Letting go of anxiety

I have always struggled with generalized anxiety. When I was a kid, I would get anxious about upcoming events-- going to a new school, going on vacation, meeting new relatives, a physical pain that I thought was surely cancer, or a strep infection, or a cold that I knew would turn into pneumonia, tests or class projects, something I was working for— a play, a sporting event, etc.  

Over the years, I learned so many strategies to bring to anxiety. Thich Nhat Hanh, a revered Vietnamese meditation teacher would encourage us to befriend this part of ourselves that we didn’t like. When recognizing that it had arisen, to say “Hello old friend, come sit with me.” Rumi, in one of my favorite poems wrote “a joy, a depression...comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all!” I learned strategies “to be with” these ‘afflictive’ emotions. I learned that this approach didn’t work if you were doing this to try to get rid of this emotion, that is, a part of yourself that was anxious. So I tried to try not to get rid of it. And my anxiety persisted, though there was improvement over time. 

A couple years ago I flew out to Salt Lake City to see my sister and my father. The anxiety started to rise the day before the flight home.  I forgot to check in 24 hours before the flight on Southwest, so my boarding number was C12. I knew that this might mean that all the overhead racks would be full and I might have to put my carry-on in a compartment to the front of where I was sitting. This had happened to a friend of mine and someone had taken her bag! After I said good night to my sister, I started to pack my stuff and found myself doing so hurriedly, just because I was anxious. I slept poorly because I didn’t trust my alarm clock on my cellphone and it was a morning flight. I forced breakfast down even though my stomach was a bit uneasy.  And I had thoughts, “who am I fooling that I can teach meditation? I’m not a wreck but I have not make much progress with this anxiety thing in the 30+ years that I have been meditating.”

We left her house and things only got worse because my sister realized that her car was almost out of gas (so we stopped and got gas) and then she missed the freeway exit for the airport. It was all I could do not to scream at her, because she is forgetful and often late and has missed more than one flight in her life. But I breathed and also stewed a bit. Finally we got to the airport and I walked inside to the longest security line I had ever seen. That’s probably an exaggeration, but the line extended beyond the roped corridors that we have to wind through to get to security. I did the math and knew that there was a chance I would not make my flight which was due to begin boarding in 20 minutes. I stood in line trying not to be anxious and then trying to breathe with and through my anxiety. After about 10 minutes they announced that due to such long lines, they would allow people to go into the TSA Pre-check lines, and so 15 minutes later I was through security. I ran to the gate where my plane boarded, to find out that it was delayed by 30 minutes. Whew. Now I could relax.

I found a bench and got some stuff from my carry-on luggage and took some files out of my small backpack and began to work on lesson plans for my upcoming college classes. I was deeply immersed in my planning when I heard the announced that we were beginning boarding; somehow I hadn’t heard the pre-boarding announcements. Bam! The anxiety flew into gear—my suitcase was open and I had several files out. I felt my blood pressure rising and started , on the verge of panic, to cram stuff into my suitcase and backpack. A part of me suddenly said, “Stop! This is Southwest and you are in the C section. You won’t actually be boarding for 10 minutes.” That calmed me down a bit. Then another part of me said, “Hey why don’t you practice what you teach—bring mindfulness to the anxiety—to the sensations and energy in the body, to the thoughts, and to the emotions.” So I did. I felt the tension in my shoulders, my neck, and my face. I felt this wild energy coursing through my arms. I felt my breathing—short, shallow, choppy. And I stayed with the physical sensations and energy for what felt like 10 minutes but was probably just two minutes—it felt like a long time. And when I noticed thoughts, e.g.,  “I hate this” and noticed emotions—fear, frustration, irritation—I acknowledged them with kindness to those parts of me that were anxious. A few times I felt/sensed snippets of memories from my childhood when my father was raging. I had felt for many years that a major part of my anxiety was from fear of my father during his frequent raging. Now I was feeling fragments of those memories. After some time, my breath recovered, the tenseness in my body subsided, and I put away my items into my suitcase and backpack more slowly than I had before.  Soon after this, I got in line and into the plane.

I felt good, but I knew the real test would come next time I traveled. Several months later I was sitting on a plane in mid-flight and I suddenly realized that the anxiety was appreciably less. (Smiley face!) The next trip was with my wife. I didn’t say anything to her about this, but on the plane I said “Remember when I told you about that epiphany at Salt Lake? I really feel that my anxiety is going down.” She paused and said, “I noticed it and was meaning to tell you.” (Smiley face!) I have made several trips since then. The anxiety continues to go down. Occasionally, it emerges, even erupts. However, when it does, I can generally simply recognize it, befriend it with curiosity and non-contentiousness, and it either evaporates or subsides significantly.

So how do I interpret this in terms of teaching this to others? First of all, it often takes time to let go of old habits, deeply conditioned behavior, especially traumas or issues that clearly go back to childhood. I also know how easy it is to think that I am not trying to get rid of the anxiety, but that is challenging, and it is so easy to fool ourselves.  Many of my meditation teachers have talked about this phenomenon and have stories about the phenomenon. I also know that one aspect of my Salt Lake City experience was how little of my energy was in the cognitive, rational, problem-solving part of my brain. I even spent less time than usual with common strategies like saying to the anxious part “it’s just a thought, not a fact” or citing Mark Twain’s phrase “most of the worst experiences of my life never actually happened.” 

First Post

This is the first blog of Mindfulness: Simple and Complex. The title comes from my belief that mindfulness (and life too) is both simple and complex. (I will write about systems in some later blogs because a basic understanding of systems is very helpful to many meditators.)  One of my meditation teachers, at the end of a one-day retreat, laughed and said that the meditation instructions you get the first time you meditate (in this tradition)--cultivate the intention to bring a curious and non-judgmental awareness to what you are experiencing--is in many respects all you really need to know: the rest is just 'skillful means,' that is, using the strategies, practices, and ideas that you learn over the years. Part of what makes mindfulness complex is that we have over 200,000 miles of neurons in our brain and we almost can't avoid making things complex.

When I first retired, after meditating on the question of how I wanted to spend my retirement, I decided to practice non-doing the first year—resting and letting go of goals. In hindsight, it was quite revealing to observe the detox process in my body, my mind, and my heart. I might write about that in a future blog.

At the beginning of my second year of retirement, I began to hear voices clamoring for a plan: to do more. I chose to relate to these voices by welcoming them: I heard Rumi (“welcome and entertain them all”) and Thich Nhat Hanh (who encouraged greeting these, often familiar, voices by saying “welcome my old friend, come sit with me”).

  • Some of these voices were goal- and achievement-oriented (“you need a plan” “there is so much suffering in the world—you need to do more service”),
  • Some were judgmental (“you’re not doing enough” “you’re not good enough”),
  • Some were anxious and wanted to know what I would do, and
  • Some were moved by first granddaughter’s birth in June, imagining her asking me 13 years from now: “grandpa what did you do about the world’s problems?”

When I realized that the voices were becoming stronger, I chose to practice what one of my teachers had taught me some years ago: to rest in the not knowing.  When the voices would feel strong, even overpowering during a meditation or during the day, I would acknowledge them, sometimes stand back and just let them go on, focusing not on the content of what they were saying but on the sensations in my body from the anxiety and on the energy of those voices. [This is a powerful practice which I will describe in more detail in a future blog.]

Meditation practice over many years (and a few times therapists on certain voices, for example, ‘you’re not good enough’) had transformed these voices from an 800 pound gorilla beating me up to a 7 pound capuchin monkey chattering on my shoulder.

After about a month of being mostly patient, one day an amazing epiphany emerged: it really doesn’t matter what I do with the rest of my life; what matters most is how I am in the world, that is, cultivating kindness and compassion. In that moment, the anxious voices pretty much subsided.

I spent part of the past few months meditating and contemplating the blog: name, structure, content, etc., and  I have decided to share a weekly blog every Monday.

Each week I will reflect on topics like:

  • Significant life experiences and how  mindfulness has helped me (prostate cancer, social anxiety)
  • Practices I have found useful (practicing something for 21 days, yearly intentions, loving-kindness, etc)
  • Perspectives gained from other places and paradigms (my time in the Peace Corps, Internal Family Systems, Tai Chi)
  • New perspectives on old ideas (hope, expectations, intentions)
  • Tools I have found helpful (metaphors, reframing)
  • My take on classic Buddhist concepts (refuge, aversion, perception, ‘right’ speech, and
  • More (“know when to hold em and when to fold em).

I have also placed a variety of resources and practices on the website which people new to meditation and those who are experienced in meditation might find useful.

I welcome comments and questions.