Mindfulness teachers have this crazy notion that it is more helpful to become familiar with pain rather than try to avoid it or get rid of it. But why on earth wouldn't I try to get rid of my pain!? Here I will try to articulate why we cannot free ourselves from suffering by constantly avoiding unpleasant experiences and chasing pleasant ones. There is virtue in understanding deeply our own pains and struggles. So, let's begin by examining a familiar one for so many of us: anxiety.
It can come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, intensities, and textures. Anxiety is layered and insidious; it can seep into our bones and manifest into headaches, chewed up fingernails, and full-blown panic attacks. I say layered because anxiety is not just a feeling (one that is felt in the physical body), but it can also be described as a behavior (anxious thinking, for example). This two-headed monster can ravage our days and nights, and maybe years of our lives!
The hands shake, the jaw clenches, eyebrows furrow, the breath becomes choppy, lacking a natural rhythm. Whoever you are, your body has its own ways of telling you it feels nervous, worried, fearful, agitated, uncertain, and so on. Above the shoulders, worry takes over, and causes even more anxiety. Mixed with all this we may feel agitation, frustration, restlessness, general discomfort, overwhelm, jitteriness, unease, and of course, fear (the wider umbrella under which anxiety sits), just to name a few.
But anxiety doesn't stop there. What about all the habits that anxiety leads us toward? Since it is such an uncomfortable feeling - both mentally and physically - our sentient bodies do all they can to not have to feel the surge, the intensity of this anxiety and it's accompanying feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations.
So, we become escape artists,
suffocating our subjective experience of anxiety by drinking, binge watching shows, scrolling endlessly through social media apps, compulsively eating, daydreaming, sleeping in, insert your preferred escape route here.
Yet, despite all the escaping we've done, every time we look back over our shoulder, anxiety is right there waiting for its next piggy-back ride toward a mental and physical scoliosis. We fall asleep watching our phone, until our phone is watching us, silently praying: maybe tomorrow, maybe tomorrow...anxiety please just leave me be. But even sleep doesn't chase it away. And then we wake up, and who's there to greet us first thing in the morning?
Thankfully, there's an escape route from all this escaping we do. But instead of escaping to somewhere "out there," we have to turn our gaze inward.
Mindfulness teaches us that freedom from not only anxiety but all mental afflictions lies in how we relate to our present moment experience. After all, as I've heard Gil Fronsdal succinctly state (and I'm paraphrasing here), "There are only two things that ever occur: What happens, and how we relate to what happens." Further, Thich Nhat Hanh has said, "Meditation is the study of what's going on; what's going on is very important."
So, what is going on here? Something happens and we relate to what happens. Anxiety happens and we reach for a bag of chips. Or worry happens and we grind our teeth. Our chest tightens and we hunch our back.
The following paragraphs are in advocacy of eroding these types of habitual patterns, of making a different choice, and remembering that we DO have a choice. And whatever that choice may be, I feel it ought to include becoming intimately familiar with suffering (in this case, with anxiety). Through the support of a mindfulness practice - we gradually change our relationship with mental afflictions.
This intimacy with fear and anxiety requires real courage, like diving into icy water. The pain is visceral, but so is the warmth when you come out and a friend is there to wrap a giant towel around you!
This "diving into suffering" has taken me several years to understand as I've worked (and continue to work) on my own bouts with anxiety.
This is what I've learned from diving into icy, cold water...
When we are mindful of our anxiety, we are not embedded in it, and so we are not so pulled around by it. Anxiety triggers anxious behaviors that are unhealthy. Become aware of these behaviors, particularly right before you would typically do them. Then you will have a chance to choose a different path upon reaching that "fork" in the metaphorical road. WE MUST SEE ANXIETY clearly and create at least some space so that it does not decide for us what to do next, but instead we take back the controls of our own mind.
"...mindfulness meditation isn't about trying to get calm, get rid of our anxiety, or clear our thoughts. It is about changing our relationship with our present moment experience. Having a lot of thoughts or not being able to get calm are not at odds with being able to meditate. In fact, if you are mindful of those thoughts and mindful of the fact that you are not calm, then that is something to be applauded!"
We strengthen the ability to be present, in the now., when we don't run away from anxiety. We can all agree that being present would be in the best interest for all of us. But it seems very hard to be - and stay - present. One of the reasons for this is because for many of our waking hours (and now moments), we are uncomfortable...we’re worried, anxious, sad, angry, frustrated, discombobulated, or we’re restless, or we’re bored, feeling “meh” or just feeling “off”. These unpleasant states take up so much of our days. So there’s some cognitive dissonance here: On one hand I want to be more present, and learn to live in the moment. On the other hand, I don't want to feel these unpleasant states. A shift in attitude and perception is needed here. Mindfulness doesn’t just teach us, but it strengthens our hearts and minds, and builds within us the capacity to remain with a difficult situation. Or as meditation teacher, Kenneth Folk once told me, "Learning to be okay even when things aren't okay, or 'meta-okay-ness.'" Then we may find that the experience that we THOUGHT was so bad, wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be, for instance.
We notice ways we are unkind to ourselves. This realization may cause us to feel shame or to be hard on ourselves, which is another form of unkindness. It would be like slapping yourself in the face because you just realized you slapped yourself in the face! Not the most productive. Instead we can use this insight as motivation to bring a sense of warmth and gentleness to our experience. By creating some "heart space", we challenge the pattern of escaping from our situation. When we realize we are ignoring any part of our experience, then we realize we are missing an opportunity for self-acceptance. And if we want to experience unconditional self-love, we have to move in the direction of accepting the multi-faceted beings we are, scars, pimples, cellulite and all!
We reinforce habits and patterns of avoidance, habits that may show up in other areas of our lives. Everything you do matters. Every moment of the day matters. Being present when you wash your hands now increases the likelihood that you'll be more present during your afternoon meeting later, for example. Yes, context is important. But the habitual patterns you develop in one setting transfers over to others. So the more we habituate avoiding our feelings and mental behaviors of anxiety, the more we are reinforcing that we will do the same in the future. Mindfulness shows us that it is possible to degrade this unhelpful habituation. And it first begins with noticing what our patterns are in the first place.
But what if I just can’t stay with my anxiety? What if try and I just can't (or don't want to) become familiar with discomfort. What if I just can’t meditate because I’m too anxious? A shift in attitude and perception is essential. If you do not have the quality of willingness to embark on the path, then I'm afraid you won't get very far at all. It's important to remember (again and again) that mindfulness meditation isn't about trying to get calm, get rid of your anxiety, or clear your thoughts. It is about changing our relationship with our present moment experience. Having a lot of thoughts or not being able to get calm are not at odds with being able to meditate. In fact, if you are mindful of those thoughts and mindful of that fact that you are not calm, then that is something to be applauded!
Here are a few tips if you are feeling that your experience of anxiety is too overwhelming that you just can't meditate.
Meditate lying down. This can add comfort to your practice. Relaxing is key for sustained mindfulness. Sustained mindfulness is necessary for observing anxiety and other emotions closely.
Try a guided meditation recording.
Do a relaxing activity like listening to music or taking a bath just before you meditate.
Workout or do yoga before meditating.
This is not public school, and there is no criteria you must meet in order to pass a test. You start exactly where you are. Right here, right now. If right now you are a balled-up mess of anxiety than we touch as gently into that as we can, stretching out of our comfort zone. Once it's too much, we can "retreat" into that ball once again. But the idea is that little by little, we touch into that anxiety (more and more), day by day, week by week, year by year. Yes, it may take years.
One powerful, simple, yet not always easy way to touch into the felt sense of anxiety is by tuning in closely to the physical sensations of the body. Though, not necessarily the physical feelings caused by the anxiety. For example, if you feel the anxiety in your chest, but it feels too overwhelming to pay attention to, then shift your attention to your feet. Your feet are always in the present moment, right? Yet, they aren't usually associated with feelings of anxiety. So here we check two "skillful boxes" in this scenario: (1) not overwhelming ourselves by feeling the anxiety directly, and (2) continuing to practice being in the present moment. In this case the present is experienced by tuning into the relatively simple, and non-triggering tingles, pulsations, temperature, weight, etc. of our heard-working feet! When you feel ready, move gently toward where the anxiety is located in the body, and observe with curiosity.
Additionally, when in meditation, try your best to stay with whatever your anchor of attention may be, whether it's the breath, the body, sounds around you, etc. If you are just starting out, begin with 3-5 minutes.
Ken McLeod, one of my favorite Buddhist teachers and authors, has said that do be able to do anything we need three things: willingness, capacity, and know-how. You receive the know-how from teachers, facilitators, books, and by practicing mindfulness enough yourself to at some point become your own teacher to a degree. You build capacity again by practicing mindfulness and strengthening your "muscles" of attention, observation, concentration, and kindness. Yet, neither of these is possible until we possess a full-hearted willingness to engage in this kind of work. Shoddy effort will produce shoddy results.
Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to experiences like anxiety, fear, and stress. No quick fixes that are lasting, anyway. With all the tips and tricks and life hacks out there, mindfulness practice may come down to simply feeling what it's like to be a human being. And not struggling with ourselves so much in the process. Because what is it to be alive, truly alive? It definitely isn't constantly wishing things were different, wishing we were thinner, smarter, younger, and yes, less anxious. Because that's just more struggling too. Feeling our humanity may include feeling all that icy tightness in our body, and then wrapping ourselves in a big warm blanket!