WHEN I GET ANXIOUS, I GO COSMIC:
MEDITATION AND ANXIETY
It seems obvious that meditation would help with anxiety, but recently I realized just how many different ways it can help. I used to joke to others that when I get anxious, I “go cosmic.” Of course, this is not always the case, but it is a way of dealing with anxiety that has helped me, and I use it to expand my consciousness. This approach has come out of the application of meditation practices that I have learned over some years, and, it also comes from an intention of love.
To put it simply, through meditation I try to understand the fear behind the anxiety in broader and broader contexts. I try to find the universal in whatever is bringing me fear. In that way, my anxiety is a way of participating in the lives of others. It nurtures compassion and empathy, and instead of making me feel separated and alienated from others, it connects me to them.
Meditation exercises can calm my inner movements. That calm allows a deeper part of my mind to take hold of my consciousness. This leads to being more clear-sighted, which helps me to see deeper into the sources of anxiety. Meditation doesn’t just calm my anxiety, it allows me to function more effectively.
About what am I afraid?
Usually, there is more than one thing that makes me fearful. Just being aware of the underlying fears has a calming effect. I have learned also through meditation that my anxiety is often brought about by my very own personal versions of the universal human anxieties that are “going around.” The older I get, the more that I can see that these anxieties have been “going around” in some form or other throughout all of human history. Recognizing this helps to transform the feelings of worry and fear into solidarity with the human race. If I can see myself not simply as a human but as part of the animal world, it brings me closer to all the other creatures trying to survive. I can even relate to that twitchy little squirrel as it races away from my dog.
ACCEPTANCE OF ANXIETY THROUGH MEDITATION
I have found that the first step is to accept the feeling of anxiety as real – to acknowledge it, and then work on recognizing its origin. I try not to succumb to the familiar escape hatches – denial, diversion, entertainment, blaming others. Anxiety is not a pleasant feeling and looking away is most often my first defense. There are so many ways to avoid looking directly into the face of anxiety; so many ways to numb the feeling and avoid delving deeper.
I find that meditation exercises that stress non-judgment are best. This is a way of going through the door marked “Anxiety” which can lead to understanding and insights. These insights are both personal and universal. Recognizing that I am both, has been an important area for my growth as a person. It is a way of freeing myself from the isolating trap of self-centeredness. This self-centeredness is highly reinforced in our western culture and does not necessarily serve us well. You could say, that this realization, is both a “side effect” and a surprise benefit of working with anxiety in this way.
PUBLIC SPEAKING, ANXIETY AND MEDITATION
It has been said that one of the most common anxieties is that which is related to public speaking. I suppose “stage fright” is a variation of this. I have frequently had this anxiety and indeed have it almost every time I need to “perform” publicly. I’m getting better at overcoming this anxiety, and it’s mainly because one day I put into practice (eventually) some of what I had been practicing in meditation.
On this particular day, I was invited to give a talk as a guest in a local church. The subject I chose, I called: “Night Sky Theology.” I wanted to introduce the idea of the experience of the night sky with “all” its stars. It was to be talk that I hoped would lead us into awe and wonder. I had planned to use the artwork that I had created to delve into deeper thinking about our relationship to the cosmos. The photographs of the artworks were put onto a PowerPoint presentation and were going to be the jumping-off points for the talk.
I went over the presentation with the Minister of the church and he seemed to like it. So we agreed to go ahead using the PowerPoint presentation even though neither of us was technically savvy. Things went fine in our rehearsal and all that it required was having the church’s computer be connected to a large, permanently set up display screen.
On the day of the presentation, I found myself in a lovely sun-filled room with about 50 attendees. Everyone was waiting, looking forward to what we all hoped would be an interesting morning. I was especially hoping that it would stimulate some interesting conversations.
The minister could not make the system work. Try as he might, it just would not turn on: Nothing.
I had been anxious before the talk, but this anxiety kept building as all efforts to get the computer system working, failed. Soon I was at the point where I was feeling the effects of adrenaline coursing through my veins and majorly stimulating my nervous system. I was sweating. I was starting to panic. Without the artwork, I had no idea what I was going to say or do.
With my anxiety rising, I felt the fear of embarrassment – of saying something that revealed my ignorance, without my slides to depend on. I feared being seen as a fool, an outsider, someone to be shunned, someone deserving to be laughed at.
I sat in silence as 50 pairs of eyes looked at me. Some were smiling. Some eyes seemed sympathetic, others were curious and others seemed to exude pity. We all wanted to know, “What is going to happen now?” I definitely didn’t know either.
After a very long minute, during which I was able to begin to center myself with conscious breathing and then enter a meditative state, I was able to find a deep, quiet place within.
Then, I just started to speak. I stopped worrying about what I was going to say. I just said what came into my mind, trusting that it was coming from the most honest place in my heart. In the course of this talk, even the audience seemed to calm – we all came deeper and deeper into the present moment.
The voice that spoke came from someplace else. I don’t even remember what I said but it seemed to be another way of talking about the same topic. It was not polished – not thorough, but it was interactive. It became something other than what I had planned but it was the best I could do and it was engaging. The audience, listened and asked sincere questions and the presentation became an interactive space of learning.
In moments like this, the sense of being totally present happens. It is infectious and in certain situations, it changes the whole dynamic into a spontaneous eruption of deeper thinking and feeling.
MEDITATION AND PROCRASTINATION – A different version of anxiety
Sometimes I find myself procrastinating – putting off doing things that I would rather not do. Or, very often, things that I’m afraid I might fail at. This could be the need to repair something that is broken; requiring skills that I do not have. It could be needing to confront someone that is going to get quickly uncomfortable. Sometimes I procrastinate doing a task because the task is boring.
For example, each day, as part of my work as a physician, I must make 25 telephone calls. Some of these will be easy and some not. Regardless of how I feel about them, they all need to be made. I have meditated on this topic, and I see how I vary the easy and difficult calls. Sometimes it is important to do the one I dread first and other times I have to build up to it.
Roots of Procrastination
When I actually look at procrastination, I see anxiety at the root. Fear that I will anger someone with bad news, fear that I will be accused of some error unjustly. I may fear that the call is going to take far longer than I can afford to take.
And, of course, there is simply not wanting to be the messenger of bad news. Indeed, this is a topic that is worth a blog in itself. The art of breaking bad news well has to include qualities of objectivity with empathy and care for the one who is receiving it. Reflecting on this through meditation has helped me enormously over the years. Indeed, it is where the practical, the interpersonal, and the spiritual meet.
The insights that come from accepting my procrastination and looking at it objectively, without judgment, help me to overcome it.
MEDITATION ON “IT COULD BE WORSE”
How often, in a situation that was pretty bad, have you thought; “this could be worse?” As a physician, I have found this to be one of the most common ways of coping with bad news. Generally, as bad as it is, it could be worse: “At least I’m still alive!” When I am able to use this kind of thinking in meditation, it becomes another means to expand consciousness. In this reflection, not only do I think of my “luck” but I think also of the others without such luck. This again helps me to consider my life in the context of the whole of humanity – it helps me to have a more cosmic view of my place in the universe.
For example, when I fear for my financial future, I begin to think of others, most others frankly, for whom this is so much more acute. Turning my meditation over to them, my own concerns now have a very different feel. I find strength in those who have overcome so much in their lives. I think of giving more to others in that state of mind – both literally and figuratively.
When I fear for my health, I remember those whom I have known who have faced with grace and dignity illnesses and diseases which have been terrible.
When I fear for my children or grandchildren, I remember that we all have hidden strengths that come out exactly when we need them.
In this way, the anxiety leads me to connect ever more deeply with others. It is a union of hearts. It is an exercise in the unfolding of empathy.
We each deal with anxiety in our own ways. Some strategies are not helpful – alcohol, drugs, eating or finding a scapegoat. There are thousands of diversions our culture supplies. Getting angry and blaming others is a time-worn trap that easily arises from the low embers of anxiety. When these embers are fanned, violence in all its forms – verbal, emotional, physical – flame up, quite often to no one’s benefit, and least of all, my own.
MEDITATION – A BETTER WAY OF COPING WITH ANXIETY
Meditation is, for me, a better way of coping. It makes “coping” much more than simply “managing.” It makes my experience raw material that can be transmuted into insight, into knowledge, into love.
Sometimes it is just accepting the fear. Then again, it sometimes leads to the discovery of the source or sources of fear. Sometimes, this leads to practical solutions. Regarding my own practice of medicine, I have learned to trust the anxieties I may feel about a patient or a diagnosis and use that feeling to dig deeper. Perhaps, I need to order another test or refer to a specialist. This usually helps not only me but also my patient.
Interpersonal anxieties, like fears about relationships with others, also can be helped by meditation. I can look semi objectively, perhaps, trying to see from the other person’s point of view. This can be painful but the pain is often the doorway to wisdom and higher understanding.
“WHEN I GET ANXIOUS, I GO COSMIC”
“Cosmic” can mean so many things, so I want to try and say what I mean by this term. It means seeing myself as part of the whole in general, but often, more specifically, as part of the human race. This includes all the people that have preceded me and my generations. It includes all those who will arise long after I and all others who have lived during my time too are gone.
“Going cosmic” also means seeing myself as an earthling – an inhabitant of Planet Earth.
When I walk, I feel it in my body as gravity holds me to the ground. From where I stand, below my feet are 8000 miles of rock, across the planet along a line through the center of the earth is Australia.[i] Knowing this changes my sense of place. It leads me to sense the earth as a sphere rather than the flat plane that my eyes see.
When I look up in the sky and see the sun, lighting up the day, it is no longer the “sun” but our energy and life giving star. A small star, perhaps, but just right for us. It makes me a sun worshipper.
When I look up into the night sky and see all the stars in that darkness, I also can think of the deep sky photograph taken by the Hubble space telescope. It reveals that in that darkness are billions upon billions of galaxies and impossible distances from which these ancient lights are traveling.
It changes my perspective… sometimes.
Pain and suffering remain. The body breaks down, aging parts give out. Disease comes at the most unexpected times. Violence and threats of violence are sometimes far away and sometimes very, very close. Hate and famine are real. Family strife, prejudice … that list end seems almost endless too.
Meditation, Anxiety and Ancestors
When I get anxious, I remember my ancestors. Lifetimes of individuals who were confined to ghettos, deprived of rights. The air they breathed was filled with fear. For many, this is so in life today. The law of the jungle, might makes right, was the norm then, and for much of humanity it is still the same. Back when the only heat available for warmth was from open fires, survival was short for everyone. There were no doctors, there were no antibiotics, no safe surgery. Justice was a still distant concept. No food on a shelf, no electricity, no air conditioning. This world is not merely the world of my ancestors, it still exists.
When I contemplate this, then I see my issue quite differently. I recognize that I come from the human stock of survivalists. Our heritages are all different but they have one thing in common. We all have links going back to the first hominids, the first homo sapiens. They had tougher times than us. The Middle Ages were no picnic either. What ever anxieties we think we have, can be put into perspective.
We can work this out too.
[i] You can find the part of the earth opposite where you are right now by going to https://www.geodatos.net/en and using the Antipode Finder. All you need to do is type in your current location. This can give one a sense of living on a round rock rather than on a flattish disc.
About the Author(s)
Bob Magrisso is a physician and long-time meditator. He tries to practice “applied spirituality”.