How to overcome anxiety

Sometimes dubbed “the age of anxiety”, people are reportedly experiencing a lot of (di)stress in this modern age. Up to a third of the UK population, for example, will suffer from anxiety disorder or panic attacks at some point; and more people go to the doctor be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battlefor anxiety in the UK than for the common cold. In the US, 40 million people are suffering from anxiety disorders, where anxiety is constant and overwhelming; and as for the occasional bout of panic, or the grumbling day-to-day unease, the number is probably closer to 300 million! I didn’t do a survey on the rest of the world, but I can’t imagine it’s much better.

So, can you relate to any of these?:

You’ve got a big meeting at work coming up where you have to give a presentation. You have to see your family and have a conflict with a family member who’ll be there. You know you’re going to run into your ex-girlfriend, who is with someone new whereas you are not. You see a police car in your rear view mirror, and you are a person of color. You have discovered a bump on your body and a quick Google search reveals that death is imminent. Your prostate is ten times larger than it should be. Your tent is leaking. You have to leave home soon because you are approaching adulthood but the future is scary. You are getting old and find yourself worrying about the smallest things that never used to bother you. Your co-worker is AWOL (again), leaving you with no support. You can’t understand why you don’t feel happier. You’ve eaten too much chocolate and have to go dress shopping with your mother, who is stick thin and always on at you about your weight. Your dog is sick. Your daughter is on drugs and possibly in trouble with the police. You can’t afford to leave a monotonous job even though your boss is a psychopath. You might be losing your Obamacare soon. You’ve read some very disturbing articles recently about the forces of darkness descending on our world. Your car has a rattle. You can’t make up your mind whether to (a) go grey gracefully or (b) go blonde. You’ve just spilled coffee all over your iPhone while writing this, with splashes landing on your keyboard (that one’s mine.) You’re going to die.

Written down like this, does this seem like a list of anxiety-provoking situations?! Yet these are just snippets from the most recent conversations with the people around me. It makes me wonder, how much of our daily chit chat does revolve around things that make us anxious? Anyway, you may have more to add. And, while we have a mind to worry, the list is potentially endless for each of us. (At least we’re not alone?!)

Dictionary.com defines anxiety as: Distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune.

It doesn’t matter whether fears or misfortunes are real or imagined, large or small — they all seem to consume us. With anxiety we can’t help overthinking, so there is no objective scale, you can’t number worries from 1 to 10 — worries never seem small because they each fill our mind.

What does anxiety feel like?

It can feel like we’re going mad, at its worst. We worry about everything and nothing. We feel out of control. The voice in our head is constant, we can’t stop it, it’s exhausting. We are on edge. Life is no fun. We can get no perspective even when we know we have things out of proportion and other people have it far worse.

AngelThere was a swan, Angel, in the small pond behind my caravan last week in the Lake District. Beautiful to watch on the surface, gliding around like swans do – but she was all alone, recuperating from an attack that killed her mate; and I felt sad for her. And, looking at her legs, I was reminded of a description I read of anxiety:

I smile gently while churning inside. I may seem calm. But if you could peer beneath the surface, you would see that I’m like a duck – paddling, paddling, paddling.

What makes us anxious?

There is always something to worry about if we have a tendency to worry: “What is there to worry about today?!”

Did you wake up happy this morning?!

Often when I ask people this question, they stoddlers 1ay they didn’t, not really. We are not even out of our warm cosy bed yet — nothing has happened! – and yet already we are feeling uneasy. So sometimes anxiety can be generalized, sort of random, lurking just below the surface of even the most uneventful day, with no specific cause. We usually cast around outside for something to blame for this feeling, “Must be because I have a presentation at work coming up in 3 weeks!” We can even lie there worrying that there is nothing to worry about, which must mean something horrendous is about to happen…

At other times we feel anxiety about something in particular, such as in the list above.

Luckily, although anxiety is a bad habit, all habits can be broken.

What can we do about anxiety?

Soooo, what is the secret of keeping it together in the face of worrying situations? Why and how do some people just seem to roll with the punches, while others are tormented by crippling anxiety at the merest glimpse of potential trouble? How do we rid ourselves of anxiety and connect with a more peaceful, balanced part of ourselves?

First off, we need to start to experience some genuine peace of mind in which we can take refuge. Then we can gradually come to understand the causes of anxiety in more depth, learning tools to train in during our lives that will help us overcome this crippling emotion for good.

Buddhist meditation can give us all of this.

anxiety girl

By the way, if you have concluded that meditation is not for you because you are just too distracted and worried to be able to concentrate, please know that pretty much everyone starts off too distracted and worried to concentrate. And this is exactly WHY we have to learn to meditate. Meditation is the medicine for distraction and distress. Not taking it is like saying:

“I am too sad to be happy.”

As a good friend of mind put it, our uncontrolled mind is in a state of apparent chaos, lurching from one chaotic situation to another; we feel caught in that small space. But if we can step back and see what is arising from a bigger place, we can realize the bigger story. We can step back and then CREATE the bigger story.

So the first thing to do is to allow our mind to just settle, relax, and get bigger. Our mind is naturally peaceful, as explained here – our problem is that we keep shaking our mind up with uncontrolled thoughts, rather like a clear mountain lake being churned up by speedboats. Let the mind just settle through breathing meditation and we’ll discover that we already have peace, lucidity, and calm within.

Worries fill our mind, so we need to empty our mind, for a while at least. Things feel less overwhelming in that space. We realize we can cope. We realize we can feel good. Anxiety, as they say, is a misuse of the imagination. We realize we can think differently.

There are inner and outer problems, as explained here. I was thinking how each of those outer problems listed above requires different advice and solutions – the car may need to go to the mender, you may be able to enlist other people to help you with your work, your friends may have good suggestions on your hair, or you may be able to do something proactive to help prevent the forces of darkness from descending on our world. But internally, the advice is similar – control our mind and replace the anxious thoughts with helpful ones.

self-cherishing 3Breathing meditation is increasingly popular because it really helps people relax. Even a small amount of time and effort can yield surprisingly big results. The breath may not be the most profound object, but this meditation teaches us something profound – that we don’t need to add peace from outside, it is already there inside us. If we allow our inner problems to temporarily subside by taking our attention away from them by single-pointed focus on the breath, our natural peace comes to the surface. And we can know that even if it is only a little bit of peace to begin with, (a) it feels so much better than anxiety and (b) there is plenty more where that came from. Phew.

Plus we now have some space, control, and perspective to deal with the outer problems, as needs be.

You can find out how to get started in a breathing meditation here. And there may be meditation classes in your area if you check this link.

We’re out of space, so I’ll explain more next time. Meanwhile your comments are welcome.

Related articles

Don’t worry, be happy

Getting perspective on hurt feelings

Ever had self-loathing?

How do I get rid of problems?

How to avoid stress and burn-out at work

Problem-free days

Equalizing self and others

 Equalizing self and others is cherishing others as much as we cherish ourselves.

Just as I wish to be free from suffering and experience only happiness, so do all other beings. In this respect, I am no different from any other being; we are all equal. ~ The New Meditation Handbook 

roquetailladeWhen we can stand in others’ shoes, we have a big world to walk around in – a world that is so much more interesting than being holed up in the fortress of self-absorption. With self-cherishing we have no choice but to ward off loneliness by pulling others obsessively across a narrow drawbridge, or to defend ourselves by slamming closed the gates.

Snowflakes

We are like a snowflake. Sure, no two snowflakes are exactly alike, but it is also pretty hard to tell them apart. In the ways that count most, they are practically indistinguishable – they are made of ice and air, they are bound to perish sooner or later, and on their own will perish even faster for they cannot survive on their own. In the same way, we pride ourselves on our uniqueness, and our own problems and suffering are just that much more interesting than everybody else’s; but when it comes right down to it we are far more similar to others than different. We are made of flesh and blood, we are bound to perish sooner or later, and we cannot survive on snowflake-1our own for even a minute.

Imagine one little snowflake putting up its hand and declaring, “Hey, look at me! I’m special! I look like intricate lace!” And another goes, “No, look at me, I look like a flower!” And a third chips in, “That’s nothing, I look like a pointy star!” In a white blanket of snowflakes, they are all equally important or unimportant. No objective judge is going to say that one snowflake is superior to another, or more unique, or more deserving of happiness.

In meditation I sometimes imagine an alien coming down to earth and seeing millions of people all with their hands up, “Hey, look at me! I’m special.” As far as the alien is concerned, we are all the same. Let alone the aliens, as far as everyone else is concerned we alone are not the real deal. It is only our own self-cherishing that thinks otherwise.

Everybody without exception wants to be happy – I mean look at this world, how many are we, six, seven billion?, anyway, lots, and that’s just the humans, there’s all the animals too. There are so many — countless — living beings, and if we look into the heart of every single one of them, whether they are the good guys or the bad guys, without exception they are all yearning for happiness. But basically, more or less without exception, they are NOT experiencing enough happiness! There is a lot of pain right now in this world, isn’t there? And I think it’s very clear that our ordinary methods of striving for happiness aren’t working particularly well – and if we can’t see that, then it could be because we’re not looking.

What is love?!

I think we are all definitely interested in love, and we have this idea that if I am to be happy, if I am to have fun and meaning, I need love. But generally speaking in the West we also have this idea that in order to have love you have to fall into it. Which involves a lot of dating in the hope that somewhere along the line we will fall into it, and then have it, and then as a consequence be happy. But there are problems with that perspective, as you may have guessed.snowflake 2.jpeg

One being that we don’t really understand what love is – “Oh, I’m feeling something, is it love?! I don’t know! What’s going on?! Love’s a mystery! Man, why does it have to hurt like this?” A backdrop to our scheming, indulging, and recovering, we play endless songs about “love”, trying to figure it out yet again as our heart is yanked up and down like a yo yo. So from a Buddhist perspective there is a basic confusion between love and attachment. Attachment is a delusion yanking our heart and causing pain, but love is a peaceful, positive, warm mind that opens our heart to greater and greater happiness and bliss. One of the kindest things Buddha did for us is point out the many differences between them.

Scratch my back

The affectionate love that comes from equalizing is not conditioned by what the other person looks like, what they say, snowflake-4what they do, because it is other-centered. At the moment, because so much of our love is mixed with desirous attachment, it’s very conditional – meaning that for as long as you look attractive to me I am going to like you but, Oops! you’re no longer attractive, so therefore I am not going to like you. Or for as long as you keep saying things that make me happy I’m going to like you, but now you’ve gone all weird and are saying things that aren’t making me happy any more, so I don’t like you. See what I mean? I’m scratching your back and you’re scratching mine = the best we can hope for. Doesn’t leave much room for maneuver. Very quickly dissatisfaction can set in ~ “I don’t want my back scratched this way, I want it scratched that way.”

In other words, it’s all about ME! I’m judging my reality and discriminating between people based on ME. That guy is a great guy, he makes me happy. That guy bores me silly, he’s a boring guy. It’s like we become a universal arbiter of reality: “You want to have the real load on reality, you come to me cos I say it straight – this is a good person and this is a bad person (or, ermm, at least this person was a good person until they became a bad person …) etc.” It is all based on ME. “What have you done for me lately?” This self-focus and self-concern and self-obsession is self-cherishing. It’s a pain. Thankfully it is totally undermined by equalizing self and others.

Everyone needs Dharma

equalizingIn an oral transmission on his latest book that he gave in London last summer to a representative group of Kadampas, Ven Geshe Kelsang reiterated what he has said many times, that our actual problems are our own unpleasant feelings, such as discouragement, depression, unhappiness, and other unpeaceful states of mind. Our mind becomes crazy with so many internal problems, and even if we live in a very quiet place with nothing interfering with us, still due to self-grasping or self-cherishing inside we are tightly holding. Which means there is no peace, we are experiencing discomfort day and night. To solve this, he says, everyone needs Dharma — religious or not, Buddhist or not — because Dharma is the way to solve our unpleasant feelings.

That is why Dharma means, literally, “protection”, ie, protection from suffering. And this Dharma of equalizing self and others, which anyone can try out, I believe always has the power to solve unpeaceful feelings, my actual problems. At least it seems to work whenever I bother to do it 😍

Over to you ~ do you have familiarity with this meditation? Do you have, or have you overcome, any difficulties in doing it?

Related articles:

What can we really know about anyone?

Ever-connected world

Love hurts! Or doesn’t it?

 

The force awakens

plane 1
This sunset went on for FOUR hours!

I am writing this in Terminal 3, Heathrow Airport, Dec 31, watching the mass and mess of humanity – including families bustling home after Xmas and, exhaustingly, a youth going to New York just for New Year’s Eve. (As my flight is an hour and a half late, my New Year is now going to commence in the higher sky …)

Family life provides umpteen opportunities to practice patience and kindness, especially when it involves the care of small children or elderly or unwell adults. Notwithstanding that the love in families can be a wonderful thing, and I have just had a very enjoyable time with my parents and other fab family members, my observation has been that family life is challenging at all ages and in all countries. One drawback of family life can be that we are bound to the same people whether we get on with them or not, that we can get stuck into grooves of thinking and behaving that are not necessarily helpful, and that this can cause underlying frustration even at the best of times. Looking around this airport, a small slice of life, a small slice of time, I can see hundreds of little annoyances and minor desperations. A mother right next to me saying wearily over the sound of her wailing child: “We’ll get him to suck his dummy during take-off if we need to; he won’t eat anything now.” An argument between a couple in Costa. And one full-blown tantrum at the security gate.

I said goodbye to my 81-year old dad at East Finchley tube station this morning, and a woman standing nearby saw that he was a bit mournful as he lumbered back to his car (my dad likes me.) In a South African accent, she asked how old he was, and then pointed out her husband, who is 83, and volunteered, “All our friends are getting older and iller and dying.” Of course, I couldn’t then pass up on this opportunity to chat as I have been thinking a lot of late of the challenges of worldly life; so we ended up traveling together to Warren Street tube where she and her husband got off.

plane 2
Sunset was followed by daylight!

She told me she had read a book called Letting Go, recently, and was experiencing a bit of an “awakening” as she found independence from her husband (only 74, she has decided to go on lots of mini-trips on her own without him if he can’t come with her, for example to Vienna.) She is no longer interested in being taken for granted, used as a hotel, and blamed for everything by her three 50+ kids – I agreed that they may respect her more if she starts to live her own life and respect herself, that she has already done quite enough for them, including giving them their bodies (“and much much more”, she added darkly). Also, everyone, even those for whom we feel most responsible, has their own path and karma, and so we can only do so much. Her morbidly obese daughter, who was rushed to ER recently, has always blamed her mother for everything, and her mother has always worried herself sick about her; but this daughter is now in the care of professionals and her brother, an ex-Israeli soldier, who is insisting she finally take responsibility for her own life — leaving her mother to declare on the London tube, “I feel free for the first time in years!” It was a brief encounter, but a meaningful one. She wanted my blog URL, and thought I might write about her; and she may even be reading this now.

Shantideva says that people attached to a worldly life experience many problems with little reward:

They are like a horse forced to pull a cart,
Who can grab only an occasional mouthful of grass to eat.

In the old days of Buddhism, it was more traditional to give up on worldly life altogether and take yourself off to a monastery or a mountain cave. (Tempting!!!) But this is the modern world and, thanks to the patience and skill of my teacher Geshe Kelsang, this is modern Buddhism – so we are finding ways to install mountain caves into our living rooms next to the flat screen TV, Fisher Price truck, or zimmer frame, or maybe in a quiet spot in our bedrooms. Everyone can learn to meditate and follow a spiritual path both on and off the meditation seat; this is no longer the province just of monks and Yogis, and it’d all be over if it was.

plane in sky who takes these photosBeing practical can be helpful and, dealing with an illness, my folks and me did a lot of practical things over the last couple of weeks, adjusting day by day to the “new normal”. But in some ways this confirmed that we cannot solve our actual or inner problems outside the mind. We need to know how to develop and sustain inner peace as everything slides away from us, basically out of our control. No one ever gets out of here alive, and leaving these bodies, whether quickly or slowly, is usually pretty challenging for ourselves and everyone else concerned. The pilot (for I am writing this paragraph later, now on the plane, while experiencing an on-rolling sunset!) just described this as a “long-haul flight”; which made me think that we really do have to haul these meaty bodies about all over the place for years, sometimes under our own steam, sometimes with the help of a Boeing 747. Until they fall over and we can’t get them up again.

I have to quote this from Bill Bryson’s latest book that I just brought in WHSmiths at the airport:

The worst part about ageing is the realization that all your future is downhill. Bad as I am today, I am pretty much tip-top compared with what I am going to be next week or the week after. I recently realized with dismay that I am even too old now for early onset dementia. Any dementia I get will be right on time.

However, taking charge of our own minds (while we still can) does require some determination — going inwards to solve our human problems isn’t automatic in our busy, distracted society. Right now, for example, in the airport, I am surrounded by sensory stimulation – music straining to be heard above the noise, ads everywhere, shops galore, and pretty much everyone — except those in a hurry to queue for their planes or vainly trying to stop their children barging into strangers — on their smartphones. I am tuning this all out now to write this.

happiness is my responsibility
It’s not a bad idea (UK English for “it’s a good idea”) to take time off from the constant hectic blare to go inward every day, even if it is only 10 to 20 minutes, or even if it is only the few minutes in the gaps between activities, if we can tear ourselves away from our gadgets. It is also a good idea, if and when we can, to treat ourselves to some retreat. And I am very grateful that I and thousands of others in this tradition have the opportunity to do just this in January 2016. This is because I find that meditation is what makes sense of everything or anything, including all this ridiculous ageing, sickness, and death stuff. I mean, really, it is so bad it’s almost funny. Bill Bryson says, in what is supposed to be a funny book:

There are other scenarios that involve catheters, beds with side railings, plastic tubing with my blood in it, care homes, being lifted on and off toilets, and having to guess what season it is outside – and those are all still near the best-case end of the spectrum.

Laugh a minute, that. And no one escapes it. Unless … and this is the whole point of the spiritual path … unless we use everything that happens to us to help us increase our compassion (to give us the energy, the motivation, the bliss) and our wisdom realizing that this is all just dream-like appearance reflected by our own thoughts (to get us through the door to liberation). Or, as I like to say:

Samsara sucks. Samsara sucks for everyone. But luckily samsara is not real.

Star WarsWe need to escape from the sufferings of samsara once and for all. From the title of this article, you might have been expecting more about the new Star Wars movie; but I’m afraid I didn’t like it quite enough to write more. However, there was one rather excellent line in it I thought (and don’t worry, this is not a spoiler):

Escape first, hug later.

So, back to some discussion of how to do Mahamudra meditation, really awaken the force within (rather than — sorry, spoiler alert — have a lame stick fight in the forest), and get the hell out of here. Only now I have run out of space, and you have other things you need to do; so we’ll have to wait till next time.