When we were anxious, we’re usually caught up in fearful or worried thinking about what might happen. Learning to work skillfully with our thoughts, observing them without identifying with or believing in them, and opening fully to the bodily sensations and emotions associated with anxious thoughts, is essential to finding lasting relief and release from anxiety.
We can allow ourselves to experience the feelings and make a choice of whether we act on them.
Mindfulness is key to working with anxiety, and stress, and worry, because we can bring awareness to the energy of anxiety, stress, or worry. We can allow ourselves to experience the feelings and make a choice of whether we act on them. Without awareness, anxious feelings or stressful feelings will often lead us into acting in habitual ways. For example, if you feel anxious you may go to the fridge for something sweet, something that will help you to feel good. With awareness however, you might still choose to do that, but you also now have the choice to just stay with your feelings.
A good question to ask yourself is, “What would I have to experience if I were not to act out this habit?” Your response would likely be to feel that unpleasant energy of anxiety or worry.
In this meditation, we will work with the energies of anxiety and stress to lay the basis for more healthy and beneficial responses to these urges or stimuli.
A 23-Minute Anxiety Practice
A Guided Practice to Work with Anxiety
1. To begin, sit in a way that is relaxed, and take some moments to adjust your posture on your seat to one that’s more comfortable. Feel your body in contact with the surface beneath you.
2. Allow yourself to experience whatever is present right now. Whatever bodily feelings, mood, emotions, mind states, and thoughts are present. You might take a few deeper breaths to invite the body and the mind to relax and settle. Take a nice full deep in-breath, relaxing, releasing, and letting go on the out-breath. Breathe in, and fill the chest and the lungs with the in-breath. Release and let go on the out-breath.
3. As you breathe in, you might invite in a quality of calm. You could repeat the word calm silently to yourself as you breathe in, and then again as you breathe out. Breathe in, calm the body, breathe out, calm the mind.
4. When you’re ready, let the breath settle into its natural rhythm, allowing it to be just as it is. Breathe in, breathe out.
5. You might invite a smile to the corners of your eyes and the corners of your mouth; a smile sends a message to our brain and to our nervous system that we’re safe and don’t have to be hyper vigilant. Smiling invites us to relax, and be at ease.
6. While sitting in a way that is relaxed and alert, you might bring to your mind a situation that is a source of anxiety or stress for you. It might be a work situation, family, health, finances, or it might be a combination of factors. Allow yourself to take in all the feelings, sensations, and emotions, and the overall sense of this situation, in the body and in the mind. Choose not to follow scenarios in your mind about what might happen or things that might go badly, and simply observe your thoughts and let them go. Be open to whatever bodily sensations are present with kindness and acceptance. There might be contraction, heat, tightness, tingling, or pulsing. Whatever is present, say yes to what you’re feeling. Be open to these feelings and let them come and go. Bring a kind awareness to whatever emotions are present, and allow yourself to feel them fully; they might be fear, worry, anxiety, or sadness, to name a few. Let these feelings be as big as they want to be, and say yes to all that you’re feeling. Let your awareness and kind attention hold whatever is present, whatever is arising for you in the body, heart, and mind. Bring interest to the changing flow of experience, letting everything stay for a period of time, and then pass on their own time. Meet it all with kindness, acceptance, and interest.
7. If anxious thoughts arise like, “This will never go away” or, “I’ll never be able to do everything I have to do”, meet these thoughts with kindness and care. Without identifying with them or treating them as true, let the thoughts come and go. Continue to open to your experience in this way, meeting your experience with kindness and care. If it’s challenging, acknowledge that it is difficult. You could put a hand on your heart and wish yourself well, if this is helpful.
8. Think to yourself, “May I be happy, and may I live with ease.” Take a nice deep full in-breath, letting go on the out-breath. Hold your experience with kindness and with care.
9. Bring awareness to any emotion that may be present, perhaps underneath the feelings. Maybe there’s fear that the sadness, grief, or worry will continue. See if you can say yes to the emotion. Meet your emotions with kindness and care, and notice how they too shift and change if you can open to them.
10. If a sensation or an emotion gives rise to an urge or an impulse to do something negative, like eat something unhealthy, take a drink, or take a drug, see if you can stay with that energy. See that this too comes and stays for a while, and then passes. If it’s helpful you could imagine it as like a wave coming along. Maybe there’s a strong energy, and the wave crests. But if you stay with it with awareness and with kindness, perhaps those feelings pass for a while, and then there’s calm. See if you can ride the waves of difficult energy and difficult experience, as challenging emotions or bodily feelings. Notice how they stay for a while and then pass. Much of the challenge with these difficult energies is the belief in our mind that they’re not going to go away or that they can last forever, that this pain or difficult emotion is going to keep on going. That’s the illusion in the mind, but if we bring awareness and really focus in on the feeling or the emotion, we see that it’s really a changing flow of energy, and sensations stay for awhile, and then pass. Be open to the thoughts or narratives that come up in your mind; they might be “This is too much”, or “I need to do something to deal with this pain or difficult feeling”, and invite yourself to stay with the direct experience.
11. If the pain, discomfort, difficult emotion, or difficult feeling seems like it’s too intense, see if you can bring your awareness to another part of your experience. Perhaps an area of your body that feels more neutral, such as your hands, or your feet, or your seat, or something in your life that you’re happy about or grateful for. Let your awareness rest on a more pleasant or neutral experience for a time. When you feel ready, let your attention move back to the bodily feelings, and be open again to your experience, riding whatever waves arise.
12. Stay as close to your direct experience as you can, and bring a kind awareness to the thoughts and stories that surround the pain, stress, or difficult emotion. Choose not to identify with the thoughts but just acknowledge them as thoughts. Let them come and go in their own time with kindness.
13. Sit quietly for a couple of minutes, and be open to the changing flow of experience, recognizing how mindfulness can help us open up to and untangle ourselves from painful thoughts, stress, worry, anxiety, and the patterns of behavior that tend to go with those feelings, emotions, and mental states.