There’s a great deal of societal emphasis on presenting life as a competitive encounter, a challenge to see ‘who can reach the sweet life in time to grab the goodies, for there’s only so much stuff left to go around.’ And dwindling social safety nets, spiraling healthcare costs and constant pressures to perform amidst educational institutions and workplaces add untold stress to the mind which, by default, is already set up to fret and worry. After all, our brains have the same structure, regions and circuits as they did roughly 40 - 50,000 years ago, which was the last time we humans had an evolutionary transformation—and during those times the brain’s wiring was set up to survive each day without being eaten. You’d think we’d be calmer now that we’ve attained the dominant species status, but we’re living in the same cognitive set up, only we’ve replaced outrunning wild animals with the stresses of a go-for-the-gold rat race; an unfriendly expression on a supervisor’s face can create almost as much mental agitation as a roaming, wild boar. In other words, we’re still anxious and often unhappy in life.
This state of worry manifests itself in a continual need to be industrious, achieving, eager and upbeat. Job listings ask for people who are “zealous” and “thrive amidst pressure” capable of “multitasking” with “demanding deadlines.” To be means to be busy. When someone asks “How ya doin’?” the expected answer is “Busy as always, you?” Any other reply falls outside the encouraged and mandated. If we’re not animated and hyper, we’ve “taken our eyes off the prize.”
Relaxing and breaking from the race can leave us uneasy: what’s revealed is the underlying fear and foreboding that propels us through our time on earth. We might actually locate an unease that’s difficult to tolerate. Or we might have to confront the emptiness of any deep meaning amidst the survival game; fretting at the thought of what remains when we stop moving. And so we keep our minds focused on rushing here and there, doing this and that, losing the ability to develop true, inner acceptance and peace.
Unfortunately, the hectic pace results in the mind feeding on whatever sensual impressions happen upon us in the world—we chew on whatever people say to us, how they look at us, if they avoid us or get in our way, rumors about coworkers, fleeting news events and whatever scary thought about the future arises. We’re like truck drivers eating any junk food available along the road; only our junk food is the sights and sounds and thoughts that pop up while we’re racing for survival. Eventually the mind becomes tired and easily exhausted, as its been dining on the wrong food.
What are good sources of nourishment? The Buddha listed ten healthy subjects for awareness: Bringing to mind situations during which we were generous, times we’ve displayed the virtue to avoid causing harm to ourselves or others, the examples of benevolent people we’ve known, the example of the Buddha’s diligent search for peace within, the teachings of the dharma, the support of one’s spiritual community, times we’ve known serenity, the sensations of the breath and the body and, for an ultimate sense of perspective, the looming possibility of death itself. This last reflection may seem gloomy and hardly the anecdote for anxiety, but it actually gives us a way to push aside so many of the small details and fleeting concerns we may try to digest along our journeys.
So the answer is to learn how to stop and prepare some good food for the mind ourselves, rather than relying on what the world has to offer. In other words, we develop our own sustenance. With a healthy diet, the mind can exercise—learning to meditate and establish ease and tranquility—which is certainly attainable, so long as we’re not trying to digest all the junk and empty stuff that we experience in our rivalries and competitions.