There was a time I once fell apart. I was reaching and reaching, but unable to grasp anything at all. I turned to my meditation practice and the Dharma but I couldn’t find the thread. I prayed and prayed some more. Slowly I started to piece myself back together, but it would be some time before I felt whole again.
My anxiety manifested after a weeklong retreat at the beautiful Vajrapani Retreat center where I used to live in Northern California. My teacher, Venerable Tenzin Chogkyi, a brilliant Tibetan Buddhist Nun endowed with enlightened qualities, was leading the retreat with a couple of other fine teachers.
Coming into the retreat, my meditation practice had been moving into a fairly subtle place, one that I can only describe as a “dissolution of self” type of feeling. It was both freeing and unnerving at the same time. I was happy to find that a portion of the retreat was dedicated to such meditations, ones that would allow for some deep levels of surrender.
The retreat itself went very well. I was able to spend time learning from Venerable Tenzin Chogkyi, which I always enjoy. She didn’t disappoint, as her teachings were incredible. After leaving the retreat however I knew something was not quite right. There were major shifts in my body and mind that were odd, at least in my experience. I didn’t know what to make of them. By the time I had made the drive home to Southern California, I came to realize I was experiencing moderate to severe anxiety and mild panic attacks.
I come from a family riddled with anxiety. Both sides of my family suffer from it, and I definitely had my bouts before. But never anything like this. I believe the retreat “brought it up”, but the energy of anxiety had been lying in wait for God knows how long.
I had never experienced anything like it. I was simultaneously horrified and grateful. Grateful because I work in an anxiety and depression clinic and I knew this first-hand experience would serve me well. It would serve me not only in the clinic, but with general empathy towards others suffering in such a way.
Everything was sending me skyward. My meditation practice was not helping. Most of my practices at that time were non-conceptual and were the opposite of “grounding”, and the very act of turning inward sent me spinning. I knew I needed to do something different.
I called Venerable Tenzin Chogkyi and we went through the remedies for what the Tibetans call “Lung” (pronounce ‘loong’). It’s an ailment that arises when the “winds” or energies become unbalanced with prolonged meditation practice. It was a start, but it would take some time. She and I came up with a game plan and I started to put it into practice.
The practices that ended up working fit into a teaching the Buddha gave centuries ago in the Vitakkasanthana Sutta: “The Removal of Distracting Thoughts”.
It is a teaching where Buddha outlines five ways to rid ourselves of stubborn, unwanted thought habits.
1. Think of the opposite: Regarding anxiety, this is a good one. “Anxiety is the worse use of imagination”, as Chogyam Trungpa was fond of saying. Having an opposite dialogue in place is key. Anxiety is a state of worry, so I would tell myself, for example, that I was safe, protected, and always at ease.
2. Contemplate, is it wise? Anxiety is far from wise! Really. The fight, flight or freeze mechanism has little rationale. Contemplating the reality of irrational fears can help the break the mind free of such thoughts.
3. Distraction: Yes, in this day and age we use this one too much. Yet, we must honor our coping mechanisms as we grow into balance. It’s not a cure, but distraction can have a place in our healing plan.
4. Mindfulness: Paying attention to what is arising in a non-judgmental fashion is advanced stuff for those suffering from anxiety. This is like trying to run a marathon without training first. Mindful awareness is like a flame. This flame may do well to burn up twigs and small branches but if a log like anxiety comes along, it can snuff out the flame. This practice is best done in very short increments in the beginning, with great use of wisdom.
5. Will it away. At some point enough is enough and you can simply say so. “The mind is a wonderful servant but a horrible master”- and there comes a time when it needs to be put in its place. Incessant, negative, fearful thoughts are definitely a good time for giving the mind some disciplinary action.
I started working with these. The bad thing about anxiety this severe is that it’s always on. But it can also be a good thing, as you have plenty of opportunities to practice using your tools. I was working with it 24/7, I really had no other choice. I began to get very creative.
I started with #1- “think of the opposite.” I made a recording of myself with positive affirmations affirming everything opposite of what the anxiety was telling me. I stated on the recording that I was calm, centered, grounded, at ease etc. I recorded the affirmations on an iPhone app, uploaded it to a streaming service (Spotify), and played it back on a loop.
I would listen to it almost all day long. I would put one headphone in one ear and just let it play on repeat. I even bought soft headphones that are specifically made to wear at night and I would play it all night long. When I woke up in the middle of the night and felt anxiety I would turn my attention to the affirmation loop. Day in and day out, I wouldn’t let the anxious thoughts overpower what I knew to be true- that I was innately safe and at ease.
Month after month I practiced my butt off. I was determined to use the tools that I had been given. I never lost gratitude for the suffering. My core practices became the affirmations to combat the negative and fearful thoughts, massive of amounts of compassion training in the form wishing that myself and others were free of suffering, and abdominal breath meditation that brought the subtle energies back to “center”.
But something was still missing. I went back and looked at #5 of the Vitakkasanthana Sutta… “Will it away”. It struck me that something was building back within me. I was gaining strength in my awareness once again, and I was gaining confidence. I was giving 100% to the practice and on one Sunday afternoon it paid off.
I sat down to meditate and at first, I was apprehensive. The meditations continued to be tough. They helped but it also brought attention inward, toward the anxiety. It felt liking walking a tightrope. But I was done. I was done tiptoeing around my inner world, one that has always been such a place of refuge for me.
So instead of fearing the fear, I invited it to come. I opened to it. Surprisingly it responded without hesitation! It was like an invisible wave stood up before me 6 feet overhead and its weight crashed down on top of me, sending pulsating fear vibrating throughout my body. I invited it to continue and continue it did, but the next wave was bigger, heavier. The intensity increased, two more waves came, each bigger than the last.
I thought of Buddha on the eve of his enlightenment being tricked by “Mara”, the great demon that threw at him all sorts of illusions, both seductive and fearful, hoping to lead him astray from the truth of love he held in his heart.
I held firm in my own compassionate awareness. I saw this now as my only safety. I knew this could not be taken away from me. I never stopped meeting the fear with a loving openness.
Nonetheless, my mind took a big hit. So much so that I feared I may have given myself a traumatic experience or something. I was left thinking that what I did was maybe not the wisest thing to do.
With that said, unbeknownst to me at the time, it became a turning point. For whatever reason, after that, the anxiety began to lessen. I guess it was a classic “face your fears” type of situation, although in experience, it was anti-climatic. I definitely didn’t feel better right away, but as the days wore on I thought less and less of anxiety.
I am now free of anxiety for the most part and I’m far more resilient than I was before. When it arises I’m able to meet it with some part of myself that is much larger, and this allows the anxiety to move on automatically. I’m glad that I went through it as I have far more empathy for others suffering from similar ailments.
For those suffering from mental illness, I have a deep love for you. I work with mental health patients daily and I’ve met the bravest, most resilient people from all walks of life. You are a constant inspiration.
Of course this is only my story and my heart goes out to all those still suffering. I fully realize that I am lucky and that it is often not so easy. I will soon have available a program detailing the instructions for effective meditation based inner resource tools available for anxiety. I also want to be clear that I advocate and work with many fantastic therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists that offer a wide range of beneficial treatment options for anxiety.
If you can relate to this blog or just want to say hi I would love to hear from you! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org