You’re walking gingerly on an extremely icy path. Even though you’ve slowed to half-speed and your antennae are up, a split second has you lying on the cold ground with your full weight on your hip. That moment of no-control is bone-chilling scary.
When we start to lose our balance like that, our biological fight-or-flight response kicks in and redirects our attention from wherever it was, so we are now face and eyes into alarm mode. We can either marshal our resources to address the fall, or entertain our catastrophizing thoughts: “What if I don’t get to emergency soon?” “There’s nobody else out here tonight. I could freeze to death.” Noticing my wallet hanging out my back pocket, “What if someone comes by and steals it?”
We tend to be suckers for drama and hyperbole, which divert us from the sharp edge of the wedge: the present moment. Like a pushover, we are easily waylaid by our scary thoughts, just as theatregoers are fooled when an indisposed actor is replaced by a stand-in.
How We Get Stuck
There is something almost pathological about our tendency to make mountains out of molehills. At the grocery store, what starts out as a man sneering in the next line-up over, quickly morphs into trouble . We’re threatened, there’s an adrenaline zing, and we’re hauling the guy through our own personal filter of hopes, fears, memories, habitual patterns, and unique experiences. We are watching our imagined picture of him—glued to our thoughts and juiced by our emotions.
A coiled piece of rope becomes a snake. The latest piece of fake news becomes our favourite article so we share it on Facebook. Believing we will fail, we don’t try. We fall into these traps every bit as easily as slipping on the ice.
We experience myriad scares in the run of a day—some life saving, like when we walk too close to traffic, and some entirely made up in our heads. As it turns out, a lot are fictitious, and that’s where the suffering is. We might as well obsess over a scene in a novel. We keep doing this over and over because nobody has introduced us to another way.
Enter mindfulness practice, whose elements reflect sanity and, taken together, point the way to a less confused, awake way of living.
How Mindfulness Can Help
It all starts with grounding. We are not floating in space. Instead, we are intimately connected to this world—the world we can hear, smell, taste, touch, and see. If, for a moment, we suspend the notion that we are a separate entity going about our business in this hostile world, we become aware of the undeniable connection between feet and floor, seat and chair. And then there is the less tangible exchange of molecules between “me” and the environment. This primal interconnectedness, bringing a sense of belonging rather than isolation, doesn’t stop there. The bits and pieces are all part of a mosaic. We find that the world is less hostile.
The practice of mindfulness develops a present-moment orientation. In the sitting meditation practice (see How Does One Actually Do the Practice), we notice our wandering mind, and bring our attention back to the breath. We keep returning to what is actually happening in this moment, developing a sense of two worlds: the one in our head, and the one that’s viscerally here. In time (and none of this happens overnight), we start to become more accustomed to the real world, and sanity.
It all starts with grounding.
Through the sitting meditation practice, we get to know our thought process—our patterns and how easily we become entranced. After we’ve been daydreaming for a while, we recognize that we’re thinking and come back to now. Thoughts are fragments, like the flotsam and jetsam floating through space, until we imbue them with meaning, and presto! they are embedded in our personal cosmology. Sometimes we experience them as wispy and insubstantial, and other times they are plodding and opaque. From her front row seat, the meditator experiences their impermanence, which forms the basis for a healthy relationship with thoughts.
When we feel restless, we fiddle with our phone, pick up a magazine, turn on the TV, or check Facebook. We’re not keen to hang out with the restlessness. We want to replace it with a more pleasant feeling, but skating away from discomfort doesn’t help us in the long run. In fact, it tends to perpetuate the problem because anxiety, depression, loneliness, etc. become entrenched when they are not acknowledged. Just like thoughts, feelings and emotions come and go—if we let them. Instead of avoiding or manipulating them, allowing them to be here shifts the dynamic. We are no longer holding them down with our resistance.
The composite of these elements of mindfulness can have a profound impact on problematic anxiety and worry. After completing a 10-week Workplace Mindfulness program, undergraduate and graduate students at Memorial University indicated there had been a 35% positive change with regard to this statement: “When my thoughts overtake me and I feel worried, I don’t know how to pause or interrupt this pattern.” You can see details of the study here.
Regarding their tendency to avoid facing difficult thoughts and feelings, the students indicated a 26% positive change.
Rather than trying to find a “cure” for problematic anxiety, we could put our scientist’s hat on, look directly at it, and see what it’s made of: lack of grounding, believing thoughts are real, and reacting to feelings and emotions. We might find that mindfulness practice is worth exploring.