Health

Confessions of a Meditator Anxious

mental health

A poster-child meditator often has a beatific smile and looks like they’re about to fly into space. Meditation helps us become aware of the anxiety we all feel as breathing, living human beings. It can be beneficial.

Soon after I began meditating, I was convinced to spend an entire day doing it. It was challenging. I felt trapped inside my body. I was unable to move, which was a clear sign of defeat. I sat there, wanting to get out. My breath shortened. My palms were sweating, but also my whole body. My eyes flitted about the room. We occasionally got up and walked around, but it didn’t make a difference. There was more going on than just an inability to sit still.

I asked the meditation teacher assigned to me why I felt so extreme during a short break.

“That’s anxiety,” he said.

What was it that made me anxious? I asked, grasping for the lifeline.

The reply was, “You tell me.”

“Great!” I moaned.

After listening to what he said, I began to pay more attention to what I experienced–whether I was meditating or not. Although I thought of myself as laid-back, I knew that anxiety and restlessness were my constant companions. On the surface, it may not be obvious, but these wheels were in motion on the inside. A constant feeling of anticipation and a slight worry was present. What I thought was a swarm of thoughts (like “get me out,” “I’m not going to take it anymore!”) during meditation was the agitation that was ever present, whether in the back or front.

In the days that followed this first meditation marathon, I looked even deeper into this experience. My restlessness was caused by the fact I had a lot of time ahead of me, and I did not know what to do with it. It was also unknown what heartbreaks, disappointments, and calamities it would bring. It doesn’t take much time to realize the fragility of life. People die, relationships end, and some hopes are dashed. My father died suddenly when I was 25. The “love” of my life had left me several times, and the career I imagined didn’t work out. It’s no wonder that the future seemed hazy.

Danger lurks everywhere

According to a recent study, the word “anxiety’s” root has something to do with constriction. The researchers were right. Anxiety may feel like you are being pushed, grabbed, or held down. In my mind, I can see “giant” Gulliver in the Jonathan Swift novel getting tied down with hundreds of small ropes by the Lilliputians. Each of our problems is a Lilliputian with a rope and stake. We pull against it, but it gets tighter.

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Imagine the number of ropes that these Lilliputians could provide you.

Someone you know just lost their job. She is in pain and worried about the future. You are too. It rings at night. It’s terrible news for your mother. Has she been taken to hospital?

Even just turning on the TV can cause you to feel anxious. What kind of future awaits us? What about the future we leave for our grandchildren’s children? We should not have allowed our children to be involved in this nightmare.

You may also be anxious about your possessions if you are like most people. You’re worried about your bike, clothes, or house because they are falling apart, needing an upgrade, or might be stolen. You might experience “pocket panic,” as my friend calls it. You suddenly find yourself reaching into all your pockets and patting your body down to locate your keys, ID, boarding pass, or train ticket. We feel more secure when we know where our belongings are. As Boy Scouts, we triple-check that our tools are in place before heading out into the dangerous and dark woods.

The worst thing about anxiety is its evasiveness and hiding of its causes.

The present moment does not always represent a resting place. It is slightly tilted forward and perched at the edge of the present.

You awaken in the middle night with “free-floating” anxiety. You suddenly find yourself agitated and unable to sleep. You start to think about how messed up you’ll be the following day. The situation gets worse. Counting sheep is good exercise. All of them are black.

Ignoring them is the best way to deal with the anxiety that arises from the depths of the mind, whether in daylight or at night. But when we ignore them, they won’t disappear. It’s more like an emotional Whack-A-Mole. We push the thoughts down, and they eventually pop back up. Thwack!

This brings us to meditation and its possible relationship with anxiety. It is common to describe the goal of meditation as Being in the Present Moment. But we often hear this to mean that the present is a place we can escape and get away from the pesky alternatives, the past and future. Meditation can quickly become a battle to the death. It’s a battle to stay in the moment and not stray.

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This effort is anything but peaceful, as I discovered on my first day. It’s not uncommon for new or experienced meditators to think, “This didn’t make me more peaceful.” It made me more anxious!

Sometimes we like to pretend that life is manageable. We know that life is a shaky one.

Meditation does not cause anxiety. Meditation helps you to identify what makes you anxious. Meditation puts you in touch with life. As you sit there, no immediate danger is apparent, your thoughts slow down, and your deepest concerns surface.

The present moment isn’t always a place to rest. The present moment is slightly tilted forward and perched at the horizon’s edge. What is about to happen is just ahead—next word, next thought, following action. We are always moving on to the next moment.

We’re also self-protective and cautious animals. And we are vulnerable to injury, both physically and mentally. So we like to believe that the next moment is safe. Fear is a natural human emotion. We fear for our safety, the safety of others we care about, and even the safety of the earth.

It’s not always safe. And one thing is for sure: you never know what will happen at the next moment. This causes…anxiety.

Unavoidable and even necessary

Our brains are responsible for directing and allocating the energy stored in our bodies. We can use the cognitive faculties of concentration and selective focus to direct our energy toward the task, whether driving a car or painting a landscape. When we fear for our safety or want to prepare ourselves for an uncertain future, we marshal most resources. The brain will send signals to the body to prepare it for action. The fight or flight reflex is a great tool that helps us to stay alive. Anxiety is our survival instinct converted into raw power. When they receive a call, police and first responders are usually flooded with adrenaline. Even if they arrive and find nothing but a cat perched on a branch, the adrenaline can still take some time to subside. They were ready to fight until the end if necessary. The day I sat in meditation, I was not walking into the dangers faced by law enforcement regularly. But the uncertainty about my future I felt was just as dangerous.

We don’t get any training for survival in an unpredictable world inhabited by a mind and a body. All training is done on the job, and we are left with our survival instincts to lead and our anxious minds to be the first to watch.

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I became aware of the underlying thought processes causing me to be so tangled up. It was a lab, an opportunity not to think about each thought but to see it as it is, move on, and see the following reviews that arose. I could feel how the views felt in my body and what they triggered other ideas. It’s also possible to go from a trot to a canter to a full gallop as each thought builds on top of the next. Meditation makes you an anthropologist. I was noticing and not judging.

I started to relax my jaw as a result. I began to see thoughts as less solid or massive truths. They became more transparent. You can tell when someone is lying. Instead of taking my ideas as facts, I was able to observe them as passing thoughts in the mind. If, for example, the thought that I would run out of cash soon appeared, I could recognize it as a thought or a reaction to uncertainty. I would note this and then move on. The thought did not need to trigger a series of thoughts that heightened my emotions and led me to imagine myself wandering the streets. It might happen repeatedly, but I didn’t need to be anxious.

After a few months and much meditation, I returned to my teacher.

He asked, “How is it going?”

“Well, I am still fidgety and agitated, but less so. “It almost feels good,” I said.

He laughed. “It’s just a little bit more happiness overtaking you.”

“Really,” I said. “How about that?” I felt like a child who suddenly discovered he had an unannounced week off school. There was relief.

The next time I meditated, I was a frothy mess. My mind was focused on how I would become a great meditator. The other time I had been obsessed with how bad a mediator was. My ambitions now gnawed at me, making me impatient, overeager, and…anxious. It was as if I was prone to anxiety at every turn.

Then a small gap appeared in my mind. I was dragged back to my meditation instructions and the next breath by something. There was a small aha at that moment. I realized I could come back to this place and start over, no matter how many times my mind exploded with thoughts.

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