Q: I live in almost constant dread. At work, Iâ€™m always scared Iâ€™m about to be fired, even though I always get good annual reviews and raises. Iâ€™m constantly worried that Iâ€™m going to get HIV, even though Iâ€™m always safe. Iâ€™m always afraid something terrible is about to happen. Iâ€™ve started seeing a therapist, who diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder and prescribed tranquilizers. Thatâ€™s helping some, but Iâ€™m wondering what else to do. From reading your articles, I know youâ€™re a proponent of meditation, but I wonder if it can really help with anxiety disorders. Iâ€™ve tried it a few times, but I was just too jumpy to sit still.
A: Meditation is an ancient and effective antidote for anxiety, but persistence and patience are important. The first thing to remember is not to try to meditate when youâ€™re in a high state of anxiety. You wonâ€™t be able to do it, and attempting to force yourself will only frustrate you and probably make your anxiety worse. In the beginning, meditate either when you arenâ€™t anxious at all or when itâ€™s mild enough that you can sit with it for a few minutes without undue discomfort.
Begin your meditation by breathing slowly and deeply, filling yourself with air from your abdomen to the collar bone. After five to ten breaths, allow your breathing to return to normal. Bring your attention into your body and notice the calming effect of this simple practice. Then sit quietly, watching your breathing and keeping your attention focused on the sensations and feelings in your body. If you notice anxiety, give it your full attention. Notice where you feel it in your body, and breathe into it. Donâ€™t judge it or fight it.
Youâ€™ll notice, when you do this, that your mind will tend to wander off into thoughts, and youâ€™ll forget that youâ€™re meditating. This is perfectly natural. It happens to everyone who tries to meditate, and doesnâ€™t mean you canâ€™t do it. Meditation is, above all, training in patience. While your mind is lost in thought, there isnâ€™t anything you can do, but the moment you become aware that youâ€™ve been thinking, bring your awareness back into your body and focus again on your breathing. Treat your mind the way youâ€™d treat a puppy youâ€™re trying to housebreak. You put the puppy on the newspaper, and the minute you let go, it starts to wander away. But you donâ€™t hit the puppy or lose patience with it, because itâ€™s just being a puppy. You gently pick it up and put it back on the newspaper. Take the same attitude of patience and perseverance with your mind.
In the beginning, donâ€™t meditate for very long. A common experience for beginners who try to force themselves to sit for half an hour or 45 minutes is that they become so bored or restless that they give up. If meditation is a painful chore, you wonâ€™t do it. If you can sit for five minutes once or twice a day in the beginning, thatâ€™s enough. You can gradually increase the duration as you get more comfortable with the practice.
The spiritual issue in anxiety is that weâ€™re all fragile and mortal, and canâ€™t ever make ourselves completely safe from danger. No matter how well we take care of ourselves, weâ€™re all going to get sick, weâ€™re going to get old (if weâ€™re lucky), and weâ€™re all going to die. Weâ€™ll all experience the loss of people we love, as well as our share of disappointment and pain. That is just how life is. As human beings, weâ€™re all aware of this fact, and the consequence is that all of us experience some degree of anxiety.
Meditation helps prevent this angst from getting out of hand by focusing awareness on the present moment. Anxiety is an anticipatory response â€“ itâ€™s always about the future. When we train our minds to focus on the present, we make a remarkable discoveryâ€”that the present moment, however unpleasant it might be, is always essentially safe.
Meditation also decreases anxiety by revealing the depth dimension in our being. When the mind becomes quiet, we begin to sense a reservoir of unconditional love in the center of our hearts. This love isnâ€™t something we have to cultivate. Itâ€™s our birthright, our true nature. Until we find it, weâ€™re always somewhat restless and fearful. Once we do find it, we know it as the one thing that can satisfy the longing weâ€™ve sought to fill in sex, in relationships, in work â€“ in all our strivings. This love is the antidote to despair and meaninglessness, separation and loss. This love is what lifts us out of fear and allows us to live our lives with courage and peace. With regular practice, you can learn to center your life in that quiet love. Keep at it!
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. He can be reached through his website, tommoon.net.