The Art of Befriending Anxiety

If you want to stay sane, you have to accept your negative emotions

Photo: wilsan u via Unsplash

II lie in bed wide awake. My heart is racing. It almost feels like it’s crawling up my throat. My breath is shallow and a sense of restlessness is coursing through my body. I can hear every little noise. The dog just got off the couch and is now settled on the floor. Why am I so anxious? I ask myself, as I start going through a mental checklist.

Are the kids okay? Yes, they are sleeping soundly in the rooms next to mine.

Is everything going well with my boyfriend? Yes, he is also asleep right next to me.

What about the seven-year dispute with my father that is coming to a head? Yes, that must be it!

I’m almost excited to have a reason for my anxiety. Though truthfully, I’m not sure that’s really the cause. Sometimes I seem to feel anxious for absolutely no reason at all. But this reason is as good as any, so I go with it.

I start to think about the legal bills amassing and all the things I could have done differently to have avoided this predicament. I spend some time going through alternate scenarios that never could have happened. It’s like a movie running in my head called Should Have, Could Have, Would Have. Finally, I remember to pause.

I stop the dialogue in my head and focus on how my body feels. I pay attention to my racing heart and shallow breath. I get curious about the physical sensations present. When my mind starts to wander back to the story I’ve created, I gently bring my attention back to my body. It becomes a meditation. Rather than an awareness of breath meditation, it’s an awareness of anxiety meditation. Eventually, the feelings start to dissipate, and I fall asleep.

On the eve of the Buddha’s enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama sat under the Bodhi tree. While he was deep in meditation, attempting to understand this human experience and the cause of suffering, he was attacked by Mara, the demon god of death. Mara represents difficult emotions. He tried to incite Siddhartha with desire, greed, doubt, and anger. However, because Siddhartha was able to keep his mind clear and untroubled Mara was defeated. All the arrows that Mara had shot at Siddhartha had turned into flower petals. The next morning, Siddhartha became the Buddha. He had achieved enlightenment.

If the Buddha continued to confront difficult emotions throughout his life, it makes sense that we will, too.

Now, you might think that once Siddhartha became the Buddha, he was never confronted with difficult emotions again. That’s the point of a spiritual awakening — enlightened masters can walk around blissful and calm, right? That wasn’t the case. Mara continued to visit the Buddha throughout his life. Rather than avoid Mara or fight back, the Buddha would acknowledge Mara and invite the demon to sit down for tea. He would serve Mara as an honored guest. Mara would drink his tea and leave. If the Buddha continued to confront difficult emotions throughout his life, it makes sense that we will, too.

The foundation of the Buddhist tradition is based on the Four Noble Truths:

1. Suffering exists.

2. The cause of suffering is attachment.

3. The end of suffering is attainable.

4. We can learn to give up our attachments by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

I like how Robert Wright, a professor and author of Why Buddhism is True, explains the word suffering. He describes it as dissatisfaction — something is not right, and things could be better. You might be familiar with the feeling. I often feel a bit of uneasiness. Even when things are great, which they usually are, my mind scans for how things could be better. Our restlessness is often expressed through our emotions like anger, greed, and anxiety. If dissatisfaction is a universal truth of a tradition that is more than 2,500 years old, why do we expect to live without difficult emotions?

There will always be visits from Mara. Once we can begin to accept that some level of dissatisfaction is a part of life, we can then learn to observe it without wallowing in the narrative and let it pass. We can sit with the feelings that arise and discover that if you sit with them long enough, they will eventually disperse.

Next, we must learn not to judge our feelings. I’m currently busy navigating this fraught situation with my father. Almost any communication regarding the situation — a phone call or an email—causes anxiety and its physical manifestations to return. My stomach drops, my heart races, and a feeling of gloom starts to spread over me. I’ve even broken out in hives. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, I also start to judge myself for having these feelings. Why are you letting this bother you? Build some resiliency! These thoughts compete with others, such as How could you have gotten into this mess. What were you thinking? I can’t imagine speaking to a friend like that, but I don’t even hesitate to belittle myself.

Tara Brach, a Buddhist, author, and meditation teacher, describes this as the two arrows. The first arrow is our experience of an emotion. For example, I receive a provoking email and begin to feel anxious. I can’t do anything about the first arrow because we can’t control our feelings. I then, however, start to judge and get annoyed with myself for being anxious. That’s the second arrow. Tara Brach explains that this arrow is optional. We don’t need to shoot the second arrow at ourselves. By doing so, we cause double the suffering.

Our emotions are based on human evolution, genetics, the way we were raised, and other outside factors.

When we begin to understand that we don’t have control over our feelings, we can stop shooting that second arrow. We likely don’t get mad or disappointed in ourselves if it starts to rain, if we hit traffic, or if some other external event occurs. Similarly, we can’t get down on ourselves when we’re wracked with anxiety or doubt. Our emotions are based on human evolution, genetics, the way we were raised, and other outside factors that are beyond our control.

When I first started to consider this, it felt disempowering. I want to control my emotions. How would I get by in the world if I was an emotional basket case? I wondered. But it’s actually empowering. When we don’t throw the second arrow and critique our feelings, we can take a broader perspective. Rather than analyze why we feel a certain way, we can instead choose to have the clarity of mind and skill needed to focus on how to move forward.

There are still triggers. The wrong words from my ex-husband can send me into a fury; a call from my father has me so anxious that I want to throw the phone into the toilet and hide under the bed; if my partner isn’t being attentive, I can feel utterly abandoned. The key is to start recognizing them as passing feelings, and not dwell on the triggers. Instead of engaging with the story surrounding my anxiety, I treat it as more of a physical problem, like a tweaky back. It’s there, but I don’t need to belabor the possible causes. I simply recognize and accept it. Today, my back feels tweaky. Today, I feel anxious.

I no longer think of my anxiety as a defect, but as part of the human experience.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, has said: “It’s easier to put on a pair of shoes than to wrap the earth in leather.” To me, that means we don’t have much control over external events, but we do have control over how we respond. We need to learn how to interact with life and all of its chaos, and not let our emotions get the best of us. When we try to suppress our feelings, they only grow stronger, causing even more suffering for us and those around us.

All of this takes work. We meditate, journal, and learn more about ourselves so we can understand, accept, and most importantly, befriend all aspects of ourselves. Once we’ve done the work, we get better at remembering to pause when we are triggered. We can acknowledge our feelings, sit with them non-judgmentally, and skillfully choose how to respond. By doing so, we eventually learn to sit it out and wait until the difficult emotion has passed before deciding how to move forward.

I used to think that my anxiety was something that I needed to banish. Of course, I try to reduce it through yoga, meditation, and sometimes therapy. I no longer think of it as a defect, but as part of my human experience. I’ve yet to meet anyone that doesn’t struggle with difficult emotions. Rather than try to fight or hide from it, or shooting the second arrow, I’m learning to befriend it. As I’ve begun to do this more, I notice the visits are less frequent, and anxiety doesn’t stay as long. When they do arise, I make these feelings a part of my practice. Difficult emotions can be a catalyst to start or deepen our spiritual journey. It gives us a reason to get to know ourselves better and become true friends with all parts of ourselves, not just a fair-weather friend to the nice, pretty parts.

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