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.

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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.

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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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Going wide means going deep

Yesterday I ran into a cool guy at the Colorado Mills Outlet Mall – he was smiling so broadly as he served his customers that I couldn’t help saying to him when it was my turn,mountain-1 “You’re in a really great mood!” And he replied, “Yes, I’m always happy. It’s a choice, you know. I have also spent a lot of time in the past not being happy.” And then apropos nothing, except, who knows, maybe apprehension about this Tuesday’s election (or perhaps that’s just me), “Being black in this country is not always easy. But I have made a choice.” I told him I was a meditator, and he was of course all over that; and then he asked me if I had made the mala on my wrist myself (I hadn’t, I never make anything, but I liked that he knew the word.)

Encounters like this are more and more frequent with the passing years – this has just reminded me that an immigration official at Atlanta airport, upon noticing the mala on my wrist, recently reached below the fingerprint machine to pull out his well-thumbed copy of Eight Steps to Happiness. This is all a far cry from the start of my interest in meditation (1981), when people looked at me funny if I even mentioned the word, let alone that I was into Buddhism — “You, ermm, what?!”

i-had-help
Had help writing this article.

I think this growing awareness is a very good thing because the world could do with more people making the conscious effort to be happy, for lord knows there are enough unhappy people about, as my teacher Venerable Geshe-la once put it. And if the cover story of this week’s Time magazine, “Anxiety, depression, and the American adolescent” is anything to go by, unhappiness would appear to be on the rise in our modern society, and society needs help.

(I also hope that article will raise attention that will help stem the tide for young people. For it’s important that possible medical diagnoses of clinical anxiety and depression are considered by all concerned and treated where necessary by qualified authorities.)

I think the choice to be happy is one of the main choices we have to make in order to succeed in life – probably even more important than the choice of President (though please go vote in any case!) Luckily Buddha gave loads of practical advice that anyone can follow on how we can make that choice and stick to it. It’s not just for our own sakes either — if we are happy, we are in a far stronger position to make others happy. That guy in Aeropostale was helping make people’s day.

Getting over ourselves

As Buddha pointed out again and again, the best way to become happier is to get over ourselves and cherish others instead. But this can give rise to some trepidation; namely, if I care more and more about others, and take responsibility for them, won’t I just end up more stressed out than I am already?! It’s already bad enough worrying non-stop about the kids and the aged parents and the people at work and the refugees and the shelter animals — how can I add limitless living beings to the mix and not go mad? And when will I ever get another moment off? There’ll always be something to worry about, something that I have to do.

The other day I told the story of Patti Joshua in South Africa, who brought Buddha’s teachings to over 11,000 children in the rural areas of KwaZulu Natal; and I quoted her friend as saying, “There was always space in her heart for one more.” But she never worried. She had such a huge heart that there was plenty of room in it for everyone, with space left over. By increasing our compassion we can widen our own heart space, and with wisdom we can deepen it.mountain-3

Spread too thin?

With compassion to liberate all living beings, we understand that everybody hurts sometimes, and we want to take the suffering away from all of them, until we feel responsible for everyone — possessing the superior intention of a Bodhisattva. But we need to learn to do this without being overwhelmed or anxious.

Worry and existential tiredness, however, do not come from the concern we have for others but from a tightness born of ignorance about our true nature, and attachment to externals, to appearances. So to go wide, I think, without spreading ourselves thin, we have to go deep.

As Buddha pointed out, our mind is like a vast clear boundless ocean, with limitless potential. All his teachings are relating to that potential, which we all share – the spiritual path is about accessing more and more of that inner peace, love, wisdom, compassion, faith, and utter happiness, where we end up with not a care in the world even as we work for the welfare of all.

Take time out

There are many ways to go about this, to go deeper so we can go wider. Simply taking some time out each day to meditate and experience the restorative nature of our own peaceful mountain-4minds, even through a simple breathing meditation for example, is invaluable. And I bet we can all find ten or fifteen minutes for this if we really want to. For me, absorbing in meditation each day has always been the happiest and sanest part of my life, setting me up for the rest of the day. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

Unless we make some time every day to meditate, we will find it very difficult to maintain peaceful and positive minds in our daily life, and our spiritual practice as a whole will suffer. Since the real purpose of meditation is to increase our capacity to help others, taking time each day to meditate is not selfish.

You know what happens if you never get off the couch to exercise, the results are not pretty. In a similar way, we need to tune daily into our Buddha nature and faith in our own potential — ideally in our own enlightenment — or we are almost bound to get swept up in superficials and feel overly busy and out of our depth.

If we are so busy changing externals that we have no time to change our mind, we are, according to Buddhism, being lazy and wasting time. It’s a bit like trying to chop down an old oak tree with a blunt axe for hours or days on end, not taking out the necessary few minutes to sharpen it.

Your happy seat

But if we enjoy some time out to relax into our hearts and experience the peace and clarity of our mind, observing in our own experience how all our thoughts arise from and fall into our root awareness, we will be able to let go of our busy, overwrought imaginings for we will no longer be grasping at them. If we make our deep ocean-like mind peaceful, wise, and loving, its emerging waves will be too. Otherwise, we can become so identified with mountain-2the waves and froth on the surface of the ocean that we forget where they’re coming from and think that they are arising under their own power, out of our control. And the detail then feels overwhelming; we easily lose the plot. As Geshe-la says:

We have to manage our time and energy in such a way that we can be of maximum benefit to others, and to do this effectively we need time alone to recover our strength, collect our thoughts, and see things in perspective.

Who doesn’t love vacations!? Most people I know love the idea of being able to get away from their worries and enjoy space and freedom. Frankly, we could be doing this every day of our lives if we wanted to, sans the expense and jet lag. Tibetan meditators called their meditation seat “the happy seat” for good reason.  

This ability to relax and go deep, to access our own inner peace in order to cope, has always been important. But in our complicated, fast, over-stimulated modern society, I would argue that it is now a crucial life skill that everyone needs to learn as soon as possible.

More in the next article. Meanwhile, I’d like to invite you to share any practical experience on how you cherish others without letting the responsibility worry you.

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Clarity of mind meditation

Blink, and it’s a new world

too much to do todayWhen we feel overwhelmed with busyness it is usually because all our activities are bleeding into each other. With thoughts of impermanence, they don’t. We can focus on the here and now. We have walls up (as described in this last article). We can still plan — put the things we need to do in a Google calendar or excel spreadsheet or regular to-do list — but then we don’t need to think much about it again until we need to do it. Tomorrow is plenty of time to take care of tomorrow’s business. 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.

So in the interactions we have today, we bring as much love and kindness into them as we can. We try to keep our mind peaceful, free from anger. We put our energy into these things as they are inside the wall. And because we are not spending so much time outside the wall, we have a lot more energy to do that, we’re a lot more successful. Living in the moment is very much to do with cultivating the habit in our mind of staying here, in the present, not going off.

I’m not getting angry ever again!?!

As Gen Samten puts it, what is harder, not getting angry for a lifetime, or not getting angry for a day? “I could never do the former!” we might think. But can we avoid anger today? Yes, probably, with a bit of effort. So that is all we have to do. Within this wall I’m not going to get angry.

We realize we can do a lot of spiritual practices that may have daunted us previously. “I could never have universal compassion for all living beings!” But could we contemplate universal compassion just today?! Yes, we could give it a try. It might take a little effort and work and by the end of the day we might feel tired — but good tired, not todaybad tired, because we have used our energy wisely. Then we can rest, and wake up in the morning – a new day, a new wall. If we screwed up, we start again.

Etch a sketch. Every moment, let alone every day, is brand new. Geshe Kelsang said that when we close our eyes and then open them again, everything has changed. Blink, and it’s a new world.

Shorter periods of time

In this way we can build up a really helpful mental habit – if we are determined to build this wall, we’ll do it. And we’ll find that this habit begins to apply to shorter and shorter periods of time. For example, if we’re having breakfast with our family and have a hard day at work ahead, we can think: “I’m not going to worry about work, it is outside the wall around breakfast”, and instead concentrate on having a good time with our family, bringing kindness and love into that. When we get to work, that’s a new situation, and one I will be involved in then.

This will overcome basically all our worry. The habit of worry is the habit of thinking about things outside the wall. By remembering subtle impermanence and that we may die today, we build a wall around today.

I’m going to add here what Tim Larcombe just said in the comments as I think this could be a very practical reminder throughout our day:

We can be reminded of “the wall” when people say “Have a good day” to us. And we can wish for them to be worry-free when we say it to them 🙂

Necessity vs meaning

Our emphasis begins to shift from what is meaningless to what is meaningful. If we just focus on things like career, wealth, a good social life, relationships, a hot body, etc, when we get to a certain age we experience a crisis. If we make these the compelling narrative of our life, sooner or later, and certainly by the end of our life, we’ll find them to be hollow. Sometimes people despair, they don’t know what they’ve done with their lives. There is even a delusion all of its own about this, called self-satisfaction:

The definition of self-satisfaction is a deluded mental factor that observes our own physical beauty, wealth or other good qualities, and, being concerned only with these, has no interest in spiritual development. ~ How to Understand the Mind p. 155

It’s a bit like trying to scoop the foam off an ocean, I think, and trying to make it last. And while we are preoccupied with doing that, we are ignoring the limitless potential of our mind for lasting happiness and freedom, and the vast and profound ocean of Dharma practices that will give us this.

time is running out 1Acquainting ourselves with the thought “I may die today” connects us with the real meaning of our life. It stops us focusing on things that are completely banal, unnecessary, even negative. If we spend the hours not already working surfing the internet or watching Netflix, for example, and it’s not so hard to do, does this bring any real happiness?

What about the things we do need eg, food, clothing, health insurance, etc? Buddha taught four necessities of life: food, clothing, medicine, and shelter. These may be necessary, but if make them the meaning of our life, we will neglect cultivating our inner qualities.

Our outer wealth is our possessions, friends, etc, and our inner wealth is our compassion, patience, and so on. Outer wealth may be a necessity of life, but it doesn’t enrich our life. It is our inner wealth that enriches our life. Without love, for example,  no matter how many possessions we have, we feel poor. But with a mind full of love, regardless of whether we have many or few possessions, we feel like the richest person in the world.

Magic pill

magic pillIf you have any problem at all, see what happens if you apply those four words: “I may die today”. If you are worried about something, try saying this to yourself for a couple of minutes – see how you are brought back into the present and recalibrate, focusing on what is meaningful again. If you’re getting angry, repeat these words, and think, “This may be the last time I ever speak to this person! I want it to be a good conversation.” When we are angry with someone, we are assuming on some level that they’re going to be there tomorrow. (Which is why we are angry!)

This thought is like a magic pill — we can use it many times each day whenever we’re unhappy, and find that we naturally come back to this peaceful feeling, centered in the present moment, on what is meaningful.

This magic pill is also very helpful for meditating. If our mind is distracted, we can think, “I may die today, I may die in this meditation”, and see what happens! We build boundaries around that meditation, keeping our thoughts inside the meditation, not outside. This mental habit can greatly improve our concentration.

Meditation

And here is a bit of meditation to bring this together.

We’ll think there is a wall around today and I’m not going to worry about anything outside that wall.

woman meditating under treeWe sit comfortably, and allow our mind to become centered through breathing meditation. We can drop from our head into our heart and feel the peace and potential of our Buddha nature.

We can contemplate the truth, “I may die today, I may die today.” As we do this, we can allow two things to happen. The first is that a boundary begins to form around today – we’ll begin to feel that since I may die today I don’t need to think about tomorrow, and I am not going to let my thoughts wonder outside of this boundary. And we can just enjoy the feeling of peace and happiness that comes from that.

And secondly we will begin to develop a strong determination to focus on what is meaningful, on what makes us truly human. To bring as much kindness, love, patience, and wisdom into all the situations that we encounter today.

Then we remember this for the rest of the day!

(Thank you again to Gen Samten for all his valuable input into this subject. Next installment is here …)

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.

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.)