Moving past anxiety.
Bringing an end to everyone's least favorite little friend.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room—anxiety.
We all deal with it from time to time.
Or maybe you think I don’t, since I’m a ~meditation teacher~ and all.
The truth is, I still feel anxiety, along with other uncomfortable emotions—it’s part of the human condition.
While I experience it much less frequently than I used to, I feel it even more deeply than before—but I also move through it much more quickly.
An iron sword only cuts a shallow groove in a hard rock, but the impression lasts forever.
The same sword cuts much more deeply in water, but moves through it almost instantly.
What physics is at play there?
The rigid structure of the rock creates friction and prevents the sword from going too deep, but it also prevents the rock from being able to regenerate and “heal” itself. The initial impact isn’t felt too deeply by the rock, but the impression lasts forever.
The water, on the other hand, presents almost zero friction to the sword, allowing it to penetrate to infinite depths, but filling that void right back up as soon as the sword exits. The initial impact is felt very deeply, but forgotten almost instantly.
We want to move like water.
Let’s first look at how we can reduce anxious reactions to things (i.e., avoid rigidity in our expectations so we don’t accumulate stress), and then how we can navigate the anxiety that will still invariably happen from time to time (i.e., allow it to move through us frictionlessly so we can get on with feeling better).
I. The avoidance of anxiety
The Vedas say that misery is equally proportional to the extent that we resist, irrespective of whether we know that we are attempting to resist.
The inverse of this is also true: bliss is proportional to the degree that we relinquish resistance.
My teacher likes to say that all suffering is caused by inaccurate expectations, which I’ve written about before here [link].
…And almost all expectations are inaccurate, since we’re actually in control of very little.
In order to be dis-appointed, you must first have an appointment.
Once, my teacher was having a quiet picnic with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in a field. A group of tourists happened upon them and asked to take a photo. Maharishi obliged, and Thom snapped the photo. When he looked through the lens, the tourists started making all kinds of funny faces, putting bunny ears on Maharishi from behind and acting disrespectfully.
After they left, Thom felt anger, and expressed to Maharishi his discontent at the lack of reverence they’d shown him.
Maharishi just laughed and said, “The question isn’t why the walnut tree isn’t producing mangoes. The question is why you are expecting it to.”
“The question isn’t why the walnut tree isn’t producing mangoes. The question is why you are expecting it to.”
—Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
The implication was that:
A. the tourists were simply being tourists, behaving in accordance with their state of consciousness and enjoying themselves to that extent
B. Thom, a seasoned meditator, should have known better than to expect anything different
C. the problem of Thom’s apparent suffering was caused by his own inaccurate expectations of the tourists
So this is the first thing—we can avoid a lot of unnecessary anxiety (as well as anger, disappointment, frustration, you name it) by tempering our expectations, and better yet, not having any in the first place. We can actually learn to enjoy letting life surprise us.
Of course, it’s unlikely anxiety will disappear from our experience altogether.
So when we find ourselves expecting the walnut tree to produce mangoes, what then?
II. Moving through anxiety and returning to form
What you resist persists.
Anxiety often creeps up slowly, and then our own resistance to it makes it that much worse, until soon we’re anxious about being anxious, wishing we could just stop feeling anxious.
But what you can feel, you can heal.
I realize I’ve now used up my monthly allotment of pithy one-liners.
The point is, anxiety is not a problem.
There are no problems.
A ‘problem’ is actually just a consciousness state.
What we view as problems are actually our teachers.
By surrendering to these so-called problems, we can see what they’re trying to teach us.
The quicker we accept the uncomfortable sensation, the quicker we can learn from it.
Nobody enjoys being carried out to sea by a big current of anxiety— but surrendering to it is the fastest way back to shore.
My teacher used to be a lifeguard on the beach in Australia.
He would often have to rescue swimmers who had been carried out too far into the ocean.
When he reached them, he’d instruct them to remove their life vests.
Terrified, they’d protest—“this is the only thing keeping me alive!”
So he’d have to explain to them that at that distance off-shore, the only way back to safety was to align with the tide and ride it back in, which would be impossible while wearing a life vest.
Ironically, the one thing they thought was saving their life was the one thing preventing their delivery to safety, and would have actually killed them if kept in place long enough.
I’m sure it was scary for those people to remove their vests while being that far out to sea, and it can feel equally scary to sit and deal with a big scary emotion like anxiety in our day to day lives.
But by surrendering to it, we can ride it back to shore.
By feeling it, we can heal it. (We’ll explore this idea in more depth in the next edition…)
Emotions are like little red flags. They’re saying “hey, we need some attention over here!”
By ignoring these sensations, they’ll only fester inside—and even worse, we’ll miss an invaluable opportunity to learn from them.
Your psycho-physiology is like a complex warehouse with many different departments.
If one department goes on strike, we want to be a good warehouse manager by listening non-judgmentally to their complaints.
Oftentimes, just being heard is enough to get them to settle down. Other times, some type of intervention may be necessary.
The best warehouse managers are ones who stay finely attuned to their various departments, regularly checking in with each and nipping small issues in the bud before they become interruptions.
The extent that we ignore this sort of strife in any of our departments is the extent to which we risk compromising the longterm functioning of the very complex operation that is us.
If it sounds easier said than done, the good news is you already have some practice under your belt.
Each time we sit to practice Vedic Meditation, we practice not only attuning our awareness inward, but also surrendering to what is.
We mentally repeat our personalized mantra, and our mind settles down, allowing us to be more perceptive to subtle sensations in the body.
…Then inevitably, a funny thing happens—we forget the mantra and thoughts come.
As we learned in the four-day course, we don’t hold on to it—we let it go. We surrender it.
With continued practice, we’re getting better and better at letting go of and surrendering to so-called problems, and moving through them more quickly, whether we realize it or not.
As we release decades of accumulated stress, we’re also making ourselves more adaptable, and more readily able to move through life like water instead of rocks.
DISCLAIMER: As a caveat to all of this—Vedic Meditation is not a silver-bullet solution to everything. It can certainly help alleviate most things by simply shedding light in the form of our conscious awareness on their solutions, but sometimes we realize those solutions require additional intervention. Anxiety can be a serious medical condition and may sometimes require the help of a qualified medical practitioner, whether that be an Ayurvedic vaidya or a Western psychotherapist or someone in between. If you feel your anxiety requires additional support, follow your own charm [link] and do your own research [link], with charm as your guide.
Let’s discuss these and other ideas in Collective Effervescence, our online group meditation series, at its new time(!) this Sunday August 20 at 9AM LA / 12PM MIA / 6PM EU. Drop in for meditation only (first 30 min) or stay for discussion + Q&A on this and other life topics from the Vedic perspective.
Use the links below to add the full calendar of upcoming sessions to your calendar of choice, and your calendar will stay up to date automagically. Set reminders from the calendar settings page in your calendar program.
I want you to really listen to this week’s music, from Fred Again… and Brian Eno’s recent collaborative album Secret Life. It’s an incredibly powerful 5-minute reframe, and it’s hard for me not to tear up with every listen.