After teaching meditation for twenty years one of the things I continue to be surprised by is how often people think that something is wrong with them simply because they have anxiety. When I meet with such a person I’m quick to point out that they are living through a pandemic and, perchance, have they ever gone through that before? No? Then why would they be surprised that anxiety might arise? Add in economic uncertainty, isolation, and deep political upheaval and I’m frankly surprised we aren’t all already engaged in a society-wide conversation about how we’re encountering lots of stress and anxious.
I should pause and define those two helpful terms: stress and anxiety. Stress is often considered to be your body’s reaction to a trigger - be it someone cutting you off in traffic or a mean person emailing you something insensitive. This is something that happens, but more often than not is a short-lived experience: you continue on your drive or you choose to move on to a different email. Anxiety, on the other hand, is what happens when we respond to stressful triggers in a negative and sustained way. Instead of “moving on” from that trigger we lock ourselves in an anxious state about it. Anxiety has both a cognitive element and a physiological response (in the form of stress), which means we experience anxiety in both our mind and our body.
One way to think about the distinction between stress and anxiety is that stress is a response to a perceived threat while anxiety manifests even when there is no clear and present danger. You were stressed when that car came out of nowhere, no doubt. But obsessing about what you would say or do if you caught up to that driver at a rest stop? Now you are keeping yourself locked in a state of pain and that’s anxiety manifesting.
There’s an old Buddhist analogy known as the two arrows: you’re walking through a forest and out of nowhere an arrow is shot and lands in your arm. Of course you know a good tactic would be to pull that arrow out and tend to your own healing. Yet what we often do in that moment is spin out a bunch of stories: “Who shot me?” “Why is it always me that gets shot?” “This is so typical - every time I go for a walk this sort of thing happens.” And so on. Those stories that are mentally causing you pain? Those are known as the second arrow.
Arrow #1: the stress inflicted upon us as part of life
Arrow #2: the suffering we inflict on ourselves in response
The good news is that meditation has been scientifically proven to help us with that second arrow. I wish I could wave a magic wand for you and there would be no more first arrows - in other words you would no longer have any stressful triggers occur in your life. Yet knowing that stress is a part of life, the more helpful tool here is meditation. Meditation helps us notice when we’re telling ourselves stories that are locking us in pain and then ultimately let those stories go.
Let’s say you sit down on your meditation pillow set, or zafu and zabuton, play a few notes on your singing bowl, and begin to meditate on something simple like the breath. It’s all peace and joy until your mind wanders off: “Why would they let that sort of person have a license to begin with?” or “I can’t believe that coworker would email me something like that!” You acknowledge the thought and come back to the body breathing. The same sort of thought pops up, inviting you to go down a rabbit hole of anxiety. You acknowledge the thought and return to the breath. The more you do this, the easier it becomes to notice how often the mind spirals toward anxiety and how quickly you can interrupt that pattern and return to the present moment.
The more we train the mind to notice the anxious stories that lock us in pain and give up the ghost on them, the happier we are in the rest of our life. Meditation is a simple tool that allows us to recognize when we are stuck in a mental loop that is no longer helpful and return to the present moment, where calm and peace are waiting to be discovered.
Photo credit: Ray Jolicoeur