An unexpected friendship: A novice’s journey with anxiety
I have suffered with fear, nervousness, anxiety and panic most of my life. The memories of my childhood are vivid recollections of throwing up at school due to the separation anxiety I felt over being separated from my mother, the inability to eat out at restaurants or keep food down because of my nervous stomach, the panic attacks and sleepless nights I suffered after the death of my grandparents and an overall hypersensitivity that made me feel alone and out of place in my own skin and in social situations. My anxieties grew, strengthened and took on new forms as I grew. For over 20 years my nighttime routine has been plagued with panic attacks brought on by obsessively fearing the death of my parents. For over 20 years the few romantic relationships I had been involved in were dysfunctional and toxic and a source of gut-wrenching heartache. My overwhelming nervousness paralyzed me from taking the initiative I needed to work and enjoy meaningful employment. I existed in a sad hypersensitive state, walking through life a loner obsessively thinking and absently living. I was suffering and the worse part about the entire situation was that until recently I was unaware of the reality of my situation or that anything could be done about it.
As fate would have it I noticed two books calling out to me one day at my favorite used bookstore. The two books were “The Joy of Wisdom” by Yongey Mingyur Rincpoche and “The Art of Happiness” by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I went back to the bookstore alone one night three weeks later and bought both books for 2 dollars.
As I read through the books a couple of strange things began to take place. First, a sense of relief soothed and comforted me and secondly, out of nowhere new books and resources started jumping into my life at every turn. These resources included Stoic philosophers Seneca, Epictetus and the Philosopher King Marcus Aurelius. I began collecting quotes, keeping a happiness journal, meditating, and practicing the wisdom that has been brought to me. I have discovered beneficial similarities between these two ancient traditions that have helped ease my mental suffering and I want to share a couple with you in hopes that the suffering you experience can be alleviated and you can experience more joy.
The awareness of your suffering can be a joyful experience.
One of the first things Buddhism and Stoicism taught me was that happiness lies in the middle way and unhappiness lies in extremes. I noticed that when I encountered situations, circumstances or external events I reacted in one of two extreme ways. On some occasions I attempted to avoid the troubling thoughts, anxieties, fears, and irrational mental chatter that constantly disrupted my mind. I thought if I acted as though it wasn’t there it would go away but what I found was that my mind, my reactions, my fears, anxieties and the constant loop of mental affliction was always waiting and wanting my attention. The more I avoided my thoughts the more momentum they seemed to gain and the more happiness I forfeited. The second extreme reaction was indulgence. On other occasions I believed my thoughts, my feelings, and wallowed in the endless and irrational chatter that obsessively swirled around my head. A painful thought would become a suffering situation because I choose to obsess and mentally fixate on the voice in my head. The Buddhist Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche provided me with a very helpful illustration that has helped shift the way I approach my anxiety. He said we tend to either make anxiety our boss or our enemy. If we fight against anxiety it becomes our enemy and anxiety doesn’t go away. If we listen to anxiety and believe its story we get carried away in the mental thoughts and it becomes our boss and does not go away. He offers a third option. We can become friends with our anxiety. This has been the middle way that has brought me much relief from my suffering. I have stopped fighting against, and stopped joining in my mental afflictions. I have become friends with them by non-judgmentally noticing them, becoming aware of them, and watching them come and go. I have noticed that If I become aware and watch my thoughts and do not judge them but simply see them for what they are; thoughts, then they come and go like a cloud or friend. This shift to consciously choose awareness over avoidance or indulgence has allowed anxiety to become my teacher and friend and an unexpected source of joy.
The awareness that the problem and solution is mental can be liberating.
Another shift in my journey with anxiety came from reading these words of the Dalai Lama, “Happiness is determined by our state of mind not by external events. The disciplined mind produces happiness and the undisciplined mind produces unhappiness.” The words of the Dalai Lama seemed to echo the meditation of Marcus Aurelius “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.” Again I felt a shift in my awareness taking place. I gradually began to notice that my unhappiness or happiness was not caused by external events but by my thoughts, perceptions, and judgments about those events. The anxiety I experienced was being produced by my undisciplined mind therefore I could begin to take responsibility and shift my actions and attitude from one of blame to action and from playing the victim to taking responsibility. It was liberating to realize that other people, events, or external factors did not have to hold my happiness and well being hostage. I had willingly made myself a prisoner by the quality of my thoughts and I could release myself from my mental prison by developing new mental habits.
Rewiring the Brain from anxiety to happiness is possible
Both Buddhist and Stoic traditions encourage the adherent to cultivate positive mental habits and overcome negative mental habits in order to alleviate unhealthy and unhappy mental conditions like anxiety. Here are a few healthy mental habits I have found beneficial to cultivate:
1. The habit of asking “is this under my control or not?” Epictetus and the Stoic practitioners understood that some things are under our control and some things are not. External events, other people’s reactions, emotions, and actions are outside of my control but my own thoughts, reactions, and actions are under my control. Things outside of my control should be met with respectful indifference instead of unhealthy anger, anxiety or panic.
2. The habit of meditation. Marcus Aurelius observed we are dyed in the color of our thoughts. The Buddhist tradition compares our thoughts to a crazy monkey jumping around trying to create chaos and interrupt mental tranquility. Meditation has proved a way for me to calm the monkey and help my thoughts to slow down. It is important for the mind to be calm and tranquil if we desire happiness and health and breathing, auditory, and visual meditation has proved a tremendous tool to help rewire my brain.
3. The habit of negative visualizing. My old mental habit of nervousness, anxiety and fear were the result of casting my hopes in things working out perfectly to bring me happiness and disappointment and a loss of happiness when they inedible did not. The habit of negative visualization focuses on the worst case scenario of a situation and helps you to mentally prepare for the worst and when the worst does not happen instead of feeling disappointed you feel relieved. This practice has helped me have more positive experiences in social situations.
4. The habit of compassion. The greatest tool to rewire the brain is compassion. There is no room for unhealthy and unhappy mental chatter when the mind is filled with compassion. Compassionate thinking and compassionate actions rob mental afflictions of their power. Both the ancient traditions of Buddhism and Stoicism view compassionate living as the key to happiness. It is our nature to cooperate with each other, to be kind toward one another, and to help one another. We are happiest when we live according to our nature. I have experienced this first hand. A year ago I started a happiness journal. I wrote one quote about happiness each day. I wrote down and meditated on one good thing that happened to me that day and I did one act of kindness and showed compassion to one person a day and kept a record of it. It has been an amazing experience to see the difference these habits have made in my journey. I hope these mental shifts will aid you in your journey and that you will find each step of compassion a happy one.
About the author:
James Gill holds two degrees in religion and leads a small church plant in East Tennessee where he encourages others in compassionate and simple living. James works with children and enjoys hiking, gardening, and reading and old time Americana music.