Feeling anxious?

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If you feel anxious, does it help to know you’re not alone? That the Buddha listed it as one of the mental states that humans typically experience? Maybe, but you probably still want to find out how to cope with it. Here is my dharma talk exploring anxiety that includes a guided meditative exercise to help you.

Exploring anxiety by Stephanie Noble

I hope you took the time to listen to the dharma talk. Here are some further thoughts to understand the nature of anxiety.

Buddha’s Daily Reflections
What is the source of our anxiety? For many of us, it is rooted in the fear of what is ultimately inevitable. Trying to pretend otherwise is not only useless, but it’s also more painful.
The Buddha emphasized the importance of acknowledging the existence of naturally arising life experiences and recommended reciting these reflections every day:

1. I am of the nature to grow old.
2. I am of the nature to have ill health.
3. I am of the nature to die.
4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love is subject to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. Actions are the womb from which I have sprung.

In modern cultures, we can be so out of touch with these simple truths that we completely fall apart when they happen. Understanding they are only natural, we become more skillful in our relationship with all that arises.

Find your nature in nature
Even in the wild, we sometimes forget to see these truths. When we take a walk in the woods, if we only appreciate the wildflowers and not the rotting leaves and fallen logs that fertilize the soil, nor the insects and other life forms that break them down into nutrients, then we are living in delusion. Coming home to the ever-changing nature of life, all life, including our own, alleviates much of the selective withholding energy that activates anxiety. By practicing expanding our awareness, by imagining holding the world in an open and loving embrace without needing it to be any different, we release our attention from the stranglehold of the Buddha’s list of Five Hindrances, including anxiety.

In class on Zoom this week, one student took her laptop outside and sat under the redwoods. She remarked after the meditation how wonderful it was to be surrounded by trees and sky instead of contained by walls. It was a gift to the rest of us to have at least that little square of nature as a presence in our class and a good reminder to get out and enjoy the fresh autumn air.

Recognize anxiety paralysis
Autumn is a time of year when those living in drought-stricken areas may become anxious about wildfires. Also, in autumn, people who live in the path of hurricanes have their own sources of anxiety. If you are worried about a disaster, whatever it may be, prepare as best you can to cope with it should it happen. Intense anxiety about it can cause paralysis, so you don’t do the very things that could lessen the ill effects of the experience, should it happen. If you really can’t face it, ask someone else to help. Would it surprise you to know that those of my students and friends who have lived through evacuations and property loss have become less anxious over time? They have dealt head-on with disaster, and now they know they can meet such challenges and live through them.

Trust in yourself
You, too, have coped with challenges in the past. Think about what you have faced and lived through and survived. You have survived a global pandemic! Yay, you! And chances are you have survived the pain of losing a loved one. You have witnessed the skillful and unskillful ways people have dealt with difficulties. You have learned from your experiences and by observing others, both real people and fictional characters. You have proven again and again that you are capable of coping skillfully with whatever arises. Trust in yourself.

If you don’t trust in yourself, explore the veil of thoughts and emotions that entangle you, telling you stories about why you can’t be trusted. If the knots in the veil are so tight, you are blinded, and your anxiety is intense, seek the help of a qualified therapist.

Stay here and now
Being fully present makes us better able to cope with whatever happens. So trust that your ongoing awareness practice is helping you to handle whatever happens. It’s a well-known fact that many of life’s worst moments come from people being distracted. So do one thing at a time, and as you do so, cultivate compassionate awareness for yourself and all beings. In this way, you can greet whatever comes in a way that will create a better outcome.

Rest in the don’t-know mind
You might feel as if you would feel safer if only you could know everything. The fear of not knowing is central to the experience of anxiety. We imagine all kinds of catastrophes, personal and global. And our imagination is so rich, it’s as if it is happening. Yet what actually happens is often very different from anything we had imagined. Did not see that coming!  And having exhausted ourselves by imagining various terrible events, we are too exhausted to see this moment and greet it with wise effort.

With wise effort, we make sensible preparations, stay present, and accept that we don’t know. One of my favorite insights on a meditation retreat was the realization that there was no way in the world I could ever really fully know anything! All I thought I knew about everything around me was based on hearsay, partial truths, and often erroneous assumptions. This personal discovery of the don’t-know mind was joyful and a great relief. I don’t know! had been a scary thing to admit in the world when I was younger, but now it is the fiercest, most delicious acknowledgment of the truth for all of us. Sure, we all know stuff, but that stuff is ever-shifting and changing. And believing we know doesn’t make us safer. It locks us into a tangle of beliefs that constitute our sense of self, beliefs that we must continually repeat and defend. When I had my insight on retreat, I wrote a three-word note to my teacher, Anna Douglas, saying, “I don’t know!!!” And within an hour, pinned to the bulletin board was a one-word message from her: “Hooray!!!”

“Don’t agonize, organize”
This slogan reminds us that wise action helps alleviate the anxiety that comes with politics. You can’t bite your fingernails over the outcome when your hands are busy dialing or writing postcards! Thank you to all who are keeping democracy alive with your action, including many of my students.

Anxiety is not a trait
If you describe yourself as an anxious person or that you have anxiety as if it’s a disease, please stop. It’s not helping. This labeling is just another knotting process that weighs down your identity veil and makes it so thick no one can find you, not even you.

Instead of claiming anxiety as a label to define you, try using verbs: Noticing the physical sensation of anxiety when it comes up. Anxiety is rising. This is how anxiety feels in the body right now. Noticing how the sensations shift. Breathing through the sensations. Keep it all in the present moment, just observing the changes without rushing anything. Whatever we experience is just passing through. It’s not a permanent state.

Wherever we feel the physical effects of anxiety — tension and tightness in the chest, stomach, jaw, etc. — we can notice that it is a state of contraction. In meditation, we always begin with the assumption that there is tension in the body, and we do whatever is skillful to relax and release it without making an enemy of it.

If chronic anxiety comes up, we can cultivate some compassion. Ah, there you are again. I know you. The sensations are not enemies. In some way, they are familiar old companions. But in any case, they arise and fall away in all of us. Remember, as I shared in the audio, that the Buddha taught that anxiety is part of the human condition. Not an enemy. Just anxiety. Just worry. Just entangled thoughts about the future, which by its very nature, we cannot know.

Trying to get rid of anxiety only makes it an enemy and creates more upset. We don’t need to manipulate it, run away from it, or control it. If we are paying attention, we might notice that when we try to run away from it, anxiety comes along with us. But when we pause and turn around and open our arms to it, anxiety breathes a sigh of relief as it relaxes in our embrace.

And, who knows? It may offer surprising gifts that we would not have expected.

There is another guided meditation for coping with anxiety on my Audio page and also on Insight Timer.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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