The answers below address some of the most common questions that come up in Level 1. Please read them carefully.
First, let me say again that stress is real. Suffering is real. The challenges that we face in life are real.
When I say that there’s no such thing as a stressor, what I’m pointing out is that the challenges we face don’t automatically produce our emotions.
To start with a relatively easy example, let’s say a six-year-old child is afraid of monsters under the bed. Their fear is real: Their heart races, their pupils dilate, they become agitated. These reactions are legitimate and measurable. So the stress hormones part of Hans Selye’s work — what happens inside the body, and the effect this has on our health — is valid, and an important contribution to science.
But if you wanted to help that six-year-old child deal with monsters under the bed, you probably wouldn’t teach them deep breathing, meditation, or how to regulate their nervous system. You would teach them to turn on the light, look under the bed, and see that there are no monsters hiding under there.
In other words, the stress was real, but the monsters weren’t.
At this point, you may be thinking, “Obviously the monsters aren’t real. But my issues aren’t imaginary, and I’m not a six-year-old. I have real challenges. There ARE real challenges in the world.”
Yes. But stay with me for a minute.
You wouldn’t teach your child that monsters are real and that he or she has to learn to overcome them. That paradigm — about grit and toughness — doesn’t apply to monsters under the bed, because you know there are no monsters.
And so you wouldn’t introduce the language of “stressors,” because “stressors” makes it sound like there actually is something under the bed producing their emotions.
Instead, the paradigm you would adopt is about honesty. Your child needs to learn to see the truth more clearly and accept it more fully.
And so you might introduce the language of challenges, helping your child see that by learning to see life more clearly, the sense of there being a challenge shifts. You can validate the internal experience of a challenge without validating the notion of a fixed external cause.
Remember that dynamic, because it’s our template.
Now let’s take a more serious example.
Suppose someone is being held up at gunpoint. You could say that that’s a clear “stressor” — having a gun pointed at you is inherently stress-producing. And unlike the monster under the bed, the gun is real. So isn’t that a completely different category of experience, and proof that stressors are real?
Let’s test it.
What if someone is pointing a gun at you right now and you didn’t know? Would you experience stress?
No. Because the gun itself doesn’t affect your emotions, and can’t. You could have had a gun pointed at you all day long, but if you didn’t know about it, and never had a thought about it, you would have had no stress, at least as far as the gun is involved.
Now take another example — let’s say you think someone IS pointing a gun at you from across the street. You can see them right now, aiming it at you. In reality, it’s actually a telescope, and they’re looking at a bird behind you. But you believe it’s a gun. Would you experience stress? Yes, you probably would.
But does that mean that telescopes are “stressors”? Did the telescope “cause” your stress?
Using the word “stressor” locks us into thinking that our negative emotions are caused by external events, when they aren’t. Negative emotions are always caused by our thoughts about external events. It may be that there are some external events — like being held up at gunpoint, terminal illness, trauma, and other examples — that would require a really clear mind in order not to experience stress.
A few years ago, a gentleman in one of my workshops told me a story of when he was held at gunpoint, and he didn’t experience stress. His mind became very still, and focused, and quiet. And he was able to negotiate a positive outcome for both him and the person holding the gun.
There are people who face cancer, divorce, and other major life events, and who find a way through them with little or no psychological stress. They may still have physical challenges, but their minds remain clear. It’s rare, but it’s possible. And it shows us the way.
A child with terminal cancer playing with dolls, enjoying the moment, isn’t “immune” to the stressor of cancer. Their body may be engaged in a physiological process of illness, but their mind can be free. There is no psychological stress for them, unless/until they have thoughts about how life should be different than it is. The same can be true for an adult — your body might have cancer, but you can be stress-free. And this gives your body the best chance to find balance and heal, without the stress hormones your mind might otherwise unleash.
The difference between monsters under the bed and cancer (or other challenges) is one of degree, not kind. It’s easy for you as an adult to see that there are no monsters. But if you think that there are other inherent stressors in your world — discrimination, polarization, family dynamics — it is worth looking closer at the way in which, in every case, your mind is producing your emotions, not the thing itself.
This doesn’t excuse the thing happening. It helps get your mind clear so you can address and change the thing happening more effectively.
But it first requires seeing clearly that stress is never a function of the external world. It’s always a function of your thinking. And that’s good news, because it’s possible to change your thinking, so you can change your world from a different place. But using the word “stressor” prevents us and others from developing this ability.
For now, you could say “challenges.” When you get to Level 3, I’ll introduce you to the concept of “crucibles,” which validates the difficulty of our challenges, but also points to their transformational potential.
There are some topics that are easier to break through with these steps as a beginner, and some that are more challenging. Give it a little more time. You’re only in Level 1. We have a lot more ground to cover, and if you stick with it, you may find that some of the topics that seem impossible to apply this to will now start to make more sense. You may also come to see your sense of denial a little differently. Whenever we experience stress, there’s something we’re not seeing. But our ability to admit this and address it effectively gets stronger with practice.
No, you didn’t do anything wrong. The first few worksheets are hard. It’s like you’re stretching a muscle that has been tight for years. If someone said, “Bend over and touch your toes,” and you couldn’t do it, you didn’t do anything wrong — you’re just not flexible yet. But if you keep trying, and you slowly and safely build greater flexibility, you’ll get closer.
The same is true with this process, although we are stretching our minds, not our bodies.
Keep in mind that you’re not trying to see why they shouldn’t see it your way. You’re trying to see why, in reality, they shouldn’t see it your way AT THIS TIME. Forget about the future. In this frozen moment, they see things the way they see things — and not the way you see things — because they have had different influences than you. They’ve had different past experiences than you. They have different values and concerns than you.
The worksheet nudges you to see why they are where they are at this time. It’s not about changing them — it’s about understanding them. The more you do this, the more you realize that, based on their life experiences up to this moment, they should see things the way they do AT THIS TIME. And seeing that, surprisingly, can help you act towards them in a way that might change their position going forward. But it starts with you changing the way you see things (specifically, the way you see them).
If that makes any sense, even a little, I would say to keep going, to do more worksheets, and to give it time to sink in a bit. Remind yourself we’re not giving up our goals, we’re not justifying anything, we’re not excusing anyone. We’re just trying to see reality more clearly, because this clarity brings us internal peace and it helps us lead external change more effectively.
And if it doesn’t make any sense, if it feels like there’s just no way to get your mind to even consider that in reality they should not see things your way at this time, then I would say this process may not be for you, because it’s going to require a certain openness to challenging yourself, and that’s not for everyone.