were closed because I couldn't calm down enough even to get into them or to appreciate them but I found in the last few months that the fullness that comes from a religious spirituality is back with me and I've started to attend the synagogue and I haven't done that for a very long time.
Deepak: Eli before we get into the self test I'd like to explore a little more about what we mean by spirituality. Is it about going to church, or is it about going to yoga class?
Eli: Well it's not really about going to church although it may be and it's not just about joining a yoga class although it may be but basically it's about finding meaning and purpose in your life. As we approach the twentieth century science gave us all a feeling of tremendous control that science was able to predict and control and we had certainly this feeling as we move through the century that soon we would be able to control everything and that science really had become the new religion.
But as we approach the twenty first century this very same science has really made us aware of how little we know. We see for example in astronomy; astronomers are now telling us that we are insignificant, that our sun is an insignificant star in an insignificant galaxy amongst hundreds of millions of galaxies and that there is this infinite incomprehensible universe that we'll never understand. In brain research, in quantum physics we're understanding we know very, very little and it's really created a void for many of us and people are searching. People are getting in touch trying to find new meaning in their lives and for many of us...
So there has been an increasing awareness that there is a spiritual component that is very, very important. What I'd like to do now is take us through a questionnaire that sees how well our spirituality is working for us.
Deepak: So it's time for paper and pencil.
Eli: Yes but don't worry if you don't have paper and pencil handy; just follow along with us, answer yes or no to each of the questions as they come up. The questions really are there to help you to examine how your spirituality relates to your life. First question: "You regularly take time to pray or meditate to help restore your balance, clarity, and commitment in daily life"; yes or no. Do your spiritual practices nourish you? Do you feel a sense of joy in your life? I mean it's even recommenced or suggested that one way to look at the level of ones spirituality--how live it is--is to look at the level of joy in that persons life. Do you feel renewed, invigorated, restored by your spiritual practices?
Deepak: Eli can I interrupt? This question assumes--I think--that I have some sort of religious affiliation.
Eli: No you don't have to have a specific religion to be spiritual; being spiritual is really having a deeper awareness of what's going on beyond the material realm, beyond the day to day. It's really the source of our true joy that we've just been talking about and it's also a source of strength that we can tap into. Does that help?
Deepak: Well sort of.
Eli: Well will stay with us--I think the next few questions--will help you to gain a little insight to what we are talking about. Let's look at the next question: "When traumatic events or tragedies occur, your spiritual base helps you to cope. Yes or no? All of us experience unexpected tragedies and traumas in our life; I mean this can't really be avoided it's just part of living. But do your spiritual practices help you to cope?
Someone asked Albert Einstein what he thought was the most important question that we as individuals should ask ourselves and here was a man already in his latter years who spent over forty years contemplating the nature of light. He thought about the question and in response said, "You know I think the most important question that we as individuals should ask ourselves is whether or not we believe the universe to be a friendly place." And it's this assertion, this assumption, this intuition really underlies all spiritual traditions and really gives us our strength.
Next question: "Your spiritual practices help you to overcome feelings of depression and despair in the face of life and in the state of the world." Yes or no. Pick up a newspaper; environmental issues, ozone layer depletion, global warming. It's not just the macro issues that we're looking at here of violence in our cities, economic problems; there seems to be an ever growing feeling of despair amongst large numbers of people and certainly as we look to a future that is very uncertain.
And this despair does not happen in a vacuum; it reflects back in our own bodies, our stress levels rise, and this despair can indeed contribute to illness and just a general unhappiness in life. Spiritual practices can break us out of the despair, we can get in touch with greater clarity, we can tend to become much more optimistic. Spiritual energy can literally help us to change from despair into hope. Next question: "Your spiritual and philosophical understanding provides a deep sense of purpose and meaning to life." Yes or no.
It's being increasingly recognized that meaning is an important component of well being. Victor Frankl --a psychiatrist who had spent some time in a concentration camp during WWII--tells of his own experience of being in a camp and that the word had spread that the camp was likely to be liberated by Christmas--that the allies were advancing through Europe--and that by Christmas they would be free so there was great anticipation building up to Christmas.
Well Christmas came and went and they weren't liberated until mid February but between Christmas day and February it seems that over half the camp died and Dr. Frankl suggested it was result of these people had just given up feelings of meaning and purpose; they just gave up. You find that that's also not an occurrence that's not uncommon in many chronic cancer wards and it's really important that we appreciate that meaning is essential to well being. How well does your spiritual practice help you or keep you going through the thick and thin of things?
Next question: "Your spiritual activities provide a basis that helps you identify and pursue things that matter most to you." Think about that. Is that true; yes or no? Do your spiritual activities help you to go beyond the superficial and the mundane, do they help you to identify what's important in your life? When we connect into our spiritual purpose we can often connect into extraordinary energy. Joseph Campbell's advice for a life of well being; first of all know yourself and then follow your bliss. Let's look at the next question: "Stressful events do not sway you from your commitment to your moral and spiritual values." Is that true for you; answer yes or no. When choices are difficult do you do the right thing?
It really takes a strong sense of self to maintain an even keel in a stressful world. When we compromise our integrity we create additional stress and we erode our sense of self along with our sense of well being. Next question: "You have little difficulty grasping the deeper meaning of the words and teachings of your faith or personal philosophy." Yes or no. If your mind is all over the place and unconcentrated and if you're worrying about feeding the kids and getting your work done it's really very difficult to focus on the deeper meaning of things.
Next question: "You do not have difficulty focusing full concentration on and entering into the experiences of prayer, worship or meditation." Yes or no. We humans have over fifty thousand thoughts a day the researchers tell us; that's more than one thought per second for every second that you're awake. You know we don't even notice this until we try to focus our full concentration on specific activities such as prayer. When our mind and our body are full of stress and other similar concerns we really can't do justice to our full spiritual potential. You know many people thing that you are either asleep or you're awake but really in fact there's a whole spectrum of states of awareness that have been well understood and even categorized by various traditions. To be effective in your spiritual practice your mind and your emotions really have to be quiet.
And now the last question: "You do not become overly anxious when changing circumstances force you to reassess your moral values and even re-evaluate your personal world view." Yes or no. Change is part of our life; in the last years of the twentieth century change is happening faster and faster, our institutions are changing, our values are changing, our morals are changing. Does your spiritual practice or belief provide you with a sense of stability in the midst of all these changes; yes or no?
Deepak: I thought I had a much better handle of the spiritual side of my life than I obviously do because well I only got a couple of yeses on this questionnaire.
Eli: Well I'm not surprised. I think most people probably didn't get too many yeses and we have to remember we live in a secular culture. Very few of us have a highly developed spirituality. The idea of this test was really just to raise our awareness of the spiritual component and it's relationship to well being.
Deepak: There was one question where you asked about having fifty thousand thoughts a day; that really speaks to me. I sometimes think I have a million thoughts a minute.
Eli: Well actually would you like me to share a very simple exercise that can help you to gain a little bit of control over the chattering mind?
Eli: Now the way the exercise works I'm going to ask you in a moment to sit up straight but let me explain it first. I'm going to ask you just to focus on your breathing--just normal breathing-- just watch the air coming in and going out and notice it cool as it comes in and warm as it goes out. Just quite the mind and then as you breath out--it's normal breathing; it's not controlled breathing--normal breathing. You just as you exhale you count one and you breath in and you exhale again and count two, inhale-exhale three, exhale four; so you are counting as you breath out. One, two, three, four. Do you understand that?
Eli: However the crunch comes after doing that for just a few minutes I'm going to ask you to do the counting one to four but every time you notice a thought or an image coming into your mind that isn't directly related to the one, to the three, to the four--any extraneous thought or image--as soon as you notice it go back down to one. So you're doing it and you're thinking "Oh I'm going to make it to four"; back down to one. Okay and to be really quite ruthless with yourself. The idea is not to make it to four but to catch the thoughts and go right down to one.
Deepak: So you're setting up a test for me to fail?
Eli: Well it's not a question of failing it's a question of...I mean obviously the way the mind works we're going to have lots and lots of thoughts and this exercise really not only makes us aware of the chattering mind but it also enables us to gain a bit of control over it. Again I don't promise great...I don't promise you're going to walk on water at the end of doing this but slowly and incrementally you can start to gain a bit of control over the chattering mind.
So let's do it. Get comfortable in your chair, uncross your legs and arms, relax your shoulders, and close your eyes. For those of you at home you get much more out of this program by actually doing the exercise with us rather than just watching so follow along with us. Just observe your breath; notice the air cool as it comes in and warm as it goes out. This is a very good exercise to do for a couple of minutes; it helps to quiet the mind.
Then begin the counting as you breath out; one, breath out two, breath out three, breath out four and just do this with full concentration. Counting every time you exhale. After you do this for a few minutes --again this further quiets the mind--then begin the process of counting but every time you notice a thought or an image coming into your mind you go back down to one. I'd really like you to be ruthless with yourself; catch the thoughts and go back down to one. What is important about this exercise is to notice the thoughts and images and go right back down.
Do this with full concentration. If your mind wanders off bring it back. [music] Just normal breathing; just watching the air coming in and going out and counting. Noticing the thoughts; you can do this for five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes. [music] [music] Take a deep breath, hold it, let it go, and very, very slowly--little bit by little bit--just slowly, slowly, slowly open your eyes.
Deepak: What happens if you forget to count?
Eli: Well that sometimes happens and when you notice that the mind has wondered off catch it and go right back down to one. It's not unusual for that to happen; the mind can sort of just wander off. But the idea of this exercise it to help you stay focused; notice when the mind wanders off--it will--but bring it right back down.
Deepak: We didn't spend very much time on this exercise at all; how long should I normally do it?
Eli: Well whatever feels comfortable but certainly if you can start off maybe five minutes or seven minutes or eight minutes and then build to ten, fifteen, twenty. Twenty minutes is an ideal period for any relaxation and this is a very effective tool that can not only help you to become aware of the chatter in your mind and I think that is a major awareness for people to have.
I consider it to actually have been a turning point in my life when I was made aware of that mental chatter that was happening that I really wasn't even aware of. But this exercise is also extremely effective in helping us to literally turn off the stress in the body; it's a very effective tool to help us to turn on the body's relaxation response. And it is interesting to realize that almost every major spiritual tradition had developed some method of accessing the body's relaxation responses really as a prelude to meditation and prayer. It provides the form--the foundation--for real in depth meditation and prayer.
Deepak: Thanks very much Eli.
Eli: My pleasure.
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Program Length: 26:50 min
About the Program:
Program 7 Praying Better, explores the relationship between relaxation and your ability to access the profound dimensions of life addressed in religious, spiritual and philosophical teachings.