This is part of an occasional series on how not to worry. For the first one, click here. The methods will not be in any particular order, so you can jump about to whatever interests you most.
In Modern Buddhism, Geshe Kelsang says there are two types of problem:
We should understand that our problems do not exist outside of ourself, but are part of our mind that experiences unpleasant feelings. When our car, for example, has a problem we usually say “I have a problem”, but in reality it is the car’s problem and not our problem. The car’s problem is an outer problem, and our problem, which is our own unpleasant feeling, is an inner problem. These two problems are completely different. We need to solve the car’s problem by repairing it, and we need to solve our own problem by controlling our attachment to the car.
This practical wisdom is an alpha and omega for dealing with worry. There is no point exploring how to solve every outer problem there is in the world, such as taking the car to the garage, as a method to overcome worry – we’re going to be here literally forever if we attempt that, plus we clearly don’t have a clue how to fix everything or it’d surely all be fixed by now! But if we can learn effective ways of thinking that remove our unpleasant feelings (a far simpler and less time-consuming process), we will have nothing more to worry about. The inner problems will have disappeared and the outer problems will no longer feel like problems, so they won’t be problems. Given that we normally think of problems as infinitely varied, and any bookstore will have shelf upon shelf of fix-it books, I always like how Geshe-la grandly named his shortest book How to Solve Our Human Problems! It seems to say it all, really.
As mentioned in the last article, the whole of Buddhism is methods to decrease worry, as it happens; but here are some practical immediate methods that anyone can try straightaway. It arises from inappropriate attention and is related to all three root delusions that afflict living beings. As Bliem Kern says: “Worry is an internal problem, not outside of us.”
Worrying is a bad habit but we have a choice
If things go wrong, don’t go with them.
~ Mark Twain
It is a terrible addiction, waking up and worrying about all the things that need to be done that day, or week, or year. We have to recognize that worrying is a chronic bad habit and decide we want to think differently about things. All habits can be broken; by definition they are not fixed, we can change any habit through familiarity. We need to know that we have a choice; that we can start to control how we think about things and people.
We probably all know this one: “I worry that whenever something good happens then bad will surely follow.” Heather Davies. It doesn’t have to be like this. Buddhist or not, we can all learn to worry less and enjoy more. Even as a child, I discovered that I had more control over my mind than I thought. I had been a carefree child but when I was first sent to boarding school aged 12 (as my parents then lived in Turkey and had run out of English-speaking schools), I was homesick and started to worry about things for the first time. It felt strange at first but then I became used to worrying about just about anything. (I even ran away from the school, but after three hours of walking in circles in the scary woods in the dark with a suitcase, managed to wind up back by the kitchen door, where a nice cook made me some hot chocolate. I was pretty happy the day they invented the Saturn Nav!)
One day I woke up with my usual first thought ‘What is there to worry about today?’ I couldn’t think of anything, so then I started to get worried about that. What was I forgetting?! I actually realized at this point what a weird unhelpful habit I’d gotten into and decided consciously to watch my mind when I started to get worried about small things so as to decide first whether or not they were worth it. I became more carefree again and of course everything improved after that.
What can we actually control?
Related to the fact that we have a choice is the notion of what we can actually hope to control. No one has ever gained complete control over their external environment (not even close), but if we gain control over our mind and our actions, our world will then be a reflection of that. Shantideva puts this very succinctly:
Where is there enough leather
To cover the surface of the Earth?
But just having leather on the soles of one’s feet
Is the same as covering the whole earth.
As Vide Kadampa says: “We worry because we are not in control of what might happen. But the control we have is pretty illusory anyway. We may think that by working hard we will get rich – and we might. But that is not the actual cause of wealth – generosity is the cause of wealth. We are almost never in full control of external events, despite appearances. Our accumulated karma is what will decide our experiences. When we realise this, we can relax because we know there is no point in worrying about things. We can instead welcome whatever comes our way and use Lojong to transform it into the spiritual path.”
The remaining articles on overcoming worry can be found here. Your comments are welcome and please share this article if you like it.