Coping with anxiety

You might have heard the expression “Xanax is the new Prozac”? This is because worry worryand anxiety have already reached epidemic proportions in our modern society. And if we are prone to worry, there certainly seems more and more cause for it as the days and months roll by.

You’ve probably seen the articles. They report that, for example, in 1980, 4% of Americans suffered a mental disorder associated with anxiety. Today half do. A third of Britons will experience anxiety disorder at some stage in their life, with an explosion of reported anxiety among teenagers and young adults.

And so on and so forth, all over the world. It’s bad. It’s sad.

But it is not inevitable. And (along with the medication in some cases) meditation and Buddhism can help; they are designed to help.

Plus, we need to try and solve our own sense of anxiety and hopelessness if we have any desire to help our world. As we have probably all noticed, it is not easy to help others when we are feeling unbalanced or unhappy ourselves.

I am carrying on from this article.

How is it that some some people can cope with worry and stress and even thrive on it, whereas others get overwhelmed and even ill? Of course there are various factors at play, but there are also good methods for alleviating worry and stress that anyone can try.

I was interested to see that the dictionary.com definition for worry is:

To torment oneself with or suffer from disturbing thoughts; fret.

Note the word “oneself”. We are tormenting ourselves, no one is doing it to us. We are the ones thinking our thoughts. If we could control our thoughts, we could get rid of our worry. If we could change our thoughts, we could — we would — learn to be peaceful.

Break the vicious cycle

IMG_1750-EFFECTSWhen we notice our anxious symptoms, responding to some perceived threat, we think that we can’t cope with the situation, and therefore we become more anxious. This is the start of the vicious cycle of anxiety, the cycle we have to break.

If we are prone to worry, this means that our thoughts are thinking us us rather than the other way around. We have inadvertently boarded trains of thoughts that are taking us from worry stations right through to panic stations. We have to find a way to get off.

We don’t have to think all our thoughts. We don’t have to give them power – the only power a thought actually has is the power we give it. If we learn to control our mind, we can think our thoughts rather than the other way around. We can transform our thoughts and we can transform ourselves.

Thoughts depend upon the thinker just as the thinker depends upon the thoughts – change one, the other changes automatically.

This is a simple but devastatingly profound insight from Buddha, which can change everything. And we can experience it for ourselves by learning simple meditation.

Meditation has proven benefits in stopping worry – including even the simplest breathing meditation that anyone can do, such as the 15-minute peace meditation I explained in the last article on worry. Basically, in this meditation, we are making our mind bigger so that our problems become smaller. And we are learning that we can control our own thoughts.

Feeling foggy?

IMG_0956-EFFECTSOur mind is naturally peaceful. Our problem is that we keep shaking our minds up, like shaking a clear glass of water up and down, or like speedboats churning through a still mountain lake. Whenever we give ourselves some time and allow our mind to settle and relax, we experience some of our own natural peace of mind. Our inner problems subside temporarily because we have taken our attention away from them. And, even if we experience only a little bit of peace, we can know that there is plenty more where that came from.

Another analogy for our mind — and its infinite depth and spiritual potential – is that of a vast clear sky. When the fog rolls in, the whole sky can feel foggy, as anyone in San Francisco will tell you. But we know this is temporary, not the nature of sky; and that it can and will change. It is only if we are not aware of our limitless sky-like depth that we identify instead with our fog-like delusions and problems, and feel foggy ourselves. Our head is stuck in these as if that’s all there is. We get caught up in our fleeting feelings, clutching onto them as if they comprise our entire mind.

The first thing to do is allow these foggy problematical thoughts and feelings to disappear by focusing on the breath and not following them. Instead of shaking our mind up, we allow our mind to settle down. In this, we can start to experience the restorative nature of our own peaceful mind, which has the power to heal us.

This goes for any problem – relationship problems (is he texting me enough?!), work problems (will I get that thing done on time?), health problems (why isn’t this diet working?), children problems (how can I help them when they don’t want to be helped?), world problems (where do I start?!) — we can let go of the inappropriate attention. Just allow ourselves to forget about all this for a few minutes, relax, let the attachment and anxiety drop away. We’re not going to miss anything.

Hey, I can’t afford to do that!

Maybe we think that if we relax like this we are reneging on our responsibility – that we need to chew over every problem until we have solved it, especially when other people are involved. For example, if I am not worrying about my parents/children/pets/the world, I am letting them down. We feel guilty. We think, “Let me just try and sort this/them out first, and then I can get back to feeling peaceful — I can reward myself, go on retreat or something.”IMG_1950

But this is completely the wrong way around. The fact of the matter is that over-thinking is not the way to solve our own or others’ problems. Trying to sort everything out “out there” is not the way to solve problems. Space is the way to solve problems. The sanity of inner peace is the way to solve problems.

There’s a saying in Buddhism that worldly activities are like a man’s beard – though he may shave it off in the morning, it is growing back again by the evening. Even if we did manage to sort everything out “out there” on any given day (an entirely dubious proposition, at least in my experience), is it not true that there are more problems to sort out by the next day? We need to learn the art of relaxation and letting go as the way to (dis)solve our own and others’ problems.

Then — and this is very much part of it — we can approach the external problems from a far more helpful and realistic perspective.

Who are you?

It’s also helpful to ask ourselves, “Who am I, really?” Once we are feeling more peaceful, we can spend a few minutes developing a really positive mind – for example by contemplating some brief instruction on love.

Then we can relate to ourselves as a loving compassionate person, or at least, “Hey, I’m not so bad!”, as opposed to that limited anxious person, “I am useless and doomed.” We can start to get a foot in the door, some agency in our own narrative.

We are who we tell ourselves we are, and in fact it is closer to reality to see ourselves as loving than as hopeless. The love goes far far deeper, and it is our own nature.

IMG_1037We can learn to go through our day with this relative peace, love, and confidence in our heart — try it out for size, let it grow through practice. At least know it is in there somewhere, that there is an alternative to this anxiety. Dive into the restroom when we forget there is peace at the heart, make it live up to its name.

Also, my advice, if you can: go to regular classes and get guided in meditation. You’ll learn stuff that you can practice all week, plus you’ll get the support and encouragement of others in the same boat.

Start the virtuous cycle

So, through breathing meditation we can develop a little space between us and our suffering — it is no longer consuming all our attention by drawing it into an exaggerated sense of a limited, suffering me. From that perspective, we have a better chance of using our own problems to empathize more deeply with others — and the more we do this the less anxious we will feel. We have started a a virtuous cycle to replace the vicious one.

More ideas for helping with worry coming up soon. Meantime, is this helping at all? Please share your experience and questions in the comments.

Related articles

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Overcoming a painful, limited sense of self

Accepting unhappiness without panicking

Gaining perspective on hurt feelings 

 

Want to banish stress?

I am on the road again, this time to Glasgow. The tube was delayed into Heathrow by some undisclosed incident on the tracks, and after 10 minutes a young boy started to stress 1whimper, “We’re going to miss our plane!” His patient mother explained several times why they still had plenty of time, and when that didn’t work she told him firmly, “You will have to learn how to cope with stress if you are going to survive life.” And then his dad added, “There is nothing we can do so we just have to accept this; stop worrying.” Advice to live by. Not that their son seemed too convinced at the time.

I have just overheard in this busy terminal, in short order, a man confiding into his phone, “Today has been a disaster so far and I’m on holiday so that makes it even more annoying.” And then a woman into her phone, “Everyone here is having a hard day as far as I can see.”

And it is not just here, of course, that everyone’s having a hard day. Today’s headlines out of Charlottesville, Virginia indicate the vicious and stupid racism that is still alive and well in America, for example. Plus, is anyone else around here wondering whether humankind is about to atomized, with all this adolescent tension between the US and North Korea? A friend said yesterday that we may as well not worry about the chaotic fumbling disaster that is Brexit because at this rate we won’t be around long enough for it to happen.

She kind of had a point. When we remember we will be dying before too long — let alone our countless past and future lives and all the big sufferings we have experienced and yet have to experience in samsara — it interestingly gets all our other problems into perspective. The individual details of samsara don’t have the power to crowd our mind, to overwhelm us, when we are focused on the big picture. We have the space and mental peaceful mind quotecontrol to develop renunciation (the determination to get permanently free) and bodhichitta (the determination to get everyone permanently free) instead.

But first things first. As indicated in this last article on how to overcome anxiety, we could all do with learning to relax as a matter of priority, which we can do using a breathing meditation that gives us the peace of mind to reboot and cope.

It is not selfish to take the time to do this, for how are we going to sort out this world if we cannot sort out ourselves? I thought I’d “guide” a simple but effective meditation here so you have something to do next time you’re trapped on a hot tube with anxious travelers or experiencing heart palpitations from headlines like, “North Korea’s nuclear threat is real and terrifying”.

We will all be Buddhas one day

Breathing meditation is all the rage these days. But have you ever wondered why a simple meditation on our breath has the power to make us feel so much better? After all, we are breathing all the time. I think it proves that our mind is naturally peaceful, and that to access this peaceful mind we simply need to stop churning it up with uncontrolled thoughts (which are like a speedboat churning up the deep water of a still Scottish loch). We don’t need to add peace to our minds, for we already have it going on inside.

IMG_1389.jpg

It is quite profound, really. When we do the following meditation, we get a glimpse of our Buddha nature, our infinite depth – our natural inner peace that is full of the seeds of universal love and compassion, omniscient wisdom, everlasting peace, and the ability to help everyone. It is like an indestructible gold nugget hiding out in the muck of our delusions.

If we want the incredible inspiration required to keep going day after day in our pursuit of freeing the world of suffering, we must always relate to this fundamental purity in both ourselves and others, looking past our delusions to see the future Buddhas within. The alternative is to go around feeling moreorless bad about ourselves and everyone else, too demoralized to do much about all these complications we see everywhere. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says in the free Buddhist e-book How to Transform Your Life:

Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible and is the pure, essential nature of every living being … Recognizing everyone as a future Buddha, out of love and compassion we will naturally help and encourage this potential to ripen.

And we can do this happily and without getting so exhausted. I think we have to clear the muck aside, at least for a moment, by doing some meditation every day, or we will inevitably forget about our own and others’ gold nuggets and simply remain part of the problem/muck. So, here goes.IMG_1391

15-minute peace meditation

First get into a good meditation posture with a straight but relaxed back, level shoulders, and head tilted a little forward. Your mouth and eyes are lightly closed or, if you prefer, your eyes can be slightly open. Take a moment to settle into this posture and forget about everything else.

Feel contented to be here doing this — accessing your potential for limitless peace and the ability to help others in this troubled world — and determined to concentrate as best you can.

Spend a couple of minutes doing some simple breathing meditation, focusing on the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves through your nostrils. Tune into this, disregarding all static distractions.

As a result of your mind settling a little in this way, feel that you drop from your head into your heart – your spiritual heart or heart chakra right in the center of your chest. Feel already some space opening up, some peace. Feel as though your wave-like problems and distractions have dissolved away into the boundless ocean of clarity at your heart; just imagine.

Now, to become even more absorbed, think that everything outside your body disappears, melts into light in all directions. There is nothing out there to think about.

Now this light gathers into you, leaving behind only empty space, like a mist lifting, until all that remains is your body suspended in empty space.

Also everything up until this moment melts into light and disappears. The past evaporates like last night’s dream, for it is no more substantial than that.

And everything after this moment also melts into light and disappears. There is no future other than our thoughts about it, so let these go.

In this way, you are still and quiet, in your heart, in the present moment. There is only here and now. You are fully present, fully alive.

Now feel all the tension and weight fall away from your body. As it falls away, all your muscles relax and your body melts into light. Your body is hollow and translucent, as if you could pass your hand right through it without resistance. You think, “My body is as light as air, as if I am floating or flying.”

IMG_1368Then, “My body is like a rainbow body and my mind is like clear light.” Just imagine.

Now, still in your heart, imagine any problems you’re having — physical, emotional, mental, political, relationship, money problems etc. — appearing as heavy smoke or clouds. All unpleasant feelings and unhappy thoughts take form.

Think, “These are just thoughts and feelings, nothing more, nothing less. I don’t need to think them. I don’t need to identify with them. I can let them go.”

As you exhale through your nostrils, let them go. They disappear completely, never to arise again. You are breathing away your problems — with every breath your mind becoming purer and calmer. Concentrate on this for a couple of minutes and, if a distraction arises, breathe that out as well.

For the last few out-breaths, breathe out the last of the thick smoke.

Then, as you breathe in, imagine that your breath is in the aspect of blissful light. Ride this light into your heart, where it joins the inner light of your Buddha nature. Feel happier and lighter with every breath. Do this for a few minutes.

Now focus on this peaceful clarity at your heart, like a clear sky, infinitely spacious.

You can think, “This peace, however relative or slight, is the natural peace of my own mind. This peace is always in my mind. It indicates my potential for deep lasting happiness. There is plenty more where it came from. It is my Buddha nature. It is who I really am.” And feel happy about all that.

This peace is also not separate from the peace of enlightenment. Knowing this, you receive blessings

Allow yourself to abide with this peace, to enjoy it, thinking, “This is me. I don’t have a care in the world.”

Then you can think, “How wonderful it would be if everyone felt this peaceful and free, or for that matter completely peaceful and free.” With compassion, you can spend some time getting ready for the day ahead. Who are you going IMG_1392to meet? How do you want to relate to them? I usually request some inner guidance at this point from Buddha in my heart, so I have the opportunities and skill to help people in the best possible way that day. It usually seems to work.

It is now safe to go out 😁

I hope this helps. You can find more advice on breathing meditation in these articles

Did you enjoy this meditation?! How did you get on?

(ps, pictures are of Inchmurrin Island on Loch Lomond, where KMC Glasgow holds regular meditation retreats.)

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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.

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