By Alex Chong Do Thompson
Having anxiety means that my brain always jumps to the worst-case scenario in any situation.
If I lose my keys, I’m convinced that a sociopath is going to find them, come into the house, and kill me in my sleep. If I text someone and they don’t reply back right away, I wonder if I’ve offended them and start thinking of ways to make amends. These types of thoughts run through my head from the moment I wake up in the morning until the moment I go to sleep at night, and they’re exhausting.
Thankfully, Zen Buddhism has provided me with a series of teachings which help me cope with this emotional angst.
1. Seated meditation is important
When I first started practicing, sitting for just five minutes without squirming or checking the time was a struggle. However, I now sit for 20-30 minutes every day. I’ve found that doing this has created a greater space between my thoughts and my emotional responses. The more I meditate, the better I become at simply observing the anxiety without getting wrapped up in it.
I’d almost compare it to standing at a bus stop, and having a bus named “that salad tasted funny and now I’m going to die of food poisoning” pull up to the curb. Before I began meditating, I would have jumped on that bus and gone for a long, miserable ride that involved googling food poisoning symptoms for hours. Now that I have a regular practice, however, I’m able to see the thought come into my brain and let it leave again without getting so worked up.
2. Everything is out of control (and that’s okay)
Buddha taught that desire is the root of all suffering. There are many ways to interpret this teaching, but for me it basically means that there are two versions of the world in any given moment. There is the world as I want it to be, and there is the world as it actually is. The more these two overlap, the less anxiety and suffering I have.
Before I started practicing, I tried to get these two versions of the world to overlap through controlling behavior. I tried to control other people, I tried to control the environment, and I tried to control the future by attempting to plan for every possible outcome of my decisions.
But it never worked. Something unexpected almost always happened, and on the rare occasion when things did go exactly as I wanted, I couldn’t enjoy the moment because I was wrapped up in thoughts about how it could have been better. My practice has taught me that the wisest path is often the path of least resistance. I’ve learned that while it is important to do my best in every moment to ensure a good outcome, I must always be willing to throw up my hands and accept that the end result may not be what I want.
3. All suffering comes from the mind
As I’ve continued to study my mind, I’ve realized that my thinking is divided into two types of thoughts. There are what I call “karmic” thoughts that arise through no control of my own as a result of past experiences, genetics, environmental influences, etc. And there are also volitional thoughts which are essentially my thoughts about my thoughts. My anxiety is made up of karmic thoughts at its root. I can’t control those anymore than I can control the sunrise. However, I can control my volitional thoughts. And in this way, I can manage the intensity of my anxiety.
I came to this realization a few years ago when I was running late for work.
I still had a car back then, and I was stuck in traffic. We had an important meeting scheduled for 8am, and at 7:55am I was idling about 100 feet from the company parking lot. I could literally see the building, but I was powerless to get to it! A panic attack started to set in, but then I realized that I wasn’t really upset about being late. That hadn’t happened yet, and I had suffered no negative consequences as a result. Rather, my anxiety was caused by the idea of being late.
“I’m going to be late” was the karmic thought that I had no control over. But all of the mental garbage that came after that about me getting in trouble and my boss being mad at me was purely volitional and in my control. When I made peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to get to my meeting on time and stopped trying to figure out what was going to happen as a result, my anxiety subsided.
I wouldn’t say that Buddhist practice has cured my anxiety, however, it has certainly lessened the severity. On a scale of 1-10, I would say that my panic attacks were at an eight before I started practicing and now they rarely go above a three. I’ve also noticed that the frequency of the attacks are a lot less.
I still have anxiety, but it doesn’t control me anymore. Instead, I’m able to take a step back from my mental formations and see them for the random bits of karma that they are.
*Please note that anxiety is a medical condition. This article is not intended to provide or replace treatment options for those who may suffer from anxiety or other forms of mental illness.
Editor: Dana Gornall
You can follow him by visiting his blog, The Same Old Zen and on Twitter: @sameoldzen