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Category Archives: anxiety

Joanna Macy writes:

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As the rug is progressively pulled out from under us, it is easy to panic, and even easier to simply shut down. These two instinctive reactions — panic and paralysis — are the roadside ditches that border our pathway to a livable future. To fall into either one is the greatest of all the dangers we face, for they deaden the heart and derail the mind. If ever we needed spiritual practices and disciplines for staying alert and connected, it is now. The greatest gift we can give our world is our presence, awake and attentive. What can help us do that? Here, drawn from ancient religions and Earth wisdom traditions, are a handful of practices I have learned to count on.

1. Breathe

Our friend the breath is always with us. When we pay attention to its flow, it merges mind with body, and connects inner world with outer world. Mindfulness of breathing in and breathing out can center and steady you. “Feel how your breathing makes more space around you,” writes the poet Rilke. “Pure, continuous exchange with all that is, flow and counterflow where rhythmically we come to be.” Notice that you are not deciding each time to exhale or inhale; it’s rather that you’re being breathed. Breathed by life. And so are all the other animals, and plants too, in vast rhythms of reciprocity. Feel that web enlivening you and holding you. The felt flow-through of matter/energy brings a measure of ease, and opens us to the flow-through of information as well. This lowers our usual defenses against distressing information, and begins to unblock the feedback loops, so we can more clearly perceive what we’ve caused to happen.



soixante huit

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What do you make of birthdays when you’re getting old? I’m told that Zen practitioner no longer mark the occasion (although some make a fuss about the Buddha’s own). I woke up this morning with the familiar mix of physical and emotional aches, made the same cup of tea and pot of oatmeal as I often do.

Same old, same old — yet new and for the first time. This is a day like any other, yet it is not. I’ve never been here (nor have you, come to think of it). Celebrate? Why not celebrate this moment? And say a prayer of thanksgiving —

Praised be your father and mother,
Who loved you before you were,
And trusted to call you here
With no idea who you would be.

Blessed be those who have loved you
Into becoming who you were meant to be,
Blessed be those who have crossed your life
With dark gifts of hurt and loss
That have helped to school your mind
In the art of disappointment.

On this echoing-day of your birth,
May you open the gift of solitude
In order to receive your soul;
Enter the generosity of silence
To hear your hidden heart;
Know the serenity of stillness
To be enfolded anew
By the miracle of your being.

source: O’Donohue, J. (2008). To bless the space between us. Doubleday, p. 51. image: self-portrait walking along the camino.

good for nothing

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Nor sure who said it first, some ancient zen master for sure, but there’s this quip that “meditation is good for nothing.” It leads nowhere, offers no reliable outcome and, should not be approached as a remedy or solution. Instead, as best as I can imagine, it is a way of being in the world, moment by moment. It offers the chance to glimpse what’s called our ‘true nature’ or ‘essence.’ Just don’t count on it.

But go looking for it and you’re sure to be disappointed. Yet day after day, in all corners of the world, individuals will take a seat, on a cushion, bench, or chair, cross their legs in some contortion or another, lower their gaze, bring attention to their breath, and … begin to witness the unfolding and dissolving of thoughts and sensations. Not striving to achieve anything, they nonetheless aim for something. It’s that “aim for what” that perplexes me.

Most of my dreams are marked by anxiety. I’m always running after trains, getting caught without a ticket, walk around crowded places without pants on, get accused of wrongdoing, run from one authority figure after another, and so on. Years of meditation (and psychotherapy) haven’t cut down on the frequency of such dreams, but helped me recover more quickly from the panic once I wake up. This morning, once more in a state of agitation, I sat up in meditation posture, hoping to calm my fast-beating pulse and get a nearer to the source of this anxiety.

What I found was that … my heart was beating rapidly, my breaths felt short, and the cause of anxiety … is a mystery. That’s it for today.

image: “The Thinker” bronze sculpture in the Musée Rodin in Paris.

let’s face it

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One of the key insights articulated by the Buddha (known as the First Noble Truth) is that to live involves suffering. This is neither morose nor pessimistic, but a fact. A fact we pleasure-seeking creatures would rather avoid. We’d rather believe that “all is good,” tell each other to “be happy,” and hope that “tomorrow is another day” and “this too shall pass.” Yes, to all of those — and yes, suffering is inevitable — and yes, the sun will shine again.

Reflecting on my everyday experience helps explain this seeming contradiction. Hardly a day goes by that I’m not in some physical discomfort, from mild aches to severe pain. Several fingers joints hurt, as do my knees, lower back, and neck. Tests point to rheumatoid arthritis and herniated discs. Not much I can do but to learn to live with them and reduce their impact with yoga, meditation, and keeping active.

But ever so often my mind goes to “poor me” and “this is not fair.” I don’t like what’s going on. It shouldn’t be this way. In short, life should be free of pain and hassle. Of course it isn’t and never will be. Fact: we have to endure sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and death. Fact: we have to cope with heartbreak, loss, grief, and separation from those we love. Fact: from time to time, we’ll be lonely, frustrated, hurt, disappointed, and enraged. Fact: No amount of “being good” or “living right” can guard us against the human condition.


forgiveness — easier said than done!

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Ever so often a person’s name comes up … someone I worked for and who rejected me. At least that’s how I remember the situation: he didn’t value my contribution and eventually nudged me out the door. It’s been two years and still there’s this sting in my heart. In Buddhist parlance we talk about two daggers: one that pierces our soft belly when something bad happens and another we insert ourselves to keep the wound from healing. First injury, then suffering.

It occurs to me this morning that one way I might get over the continuing hurt is by practice forgiveness. Zen teacher Ezra Bayda, who I often turn to when it comes to tackling difficult emotions, writes that “forgiveness is about loosening our hold on the one thing we most want to hold onto — the suffering of resentment.”

In forgiveness practice, we work to see through our own emotional reactions. We practice noticing what stands in the way of real forgiveness. Genuine forgiveness entails experiencing our own pain and then the pain of the person to be forgiven.

His pain!? What about mine, which he caused?! And there I am, stuck in resentment and righteousness, unable to let go, however much I want to. “Letting go is not the real practice,” Bayda suggests, “it’s a fantasy practice based on an ideal of how we’d like things to be.”

Instead, he writes, we need to simply acknowledge our unwillingness to forgive and our holding on to the ideal that I shouldn’t be resentful in the first place. That’s radical (“going to the root”), to admit that I’m holding on to pain and — there goes there’s that second dagger — that I’m a flawed person in feeling resentful. As I pay attention to the physical experience of all this, I notice stiffness across my shoulders, into my neck, and forward around my upper chest like strips of iron encircling a wooden barrel. I feel confined and compressed. Breathing near the edges of the tension, and gently into it, I notice restrictions around throat and lower jaw. Widening my breath, slowly and gradually, the load softens, leaving traces of the iron bands.

We can’t move on to the [next] stages of forgiveness until we’ve entered into and experienced–in your bodies and minds–the depth of our unwillingness to forgive.

May this story be of benefit to you.

source: Bayda, E. (2003). At home in muddy waters: a guide to finding peace within everyday chaos. Boston: Shambhala, p. 92. image:

victoria day parade

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Two of us (plus a dog named Jakob) walked a few blocks to watch bits of the parade: many American marching bands (they sure know how to do it well), interspersed with grown men on tiny scooters and big trucks blowing their horns. Standing in the sun amidst the happy crowd, many with lawn chairs and drink coolers, I inhaled the carefree atmosphere. Even cops driving their shiny motorcycles up and down the parade route, each earning double overtime and having fun waving at people, added to the festive mood. For split seconds, I felt none of the associations that crowds, busy streets, and police sirens usually convey.

“Good things keep happening all around us,” neuropsychologist Rick Hanson reminds me, “but much of the time we don’t notice them; even when we do, we often hardly feel them.” To counterbalance the built-in negativity bias, the brain’s tendency to scan for, register, and recall negative experiences, he suggests that we bring mindful awareness to positive facts, thus turning them into positive experiences. “Let the experience fill your body and be as intense as possible. …

“The rebuilding process gives you the opportunity, right down in the micro-circuitry of your brain, to gradually shift the emotional shading of your interior landscape. … Every time you do this … you build a little bit of neural structure. Over time, the accumulating impact of this positive material will literally, synapse by synapse, change your brain.” 

All this requires effort: I have to remember to pay attention, to spot and internalize moments of happiness, and to bring awareness to the bodily experience of being free of stress. Old habits (and ancient wiring) resist all change, even if it’s for the better.

See also my previous post on re-wiring the brain. source: Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom.  New Harbinger, p. 68-71. image:

face it: you are alone

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In her latest blog post, our friend Tess reports on changes in her life: she’s got a full-time job and is able to pay her bills. For that she has to get up before 5 in the morning to catch several bus connections, only to return 12 hours later, exhausted. “And trust me,’ she writes, “I’m eternally grateful … really I am. It’s just been a shock to my system and I’m finding a real test to staying present. My ego is having a heyday in convincing me that … I deserve better, that I should be … living over a bakery in Paris.”

O how I know that voice! There’s always something lacking, be it food, love, health, money, things, or enough rain for the garden. What is this dissatisfaction, I wonder, this longing for what is not, all the while dismissing or overlooking that which is? There’s a line in a long Buddhist sutra:

The Way is perfect like vast space, where there’s no lack and no excess.
Our choice to choose and to reject prevents our seeing this simple truth.

In her book on Mindful Eating, Zen teacher Chozen Bays offers clues as to the cause of my pervasive dissatisfaction. “Heart hunger,” she suggests, “is satisfied by intimacy. 

Each of us is fundamentally alone in the world. No one can know us to the bottom of our being. No one can know all our thoughts. No one can know completely the deepest longings of our hearts. No one, not even the person we are closest to, can experience life as we do. The realization that we are fundamentally alone can be a source of sadness, or grief.”

So, once more, instead of looking for magic explanations I’m called to take refuge in simple awareness. Not to make loneliness to go away, but to welcome it unreservedly. This alone feeling is neither a personality flaw nor a curse inherited from my family of origin (as I’ve always thought). It comes with being an authentic human being.

source: Bays, J. C. (2009). Mindful eating: a guide to rediscovering a healthy and joyful relationship with food. Boston: Shambhala, p. 58. image: when I googled for an “alone” image, I found mostly people in tears: sad and miserable. Photo above taken during week-long walk along the Mosel River: alone and happy.