People might have been staring at me. I don’t know because my eyes were closed. I am sitting in the Los Angeles airport at gate 73 waiting to board my flight for Chicago. I set a timer on my phone and brought my attention to my breath. When I noticed that my attention wandered, I brought it back to the sensations of my breath. Mild sensations of unrest and anxiety showed up during this time and I practiced noticing them and bringing all the acceptance and gentle kindness I could to these sensations. I did this for the last ten minutes.
This has been my practice for many years. This practice has made all the difference in my life. I have experienced anxiety for as long as I can remember, but it reached a peak of intensity in my late 20’s. I tried lots of methods for getting rid of it – some quite dysfunctional and some under the guidance of professionals – nothing really worked. Then I discovered awareness and acceptance – mindfulness.
Anxiety is an increasingly common experience. In fact, it has been on the rise for at least the last seventy-five years. We live in a society that bombards us with reasons to worry. We have created an ever narrower definition of success and we encourage the compulsive pursuit of happiness and comfort. Underneath all of this is a really important hidden truth.
We are free even when we feel anxious.
While anxiety is a real biological phenomenon, it gets its power from our belief in its solidity. If we sit quietly and really look at anxiety, we will see a bundle of sensations and thoughts – it is not possible to grab, contain, or weigh this bundle because it has no volume or mass. It is fundamentally empty. You are free to go about your day in its presence. You do not need to put energy into being free of it — you already are. You do not need to fight or indulge the thoughts and feelings of anxiety when they show up.
You can practice the following:
Stop and pay attention. Bring awareness and acceptance to the sensations – where, exactly, do you feel anxiety in your body? Bring awareness and acceptance to the thoughts – what is the story about you or the world around you that you attach to this anxiety? These sensations and thoughts are not you, they are the result of activity between neurons in your brain. Bring the same acceptance to them that you would bring to the weather. They just are, nothing more.
Connect to your values. Of course you want to be comfortable – we all do. But is this the most important thing? Are there things you want to accomplish? Are there ways you want to help others? Are there people and experiences you are deeply grateful for? What do you want to have at the very center of your life?
Access internal resources. Gratitude, awe, and compassion are very powerful states. Look around and try to explain the things you see at the most fundamental level. Why is your heart beating? How do you build a leaf or a butterfly? How do you see shapes and colors? Find the feeling of gratitude for the miracle your existence (or for dark chocolate). Let your heart feel the struggle of others and the amazing ways that they overcome it.
Choose what’s next. Exercise your freedom and responsibility for where you put your energy. You don’t have to feel like doing something to do it. You can get up and start doing the thing that you have committed to do even while you experience the sensations and thoughts of anxiety. This is one of the most powerful experiments you can do in life.
I am not suggesting that this is easy. I know what anxiety feels like. I know what it is like to believe what anxiety is telling you. If you are like most human beings, you will run up against a lot of conditioned resistance to accepting anxiety for what it is. Working with discomfort in this way is a practice — you are never really done. The good news is that each time you practice responding to anxiety in this way, you strengthen the pathways in your brain that support a more graceful and powerful relationship to life.
The greatest discovery of my life was that freedom from anxiety is not the same as the absence of anxiety. The other great discovery is that we can practice all of this with self-compassion. You don’t feel anxiety because there is something wrong with you; you experience anxiety because you are human.
It might sound cliché to say that you are already free, but just for giggles, how would you live your life if it were true?