Don’t worry, be happy

Sarah, the piano, and the Italian vacation

We can get in the habit of worrying about small things incessantly if we are not careful. Of course, our worries never feel small because they fill our mind. There is no objective scale.

I was in England this summer visiting my family. We spent a delightful weekend in a family reunion in St. Albans, quite a well-to-do town just north of London, where my brother, sister-in-law and their children live, work, and play.

As my sister-in-law and I dropped off my niece and nephew at their elementary school one morning, I noticed a mother hovering near us, looking ever so slightly tense. The moment we were done, she approached my sister-in-law, her friend, and, after feigning some interest at meeting me, started to spill the beans. She was really anxious and worried. Why, we asked? Because she had to buy a piano, was the first reason. The second? Because she had to plan a two-week holiday in Italy to celebrate her husband’s 50th birthday.

Ermm, these were problems?!?!

For the piano, it took a little while for C to reassure her that it’d all be ok and that she wouldn’t necessarily end up with an out-of-tune piano as she feared. As for the villa in Tuscany, half-way through reassuring her about this we ran out of time, which was not a bad thing.

Sarah is clearly a bit of a nervous Nellie. C said it is hard to imagine how she could ever not worry about something.

These middle-class worries reflected a skewed perspective – the headlines the very same day told of the new famine in the Horn of Africa. But she is not alone. We all get things out of proportion. Many of us worry at least some of the time about things that would clearly be considered luxuries by the rest of the planet. My own current worry concerns a cat, for example.

Are you ever a nervous Nellie or Nigel?

Over coffee my sister-in-law, brother and I discussed how to stop worrying, as C admits that she herself worries too much. For example, she was annoyed at having to waste an inordinate amount of time over the weekend on school politics. My niece, a gifted singer, was sharing the role of Alice in the school musical Alice in Wonderland. The mother of the other Alice wanted both Alices to wear a particular dress, but my niece hated the dress, and so who was going to back down? C said she worried about her daughter and how to resolve this situation all weekend, even in the midst of all the family jollity.

To digress slightly: worry can seem more justified when it is a mother bear defending her cub. It also becomes entwined with its best friend guilt, perhaps an even stickier delusion to shift. I had my first intimation of this not long ago — again being solely responsible for a wayward cat was the trigger — when I found myself guiltily thinking I wasn’t doing enough: “I am a terrible mother!” This was quite a new sensation for me, as it happens. I’ve never understood it before when perfectly saintly mothers say such things.

On this occasion, as always, C was very sensitive and diplomatic and actually did manage to sort it all out to everyone’s satisfaction, but she didn’t enjoy any of it, and she did still begrudge the whole event.

My brother is not a worrier. In a flash of inspiration, but in his typically laconic way, he suggested:

“A problem like this could have been time-consuming without being mind-consuming.”

He followed that by explaining she may have to deal with it, as life is like that, but that she didn’t have to take it personally, make it her problem, or worry about it at the same time. For effect he turned on his Billy Bass fish who sings the ‘Don’t worry be happy’ song.

(I noticed that he also has a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster above his desk. There is a saying in Buddhism ‘Train in every activity by words’, and Billy Bass and a 1939 Ministry of Information poster seem to do the trick for him.)

They both inspired me to write some articles on the subject of worry as it seems to be a bit of an epidemic. The whole of Buddhism is methods to decrease worry, but with the help of my Facebook friends I’ll look at a few methods that might work straightaway. Anyone can have a go at applying these, regardless of background. After all, worry is universal and knows no boundaries of culture or geography – it arises from inappropriate attention and seems related to all or any of the three root delusions (attachment incl. expectations; aversion; ignorance). Your comments, as always, will be very welcome.

(The remaining articles on overcoming worry can be found here.)

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

29 thoughts on “Don’t worry, be happy”

  1. These posts are brilliant. So true and so important, yet written so well, I get a little smile every time I read them. Keep em coming xxx

  2. On one occasion years ago, I had a friend who was an extremely nervous Nellie. For a long time I tried to help her, offering comfort and support as she went from one ‘crisis’ to the next until, one day, she called me to talk about a very minor incident at work where a co-worker had criticized her (*insert link to posts on dealing with criticism* 😉 ), which had left her feeling upset. Her call happened to come within hours of me receiving some very upsetting and life-changing family news. I told her about my news and that I was shocked, sad and upset, however, within minutes of telling her my news she had changed the subject back to her minor work problem and expected me to comfort her. It was clear to me at the time that her view of reality was very skewed indeed, with her worries appearing infinitely bigger in her mind than anything that might be happening to anyone else. My friend was not a bad person, it’s just that her mind was filled with her ‘problem’ to such an extent that there was no room left, for anything or anyone else. The experience acts as a very useful reminder to me of the dangers of inappropriate attention and the need to regularly put effort into putting my own individual life and worries into perspective.

    1. That’s a great example, thank you. I remember when I was in India many years ago, and on one day I had a bad stomach and noticed that, feeling worried for myself, I found it much harder to develop love and compassion for those around me. They were obviously far worse off, but i wasn’t able to focus on them. That was one key moment for me in recognizing how horribly treacherous self-cherishing was, and that I never wanted to trust it again.

  3. I’ve experimented with this with literally thousands of people who deal with social phobia and anxiety during my years of being a practitioner. Not that it matters, but a simple thing is this:

    Worry always means avoiding imagining and experiencing the actual image of our worry. It’s more mental talk than ‘seeing’ our worry. So we don’t actually face it. We end up in an intellectual tornado of never-ending situations and imaginary happenings and running away.

    Meditation on death is great and geared towards moving us toward appreciating future lives but if you have not overcome the pull of the 8 worldly concerns you are still bound by the chains of much of the carry-on of this life which is why there is room to look for more direct methods for overcoming worry in this life.

  4. Thanks again. Your article reminded me of Geshe-la’s words in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, from the section “Failing to Satisfy Our Desires”: Even when we get what we want we do not get it in the way we want. We possess the object but we do not derive satisfaction from possessing it…our desires do no decrease as our wealth increases. The more wealth we have, the more we desire.” We need to understand this, or we’re destined to a life on the hamster wheel, until we fall off and die…and come back to do it again. Cultivate the joyful mind of renunciation.

  5. Angelica, d 9/4/11

    A 3-year-old girl, hit by a car, dead. What is a mother to do? I’m not her mother, but I am a mother and I can imagine being her mother. I remember watching her cling with fear on the carosel at my son’s birthday party. I can glimpse what it might feel like to be for an instant in her mother’s shoes. Every time I walk near the street with my 3 year old, I glimpse that hole in my heart. And in that moment I am grateful for the divine trick the dharma gives me. At that moment I know I would have to go to work, making prayers, pujas, offerings, to fill that void. Perhaps they don’t really matter, it is hard to prove, but I am grateful for the ruse if it is one. If it is true or not doesn’t matter…it works for me.

    And yet would I, will I ever let my son run free? If I hold him close, make him stop, hold him down, then surely I am safe, free from worry. Isn’t that worry going to help me help him?

    I am reminded of recently when my purse was stolen. For weeks later I was anxious, holding tighter, constantly vigilant. Yet with that tense grasping mind, I only misplaced my things more. And every time I was careless I berated myself, as if somehow my anger would protect me.

    So we hold tight to our worries, and with that holding goes our mindfulness. Mindfulness, our open mind that gently holds and takes in all around us. That mind is open to peace, and blessings, despite the present turmoil. It is open to the will of a 3-year-old boy who wants to grow and explore. That mind is not ignorant of the cars, or the road, or the potential suffering that lurks not only there, but everywhere. Every step, every bite, heck even your pillow can be the end of you or yours.

    So see suffering, but see all of it. Let yourself really worry if you are going to go for it. Let that tight worrying mind swell up and be overwhelmed, until it gives in. For we are all falling down, all the time. And there but for the grace of god, or Buddha, or karma, or whatever, go I. So I use that trick, fact or fiction, to move my heart into action, not paralysis.

    If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying? -Shantideva

  6. Read this post after spending an hour examining our dog: taking his pulse, taking his temperature (don’t ask). All the while looking for signs of distress to worry about! As you know he was just diagnosed with Lyme disease & is under treatment so we’re keeping a close eye on him. But I can monitor him without being worried! Yay!

    A very helpful article that came my way at just the right time. Thanks LK!

    Now on to the kittie cats…..

  7. I guess it is all about being at the moment. Otherwise, our inappropiate attention takes over.

    Joyful Path explains that for us, moral discipline should be our main practice, and even if it is not clearly stated in the same chapter, especially to be aware about our thoughts and intentions. For me, that is what training the mind is all about.
    This is the basis for all of the other realizations, since it is the basis for good concentration

  8. I had a similar conversation with a neighbor who was so exasperated because she had to do laundry, clean her house and was getting stressed about all the packing required for their 2 week vacation to the Hamptons. It hit me as she was going on and on, that sounds like a list of luxuries.

    I used that as a mirror to see where I am doing the same. Worrying about my kids, are they getting their summer reading finished, will they get that terrible teacher, are they watching too much TV, eating too much junk, again, list of luxury. They can read, they are getting an education, and have electricity and food! I worry about being too strict, then setting no limits, even worrying about them getting into trouble or getting sick is doing nothing to prevent any of it. I don’t know what their karma is and I think the worry is just some illusion of control.

    I try to remember Gen-la Dekyong saying that parents do the best they can according to their level of delusion. So I can ease up on myself a bit and just practice best I can, but it is a daily challenge for me as a mom.

    My husband and I remind each other often to remember that we are going to die one day and all of what we are worrying about won’t matter.

    Thanks for the post and for everyone’s comments!

    1. That’s a good point about doing the best we can according to our level of delusions, as it also reminds us that to do more to help others we need simultaneously to be working on improving our good qualities. As Atisha says, we cannot control the minds of others until we have controlled our own!

      I also think with respect to our dependents that we have to accept that they have their own karma and that there are umpteen causes and conditions that determine their experiences, actions and journey through life. So again there is only so much we can do to affect these.

  9. I often think that we, in the west, need to specialise in understanding and overcoming fear. Geshe-la hardly ever mentions the word but lots of people I know suffer from it a lot. I prefer to think that we are just worrying, because already it sounds less serious. Words are so powerful. We are like a collection of thoughts about ourselves (often criticisms and worries.) I like your reference to getting things into perspective. When I see myself worrying and manage to change my point of view by considering those less fortunate than myself I feel like I’ve conquered a powerful demon.

    1. What do you think are the main differences between worry and fear, subjectively?

      Geshe-la talks about the terrible fear we have from self-cherishing and self-grasping, and says we can use fear to bring to mind our inherently existent I in order to shoot it down. He also talks about how Buddha is free from fear because he has no self-grasping and is therefore a perfect object of refuge, and how going for refuge releases us from all fears.

      There are also some types of fear that can be helpful, e.g. fear of crashing if we don’t wear our seatbelt, fear of suffering if we harm others, fear that leads to refuge and a final end to fear. This is a big subject of course.

  10. Hi Luna, Thanks again for another lovely article. Can I make a article topic request? i would love to hear your thoughts and experiences in relying upon the dharma protector, Dorje Shugden. I don’t mean all the political stuff by the way, just how he helps and protects our spiritual life.

  11. In my religion – Christianity, I keep on practicing to surrender all to God. On my apple monitor, I wrote “LET GO, LET GOD.” to remind myself from worrying. If we worry, that is a sign of mistrust of God and I try to ‘threaten’ myself that I should stop worrying, sulking and fretting because that is a sign of doubting God’s power.

    We all amplify our problem just like that lady worrying about a holiday in Italy. We think we are the center of the world and no one understands us better than ourselves.

    If we can ever think we are a star dust in the universe, what more matters? I am still struggling, but I am getting better.

    Thanks for your constant blog posts, I enjoy each and every single one.

    1. Thank you, that’s helpful. I follow a similar principle with handing over problems to Buddhas (it’ll come up in a later article.)

  12. My 9th grader was angry and worried about getting what he wanted the other day. I listened to him and the “big” teenage problem. I totally remember feeling that way. At times my “adult” problems are really just as frivolous (although they do not feel that way at all).

    When he was done, I said to him “Let’s put this into perspective shall we” and told him about what is happening in the Horn of Africa. How mothers and fathers had to choose between what child they felt could survive and leave the other behind.

    He looked at me with pain and compassion and said “I guess I really don’t have big problems.” I agreed that neither one of us do. We both need to learn how to “Get over ourselves”. We laughed and decided to dedicate our merit to all the living beings who did not have food and water.

    Attachment Oy!!!

      1. I think that! i’m a bad mum to my furbys… ‘course i’m 100 times better than my mum was to me, but still… LoL. don’t pet the sweaty things, isn’t it.

  13. spooky! I just spent some time with my family last week too and I also really noticed how much people worry. Worry and boredom seem to be all over the place – in fact, people even worry about being bored; and if they haven’t got anything to worry about, they worry that it must mean that their life is too boring 🙂

    Seriously though, worry is a huge suffering and it seems it’s the main cause of most of our human health issues – heart problems, high blood pressure, headaches… the list is endless.

    I’ve found that meditation on the clear nature of my mind really helps me to let go of worry. All those worrying thoughts are just like waves on the ocean of my mind and by learning to mentally let them go I can stop worrying.

    Also, just doing a few minutes of simple breathing meditation, keeping all my attention on the breath entering and leaving my nostrils, helps calm my mind and stop me worrying too.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what helps other people too!

    1. You’re right, study after study has shown the relationship between worry and stress and physical problems. Yet another reason to learn how to relax.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: