Excerpts from Anxiety, Stress &Mindfulness: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Wellness

Irrational Worry

If we’re constantly pushing anxiety away and holding it at bay, how can we ever get to know it? As long as we maintain this “safe distance,” anxiety will keep haunting us. It’s the adult version of being spooked by a monster under the bed.

Consumed by irrational worry, we create mountains out of molehills. Your twentysomething daughter and a girlfriend are driving a couple of hours to your cabin for a weekend outing. Up until now she’s been a careful driver, but you can’t stop worrying. Maybe she’ll run out of gas and they’ll be stranded. No matter how good her driving is, it just takes one distracted driver to cause a horrific accident. What if she’s driving down a hill and the brakes fail?

Gripped by fear, you're doing battle with an imagined enemy. Mindfulness practice helps us begin to explore a different kind of relationship with our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, so that when the express train of catastrophic thinking is pulling out of the station, a moment of awareness might dawn. We might recognize our habitual pattern of dramatic thoughts escalating in intensity. Rather than hitch our wagon to that particular train, we get up from our chair and water a plant, get a glass of water, go for a walk, or pet the dog, in this good, old, real, world where we live.

As we interact with this physical world, we start to recognize that our mental swirl is just thoughts, and that they are not necessarily true. The implications are far-reaching. When we stop buying the stories, they become less compelling, and obsessing becomes optional.

Zero Expectations

Usually, if we are going to spend time learning something, we gauge our progress by measuring our experience against “what was supposed to happen.” Mindfulness practice is challenging because there isn’t anything that is supposed to happen! One woman says she felt peaceful and relaxed, while the next says she couldn’t sit still and was desperate for it to be over. The relaxed person didn’t do it “right,” nor did the impatient person do it “wrong.” This is difficult to grasp. We automatically assume that we will “feel good” if we are successful at the activity we undertake. If mindfulness practice helps us become aware of habitual patterns that bring us suffering, this will do us a world of good, regardless of how we feel throughout the process. In fact, we might feel a bit lonely as we say good-bye to these habits and ways of being that have been with us for so long.

In line with this no-goal approach, we work with whatever comes up, eliminating the carrot that is often found in the world of self-improvement: “If you do this, you will feel happy, blissful, peaceful, calm, contented.” There’s the promise of a payoff. On the other side of the coin, with this approach, since you can’t do it wrong, there’s no need for a stick. Giving up the quest to get rid of anxiety is a major step if you have been struggling with it for some time.

Uncovering Basic Goodness and Sanity

At the core of mindfulness is exceptionally good news. For each of us, goodness, healthiness, and sanity are fundamental. Evil, neurotic problems, and illness are not innate. They’re temporary, like clouds in the vast sky. “This is all well and good,” we say, “but when I’m in the throes of anxiety or having a panic attack, where are basic sanity and healthiness then?” Through sitting and walking meditation practices, we are planting seeds. Mindfulness and awareness can wake us up at any time—even during times of turbulence and great challenge.

If we believe there is something fundamentally wrong with us, we are marred by that perceived flaw. We’ll work hard to make up for it in the same way that if the ground we’re walking on is uneven, we will compensate for it with our gait. But if our nature is fundamentally wholesome and good, problematic anxiety is not nurtured, and workarounds like this are unnecessary.

Staving Off Dead Time

Reality and openness are always here, but our hectic, busy, preoccupied lives are constantly wallpapering over them. We go to a doctor’s appointment and there are a lot of people ahead of us. “Omigod! What am I gonna do?” We’re given a sudden clearing in the jungle of busyness, but we’re not laying down the welcome mat. Our trusty cell phone fills the gap. We scroll through our Instagram feed, text our friend, check email, look something up in Wikipedia, buy tickets to an upcoming concert, check stock quotes, browse the news, check the weather, and then go back to our Instagram feed again. Before we run out of options, our name is called.

If we conduct ourselves like this 24/7, walling ourselves off from the gaps in our lives, we won’t get to know ourselves, and we won’t get to know fear or have the opportunity to discover fearlessness.

These sections have been excerpted from Anxiety, Stress & Mindfulness: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Wellness.