I hear that from patients all the time. That's the kind of change we're trying to learn to produce—how to help people learn to decide whether a given event is life-threatening or not. If it is a life-threatening event, you'd better be glad you've got all these psycho-biological mechanisms. If a car is coming at you, they give you the energy to jump out of the way.
It's a mistake, then, to think that all stress is bad.
Right. The error comes in when you start interpreting relatively nonthreatening situations—like balancing your checkbook or dealing with a certain person—as though they were life-threatening. Then you are creating the crisis in that life-event. All the same responses take place as if a car were coming at you at eighty miles an hour.
I think you can achieve that conceptual shift in any number of ways, one of which is through the painful, involuntary way of a severe illness that forces you to look at your values. That's why I think illness can be a very creative experience—a potential source of regeneration and renewal instead of just a breakdown.
Severe illness is one way to get that conceptual shift, or you can take a more preventive approach—become aware of the problem and make conscious changes.
How about paying attention to early symptoms, before an illness gets to a serious stage?
Definitely. There are usually many symptoms before the heart attack. The one thing you can count on is that if you ignore the symptoms, the body will up the ante. The next symptom will be more serious if the first is ignored, until finally, the body can do nothing but give out.
Most people think the symptom is the illness. It's not. The symptom is often very useful, telling you that you've pushed yourself beyond a level of healthy functioning. Too many people miss the early signals and get the opportunity to examine their lives—perhaps for the first time—at the cost of a serious illness.
To get back to what people can do . . . what can people do?
Aha, the big question! What can you do other than becoming ill? Well, I guess some kind of centering or meditation—in a very wide meaning of the term.
Any activity that you have in your life can be used as a meditation. It can be looking at a mandala, doing a mantra, sex, prayer, walking, running—it can be anything.
Listening to Bach?
Exactly. Any activity that you can invest with prolonged and focused attention can be a form of meditation. Biofeedback is simply machine-assisted meditation.
Would you say that meditation is a way of intentionally inducing this post-stress period of relaxation that brings you hack to normal tension levels?
Yes. The upswing is the sympathetic component. The dip, which corresponds to the S component of an EKG recording of a heartbeat, is the parasympathetic rebound. It's a compensatory period of relaxation or deactivation that's characteristic of every single nerve cell, every single muscle cell in the body. That cycle of up, down, and return to baseline almost exactly describes the electrical activity of the heart during one heartbeat. To me, this pattern is a source of real wisdom, because it gives us, with every beat of the heart, with the firing of every nerve cell in the body, a demonstration of the optimum response to the environment.
It's all very consistent with the Zen philosophy in which you perceive an event, react to it, and then let it go. The neurological pattern is a perfect correlate to this philosophical view, which I think is really fascinating.