Buddhist advice for worrywarts

We probably all worry unduly sometimes, which makes us all worrywarts according to the dictionary. Here are some more practical solutions for this unpleasant state of mind.

Stop paying inappropriate attention

Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.  ~Mark Twain

You’re not inherently a nervous Nellie, no one is. As mentioned earlier, all habits are made to be broken. Delusions, including their inappropriate attention, are not intrinsic parts of mind, they are just thoughts that arise and have no ability to exist if we don’t think them. And they are certainly not us.

A lot of you may have come across this quote somewhere ‘cos it’s a good one:

An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies, & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, & truth.” The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

If we are not careful, our thoughts think us rather than the other way round. Shirley Austin on Facebook says: “The first fault of delusion identified by Shantideva is “delusion give us no choice”. This is so true. Once we start to follow a delusion we become hooked and it is hard to let go of it. It is so juicy!” We need constructively to replace inappropriate attention with appropriate attention as soon as we notice we are beginning to dwell on our problems. Take away the oxygen of inappropriate attention, and worry (a type of delusion) will quickly expire. Adam Head agreed we need to be creative: “Move forward, make something new, make something happen! This creative/constructive energy doesn’t really tolerate worry and hand-wringing, where the mind can repeatedly chundle on and on about stuff without realising how futile it is.”

It is very helpful to understand how inappropriate attention is running the show. Look and see what you’re focusing on — I bet you are accentuating the negative and editing out the positive. Start doing the opposite, see what happens. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. It is so true.

Feeling responsible for others without the guilt

Feeling solely responsible for another’s welfare makes us worry if we’re not careful, and as mentioned above can wrap us up in guilt, which is an even heavier mantle to remove. Superior intention is the noble, compassionate mind that feels entirely responsible for every living being throughout space and time, but the person who possesses it has no worry at all in their minds. So where are we going wrong?!

One reason I decided to write these articles is because of late I have felt more immediately or physically responsible for the life, health and safety of dependents than usual. Perhaps because I am out of practice at that, I find details strangely worrying when normally I never worry about much at all. This is proving useful because I thought I had the whole not worrying thing under control, but clearly I have more work to do! I enjoy the challenge of looking at what is going on in the mind when I worry and getting to the bottom of it once and for all. (This sort of reminds me of when I first got interested in Buddhism – after a few months I was quite sure I had equanimity down as I thought I liked everyone equally, “Hey, this is really EASY guys!!” Then a boyfriend materialized and I realized my attachment had just been on the back burner for a year.)

I’m finding this whole process of being responsible for various animals, starting with Ralph and Nelson, good training for being a Bodhisattva and even a Buddha. I can view each one of them as an example of all the animals and other living beings in the world who need help, and train in taking on the personal responsibility while freeing the mind from worry or guilt. I meditate on superior intention regularly, and now is my chance to apply it, without turning into an over-protective mommy while I’m at it! This situation is helping me see the difference between compassion and worry, and how compassion itself is not a sad mind, although worrying and guilt are horrible.

Parents of human children (especially in these challenging times), I take my hat off to you – you surely have worry and guilt licked to stay sane for even a day?!

Here is one random example of a run-away train of thought traveling from worry to guilt and back again. “What can I worry about today?! Oh, I know, Nelson’s bad cheek, it is more swollen than ever. Oh, so now that reminds me that I can worry (again) about how I’ve already brought his vet’s appointment forward by four days, but maybe he won’t be alright for another two whole days? It is Saturday morning and they are not open til Monday. Oh, that reminds me, I have to CATCH him! I’m dreading it, he will hate being in lock-down all night. Or maybe I won’t be able to catch him?! But I need to because of his cheek. And what is actually wrong with his cheek? It looks scary. Cancer? A mysterious abscess that might go to his brain?!” Then comes the guilt: “Oh I’m not doing enough for him! I’m so useless at this!” Then more variations on a theme — fraught scenarios complete with everything that could go wrong. etc

Just one illustration today amongst gazillions in the minds of living beings: trains of undesirable thoughts that we have inadvertently boarded, which are taking us from Worry Station right through to Panic Stations! We have to get off!!

Stop worrying right into the future

We allow our thoughts to run riot and way into the future. Chewing over the various possibilities of something that hasn’t even happened is the cause of much of our anxiety and stress.

You know, tomorrow really does take care of itself. We’ll have all day tomorrow to focus on tomorrow’s problems. We can be more like Charlie Brown:

I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.

He has a point. We worry far more if we worry ahead. John Newton (not sure who he is, but I like this quote) says:

We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it.  But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.

What were you worrying about a year ago today?! Can you even begin to remember?! Will you have the worry you have today a year hence? I find these thoughts useful too.

We can make a plan, for sure, for example to get the cat to the vet; but then, in the inimitable words of my brother, something can be time-consuming without being mind-consuming. Make a plan, be prepared to see it change, and meantime stop thinking about that plan and just live. The best is if we can keep our thoughts focused on today or even this hour or even just now, having the very best experience and creating the very best intention in every moment. Then the future tends to take care of itself!

I don’t know who he is either, but Oliver Wendell Holmes said, and I agree:

What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

But just to get a bit philosophical on you for a moment: actually, there are no past things and future things, only pasts of things and futures of things. That sense we have of linear time stretching behind and ahead like train tracks is an illusion. All (functioning) things are necessarily present. This means that “our past” and “our future” are entirely dependent on our present state of mind, rather as a rubber band being twisted in one spot alters the entire rubber band. Past, present and future are only imputed by mind and have no existence from their own side. We cannot point to where the past ends and the present begins. So we can take it moment by moment and go with the flow. I hope to write more on this, a favorite subject, in another article. See Ocean of Nectar for the explanation of the emptiness of time.

This is the fourth article in an occasional series on how to worry less using Buddhist techniques. The first three are Don’t worry, be happy, How to stop worrying about anything, everything and nothing and DON’T PANIC. (All of the anti-worry articles can now be found here, when you have a spare half hour or so to read them.)

It’s your turn. What methods have you used to overcome worry (especially about the future) and guilt? Please use the comments box below. And please share this article if you like it.

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!

28 thoughts on “Buddhist advice for worrywarts”

  1. I’ve learned from Dharma to understand the process of thoughts arising & abating like clouds in the sky. When I have troubling thoughts I consciously make effort to observe that thought & its associated feelings & Discriminations. When I feel troubled by thoughts, I remind myself they are of my mind’s creation and just as easily & quickly as they arose, so too by choosing to let them go, they quickly subside. If I can perform actions to alter circumstances I do so. If not, I know constant compounding of negative thoughts are illusory and harmful to my peace of mind so it is detrimental to hold onto them.

    1. What a great comment, thank you Jacqui! If you have time to leave a similar comment on the recent mindfulness articles on here, I think they’d be appreciated.

  2. I have found in the past that setting a time for worrying is a great way of getting rid of worries in the moment. So for example I might decide that I will worry for 15 minutes at 6pm every evening. Then when a worry comes up during the day, I tell myself I will worry about that at 6pm. When 6pm rolls around I may well have forgotten the worry, but if not then I limit myself to 15 minutes (or it could be 5 minutes) to worry about all the worries I had during the day. Over time, the worries start to disappear and at 6 pm I often cannot think of any.

    The only thing where I think worrying can be helpful, is if it is over some future event that I am planning. A round of worrying can help me determine where the ‘danger’ points are in things that might go wrong. Then I can make a plan that will minimize the chance of these things happening, or will help put them right if they do. However, once the plan is made the worrying should be discontinued (or only worried about at 6pm.)

  3. This is a great blog. I used to worry so much. I realize that worrying does not change the situation. I have learned to live in the present moment and have faith that everything will work out for the future. I love the story of the wolves you mentioned. Our thoughts are so powerful.

    1. Dear Parwathy, I took a look at your blog too, and appreciate your honesty in dealing with mental illness up front, based on your experience of being a doctor and a patient! Thank you.
      p.s. by the way, does your name mean “dawn”?

  4. It seems to me when I am worrying, I have a mind that has no refuge, no faith.
    I remember Geshe-la saying at many festivals, “Don’t worry”. If I can hear his voice down the years speaking to me now, I can remind myself “Geshe-la said “Don’t worry”, then I take his advice and I am happy again.

  5. Where does worry come from?
    Where does it go to?
    Maybe it is just a feeling arising from my uncontrolled mind.
    When this mind arises I always say to myself
    “Don’t worry Captain Mannering”, it makes me laugh every time.

  6. Thank you Luna for this. I think we need to analyse worry with a cool head. It doesn’t make any sense! (But can be such a hard habit to break all the same).

    In faithful moments I can ‘leave it in the hands of the Buddhas’ or Geshe-la or Dorje Shugden. I have faith that they are looking after things for me and then I feel OK.

    As for guilt, I realised in recent years that I have a bad life-long habit of feeling bad about and responsible for things that have nothing to do with me!

    One thing I personally find useful in relation to guilt is to try to see myself as another person (rather than ‘me’), ie. as I would anyone else but me, and then I’ll be kinder!

  7. Oh, this is such a great post! Worrying is samsara and will always be samsara. Nirvana is doing what needs to be done without being wrapped up in conceptual thoughts of past and future. My teacher constantly talks about the emptiness of time. To me time is a blur. Just another object of a worrisome mind.

    After several years of intense Dharma practice I am stymied by the horrible painful feelings that accompany worries of the mind. These karmic pricks of my deluded mind cause me to react in ways I soon regret. Love of others and compassion of their suffering takes the pain away just enough so I can meditate on the emptiness of what is appearing to my mind.

    My current goal is to get those nasty feelings to neutral so I can contemplate the meaning of my precious human life. I worry I will not purify my mind before I am facing death. My practice has much more meaning when I think of a life wasted worrying of so many things that never happen. Death will happen I just don’t know when.

    My teachers have all told me to purify my mind and develop a big open heart. I dedicate my practice to all those in the same boat as me! We need to help each other as well as help our self.

  8. Although if we contemplate suffering from a very long-term perspective, i.e. think of the suffering of our future lives, this relieves us of all worry, concern and anxiety regarding the matters of this life, and impels us to prepare for the welfare of our countless future lives. How wonderful!

    1. Yes. It is also interesting how thinking about our impermanence and the length of our future lives brings us right into the present moment.

  9. Fear is interest paid on a debt you may not owe-Mark Twain (at least according to the fortune cookie note). Thanks again, lovely advice!

  10. I have observed that if I allow my emotions and reactions to run along unchecked, I seem to prefer worry over action. Often I worry for days over something that takes a few moments or hours to actually do. Yes, the doing of those things is also sometimes unpleasant or uncomfortable – a tax return for example – but what I don’t grasp, at an instinctive level, is that the pain of worrying is far greater than the pain of doing. That’s why I loved your previous article where you talked about learning to embrace situations and problem solving. The emphasis I personally took from it was ‘to do’, to engage, to embrace life’s ups and downs and work with them. Once that process kicks in, then my dharma practice holds me in pretty good stead normally in navigating the tasks with a reasonably balanced and happy mind!

    One other thing I remembered when reading this wonderful article was how Geshe-la acted over several years when I was a director at a Buddhist center. We would meet him each year and discuss our plans and schemes, and he would encourage us or guide us in one direction or another. But what struck me was how quickly and un-emotionally (non regretfully??) he could drop a plan or scheme if it wasn’t working or something better came along. He really showed an ability to totally commit to an activity and work very hard, but then let go and move on as if it had all been nothing but a slight curiosity we passed on a journey. What I saw was that he cared passionately about whatever he did, but when it was finished he wasted no energy in regrets or could have beens, instead, giving the whole of his attention to the actual things that needed doing now….

    Not concise – sorry!, but maybe i’ve communicated something useful!

    Happy Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day 🙂

    1. Oh dear, I can so relate to this: “Often I worry for days over something that takes a few moments or hours to actually do.” Thanks for a great comment.

  11. There are two quotes that help me (when I remember them that is.

    One of my teachers said during a class “Will I be worried about this on my deathbed? If not, why worry now?” I have this on a sticky note on my computer monitor.

    The second is a quote from Shantideva ” If something can be remedied why be unhappy about it? And if there is no remedy for it, there is still no point in being unhappy.”

    1. Those really are great quotes. I talk about the famous Shantideva one in the previous article, Don’t Panic. Shantideva is so wise and so down to earth.

  12. In a meditation class, someone asked the teacher about the emotion of anxiety. I remember that he said in answer: “doesn’t it seem strange and so interesting… that we sit in a pleasant moment and worry about things that AREN’T happening right now…?”

    It seemed so pithy and yet so staggeringly deep in that moment for me – made me wonder “WHY would I every worry again?’ Ha! Then I started worrying about worrying too much.

    Fifteen practice years later, I am much less surprised when a strong worrying mind arises, but I still am painfully amused at how I lose my compassion for myself in the moments that I miss while I am worrying about something else. Why not enjoy this moment..now.

    Thank you. And thank you for the tie-in with the guilty minds that love to hang out with Worry and Anxiety. Not to mention their companion of Blame.

    Love this series! So perfect.

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