Understanding Anxiety through Meditation

Photo by Mor Shani

A common affliction that students attend my meditation sessions for, is anxiety. I see a lot of practices online for guided meditations, but wanted to fill in the gap with some discussion for your reflection and self-inquiry, a stepping stone to understanding your anxiety through meditation. I hope this provides some theory to complement your mindfulness and meditation practice. I’m going to talk about anxiety in 3 parts.

  1. How meditation has changed my relationship to anxiety.
  2. Perspectives from the traditional meditation community on anxiety.
  3. My teaching perspective on anxiety.

 

Here’s a definition on anxiety from a psychological framework. It’s a valuable foundation for this reflection because it is

  1. a) the most popular model to define and understand mental health afflictions in the west and
  2. b) these models can be extremely useful, well founded and researched understandings of our human psyche.

Anxiety can be classified by the following symptoms: restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle aches, trouble sleeping.

It’s defined as:

“The presence of excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of topics, events, or activities.”

Could this be you? From a meditative standpoint, this means excessive anxiety can be an internal affliction that projects or externalises, sometimes irrelevant to what we are anxious about. I often encourage my students to ask “is it really this thing I’m anxious or obsessed over? Or is that irrelevant? Would I still feel this way if I took the thing/person/situation out of the equation?”

“Only around 20% of people who have symptoms of anxiety seek treatment.”

That’s an enlightening statistic! It is also my experience that the majority of people who experience anxiety (and perhaps many other mental health concerns) don’t seek support in a professional capacity. This emphasises the need for widespread education, and early education, on mental health and wellbeing. I don’t know anyone, student, friend or family, who wasn’t apprehensive of seeking treatment from a health professional. We tend to view our bodies and minds as machines, with parts gone wrong. But we are more like everchanging organisms, alive, organic. We must learn to practice constant attention and adaptation and evolve with our bodies and minds as they are part of reality.

“Let the body have its own life.”

– Jack Kornfield

The article is really worth reading has some empowering information for learning about your mental health and anxiety issues, especially women. See Professor Deborah Glasofer’s article.

 

How meditation has changed my relationship to anxiety

For myself personally, I came to meditation during university where I was experiencing heightened academic anxiety. Something students often come to my classes for now. I practiced with a teaching mentor, and eventually went on to study more deeply with my meditation teacher and become trained in the Still-mind tradition. Having that one-one-one and small group experience was necessary for me, as I was highly anxious and in need of a lot of mentoring and support. Meditation was the first thing I ever truly did to help my mental and overall health. Through it, I learned more about myself, and my life experience. Meditation helped me learn to curb the anxiety response in the body, and operate at a more relaxed level, through many tools and processes to reconnect with the breath, and be more physically embodied. Over time, the most important thing I learned about anxiety was that feeling, being responsive to the world, is normal and healthy. I moved from feeling out of control, and unable to self-regulate emotions and stress, to having a choice in how I felt.

As it has been said, anxiety is normal and vital to our survival! When it is in balance and not excessive. We need to feel a response in the body and the nervous system to the world around us, it means we are alive, it means the body is intelligent and giving feedback. It shows we are not asleep, unconscious, numb, dead. What is challenging, is when anxiety is imbalanced, and it’s our primary response to things around us. If one feels anxious about a lot of things, if not everything. For example, I am someone who is sensitive, without boundaries, support and tools I can feel anxious, nervous by nature. What I have found in my work is that many people feel this way. Meditation has been life-changing for me in helping me manage anxiety, soften and even eradicate many of my anxious behaviours, and now helps me embrace and live resiliently with all aspects of myself.

Check out this insightful interview with social researcher Karla McLaren on living healthily with emotions.

 

What Still-mind Meditation says about anxiety

In my lineage of the Still-mind meditation, one learns meditation through a practice of stillness (silence and unguided), rather than solely guided meditation. The teacher facilitating possesses an energy of calm or stillness within them, or shakti, and transmutes it through feeling, as well as sometimes discussion. It’s outcome focused – with the outcome to experience harmony with reality through a realism based mindset, as opposed to thought-based, belief-based, or ego-based life experience. Any traditional meditation practice is unique in that it is stand-alone. It is generally taken as a sole commitment without other teachings, or practices alongside it.

When it comes to anxiety, Still-mind meditation says:

  1. Meditation and mindfulness must be used as a preventative practice, not just as an after-the-fact solution to pick up the pieces after an issue has arisen and passed.

We can incorporate principles of concentration, understanding and love into every aspect of our lives, every chore, every moment. Why has the anxiety arisen? Doing self-inquiry alongside meditation practice can help prevent issues from arising, and reduce the instances of anxiety in your life.

In an article on Resilience by Swami Shantananda, she says

“…whether you personally have a goal or not, the meditation state and the mindfulness state have to be free of goals.”

-Swami Shantananda

So if you come to meditate to help with anxiety, great. But remain open to any other experiences that might happen, to having your reason for meditating changed, or completely transformed. Once we enter peace, we find that simply being still, being the witness, the awareness, is enough. Our goals don’t matter as much. That is the meditation and mindfulness state.

Read the blog from (my own meditation teacher) Swami Shantananda on Resilience.

 

  1. Without finding the true cause of our difficulties, they will keep arising again and again.

The father of my lineage Bhagavan Nityananda, did not have any formal verbal teachings, rather transmuted his peaceful energy and self-realisation through presence. In his limited translations called the Chidakash Gita, Nityanada says:

“What is essential is keeping the mind steady for a moment by introversion.”

– Bhagavana Nityananda

My interpretation of this is well looking at oneself, through a single focus. Whether that be the breath, physical sensation, a visualisation, a mantra even. This helps to keep the mind steady and clear.

Another wonderful teacher from my Still-mind lineage Sarasvati Sally Dawson talks about how our practices and rituals in daily life don’t represent how grounded or peaceful we feel inside. perhaps we can view these more as a reminder of an internal state of stillness that is always present. Eventually, we would hope for a student to move into a place where this is true for them.

Nityananda also said that:

“We must know the cause and effect.”

-Bhagavan Nityananda

Again, the causation behind our situation broadens the mind. If we sit around without knowledge of what is really happening in an anxious state, we can attribute blame where it is not warranted. We can think false or inaccurate things. So by attributing causation (note that is different to blame, it’s contribution without judgement) then we can begin to dissolve our anxieties and act better in the future.

Contemplate some lines from the Chidakash Gita.

 

My teaching perspective on anxiety

Meditation can help familiarise us with our inner state, and our difficulties like anxiety. By normalising it in a group context, and creating understanding through repetitive practice with ourselves. One can come to accept anxiety in a new light: not as my anxiety (and no one else’s) or as I have anxiety (and now I have to get rid of it), but see anxiety as a collective emotion felt by all humans. Meditation and mindfulness can lift one out of isolated, individual traps of thinking into more connected, universal collective thinking.

I strongly advocate for a holistic approach to mental health with a variety of supports. An anxiety management plan is a cute idea. We have one for bushfires in fire danger areas in Australia, such as where I live. And it’s a great example of accepting the reality that something could happen, and having a plan for it. If anxiety is something you experience enough to be concerned about (or read an article), ask yourself, what am I going to do to feel more in control when I anxiety arises again? I encourage students in their approach to explore counselling or therapy. As well as looking at lifestyle, your work or commitments, your sleep, your diet, your relationships, and living situation, and how much time you spend in nature.

Which meditation should I try first?

Like anything, it should be intuitive to your own research, and attractive to you! But here are my top 3 suggestions:

  • A learn to meditate course would be an ideal start, if you want to invest the money and commitment, ideally in person but online is great too, if its an interactive group course.
  • Follow a step-by-step book or program. These are full of depth in information, very immersive, and generally quite supportive.
  • Choose a teacher that is self-inquiry based and contemplative, non-devotional (if you can). The teachings have clear outcomes, and are realistic, heart-centred and non-egoic. Such as living peacefully with your community, creating more love and calm in your life. Outcomes that focus on deeper human purpose will give you the most benefit, as opposed to courses that leave you with the superficial benefits but none of the heart and soul.

The choice is yours and go with what attracts you. Be prepared to commit to one modality, let yourself be challenged, hone your intuition, and be open to trying a few before one fits.

I hope your journey in meditation is a revealing one, and that you learn more about yourself and the world around you, and you discover the space and stillness within you, and realise the lovability of all things and beings. Most importantly, beginning to control what you do have control over, and develop understanding just one thing at a time. I think we can just begin by asking ourselves, is what I’m reaching for right now really what I need? A teacher I once knew said “do I really want the Ferrero Rocher? Or does it represent something else?”

Wishing you peace and mental strength on your path, and don’t forget to share this blog post if it helped you in any way or you know someone who would benefit from it!

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