Confessions of an Anxious Meditator

The poster-child picture of the meditator is often someone with a blissed-out beatific smile, looking as if they are about to float into space. In fact, meditation puts us in touch with the anxiety we all carry as living, breathing human beings. And that’s why it can be so helpful.

illustrations by andré Da loba

Not long after I started meditating, I was persuaded to spend a whole day at it. Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly easy. I soon felt trapped in my own body, and since I had decided not to leave—a clear admission of defeat—I sat there wanting to climb out of my skin. My breath shortened. I was sweating in my palms, and all over really. My eyes darted around the room. Occasionally, we got up and walked around, but that didn’t make much difference. Something was going on that was about more than an inability to sit still.

During a break, I talked to the meditation instructor assigned to me, asking why I had these extreme feelings.

“That’s anxiety,” he said.

“What am I anxious about?” I asked, reaching for a lifeline.

“You tell me,” was the reply.

“Great,” I groaned.

As I considered what he said, I started to examine more closely what was happening—both when I was meditating and not. Even though I considered myself a pretty laid-back guy, I was aware that restlessness and anxiety were actually everyday companions. It wouldn’t necessarily be noticeable to anyone on the outside, but inside, man, those wheels were turning. There was a constant sense of anticipation, a subtle worry. I began to see that what presented itself to me as a gnarly ball of thoughts during meditation (on the order of “get me out of here,” “I can’t take it anymore!”) was simply revealing the agitation that was always there, whether in the background or very much in the foreground.

In the days following this first meditation marathon, I peered even more deeply into this experience. My restlessness, it seems, was borne of the fact that I saw lots of time stretching out before me—my entire life, in fact—and I didn’t know how to fill it. Nor did I know what calamities, disappointments, and heartbreaks it might be filled with. You don’t have to get too far along in life for the frailty of human life to be made crystal clear—people die, friendships and loves end, some great hope you had is dashed. By the time I was 25, I had already experienced my father’s sudden death, the “love of my life” had left me (several times), and the career I’d constructed in my imagination didn’t pan out. No wonder the future felt like a sketchy proposition.

Danger Lurking Everywhere

Apparently, the root of the word “anxiety” has to do with constriction and squeezing. They got that right. Anxiety can feel like being gripped or pushed or held down. In my mind’s eye, I see the “giant” Gulliver from the Jonathan Swift novel being tied down by the Lilliputians with hundreds of little ropes. Each of our worries is another Lilliputian manning a rope and a stake. We tug against it, but it pulls tighter.

Just think of all the many ropes these Lilliputians can get you with.

Someone close to you just lost her job. She’s in a lot of pain, scared about the future. So are you. The phone rings, at night. Is it bad news about your mother? Has she been rushed to the hospital?

Just turning on the news can make you anxious. Social unrest, war, environmental degradation; what kind of future lies ahead? And what about the world we’re leaving for our grandchildren? Maybe we should never have brought children into this nightmare…and down the rabbit hole we go.

If you’re like most of us, you can also get crazy anxious about your things. Your bike, clothes, car, house—they’re falling apart, need an upgrade, might get stolen or robbed. Or you get “pocket anxiety,” as a friend of mine calls it: you suddenly start reaching frantically into every pocket and patting yourself down to find your keys, your ID, your boarding pass, your train ticket, your phone. Having our things in place and accounted for makes us feel secure. We’re Boy Scouts, dutifully triple-checking that we have our trusty set of tools before venturing out into the dark and dangerous woods.

One of the worst things about anxiety is that its cause can sometimes be evasive and hidden.

It turns out, the present moment is not automatically a place of rest. It’s tilted slightly forward, perched on the edge of the future.

You wake up in the middle of the night with “free-floating” anxiety. Suddenly here you are, agitated for no reason you can identify, and unable to get back to sleep. Your thoughts turn to what a wreck you will be in the morning. Things go from bad to worse. You try counting sheep. They’re all black.

When faced with all the anxieties that emerge from deep in the mind—whether in broad daylight or in the dark of night—perhaps the best strategy would be to ignore them. When we do that, though, they don’t go away. Rather, it just becomes emotional Whack-A-Mole. The thoughts pop up and we push them down, and eventually they pop up again. Thwack!

That brings us back to meditation, and what it might have to do with anxiety. The aim of meditation is often described as being in the present moment, but we can so easily hear that to mean the present moment is like a vacation destination we can escape to, where we get away from those pesky alternatives: the past and the future. Before you know it, meditation has become a fight to the death, a struggle to set up shop in the present moment and never to stray from there.

As I experienced during that first day of practice, this effort feels anything but peaceful. In fact, it’s common for meditators—new or experienced—to come away from a session thinking, This didn’t make me more peaceful. It made me even more anxious!

We sometimes like to fantasize that life is not precarious and dodgy. But deep down, we know life is shifty.

Meditation itself does not make you anxious. Rather, meditation puts you in touch with what is making you anxious. It puts you in touch with life. And so, as you sit, with no apparent and immediate threats to your safety, the normal barrage of thoughts beginning to slow a bit, your deepest worries float to the surface: will your daughter find a job that pays enough, how mom’s failing health seems destined for a bad outcome, whether you took the pen out of your pants pocket before you started the washer.

It turns out the present moment is not automatically a place of rest. It’s tilted slightly forward, perched on the edge of the future. What’s about to happen lies just ahead. The next word, the next step, the next thought. We’re always moving forward into the next moment.

We are also cautious and self-protective beasts—and we’re vulnerable to being hurt, physically and mentally—so we like to feel that the next moment will be safe. It’s human to fear for our safety and security, and the safety and security of those we love, and indeed the safety and security of the planet.

But sometimes it isn’t safe, and one thing is certain, what will occur in the next moment is never certain, and that causes…anxiety.

Unavoidable and Even Necessary

Our bodies are storehouses of incredible energy, and our brains decide how that energy will be allocated and directed. Using the faculties cognitive scientists call concentration and selective attention, we can focus our energy like a laser beam on the task at hand—driving a car, writing a report, painting a landscape. We marshal the most resources, however, when we fear for our safety or seek to arm ourselves for an uncertain future. In those moments, the brain sends signals to the body to be primed to rev up the energy needed to act. It’s the famous fight or flight instinct, and it’s a really nifty tool to help us stay alive. Indeed, the stuff of anxiety is our survival instinct converted into raw energy. Police and first responders, for example, usually have big adrenalin spikes when they get a call. If they show up and it’s nothing, a cat in a tree, it still can take a while for the energy to settle. They were primed to fight to the death if need be. On that day I tried to sit in meditation I wasn’t walking into the kind of dangers that law enforcement faces on a daily basis, but the uncertainty I had about my future felt just as precarious.

And the thing is, we get no advance training in the classroom for how to live in an uncertain world inhabiting a human mind and body. It’s all on-the-job training, with little more than our survival instinct to serve as commander, our worried minds happy to take the first watch.

During meditation, I was regularly exposed to the thought process that lay beneath all the mental and physical gyrations that tied me up in knots. It became a laboratory, a unique opportunity not to think further about each thought, but to quickly see it for what it was, to move on, and then see the next thoughts as they arose. I could experience how they felt in my body, what other ideas they triggered, and how it’s possible to move from a trot to a canter to a full-on gallop as one thought piles on top of another. In meditation, one becomes a self-anthropologist. Just noticing, not judging too much, just noticing.

As a side effect, I began to unclench my mental jaw, to loosen up. I started to perceive thoughts less as big solid entities or monumental truths. They became more transparent. It’s like when you know that someone is making something up—you can see right through it. Instead of believing my thoughts as fact, I was able to observe them as passing events in the mind. For example, if the thought emerged that I might run out of money soon, I could see that as a thought, a response to uncertainty, note it and move on. It did not have to start a cascade of other thoughts that revved up my emotions, culminating in the image of me wandering the streets. A thought might even come back, repeatedly, but it didn’t have to make me anxious.

After months had passed and I had done a lot more meditation, I went back to my instructor.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

“Well, I’m still agitated and fidgety, but not as much. It almost feels good,” I said.

He laughed. “That’s a little bit of well-being overtaking you.”

“Really,” I said. “Well, how about that.” I was like a kid who had found he suddenly had a week off from school unannounced. There was relief.

The very next time I meditated, I worked myself up into a lather. This time, my mind was captivated with how great a meditator I was going to become. It was the polar opposite from that other time, where I obsessed about how terrible a meditator I was. Now, my ambitions gnawed at me, making me impatient, overeager, and…anxious. It seemed I would default to anxiety at any turn.

And then a little gap opened up in my mind. Something jerked my attention back to the meditation instruction, and to the next breath. At that moment, there was a tiny little wow, an eentsy a-ha moment: No matter how many times I freak out and set off a rapid-fire chain reaction of speedy thoughts, I can simply come back here and start fresh, all over again.

Taking It Moment by Moment

We sometimes like to fantasize that life is not precarious and dodgy. We like to think it’s not filled with risk and that as humans our hearts and bodies are not vulnerable. But deep down, we know life is shifty. Like when my dad died, out of nowhere. Or your lover finds someone new.

Life is like this. Up and down, repeatedly. The point of meditation is not to go off and enter a fuzzy zone of bliss. The point is that the habit of seeing our thoughts as less solid and threatening can rub off and start to become a part of how we see and work with the world in the heat of the moment, away from our meditation room, in the arena of life.

So the next time we feel we are about to leap out of our skin—when the hows and whens and what ifs start to build—we may notice a cool breeze touching our skin, and a shaft of sunlight splashing in front of us. Maybe we catch the sound of a bus passing nearby, or come back to the awareness of the people all around us.

We’re a little scared; and that’s OK. Our anxiety lets us know we’re alive. And yet we’re not fighting for survival. We have survived. We are surviving. The next moment awaits.

Getting Help

If you are one of the roughly one in five people who have a chronic anxiety disorder, high levels of anxiety may be frequent or unbearably intense. You may need to pay close attention to the types and doses of mindfulness practice you employ and perhaps seek the aid and advice of a therapist. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has developed some practices that have proved effective for people with chronic anxiety; anxiety and depression combined; and for anyone having an anxiety attack. If your anxiety or depression is deeply interfering with your ability to live your life, it is best to consult a professional.

Attitude Adjustment

Mindfulness is a powerful tool for defusing anxiety. Start by working with these 10 approaches.

Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of what’s happening in the present moment. It’s being here and now without judgment, and is a capability that all humans possess. When you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing through your senses, or to your state of mind by way of your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful.

Although more research is needed to illuminate the mechanisms at work, it’s clear that mindfulness allows us to interrupt automatic, reflexive reactions—reactions that can lead to anxiety, fear, foreboding, and worry. By bringing mindfulness to our actual experience in the moment, we increase the likelihood of exerting more conscious control over our thoughts, reactions, and behaviors.

There are certain attitudes in particular that play an important role when working with anxiety mindfully. These approaches, inner resources that are available to each and every one of us, can be harnessed and cultivated with practice. Read the article 

Video: Journey of an Anxious Thought

In mindfulness meditation, when you notice a thought, you’ll likely be tempted to dwell on it and take it somewhere. Instead, you can just touch it lightly with your attention and go right to your breath. It doesn’t matter if you were off in space for a long time. In the moment you touch the thought, you can bounce right back. This is what your anxious brain looks like on meditation.

Strategies for Working with Your Anxious Mind

When it comes to approaching negative thought patterns, which is better: Change your storyline or simply notice it? Barry Boyce puts the question to Zindel Segal, Distinguished Professor of Psychology in Mood Disorders at the University of Toronto and one of the founders of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive TherapyRead the article.

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About the author

Barry Boyce

Barry Boyce is Founding Editor of Mindful and A longtime meditation practitioner and teacher—as well as a professional writer and editor— he is the editor of and a primary contributor to The Mindfulness Revolution: Leading Psychologists, Scientists, Artists, and Meditation Teachers on the Power of Mindfulness in Daily Life. Barry also worked closely with Congressman Tim Ryan, as developmental editor, on A Mindful Nation and The Real Food Revolution. Barry serves on the board of directors of the Foundation for a Mindful Society and the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto as well as on the advisory board of Peace in Schools, in Portland, Oregon.