So what is mindfulness and how can it help if you are suffering with anxiety? Mindfulness is really about coming back to the present moment; back to our senses. It’s a present moment awareness that can befriend life’s varied experiences without judgement. We can become aware of sights, smells, sounds, tastes, body sensations, emotions, and our thoughts. As we continue to practice mindfulness we start to see that our thoughts are not what we thought they were, and that includes our anxious thoughts. There starts to be a little bit of space between these scary thoughts and the self that is observing them. In this space, we are able to choose how we want to act. Thoughts become just events occurring in the mind. To embark on this journey we can use an object of attention to train our mindfulness. For example, we could bring our attention to the sensations of the breath at the nostril. We could notice the sensations at the nostril and just follow them as the breath goes in and out.
Over time, and often very quickly, our minds will wander into obsessive or other thinking patterns. When we finally realize that we are lost in thought, we can gently bring our attention back to the breath at the nostril. It’s not always so easy,however, especially if one is struggling with anxiety. All minds have a tendency to wander, but an anxious mind can get stuck in thought even after we have realized that we are thinking. The obsessions and anxious ruminations are often far more compelling than the breath. For this reason, the traditional method of training one’s awareness with the breath isn’t always helpful.
Anxiety actually offers us a gift in that we can use the physical sensations of the anxiety itself to train our awareness. We can make the physical sensations of anxiety in the body our object of meditation. This is effective because the unpleasant sensations in the body are far easier to notice. They are often very strong, so we are less easily distracted by outside stimuli or by our thoughts.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, an meanness
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!Rumi, “The Guest House” Translation by Coleman Barks (The Essential Rumi)
I like to use the analogy of a guest house that 13th century Persian poet Rumi uses in his poem titled “The guest House” to describe how we can come into a new relationship with our anxious thoughts and body sensations. If we think of ourselves as a guest house and anxiety as a visitor, we can remind ourselves that guests, by definition, are not permanent residents. We don’t know when the visitors will arrive, but we can welcome them when they do. We can use our mindfulness to explore anxiety as it’s experienced in the physical body. We can say “Ohh what’s anxiety like today? What does it feel like having anxiety in the guest house?”
We can welcome anxiety into the guest house knowing that guests leave eventually. The more we get to know the anxiety guest and the more times it visits, the more we can trust ourselves to befriend it and to trust that it will leave when the time comes. Paradoxically, what often happens is that anxiety comes to visit less frequently and for shorter periods of time.
For me this mindfulness training is first and foremost an acceptance that life can be difficult at times. Life contains both joy and suffering and no matter how many rituals we do in our minds, we can never be 100% safe. Mindfulness is about training oneself to be with whatever we are experiencing in our bodies without going into our minds to avoid it. The more we train the more we have the courage to be with and maybe even befriend our experience, including difficult experiences like anxiety, OCD, panic, fear, anger, sadness, pain, etc. As we begin to feel more comfortable being with the difficult experiences we become more comfortable living in our bodies.
Embodiment means coming out of our minds where we have spent our whole lives and back into our living, breathing bodies. It’s only when we come back home to our bodies that we experience all the wonders of life. From this grounded place we can also experience thoughts as just thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts are useful and sometimes not so much, but the difference is that we are aware of them and we get to choose how or if we act on them. If anxiety is about the mental ruminations that keep you in your mind when feeling the body is too scary, then embodiment is literally the opposite. If one’s awareness is in the body or in the senses then it’s not going to be lost in the obsessions of the mind that perpetuate anxiety. From this place of being connected to our senses we can start to notice when our minds take us off course and back into the obsessions of the thinking mind.
What do we do if it’s too difficult to be with the body sensations? Resource! Offer self-compassion or ground in the extremities!! [I talked about this in my resourcing post and I want to go into it a bit more here and offer some practices that you can play around with and make your own.]
Often being in the physical body can be too difficult or unpleasant. That’s why we retreat into our minds when we have anxiety-It’s not pleasant. We will do everything to make the anxiety go away or to avoid feeling it. Anxiety is simply a strategy our minds use to avoid feeling the unpleasant. So to get back into the body with mindfulness requires courage and training. It’s an art. You don’t jump into the ocean all at once if you’re not so sure how strong the current is. First, you test it out. We can train ourselves to be our own judge as to how much is too much. This is just like exposure therapy. There is a hierarchy of difficulty of sensations. This is where compassion comes in. Compassion is like the home base. It’s the nurturing parent or friend that’s always there for you. Traditional compassion training involves repeating certain phrases to oneself, but here we can use anything that makes one feel nurtured and whole. Over time we can actually train ourselves to bring on those compassion sensations and feelings in times of difficulty so that the warm soothing sensations can actually hold the difficult ones. At the very least, compassion reminds us of our intention to care for ourselves when it’s really difficult.
Here is a short compassion practice you can try now/
Bring to mind some being who cares about you unconditionally. It could be a parent, a friend, a pet, a tree, a place in nature etc. Or, if you find it easier, bring to mind a moment of connection or care. It could be someone caring for you or you caring for them. Alternatively, bring to mind a time when you saw a friend who you have not seen in a long time. What we are really looking for is any thought or memory that brings up a feeling of warmth and care in your body. Now go into your body and feel what’s there. What did that feel like? Do you feel a sense of warmth? Soothing sensations? Nothing at all? It feels good when another being offers us kindness.. We can learn to turn that kindness towards ourselves on our own time, in our own minds. That’s what self compassion is all about.
There are numerous ways to bring about this caring response in our bodies. I often use phrases like “May I be happy, healthy and peaceful.” Or I think about people who care about me or bring to mind the image of my dog and imagine him smiling at me. At other times I have thought of moments in the past when I felt connected to a community or felt connected to a place in nature. I also enjoy putting my hand over my heart and saying something like “Hey buddy you’re doing ok.. I’m here for you” It’s really all about customizing the practice to find a way to bring some friendliness to yourself. Then we can go into the body and feel what this feeling of friendliness and care actually feels like. We stay with the feeling of it. When the feeling fades or the mind wanders we can go back to the image or phrases. We can practice this in little moments throughout the day or in more formal compassion meditation periods. The idea is that the more we offer friendliness and care towards ourselves the more we begin to realize that these parts of ourselves are always with us and they can actually hold us when times are difficult. The goal of this practice is not to make the difficult go away, but instead to help us to realize that we are loved and cared for no matter what. We can offer ourselves what we need at any moment.
Grounding- Grounding is another tool to keep ourselves resourced. Resourcing is like returning our attention to a home base where we feel safe. If you would like to try a little resourcing exercise, you can bring your awareness into your hands. What do the hands feel like? Do you notice warmth or tingling sensations? Feel into the hands and maybe just report silently to yourself what you notice. Now try putting your hands together in a prayer position. Do you notice anything different? When the hands come in contact with each other does the felt sensation in each hand change? This is mindfulness practice. The hands are a safe place for many people because they often have pleasant or neutral sensations and are removed spatially from the center of the body where there may be more intense sensations occurring. Do the hands feel like a safe place to you? Could you bring your attention into your hands and rest your attention there when things get difficult? Now try rubbing the hands together. What’s that like? How does it actually feel? You can also try placing your hands on your face. Do you feel the warmth of the hands? Or do the hands feel cool? What other sensations do you feel?
We can use extremities to ground ourselves. The feet are also a good place to ground. I personally like grounding in my feet. Try to bring awareness to the feet. Do the feet feel like a safe place to rest your awareness? You can try hanging out with your awareness in your feet for a few minutes. As you do notice what your mind is upto? Is it trying to get you to do something else?
Now take a little break so that you can reflect. Do you prefer these strategies or self compassion as a way to feel safe? Whichever you prefer, the more you practice the more you will remember and have the courage to call on these practices when you need them.