We all have certain emotions and thoughts that we would be happy to never see again. Judgmental thoughts, worried thoughts, self-doubting thoughts, bitter thoughts, fear-filled thoughts and dissatisfied thoughts are probably thoughts that we would all rather never have. Emotional states like terror, boredom, depression, despair, panic, general unhappiness/stress and anxiety are also probably emotional states that we would give away for free at the first opportunity to do so. For me the one that I would like to just leave on the curb for someone else to come pick up and take away, is anxiety.
I have struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid I remember continually freaking out in my father’s single engine airplane as we went on our Sunday “trips.” When I was in my mid-twenties my anxiety evolved into episodes of full-blown panic attacks that caused me to rush to the emergency room way too many times. For a period of time, people who worked in the Emergency Room knew me as the guy who would stand outside the Emergency Room, “just in case.” Sometimes a nurse would even come outside with a cup of herbal tea or water for me to drink. A certain ambulance driver would often given me glucose tablets that were given to people having diabetic or hypoglycemic attacks (they helped!). It was a dark period in my life, the effects of which have yet to completely go away. I think once a person is afflicted with severe panic attacks, no matter how many years go by, any hint of a potential recurrence will trigger an anxiety response in the body and brain.
Anxiety is an emotional state that I have completely accepted as a continual presence in my life. I have had to make friends with anxiety over the years. I did not get it at the time, but in my late twenties, after running out of a small mindfulness meditation class while in mid-meditation, the instructor told me that anxiety was something I would have to befriend and panic was what happened when I could not be friendly with my anxiety. I thought that sounded ridiculous at the time, but I kept coming back to my mindfulness meditation practice so that each time I could learn to sit with the anxiety for a little bit longer. Gradually I was able to make friends with it (meaning not trying to push it away or reacting to it).
Fast forward fifteen plus years and many hours spent learning how to be present with and non-reactive to negative emotional and psychological states. It was Sunday afternoon (a few weeks ago) and I felt like something was very off in my body. I became nervous that something was wrong and my apprehension grew into a state of uncomfortable anxiety when the physical symptoms did not subside. A similar trigger response happened, just like what would happen when I would have panic attacks in my twenties. Now the difference is that I do not go into a state of panic. All the same fight/flight reactions are going on in my body. The same terrifying thoughts are filling my mind but I am able to keep myself from taking off into panic land. I was able to keep bringing myself back to the present moment. Keep following my breathing and remain aware of sounds and my feet touching the ground. This kept my body from going into a complete freak out. It kept my nervous system from spiking too high and gradually, very gradually the anxiety passed and I was fine.
A central premise of mindfulness practice is that all emotional states are impermanent. They will pass if we can remain aware, present and non-reactive. Some anxiety, anger or depression states may last a lot longer than we would like, but just knowing that it will eventually pass and that I will be ok, is what helps me to not go into a reactive state. Phew.
Fortunately, I am not visited by intense anxiety much these days but it is there at a lower level pretty much all the time. Anxiety is a presence that I have accepted in my life and this acceptance has made all the difference. It is just the way it is. I am aware of it, non-reactive to it and no longer trying to “make it go away.”
I feel that a lot of people have been suckered into believing that mindfulness practice (or any kind of self-help or psychological process) will eradicate or take away all of the negative, emotional and psychological states that they struggle with. Good luck. I just don’t believe that is possible. Every single mindfulness teacher I have studied with and read has always talked about how healing or freedom from suffering is about acceptance not fixing or getting rid of.
After decades spent trying to get rid of anxiety I believe that what they talk and write about is true. The closest we have come to being able to “eradicate” negative emotional and psychological states is psychiatric medications, but this still just represses and sedates. It can be very, very helpful for short-term relief but these medications keep whatever negative emotional and psychological states we struggle with hiding out in the corner, just waiting for the medication to wear off so they can come back out. A lot of contemporary research says that psychiatric medications seem to exacerbate or enhance our negative emotional and psychological states once we go off the medications.
I have concluded that the anxiety, depression, existential despair, anger, chronic worry, judgementalness, self-doubt and all the other fun parts of being a human being in the chaotic and stress-filled modern world, do not go away not matter how much we over-work or practice yoga, mindfulness or any self help modality. The way that I teach and practice mindfulness is more based in the practice of accepting what is. When we cultivate the capacity to be present with and non-reactive to whatever negative emotional and psychological states we are experiencing in the moment, they have a less destructive and disturbing presence in our lives. These states become much more manageable.
Yeah, every once in awhile I will get an anxiety attack. Such is the deck of cards I was dealt. We were all dealt a particular deck of cards. The essence of mindfulness is to learn how to become aware of the presence of these undesirable states when they arise and then quickly accept them by remaining as present, aware and as non-reactive as possible. This is why I practice mindfulness meditation even when everything is going good in my life. I know there will come a time when anxiety and other difficulties will show up and I practice for these inevitable times (I also practice so I can be more present and less conflicted in my life when times are good). Like Jon Kabat-Zinn often said during the mindfulness training I took with him: “The more you work on sowing your parachute, the more it will be there for you right when you need it.” This is why I continue to practice mindfulness everyday. Just in case.