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  • Writer's pictureRyan Allen

Recognizing what doesn't matter

Yesterday, I had my first quiz in my immunology laboratory class. Worth a whopping 3% of my final grade, I can’t quite wrap my head around why it was causing me so much stress. Maybe I found the level of detail in the content slightly concerning, or maybe I felt that my study time was particularly limited with my recent schedule. Either way, there’s no denying that I felt super stressed. It was only as I anxiously had my eyes glued to my laptop screen at 6 am, having rescheduled my routine Zone 2 workout for this additional study time before class, that I took a step back. Finally, the thought came to me: what in the world was I doing? Why was I letting such a small, insignificant thing irritate me so much, to the point where it was at all negatively impacting my well-being?


When I finally managed to see my upcoming quiz in this light, perhaps unsurprisingly, I had a much better day. In fact, my studying felt much more efficient, less stressful, and I even came to appreciate just how fascinating I found the topics being covered. It’s amazing how a single instance of just stopping and recognizing what I was doing could impact the entire dynamic of my day.


For me, having this experience was an unmistakable result of my mindfulness meditation practice. I’m certain that such moments of reflection would’ve (at most) been much less common prior to engaging in meditation. One of my favorite suggestions that Sam Harris frequently mentions in the Waking Up app is to try to “punctuate your day with brief moments of awareness.” He insists that meditation, or really just being aware, does not necessarily require a dedicated time set aside for it. I’ve personally found that many of my best experiences from this practice have actually come from these short moments during the rest of my day—many of which last no more than a second or two—outside of the dedicated 10-minute session.


Sneaking in these moments throughout the day can help with countless things: anticipatory stress, arguments and relationships, general anxiety, etc. One such question it can really help you to think about, especially when it comes to concrete sources of stress, is simply “does this really matter?” For example, how many of us have been in an argument where afterwards we thought to ourselves, was that really worth it? Did I really have to prove that I was right? Could I have actually been wrong? I find this circumstance to be particularly interesting, not only because this is something I’ve honestly always felt I’ve struggled with, but also because it seems an evolutionary useless quality that we all possess at times: the strange need to be right. Even on topics that are so inconsequential, I clearly notice both an internal and external refusal to believe that I could be wrong. While there’s more to come on the intriguing psychology behind this in future posts, for now, note that taking this moment to reflect on the true nature and significance of the source of stress can be invaluable to improve or diffuse any such situation. It helps to almost bring us back down to earth, as we suddenly understand that being right just does not matter at all.


So, whatever it is that you’re actively stressing about right now, I strongly encourage you to just take a step back, and try to consider its significance through the lens with the biggest scope imaginable. The greater the scope you view it from, the less significant the problem seemingly gets. To make sense of this, take my quiz yesterday, for example. How much does it really matter? It might barely matter to my grade in the class. It really won’t matter much to my GPA. It certainly won’t matter to my overall career path, my health, my entire life experience. Once we get to this sort of scale, it seems almost ridiculous to consider that I was worrying so much about this. After all, very few people have had their lives defined by one thing no matter how significant, let alone a little immunology quiz. My high school calculus teacher would always say that if you aren’t still going to be worrying about something in 5 years, why worry about it now? I have found this bigger-picture view to be helpful in many circumstances.


Concluding once again through the lens of meditation, we can consider sources of stress, the physical sensation of stress itself, our emotional response to the stress, etc., to all just be appearances in consciousness. They are just like objects that we are noticing, things that are coming to our attention, simply being brought into our awareness. At the end of the day, through meditation or simple reflection, we can become much more comfortable with these seemingly troublesome things by recognizing them for what they truly are, rather than overthinking their implications.


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