There are good reasons why meditation has the reputation that it does with regard to stress. But one danger I am keen to avoid is presenting meditation as a simple means to an end, in the same way that we take aspirin to rid ourselves of a headache. This is a common way that meditation is presented and I think it is misleading. Meditation does help - just not like that - and I hope to show how it does helps here:
To begin with I think it is helpful to make the distinction between pressure and stress. There is always pressure in life and in many cases we actually seek it out, such as with sport, theatre, music, and of course we seek it in love relationships. In other words pressure is a sign of life.
Another reflection that takes us along these lines is that different people respond differently to the same pressures. Given any set of pressures one work colleague might struggle while another will take it in their stride, or, in other words, will be more resilient.
I think the distinction between pressure and stress hints at the way we can cope better. It seems to hinge on this: as pressure builds (perhaps a deadline looms or things have gone pear shaped) we respond to the pressure - there is an emotional response. 'Stressing out' is one response - a sort of panic/fear response. Or as the pressure builds and is sustained we can get ground down by the burden of it. This being ground down is also a response, it is as if emotionally we are close to collapse, an emotional capitulation.
In light of this dynamic between the pressures of the objective situation and our response (panic/fear or emotionally collapsing) we can see more clearly how a regular meditation practice can help with stress. I want to do this by drawing out four ways that meditation changes us and show how each of them has a bearing on our experience of stress.
Firstly there is simply the fact that meditation, at its most basic, is an awareness practice. By meditating we become more aware of ourselves and of others. With regard to stress in particular this has multiple benefits. For example, we become more familiar with those situations where our stress responses (panic/fear-feeling ground down) are triggered. Armed with greater clarity about this means we are forewarned and therefore, sometimes at least, able to take such steps as to avoid or minimise the stress. Furthermore, greater awareness of self means that we catch the stress response much earlier than we would have otherwise. Stress usually builds, it isn't a binary - on/off phenomenon. With greater awareness we can catch our stress response before it becomes fully blown and this again gives us greater opportunity to be creative in changing the situation where we can.
Secondly, and related to awareness, there is the most commonly known aspect of meditation experience - relaxation. It is clearly the case that meditation does induce a more relaxed body and mind. As the tension in the body is let go, the tension in the mind can release. In practice it happens more simultaneously - tensions is let go - even just a little bit - and our system calms down.
This is invaluable in relation to stress and pressure, both in terms of recovering from a stressful experience and becoming more resilient to pressure. Any pressure that we are storing up or holding in our being (our bodies and minds) will be, as it were, discharged during meditation as we relax. This means that we are at least a little bit more resilient when we go into work the next day - a bit further from the tipping point of stressing out. But relaxation is obviously not enough. Given that pressures are likely to continue we will pretty soon be close to tipping point again. This then brings us to my third consequence of meditation.
Thirdly we have 'integration': Integration happens in different ways and on different levels. It happens on the cognitive level, the personality level and the social level. It is also both a gradual process within each meditation and cumulative over the years:
When we speak about being 'all over the place', or being 'scattered' or 'pulled apart' - we are in the territory on cognitive fragmentation. The mind is not 'together', we don't feel 'centred', we have 'lost our grounding'. Our culture increasingly seems to encourage this fragmentation. Our attention is artfully grabbed by the sophisticated technologies and techniques of a pervasive marketing industry. Multi-tasking has almost become a norm in a society that demands ever greater efficiency. These are some of what we could call the forces of disintegration. Meditation on the other hand is a force of integration - as we meditate the mind comes together - unifies. This is one of the greatest gains to be had from meditating - it feels good to become more centred and it strengthens the mind, making it less easily pulled apart. A mind that is stronger, more stable and centred is a mind more able to cope with demanding situations - and much less likely to stress out.
At the level of personality, integration is about welcoming into awareness the 'parts' of our personality that we have disowned, suppressed or denied. Numerous judgements, often absorbed when young, can cause this fragmentation on the personality level. As our awareness grows and expands in meditation these lost parts of our personality are found. In terms of stress this is invaluable because it is often those parts that we have disowned, for example the vulnerable part, that are the least resilient to pressure. Even though, indeed because, these parts are in the shadows they can have a disproportionate effect on our response to pressure. Greater self-awareness means we can acknowledge more fully when a 'part' is feeling the pressure build. We can then extend this part some sympathy, some understanding - acknowledge the pressure - but also notice that this is only one part among others. That is not to say we dismiss these parts once we become aware of them - but that their voice is heard as one among many - a contributor to a complex whole - not a saboteur pulling strings from the shadows.
Then there is integration on the social level. This comes about because with greater awareness comes greater awareness of others. This means we naturally begin to feel a greater sympathy with others. Our sense of sharing a common humanity is enlarged and becomes a significant influence in our lives. We can begin to feel more rooted in our society and on this earth. We begin to notice and feel more like participants in life rather than mere bystanders, and this feels good, wholesome and healthy.
This kind of integration has obvious bearing on stress, especially in the work place. When you look at what are reported as causes of stress in the workplace an awful lot of them are to do with our interactions with others. Bullying, unrealistic workloads and deadlines, lack of support are all determined by these relationships. The whole culture of the workplace would improve dramatically, and with it our stress levels, if we all regarded each other more fully as human beings - rather than as mere objects. And even if none of your colleagues are meditating a personal practice will nevertheless improve your relationships significantly. You can't underestimate the effect of really seeing someone fully as an unique human being. Not only will you relate more respectfully to them but they will usually reciprocate. People notice being fully seen and in my experience it is something they really appreciate.
Fourthly and lastly meditation influences our 'character'. Meditation both requires and strengthens certain character traits. For example, patience is a virtue that everybody recognises. Patience is an essential quality to have if you want to meditate. But also as you meditate you become in turn more patient - you exercise that virtue and strengthen it. Another example would be courage. You need the courage to sit and face your experience of stress. At first this might not be a pleasant experience and you'll probably want to get up and do something (anything) to distract yourself. If you don't physically get up you might 'zone out' or daydream your way through the meditation. But with courage we can be with our experience and in time become more comfortable with the uncomfortable.
This reflects well the nature of meditation practice - it works at the level of our general character and not at the level of specific issues. We don't meditate to directly rid ourselves of a particularly unpleasant experience, such as stress. But rather by meditating we create the conditions in which stress is less likely to arise. Such conditions include a strong character; a more courageous, patient, loving character. Such a character is more resilient to pressure: more imaginative and confident, more able to respond to pressure in creative ways such as asking for support, having that awkward conversation rather than postponing it, not reacting to the boss when he says something critical, building good relationships that will help you through the tough times, etc.
These are some of the many ways in which meditation changes us and helps us to become more resilient to pressure and stress. It isn't just a simple case of relaxation, important though that is. Becoming more aware, integrated and developing our character traits all contribute to becoming more resilient to the effects of pressure. As pressure builds you will notice it earlier and have more time to address the issues before feeling ground down. As you integrate and strengthen your character traits you build in capacity - the mind being stronger, more 'together' and equipped with traits that will help you manage situations and your feelings more skilfully. Pressure in life is a given - some we can avoid others we can't - what we can do is take the initiative with our mental states and our character traits - rather than leaving them to habit and chance. It is in this way that meditation allows us some influence on how much, and to what extent, stress shows up in our lives.