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Managing Modernity
By Eli Bay   Printer Friendly Version

"The human race's prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenseless against tigers than they are today when we have become defenseless against ourselves." Arnold Toynbee

Throughout the vast epic of human existence, humans were hunters and gatherers. Imagine a football field. You are standing at one end of the field facing the other goal line. Imagine that the other goal line marks the beginning of our evolutionary ascent as Homo sapiens some 300,000 years ago.

We were solely hunters and gatherers until we invented agriculture some ten thousand years ago. On the football field this could be represented as being at your three-yard line. Similarly, animals were first domesticated at about your two and a half yard line. The industrial revolution would have begun at about eight inches from your goal line. The computer would have been invented one and a half inches from your goal line, the silicon chip just three-quarters of an inch away and the internet would be right at the goal line.

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle consumed most of the distance as represented by the field. It is this way of life that shaped humankind - it has made us who we are. Even through most of the last 50,000 years, during our most modern track of development, we were hunter-gatherers for at least 80% of that time.

It was during this long phase of development that our bodies and minds have evolved and it is scientifically accurate to say that our bodies have not changed since we roamed the savannas and stalked wild animals. Although today we wear suits and ties and evening gowns and designer shoes and interact with computers, we still automatically react to real (and imagined) threats in the exact same way that our cave dwelling ancestors did when they faced a saber-toothed tiger.

Adrenaline rushes into the blood stream and immediately sets off an emergency reaction: blood pressure rises, muscles tighten, blood sugar, insulin and cholesterol levels rise, senses heighten, digestion is halted, sex hormones fall (some things can wait in a threatening situation), brain waves race, breathing becomes fast and shallow, blood flows into the major muscles . . .

This instinctive reaction, variously called "fight or flight" or "stress", is so bred into each of us that we do not get to choose it. It is our default setting whether we like it or not. Unfortunately, the very same mechanism that served us so well as hunter-gatherers has had a devastating effect upon those of us living in an urban technological culture.

For many reasons, including a diet of mostly processed and refined foods (the opposite of what our ancestors consumed), the acceleration of change which characterizes our time (life was static for tens of thousands of years), and the strain of living in large urban concentrations (our ancestors rarely lived in communities larger than 100 people), the aroused "fight or flight" or stress reaction is constantly activated in almost everyone.

The fight or flight reaction was designed to protect us, to be used in a threatening situation, and then be released. The curse of modernity is that it is almost never fully released. From the time we awaken in the morning until we go to sleep at night, the traffic, the noise, the constant interactions with strangers, job and family pressures, loneliness, aging, illness, all the insecurities of modern life, all conspire to keep us in a chronic low level stress.

Whether you recognize it or not, right now your body mind's stress mechanism is on at a low level. It's been "on" for so long that you are not likely to notice it. Until you release it. Then the contrast usually leads to an "aha" experience as people begin to notice the tightness in their neck and shoulders, that their jaw is clenched, that their breathing is shallow (in the chest, not in the stomach), that their stomach is in a knot, that their mind is unfocused and flitting from one thing to next, catastrophizing, judging, planning and fretting about this and that, often racing in an uncontrolled way.

This stress reaction is the background noise that we've come to accept as "normal". It is only recently that modern medical research has come to understand that this automatic mechanism has serious implications upon the health and well being of the modern citizen. In fact, the conservative medical estimate suggests that at least 80% of all illnesses are a direct result of the constant assault of this arousal state upon the cardiovascular, immune, nervous, digestive and muscular-skeletal systems.

Major illnesses like heart disease, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, chronic pain, MS, and colitis are considered to be caused by the wear and tear of this unremitting arousal. Stress both causes and makes worse these and most other diseases of modernity. And as an aging population has to cope with ever escalating levels of stress, the prognosis for our health care system is not favorable. It is predictable that the health costs to organizations will spiral out of control early in the 21st century.

How does one sensibly try to deal with this reality? You can't really run away from stress; it just comes with contemporary living. As stress pioneer, Dr. Hans Selye put it, "The only way to avoid stress is to be dead". You can only attempt to understand the phenomenon and try to intelligently manage your reactions.

Training in mind-body processes like "the relaxation response" helps everyone to cope better. With a little focus and practice, in a relatively short period of time, everyone can learn how to unwind effectively from the harmful effects of stress from whatever the cause. Voluminous research from places like the Harvard Medical School has shown that when people do so on a regular basis, many of the negative effects of stress can be significantly moderated if not completely avoided.

If you are intent on equipping yourself or your staff with career skills for the new world that is rapidly descending upon us, put mind-body training high on your agenda before it is too late. It is important to know, as Abraham Joshua Heschel once beautifully put it, "in the tempestuous ocean of time and toil, there are islands of stillness where one may enter a harbor and reclaim his or her dignity". Stress-free stillness is practical and available for the asking. Every individual and every organization needs to choose to wake up to it.

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