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Barbara O'Brien

Stress and Dukkha

By February 5, 2013

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Lots of people take up meditation and mindfulness to reduce stress. And there's nothing wrong with that; I encourage it. But the Buddha didn't teach a path of stress reduction, exactly. In fact, the concept of "stress reduction" may have puzzled him.

The idea of stress as a physiological condition was first proposed by a Hungarian endocrinologist named Hans Selye in the 1930s. Selye first defined "stress" as a  non-specific response of the body to a demand for change. Nowadays we think of stress as the body's response to a "stressor," which is a situation we perceive as a threat to ourselves or our way of life.

The stressor triggers an increase in adrenaline and other bodily functions. This was useful for our ancient ancestors, who sometimes needed a burst of energy to escape from saber-tooth tigers. But the "fight or flight" response usually doesn't help us deal with the things that upset us these days. And prolonged periods of unresolved stress are detrimental to our health.

This brings us to dukkha. These days many translators and Buddhist scholars have taken to translating dukkha as "stress" instead of "suffering." Stress does seem closer to the Buddha's meaning, although I'm not sure it's an exact match.

Even so, Buddhism is not a path of dukkha reduction or dukkha management, but dukkha liberation. Further, stress relief in the therapeutic sense means achieving relaxation. Relaxation soothes our amped-up nerves and hormones and whatever else in your body is burning too hot because of a perceived threat.

In other words, stress reduction is like applying a soothing balm to a wound; dharma practice is realizing the wound is a phantasm. Buddhist practices such as meditation and mindfulness do have therapeutic applications, but stress management isn't their primary purpose.

February 5, 2013 at 4:12 am
(1) Michael says:

I agree. Stress relief strategiesare good – in as far as they go. However, particularly with the growth of the Mindfulness movement, many Buddhist teachers and centres (in all traditions as far as I can see) are including it as a component of what they do.

Many Western non-monastic professional Buddhists have kinda jumped on this as an income opportunity which is, as I said, not necessarily all bad, but, as you point out, it’s not Buddhism. It is not pointing toward the liberation of suffering but it’s management.

I think, in some quarters, Dharma is understood as therapy and has always been by some long term and prominent practitioners (I’m sure you can list them as easily as I). I am not sure this will damage the Dharma long term in the West though but I do see a growing divergence between real Buddhist practictioners and the psychotherapeutic/secular meditation/mindfulness folks. Some Sanghas may secularize but, contrariwise, some mindfulness practitioners may seek something more meaningful.

February 5, 2013 at 6:58 pm
(2) Lee says:

When I first sat and basically said “here I am” … I bowed to the universe and seriously began training. Serious challenges rose almost immediately … stress increased as I lost a job and income plumeted and from this universe came many huge opportunities to train within crisis, death dukka. Looking from outside it would be said “what a bunch of bad luck!” and yet as i talked with other people in training i found i was not alone. Many ‘serious’ students of the way were beset by huge challenges … my teacher told me ‘you are riding a huge karmic wave’… and I learned it is good to have the opportunity as a human to try..and i have found training has not reduced stress, it has given me tools that, if willing, i can use to lessen suffing in myself and others … it has not lessened the suffering, heartbreak or joy that life brings.

February 5, 2013 at 11:18 pm
(3) Mila says:

For a real-life example of how an “intrinsic joy of being alive” can flow freely through the most painfully challenging and stress-filled circumstances, check out this inspiring interview with Michael Hutchison — whose realization that “the only way out is in” allowed him to dive deep into spiritual practice within a most unlikely “monastery.”

Some great info also on the difference between chasing “peak experiences” and engaging in authentic spiritual practice.

February 6, 2013 at 8:59 am
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

Mila — wow, what an amazing story. Thanks for the link!

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