My Mindful Week- Day 5: Dealing with Anxiety

Most of the times, if our heads aren’t full of past regrets and embarrassment then it’s filled with anxiety for the future.
What if it rains when I’m out (even if it’s summer and there’s not a lick of cloud visible for miles in the sky)?
What if I can’t find a job upon graduation and will have to resort to be a solo goat farmer in the rural southeastern part of the country?
What if my significant other cheats and breaks my heart in two months?
What if I fail this semester? (legit fear though)
What if, what if, what if?

We like to think that we’re being rational and preparing the best for the future, but think about it. Have you ever been able to be a hundred percent prepared for the future?

*cricket sounds*

I thought so.
It’s very unlikely you are going to be able to foresee the future and its surrounding situation and make plans to perfectly resolve those issues successfully.
Apart from these general life anxieties, we are also anxious about our death and ill-health from time to time. While of course, thinking and planning for the future is obviously a good thing, if you just spend your time unproductively wallowing in the negative emotions such as fear and anxiety that your predictions generate, then you might need to change because those doomsdays? They are not happening right at this moment.
Since right here right now is the only reality, your fear and anxiety in the projected future are just that, a projection. Why waste perfectly good minutes of a real life over some fantasy apocalypse in the future that might not even happen? What will your life be if you spend every single minute of it worrying about the next minute? Probably not a lot, I dare say.

While the silliness of being anxious of the future is easily grasped by the head, it’s harder for us to feel and realize it in our hearts of hearts. It took me years to finally curb my worries a little and I’m pretty sure this is far from the last level of not-giving-a-shit, but I hope these methods of mindfulness will help you lessen your fear for the future, too:

  1. Think of yourself as a team, made up of millions of selves, each one designed to deal with just one second of your life as a whole. If the issue is not happening right in this second, then it’s not your present-self’s business to fret over it. Just take care of the moment handed to you. If and when the issue is going to happen, your future selves will deal with it. Have faith in your future self. I mean, your past selves have survived 100% of their conquest; you are surviving right now; and you will survive in the future.
  2. As always, when anxiety comes up, please do not judge yourself. Just acknowledge to yourself, “I am feeling anxious right now.” Remember that you are not your feelings. You are your actions. When you are aware of your feelings as they bubble up, you have a greater power in choosing to act on them or not.
    When negative feelings come up, just acknowledge them and let them pass. You’re a sky and negative emotions are just clouds passing by. Some days, the clouds are so thick and numerous that you think you might never see the blue sky again, but it’s still there, underneath all the clouds, you’re still there.
  3. When dealing with the fear of ill-health or death, it’s best to just accept the reality. No matter how scared you are of them, they will come; oh, they will come. Spend some time just breathing in and out and imagine your body slowly becoming weaker. Your knees can no longer support your fragile frame and they buckle under the weight of your own waste. One day, your arms will not be strong as they are now, and you will also have difficulty recalling your pet’s names. And then, all the lights will go out and you will cease to exist in this world, at least not as the you right now. It’s best to just get comfortable with the image of your body, dead cold, laying beneath the earth, rotting for eternity because that’s definitely going to happen (unless you, like me, have plans to get your cremated ash launched into space. No? Just me?). Running away from it will only generate more fear. You have to accept it’s a given reality and instead of fretting that it will come (which it will), focus on making everyday of your life counts because it’s counting, oh, it’s counting. After you die, only the effects you have on the world remains: how soft you loved the people and things around you, and how gently you treaded the earth. Your physical body will be gone, but you can make sure you have a positive impact on the world long after you’re dead by being kind, and doing stuff that matters. It’s comforting (to me, at least), to realize that in the long run, nothing that I’m doing will matter except for how much I’ve loved. It helps to practice saying Thich Nhat Hanh’s mantras about death while breathing in and out to accept the reality of death:
    1. Breathing in, say “I am of the nature to grow old.” Breathing out, repeat, “I cannot escape growing old.”
    2. Breathing in, say, “I am of the nature to have ill health.” Breathing out, “I cannot escape ill health.”
    3. Breathing in, say, “I am of the nature of die.” Breathing out, “I cannot escape death.”
    4. Breathing in, repeat, “All that is dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature to change.” Breathing out, “There is no way to escape being separated from them.”
    5. Breathing in, say, “I inherit the results of my acts of body, speech and mind.” Breathing out, say, “My actions are my continuation.”

These mantras sound extremely simple, I know, but once you let it sip into your subconscious and really know them, you can let go of pretty much any fear that you can think of.

 

My Mindful Week: Intro

Close your eyes, relax your mind and let your thoughts wander to the happiest memory from your childhood. The image might be a bit blurry around the edges, but you are able sense the distinct sound of rain falling, lightly pitter pattering on the metal roof above your head. You’re 8 years old.
You just got up 15 minutes ago, and you’re enjoying a morning cartoon on your local TV channel. This is a rainy Sunday so you will probably spend it playing pretend in the alleyway with a few of the neighbourhood kids. At this exact moment though, eight-year-old you are not thinking about what you did wrong yesterday, or what you have to do to impress your playmates this afternoon; you’re just contentedly fixate your gaze upon the cheap TV screen.
At that moment, you’re happy to just be.

Your version of a happy childhood memory might be different from mine, but I believe we all have one with much-or-less the same essence. When we were younger, even with perhaps a shorter attention span, we were much more attuned to our surroundings. Everything, from the fluttering of a yellow flower petal in the breeze, to the colorful reflected city lights after a light evening rain amused our little hearts. It didn’t really take much to make us enjoy the moment; sometimes we are entertained just by swinging on our hammock as hard as possible.

But then we grew up.
We became more fixated on the future or the past.

We start to fret about what might go wrong in the future, justifying to ourselves that we are preparing for the worst case possible; I mean, isn’t that what adults supposed to do? Fretting and preparing all the time?

We are also frequently caught up with past events- embarrassments and heartaches. It takes much more to amuse us; as if happiness is a carrot pulled over our heads with an invisible sting, always insight, yet perpetually out of touch.

For the longest time, I’d been searching for a way to get back into that childhood stupor where everything, even the most mundane as a dusty shop sign was fascinating, where one’s senses are highly attuned the happenings of the outside world, where one’s capacity to enjoy life is infinite. Even without evidence to back it up, I have this inkling that the capacity to commit one hundred percent of our mind and body to a moment is the happiest state a human being can attain, with our inner turmoil and flaws. Some philosophers and researchers actually back up this notion.

download“Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the famous author of the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (which I highly recommend), “and in doing work is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we use this energy. Memories, thoughts and feelings are all shaped by how use it. And it is an energy under control, to do with as we please; hence attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.”

Further explained in his book is how one can channel one’s attention to get into the “flow” state where one loses consciousness of oneself, and immersed in the experience at hand, not unlike how you forget about your chubby arms and just dance to the rapture of a tune when you were a toothless child.

Susan Sontag, a famous author and speaker has this to say regarding attention in her Vassar College Commencement Speech, 2003 (link here):

“Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. . . . Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. It’s all about taking in as much of what’s out there as you can, and not letting the excuses and the dreariness of some of the obligations you’ll soon be incurring narrow your lives. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

 

It really doesn’t take well-respected thinkers to convince us that attention is the key to life.

Just take a brief pause and look over your shoulder to the path of your life.

Why do some memories stick out more than others? Yes, because we were paying attention to it.

Why do companies spend billions of dollars devising strategies to grab our attention to their ads, even resorting to using sublime messages? Yup, attention. If they can control where our attention goes to, they can to a certain extend control our decisions.

I sincerely believe that our attention is not made to deal with the bombardment of so many attention-grabbing ads we encounter every single day. A normal city dweller today has enough excitement to last a 10th century Angkorian for a lifetime. Our inboxes are flowing with “urgent” stuff that needs our attention. Our newsfeed is pasted all over the place with injustice, issues, and events that claim to deserve our attention. But in the midst of this chaotic whirlwind of notifications, what do YOU want to pay attention to? What do you want to prioritize? It’s time like this that the practice of mindfulness is all the more vital.

It’s surprising, considering the fact that Cambodian claims to be a Buddhist country, yet it takes me, as a Cambodian citizen, 20 years to get acquainted with this simple concept of Buddhism (from a Vietnamese monk living in exile in the United States nonetheless). Again, just to clarify, mindfulness is not a religious practice. If you’re like me, who’s not all that into religions, just think of it as a life hack.

So why mindfulness? But most importantly, what is mindfulness?

To state it clearly and simply, mindfulness is the practice of being aware of what is happening outside and inside of oneself. It’s a very simple concept; one that is very easy to grasp intellectually, but quite difficult to integrate into our daily lives.

Our heads especially as adults have the tendency to flutter away from our feet. We fret over the reason why someone would insult us in a classroom a week ago, or we are anxious about how our date would go this evening, or what would we do when we finally graduate. What if we fail this class? What if we can’t find a satisfying job? What if we are left behind while all our friends get on with the rides of their successful lives?

We are so caught up with our worries and anxieties that we forget to listen to the chirping of the birds outside of our windows, or the presence of our close friends going on and on about their days right beside us. We always think that maybe some time in the future, we might finally have time to enjoy our lives, but the circular pattern draws on. Once we get to that “future”, we will still be fretting over the future of “that future”.

Until one day, death comes and we’re gone.

 

 

The only reality that is available to us is this moment right here and right now, and if we don’t live here, when can we be alive? In the past where everything is a memory, or in the future which consists of only projections?

To chain our mind down to the present reality, our breathing comes in handy. We don’t need to buy a new gadget, or go somewhere exotic to get in touch with life.

Just breathe.

 

Notice how you are breathing in, and how you are breathing out. Notice the presence of things around you, the people chattering away, the smell of air, the odd chances that we are alive right here right now. Notice the feelings boiling inside you. Maybe you’re scared; maybe you’re contented. Just notice them,

and breathe.

 

If you don’t buy into the above claims, consider this solid research. Several researchers have found out that meditation, and mindfulness practice DO have a physical effect on our brain.

Mindfulness meditation was found to bring about the thickening of some brain regions associated with attention, interception, and sensory processing. It might even lead to the offset of our brain thinning that normally happens as we age [1]. That doesn’t even need a long time practice to take effect, as a matter of fact, another research with only an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program found an increase in their participants’ left sided brain regions which are associated with the reduction in anxiety and an increase in immune system [2].

Relationship-wise,  mindfulness-based programs were also found to increase happy couples’ closeness, satisfaction, autonomy, relatedness, acceptance and decrease their relationship distress. Furthermore, individually, those couples found their optimism, spirituality, relaxation increased and their psychological distress decreased. The effect even holds up 3 months after the evaluation [3].

Research after research has also found that mindfulness practice increase family connection. (I won’t be getting into that today, because let’s face it, we’re all pretty much non-married. However, the reference to the research journals in included just in case you want to dive in further [4]).

Now, onto juicier stuff. Mindfulness training has been found to increase the relapse prevention in substance abuse by enabling people to treat urges as simply urges without caving into them [5]. It’s also believed to actually reduce distress associated with pain; thereby, reducing the perceived pain [6].

Mindfulness practice was also tied to relapse prevention of major depression episode among chronically depressed people [7]. And because of its non-judgemental nature, it also indirectly leads to relaxation and stress reduction [8].

Given the growing track record of the benefits of mindfulness, I think we should all take a closer look at this champion right here. I mean, if there’s proof that this method might just turn your life around, why not give it a try?

That was exactly my thought when I began to dabble into the world of mindfulness a year and a half ago, and directly or indirectly, I believe it has helped to exhilarate many facets of the growth I’ve experienced in these corresponding years. Therefore, I’d like to take this chance to share with you what I’ve practiced and believed to have helped me deal with this crazy thing we call life. However, due to its extensive length, I’m going to break each main practice into a blog post and compile it into a not-so-originally named series called My Mindful Week!

Do not expect to cure yourself of depression, anxiety, sadness and envy all in one week though (because bruh, I’m still struggling), but like I said, I hope it can help you lessen these negative experiences no matter how little. Please be aware that the series is not the final say in mindfulness (obviously). Please, please, if it is not working for you, go out, explore this wonderful practise on your own- visit a mindfulness therapist, ordain as a monk, read a book or nine about it- dig deeper! The series is only meant to be a personal sharing of the practises I’ve found useful and most of them are from the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh (go dig deeper about this guy, like seriously).

Also, another thing before ending this nearly 2k word article, mindfulness is a habit; it’s a way of life. It’s taken literally decades for Thich Nhat Hanh (a monk) to be a master of it, and  me one year and a half to realize the little change I’ve experienced. My point is that you will grow very frustrated and bored and probably doubtful of these practises, but please please hold on out until you are sure you can’t take it anymore and then hold out some more because it’s literally changed my life and no doubt many others’ around the world throughout history.

Well, that’s all for now, fellas! I hope you have a great sleep today, because our training will start tomorrow morning and it’ll be simple but not quite easy (it’s pretty hard). Good luck on your journey!