Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress

By Leo Babauta

What do you do when your job, or your personal life, is a constant source of busy-ness, rushing, nose-to-the-grindstone work, and stress?

Or what do you do if your life is simple and relatively stress-free, but something blows up and you are in the middle of chaos and high stress all of a sudden?

This is when we could use a dose of Zen Mind, or the Art of Letting Go.

What is this Zen Mind? To be honest, I’m still learning what that is, but what I’ve been practising is a constant letting go. Let’s take an example:

I have a major deadline approaching. It is stressing me out, man! But what is the source of the stress? It’s not the work, which is just a series of actions. It’s not the deadline, which is just a time constraint. It’s my reaction to those external events — my fear that I’m not going to make it, that I’ll mess up, that I’ll look stupid or incompetent. This fear that is causing my stress reaction is rooted in my wanting things to turn out a certain way … wanting to meet the deadline and get things perfect and look good.

What if I could let go of wanting things to turn out that way? This is a fantasy, an ideal, that I’m holding onto. It might turn out that way, sure, but it could turn out a dozen other ways, and the truth is I don’t have complete control over how it’ll turn out. All I can do is do the work, and the fantasy, the fear and the stress are only getting in the way. So if I can let go of this ideal, this fantasy, I can let go of the fear, and the stress.

This is the Zen Mind that I’m learning about. It’s simply letting go, and in doing so, you attain a peace of mind no matter what chaos and seemingly stressful event are going on around you. Again, I’m not good at this yet, but I’m learning. I’ll share what I know with you.

The Art of Letting Go

So these are the steps to letting go:

  1. Notice why you’re stressed. What external event is stressing you? Why is it stressing you out? What fear do you have?
  2. Notice what you’re holding onto. If your response is fear, it’s because you’re holding onto something. It’s probably a fantasy/ideal, or wanting to control something, wanting something to turn out a certain way, wishing things would meet the expectations you have. If you’re saying, “He should do this” or “It should be like this” then you’re holding onto an ideal/expectation/outcome.
  3. Realize that it’s not real. This fantasy, this expectation, this wishing you could control things … it’s just made up in your head. To be fair, we all do it. But it’s not a real thing — and it can be let go of.
  4. See that it’s hurting you. This thing you’ve made up is causing you stress, which is shortening your life, and making what short life you have less enjoyable. It’s causing pain in your life. Realize this.
  5. Let go. If something you’ve made up is causing pain, why hold onto it? It’s not worth it. By letting go, you release the pain, and are just left with you and the work you need to do.

Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos

So you work long hours and are stressed out. It’s work you love, perhaps, but still hard work, and still lots of stressors. Maybe you get to take some good breaks during the day, maybe you take weekends off, maybe you get some great vacations.

But the fact remains: no matter what kind of breaks and vacations you take, much of your life is spent doing the hard work, and stressed out. You need to be able to simultaneously work and be on vacation. This is the practice of Zen Mind that we’re talking about — letting go and being able to breathe and smile in the middle of a stressful workday.

It’s only stressful, of course, because of stuff we’re making up in our heads. So if we can create a constant practice of awareness and letting go, we constantly let go of the stress.

Your boss dumps a new project on you with a close deadline. Yikes! You’re instantly stressed. Notice, and let go. Breathe. Feel the stress floating away as you let go of an ideal and an expectation. You are now free, and you can just do the first task — after all, that’s all you can ever do.

Your coworker or client is mad at you, and yelling at you. This is highly stressful. Until you realize that they are probably yelling for some problem that’s not really about you — they are stressed out, they are having a bad day, they have problems dealing with stress. And you are holding onto the expectation that everyone around you should behave perfectly, which of course is an absurd fantasy. You let go of that, and reach out in your heart to this fellow human being who isn’t happy. How can you make things better for this person, with an open heart?

Your son is stressing you out because he’s not doing what he should be doing. You’re mad! Why can’t he just do what you ask? Of course, this is a fantasy. Your kids (or friends, or spouse) are not going to live up to these expectations you have of how they should behave — these expectations aren’t anything real, just fantasies. You can’t control their behavior — wanting to do so just stresses you out. So let go of that expectation and the desire to control, and the stress goes away. Instead, open your heart, and be open to who they are.

OK, so that’s all easier said than done. In the real world, it takes a lot of practice. We often forget about this process when things hit the fan. That’s OK. Life is a constant practice. Keep practicing, and let go of wanting to be perfect at it. Just in the attempt, you’re already perfect.