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3 Steps to Transform Stress

3 Steps to Transform Stress

The way of the heart is the way of courage.
It is to live in insecurity,
to live in love and trust,
to move into the unknown.

— Osho

Stress, the Monday morning killer. You might have heard about those crazy people who claim to thrive on stress, but for most of us, stress is a royal pain in the ass. It can be all-consuming, debilitating to the mind and body. Typically we do whatever we can to avoid it. Have another drink. Watch another movie. Doomscroll the hours away in bed. Have sex. Or a fourth cup of coffee. Short-term jolts of pleasure and long term agitating, nagging pain. 

For most of us, stress is uncomfortable and so we keep finding ways to distract ourselves to numb the unpleasant sensations.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Last February, I got a surprising text message. I called back and my Director of Private events was on the line, utterly confused by a recent email. The Game Developers Conference was being canceled. Canceled?! How was this even possible? This was like the Super Bowl being canceled. Before we had a chance to sort out what this would mean for our Yerba Buena Gardens restaurant, which typically hosts any number of high-end, specialty events for conferences like this, it happened again. One after another, conferences out.

Why? People were concerned that this new virus threat from abroad — which we heard was now ravaging Italy — was predicted to impact us. There were no cases in SF, but that didn’t matter. The virus was coming.

Like pretty much everyone else in the Bay Area, and across the globe, my world got rocked.

In my 49 years of life, I’ve never experienced anything like this new intensity of stress. With everybody on heightened alert, we pivoted the business 180-degrees, 18 different times. Curbside pickup. Meal delivery. Farmer’s market baskets. Delivery for urgent care workers. Toilet paper. Bottles of wine. Face masks. Coffee. Heck, we even developed breakfast, lunch, and dinner subscription meal plans. I’m still blown away by our team’s ability to adapt and deliver. With a smile. And, also by our customer’s show of appreciation and support.

The highlight from this period was probably watching the lines of grateful San Franciscans lining up at our cafes on Valencia Street and Fillmore Street for the “Samovar Cares Lunchbox” including a bowl of Jook (savory rice stew) and a cup of turmeric tea — offered completely free as our act of local support. All told, we served more than 5,000 completely free meals to the deserving citizens and support workers in San Francisco.

But nothing broke my heart more than Monday morning, July 20, the first day of Samovar’s cafe and restaurant hibernation. With cases skyrocketing in San Francisco, closing up shop until the situation improved was the right thing to do.

So, when I’m called on to dig deeper — whether I’m thrown into chaotic situations or juggling too many balls, or forced to adapt on the fly, again and again — I’ve learned to rely on a variety of strategies that help me stay calm, maintain a clear head, and use stress to become more productive and more present.

3 Steps to Transform Stress

Step 1 — Name Your Emotion.

Our culture isn’t good at identifying feelings. Especially for men, we often don’t even have a vocabulary for describing feelings. This is a big topic in it’s own right, and I encourage you to explore the work of Marshall Rosenberg

For now, reflect on how you are feeling this moment. And then compare it to how you would describe yourself when you are experiencing heightened stress. Try to identify the differences so when it arises again you can quickly recognize what’s going on. Once you recognize what’s going on can you begin to take control. 

And once you do, don’t be shy. Just call it out, “I’m feeling stressed.”

Step 2 — Translate Your Emotion Into Feeling

Emotions are typically a shorthand meant to describe any number of actual, physical sensations. With the objective curiosity of a scientific explorer begin to pay attention to the real, physical sensations occurring in your body. What do you feel? 

Can you feel your heart beating? Is it fast or slow? Is it strong or is it weak? 

Is there pressure in your head? Is it the front of the head, forehead, behind the eyes? Or in the back of the head? Or the neck?

Are your eyes watering? Are they dry, hot, itchy? 

How is your breath? Is it slow or fast? Shallow or deep? In the front of your chest or into the back?

What do you feel in your abdomen? Is it tight? Clenched? Butterflies? Falling sensation?

Whatever you experience, pleasant or unpleasant, do not judge it. Just become aware and acknowledge what is really happening, right now, in this moment.

While this is going on, have courage to feel and experience fully. Remember that people don’t die from feelings. Feelings come, and feelings go. Which brings us to the next step.

Step 3 — Practice Mindfulness

As your awareness of what’s going on develops, you will benefit from adopting a mindfulness practice. Here are two of my favorites. They are easy and straightforward.

The first practice is Mindfulness of Breath. Take a comfortable seated position, or lay down—as long as you don’t fall asleep. Set a timer. If you are new to this, start with as little as a minute and still get some benefit. But soon you may want to try for longer periods, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour.

Now close your eyes and bring your attention to the sensations of air leaving your nostrils. After you have exhaled, pay attention to the inhale and the sensation of the air entering your nostrils. If, after some time you can’t feel anything, try one or two stronger breaths. Otherwise, don’t try to control it. Just experience it as it is. Air coming. Air going. Coming. Going.

When your mind wanders, don’t judge or criticize yourself. Just become aware and resume paying attention to the sensations of breathing.

This is a lovely practice not only because it works, but also because it’s so damn simple. It costs nothing, and you can do it almost anywhere. 

The second practice is Mindfulness of Tea. The ritual drinking of tea has a long tradition of unlocking deeper wisdom. And it’s not hard to do. 

Start by preparing your teapot and choice of tea. As you move through the process, maintain some awareness of your breath, as above, but also include awareness of all your senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.

Add hot water and watch the transformation of leaves and water. 

As the tea steeps, maintain awareness of your senses. Just take everything in with curiosity. Observe. Simply observe.

When the brew is ready, usually from 1 – 5 minutes, decant into your favorite tea cup. Before drinking, take a deep breath to fully inhale the aroma. Pay attention to what comes up, including any colors, images, memories, anything. And then let it go. 

When sipping, note the temperature, viscosity (brothiness), aroma and flavor. And keep paying attention as the sensations evolve and change.

Finally, when your session is complete and you are cleaning up, take some time to reflect on the process. The beginning. The middle. The end. 

The challenge of stressful situations is that they don’t feel good. These practices can help you acknowledge what’s going so that you can become more present, helping to confront the difficulty at hand — rather than fighting to avoid or escape. And in the best cases, they help to see the bigger picture, transforming stress into a training ground for wisdom and peace.

I’ve found these strategies and practices to be profoundly helpful in my journey, and I hope they will be of benefit to you.

Livestream Tea Time with Jesse Jacobs and Leo Babauta

Please join me Thursday, August 13, for a livestream virtual tea time with my good friend Leo Babauta. Leo, founder of Zen Habits, has been a friend and mentor for over a decade. 

Join us as we share (virtually) a pot of tea and discuss big life challenges and coping strategies that we have seen deliver results. We’ll have time for Q & A, so bring your questions!

Space is limited. If you are interested please register today.

What people are saying about Samovar’s Virtual Tea Time

In this disconnected, disembodied time, Jesse thoughtfully invites us to still ourselves and reawaken. I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to gather around the samovar and rediscover my tea ritual alongside an international room. —Andrew S.

It’s an enlightening experience, to get close to a master of their craft and hear their words in person. That intimacy is often restricted in-person because of capacity constraints, but in this format hundreds of us were able to “sit across the table” from Jesse and share in his understanding and experience. It was touching, and will be remembered. —Gwynessa T.

Highly profound and an incredible way to start the day. Jesse provided beautiful insights into tea drinking as well as useful tips on incorporating mindfulness into daily life. —Melody S

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