Editor’s note: We’re curating a series of essays on mental health. If you have a story to share or an idea to pitch, email us at [email protected].
In the two previous pieces I’ve written about anxiety, I’ve discussed how to distinguish between fear and anxiety and offered some techniques for handling anxious moments. Some readers objected to my description of the possibility of anxiety lingering even after lots of practice. As one man tweeted,
“Buddhist practices specifically claim to eliminate restlessness and worry… permanently through insight.”
A major stream of Buddhist practice is the development of insight through the cultivation of mindfulness. As we understand ourselves a lot more, as we see our lives more clearly, we understand many things on a deeper level: How changeable everything is; how we are all interconnected no matter how alone we sometimes feel; how some of the attributes we’ve been taught will make us happy or strong (like vengefulness) really don’t; how some of the attributes we’ve been taught are sappy or stupid, (like compassion or generosity), are actually the best things in our lives. The more we develop insight, the more we discover we are no longer enslaved by qualities like anxiety. Does anxiety continue to arise, though?
The man was responding to a story I shared about my friend and colleague Sylvia Boorstein, who has made anxiety a big focus of her practice. When she recently found panic rising while she was at Costco, she quickly called upon one of her many techniques for rooting herself in the present, breathing deeply and allowing the feeling to pass, and it did.
Was my correspondent saying that Sylvia’s anxiety should not arise at all? I do not think he was. After all, he introduced his comment saying, “As someone who used to experience high anxiety levels daily and now rarely experiences any anxiety at all, I respectfully disagree.” Both Sylvia and the correspondent still experience anxiety, but through practice, those moments are quite a bit more rare.
In my years studying Buddhism, I have heard endless debates about whether, for a more enlightened person, mind states such as anxiety, greed, fear or rage arise at all. Some schools say those qualities might arise, but they are like whispers instead of shouts in your mind, like gauzy nets instead of steel bars. They can readily be responded to with wisdom and compassion.
Other schools say, after a certain point of spiritual advancement, those painful, confusing states won’t arise at all. I say, I’ll have to get to that place of spiritual advancement to know. Right now, my attitude is “Who knows?” With a subtext of, “I’m not sure that it really matters.”
I also believe that if you are judging yourself because anxiety arises at all, you are probably not being fair to yourself. Causes and conditions for something to arise are usually multi-layered, with what we can know and what we can sense, or only guess at, all intertwined and moving, making for the kaleidoscopic shifts of life.
Whether forces like anxiety or fear arise at all or not, they no longer have to govern our choices, our relationships, and our days, even with a moderate amount of meditation practice. This is doable for ordinary people. This happens because mindfulness is not about what arises. It is about how we are when something arises — how much presence, balance, compassion are we bringing forth in relation to that anxiety or rage or whatever is causing us pain. The reforging of the holding environment, to borrow a term from the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, is the transformation.
I am grateful to Misty, who first wrote to suggest I write about anxiety, because we live in increasingly anxious times. Misty found a number of techniques to alleviate her anxiety and reported great success, but she was still very sensitive to it in others. She asked how to handle those who bring anxiety into your life. You may feel compelled to help those who you care deeply about, like a relative or a friend, but if the anxiety is coming from a coworker or even a stranger in a public space, how can you keep your center?
The first understanding comes from the body. When an anxious person engages with you, anxiety can take root quickly — especially if, like Misty, you are very sensitive to this energy. We may secretly feel responsible for what we take in. If you feel this rising — your heart quickening, flushed skin, accelerated breath, widened eyes — excuse yourself for a trip to the bathroom so you can regain your bearings.
When this happens to me, I take a deep breath, something that literally is not that hard to do, and make sure the out-breath is longer than the in-breath. If the in-breath takes four counts the out-breath may take six or eight. Breathing this way sparks the parasympathetic nervous system, the network of the body that governs activities that take place at rest, like digestion and sleep. By breathing into that dimension of yourself, you stimulate calmness.
Grounded in your own body, you may be of service to your anxious companion. Imagine feet growing roots so you stand solidly on the earth as the sky opens up around you. If you can stay grounded in your body and keep breathing you can serve as a mirror for your companion. You can mirror the fact that what is happening looks painful. Moving it from bad to painful is a good thing to mirror and breathe.
This is not like trying to talk someone down from anxiety. You are communicating with this person wordlessly, physically. This may open the space between you and above, allowing in lovingkindness for all beings everywhere. I think about weather imagery. This is a storm moving through. Let it thunder and rain. In helping the anxious person to hold this with more space, you might be a positive presence, while at the same time deepening your practice.