Finally, A Stress Solution that Works

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Be present, slow down, be more gentle with yourself. That's all good advice to reduce stress.

But what if you do all of those things but still feel stressed out?

What if your stress level is as a result of the geographic location in which you live?

When I moved to Washington DC in 1993, I knew there was no better place to live in the world than the Adams Morgan neighborhood I called home for 11 years.  Back then I was nervous to walk by myself in certain sections, now you can barely walk down those streets due to the crowds.

I moved from DC to Denver in 2004. I moved into a home at the end of a quiet street with a view of the mountains. In the winters I would strap on my snowshoes and walk a few feet to enjoy the solitude of the freshly fallen snow, Canadian geese my only company aside from a lone runner whose slushy footprints I followed wondering why his legs weren’t bright red as I watched him disappear in the distance after our ear to ear grins greeted each other silently.

My back yard yielded apple and plum trees, a grape arbor, and wild rhubarb.  One Fall my neighbors and I picked 100 bushels of apples providing me with bright pink applesauce to eat with my Latkes that Hanukkah.  Baking strawberry rhubarb pies were part of my summer ritual.  Back in DC my local supermarket invited me to pay $4.99 a pound for rhubarb that grew wild in my backyard.

I began to relish the slower pace and intentionally laid-back lifestyle.

After the death of my Mom in 2011 I decided I need a change and took a new job back in DC. But moving across country and taking (and leaving) a new job I was not emotionally or psychologically prepared for as I grieved her death took a major toll on me. I was not inspired by much. Least of all myself. I felt like I had lost who I was and didn’t know who I wanted to be. Death has that effect —makes you question just about everything in your life.

I moved in with a friend in the Maryland suburbs while I wrote my book “When I Die, Take My Panties.”  I used to sit with my feet up on the windowsill, looking out at the rain, taking deep breaths of the freshly washed earth – the smell of earthworms filling my nose.  On my window sill I had a single rock that said; “Believe.”  That rock inspired me.  Listening to the lone neighbor’s dog barking in the distance inspired me.

I took solace in those little things like the rock and the rain, and in the bigger things like the amazing friends and family that I still had. It was those relationships that allowed me to pick myself up and reinvent who I now am as an author, a speaker, and a coach.

Aside from those eight years in Denver, I have lived in cities on the East Coast for 23 years now and I have been a proud city girl.  I have loved listening to five different languages while I walked down the street, sidestepping the crowds, ducking into a random restaurant that I had never seen before.  I thrived on that hustle and bustle.  I never thought I would live anywhere else.

Today I’m still in the Maryland suburbs, but now I’m yearning to go back to the mountains. Yearning to go back to those wide-open spaces. Yearning to go back to the slower pace and lifestyle. Yearning to be in a place where when people ask, “What do you do?” they want to know whether you mountain bike or road bike, ski or snowboard, hike fourteeners or play tennis.

Sometimes what you yearn for could be you running away from something. Other times you could be running toward something. I’ve spent the last year wondering what it was for me because I knew if I moved I’d go with me and I cannot run away from myself.

I was talking to a friend about this, a practicing Buddhist, who said: “I think what you are searching for is “Sangha” or loosely translated community.  This is one of the three pillars of Buddhism.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, a global spiritual leader, peace poet and activist explains in the Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for our Time that Sangha means more than that, it is a deeply spiritual practice.

“The essence of a sangha is awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony and love. When you do not see these in a community, it is not a true sangha, and you should have the courage to say so. But when you find these elements are present in a community, you know that you have the happiness and fortune of being in a real sangha.”

This is EXACTLY what I am searching for. But where is it? Is it in Colorado or in DC or the 20 foreign countries I’ve been too? Master Hanh says that sangha is the practice of growing some roots “for the transformation and the healing of self and society.”

He goes on to say that we should take refuge in a Sangha:

“In my tradition we learn that as individuals we cannot do much. That is why taking refuge in the sangha, taking refuge in the community, is a very strong and important practice. Without being in a sangha, without being supported by a group of friends who are motivated by the same ideal and practice, we cannot go far.”

What I take from this is that it honestly doesn’t matter geographic location, what matters is that I am in an environment of friends who are motivated by the same ideals and practice.

Hmmmm, busy political city on the East Coast, close to my family and friends, surrounded by people, traffic, noise and congestion? Or the Colorado Rockies, close to my friends, 333 days of sunshine, and a laid-back lifestyle.

What would you choose?

Jen Coken