Anxiety is a common reason for people to be drawn to mindfulness practice. Anxiety has many forms and manifestations, but delving deeper into the subjective experience of it is an obvious place to begin. Mindfulness meets anxiety in an intimate encounter on two fronts: it seeks to know the direct experience of anxiety and all the inner reactions to it. Mindfulness opens up the gap between the raw physicality of anxiety and the mental patterning, conditioned through past events, it precipitates. Attuning to anxiety in this way means a new relationship with it becomes possible.
Here is an example. On the first morning of a week’s holiday, I accidentally stood on a two-inch, rusty nail. It went squarely into the ball of my foot and hurt like hell. The pain churned nauseously with agonising thoughts about the physical damage and the possibilities of infection. With help, I cleaned and bandaged my foot. Then I got to work on my mental state. I acknowledged the event had happened and could not be undone; that it could have been a lot worse; that I’d be able to walk properly again soon. By the evening, I had dealt with my worries and come to terms with my predicament. Or so I thought.
The next day, without warning, fresh waves of anguish tore through me. The physical pain had eased, but the mental stories about being incapacitated swelled into an ocean of resistance. All this hobbling about: annoying. All the fun I had hoped to have: dashed. My plans to walk and swim: wrecked. The person responsible for leaving the nail exposed: moron. The belief that I had made peace with my lot: nonsense. Over and over, these thoughts washed across the grievous swamp of my mind. As I slouched in my holiday deckchair, indulging this overblown negativity, I drowned in my own deluge. Only when I gently probed deeper and got down to the underlying root of my problem – the mental grasping at work – did I restore some inner balance.
Up Close and Impersonal
Look deeply into the process of mind and what becomes apparent are habitual patterns of liking and disliking, wanting and not wanting. These are primordial impulses, collectively known as ‘grasping’. The human mind grasps in two ways: desiring and rejecting. Desiring is the urge to seek more of and to cling to. Rejecting is the reverse desire to get rid of or to get away from.
When we mindfully investigate this mental push and pull, we begin to see its obstructive and imprisoning effects. The grasping mind solidifies and exaggerates the gap between the way things are and the way we want them to be. It vacillates anxiously between pursuing the desirable and fleeing the undesirable. The consequences are far-reaching – compulsiveness to obtain, grief of loss, fear of loss, frustration and disappointment when we don’t get what we want, to name but a few.
Mindfulness practice provides a release from this unconscious tyranny. By tuning into the deepest currents of the mind, stopping short of identification with their content, we get right up close to what is happening without getting stuck to it. Through the power of equanimity, which neither clings to nor resists, we come to see how our normally blind reactions give rise to grasping – how pleasant feelings leads to desire and unpleasant feelings to aversion. We discover how grasping fuels mental proliferation and painful emotional fallout. We find a different place to stand, safe from the smash and grab of the mind.
A dynamic shift takes place through this newfound receptivity to our inner life. Awareness is freeing. The vicious cycle of grasping, exposed for what it is, loosens and relents. No longer burned by the fires of desire or cut up by the hard edges of aversion, life becomes a smoother ride. The mind still flows. Emotions retain their creative function. What is different is how we respond to events inside and out – more flexible, more skilful, more open to change.
Anxiety Laid Bare
The penetrating gaze of mindfulness offers new vistas on anxiety. It cuts through mental prattle and blind emotional reactivity to the bare experience itself. It sees the unpredictable and fluid nature of feelings, how they express themselves as turbulences in the body and how they colour the mind. Mindfulness grants us access to the building blocks of reality. We dive underneath our preconceptions of ‘anxiety’ to examine its living parts: perception, meaning, hedonic tone, impulse, sensation, reaction. We can watch and feel the sparkle and buzz of its inner fireworks display. Becoming a curious observer with no axe to grind enables us to let go of tendencies to build an identity out of transient states. Like any befriending exercise, mindfulness practice is about getting better acquainted.
A common mistake made by mindfulness practitioners with anxiety issues is to hope (or, even worse, expect) to achieve states of calm through meditation. This is a form of grasping – a seeking to indulge in pleasant states and to avoid the unpleasant. A wiser orientation would be to appreciate (and investigate) calm states when they do arise and to treat anxious states no differently – indeed to treat them with great kindness and respect. The radical encouragement of the practice is to sit with the most disagreeable of states for as long as they last. Sooner or later, they exhaust themselves of energy. Loving things to death is time well spent in meditation.
From: Mindfulness for Unravelling Anxiety (2016).