Understanding the Human Condition through the Lens of the Human Stress Response
After being a regular practitioner of meditation for several years – initially Mindfulness Meditation and subsequently Transcendental Meditation (having taken a course in the practice), I have come to believe that an understanding of the human stress response is an important key to a deeper understanding of the human condition. Stress has a profound effect on human physiology and psychology – in particular, the build up of chronic stress over a period of time. In the long term, the effects of chronic stress can be devastating – even fatal – unless one figures out, in good time, how to deal with it effectively.
When a child is very young, they are in a natural, innate state of profound relaxation – simply because that is the natural state to be in. The brain is primarily in a theta brainwave state, in which it is highly impressionable and very quick to learn. In the terminology of TM (i.e. Transcendental Meditation), one may be said to be in a state of innate “unity consciousness” – which may be described as a kind of prelapsarian innocence.
In this natural state of complete relaxation and innocence, the child experiences a profound connection with the universe – especially with nature and the natural world. (I must note, here, that I am speaking for myself, based on my own fragmentary childhood memories, on the assumption that my experiences in this regard are typical of most, if not all, children). Of course, this deep connection with nature is more deeply experienced when one lives close to nature or visits natural settings – less so if one is more used to an urban lifestyle. Nevertheless, it is a state of being that one tends to take for granted as a child, simply because one is born into this condition of deep connection with the universe – of innate “unity consciousness.”
The experience of life, over time, is inherently stressful. Even if the circumstances of one’s life are the most privileged and comfortable imaginable, stress, in life, is unavoidable. The eastern legend surrounding the childhood and youth of the Indian prince Siddhartha – who later grew up to be the world-famous teacher and mystic, the Buddha – was that he lived a highly sheltered palace life in his youth, never exposed to poverty, pain or death. When confronted by the hidden seamy underbelly of life – what one may call “the shadow,” in Jungian terminology – he was deeply traumatized – stressed – as a result, and driven to abandon his life of sheltered palatial luxury in search of life’s ultimate meaning.
It makes sense, at this stage, to come to a deeper understanding of the human stress response and what it constitutes. When one encounters any sort of threat or danger to the self, as interpreted by the amygdala, which is the “threat filter” of the human brain, the human body responds by elevating the cortisol levels in the bloodstream – cortisol being the stress hormone, which is secreted by the adrenal glands (the endocrine glands situated atop the kidneys), along with adrenaline, the hormone associated with extreme panic and the “fight-or-flight” response. The “fight-or-flight” or “acute stress” response in the body is triggered when an animal encounters imminent, life-threatening danger – or, at least, the perception of danger. Under this response, apart from secreting hormones like adrenaline/epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol from the adrenal glands, the body engages the sympathetic nervous system to handle this supposed immediate threat to life and limb. The body diverts blood flow from the digestive tract and other internal organs, from the immune system, and from the prefrontal cortex of the brain (which is associated with higher cognitive faculties) and redirects it to the limbs and extremities to facilitate quick locomotion. There is also a narrowing or constriction of one’s field of perception, designed to heighten one’s capacity to deal with a perceived imminent threat to survival.
Over time, chronic stress has devastating effects on human physiology, as it builds up, especially, in the nervous and muscular systems. This constant, prolonged stress buildup contributes to a condition where the human system is less and less able to function normally.
For instance, with chronic, prolonged stress, nervous agitation continues to build, potentially leading to long-term psychological distress; the muscles become tense, rigid and less flexible or agile, resulting in a reduced capacity for action and locomotion; the bones become brittle, and the pineal gland (situated in the middle of the brain) becomes calcified (though poor nutritional habits also contribute to this significantly). The cumulative effect of prolonged stress on the human physiology and psychology may be described as “aging” – essentially, the progressive failure of various parts of the body over time, which, I would suggest, are ultimately brought on by chronic stress and, as a result, being disconnected from “source” – being out of alignment with the source energy of the pervasive “unified field.”
The end result of this process, if left unchecked, is death “by natural causes” – natural aging and death, which most of us take for granted and accept as the natural process of life and growing old – perhaps because we don’t know any better! We assume that human beings naturally grow old and die – that the body naturally decays, leading, ultimately, to death by “natural causes.” What we fail to recognize, I would suggest, is that is that the process is actually the result of a lifetime of accumulated stress in the human physiology which, when not properly dealt with, results in the processes we understand to be “aging” and “death.” In actual fact, as I see it, what we are experiencing is the progressive physiological and psychological separation, distancing and/or blocking off from source energy – from the unified field of “unity consciousness” that permeates all of reality – “God,” essentially. This results in our gradual physiological and psychological deterioration over time.
Techniques such as meditation, yoga, qigong, deep relaxation exercises, sound baths/immersion, chanting, humming, breathwork, etc., are methods that enable one to deal with the accumulated stress in our nervous and muscular systems. Engaging in practices like these results in improved physiological and psychological functioning, deeper/heightened spiritual awareness, the expansion of one’s consciousness, a reignited sense of connection with nature and the universe (which may be seen as being a precursor to the experience of unity consciousness), a raised IQ and improved cognitive skills (which may be seen as being a precursor to the activation of the pineal gland and the acquisition of ESP and psychic abilities), and even, ultimately, to the reversal of aging and to rejuvenation and revitalization (to varying degrees). All of this accompanies the experience of a renewed sense of connection with the universe – the attainment of unity consciousness.
The interesting thing about this phenomenon is how closely it parallels such Christian theological concepts as the prelapsarian innocence of mankind, the fall from grace resulting in the human alienation from the Divine, and the need for a reconciliation and reconnection with Divine Source through the forgiveness of sins in the person of Christ. These concepts are mirrored here as the childhood/originary state of innate “unity consciousness,” followed by the separation from source energy caused by the experience of stress and fear in life, and the need for the restoration of unity consciousness and reconnection with source energy through practices like meditation and the activation of the pineal gland (or “third eye” consciousness). Indeed, the Christian tradition also uses such metaphors as the restoration of sight for the blind, which parallels the idea of the opening of the “third eye” in order to achieve the expansion of consciousness and a heightened awareness of reality, especially of higher dimensions of being.
Christianity also speaks of the “kingdom of heaven” being “within you.” This closely parallels the esoteric idea that one’s experience of the universe is a reflection of one’s inner state of being – that the key to the Kingdom of Heaven is within you – through self-improvement and self-transformation. Thus, it may be said, we are the shapers of our own destiny through the choices we make, the lives we lead and the personalities we, thereby, become. Self-improvement does, indeed, result in the experience of a more positive life – a more heavenly, abundant, ascendant life.