A HEALTHIER WAY TO MEDITATE WITH ANXIETY
The invitation of meditation is a far more generous one than sitting to clear your mind.
And yet this is a pervasive and widely taught approach to meditation which is presenting particular problems for people with anxiety.
An approach to meditation which shames a “busy brain” and measures the success of meditation in how still and peaceful you can become, inevitably risks intensifying the suffering with which people with anxiety are all too familiar – feelings of failure and shame, of not being good enough, strong enough, focussed enough or even “relaxed enough”.
Take me, during a time when I had diagnosed anxiety. I was suffering a continuous sense of dread, tension and rolling negative thoughts. I had a habit of beating myself up and feeling haunted by my failures. A lot of the time I felt scarily detached from my body and outside of life. It was a lonely place to be.
Now take a classic meditation instruction such as that old faithful “Be present”. My present at that time felt unstable and unsafe. How about “anchor to your breath” – I wasn’t at that time, breathing very well and focussing on “trying to get my breath right” had me engaged struggle. Demanding that I not allow drifting and dreaming was to remove me from the only time I felt relaxed. “Watching my thoughts like clouds” intensified a sense of distance and disconnection already pervading me. The cue to “place negative thoughts on leaves on a river” (or on a bus, or tie them to a balloon ) would place me in the inner-life equivalent of a kind of neurotic sorting office – I had so many thoughts and had to create so many imaginary leaves to put them on, there was no time left to meditate at all.
There are other, healthier ways to meditate with anxiety.
We know that repressing feelings often makes them come back stronger, like the tantrum child of a child who feels ignored. There are many ways we can engage with anxious thoughts and feelings in meditation and – far from clinically detaching – recognise them, sit with them, hold them and ask them what they need.
The call to meditate is a call to cultivate an inner sanctuary. This is our private inner life and the more we can gaze on it with actively positive and welcoming curiosity and love and wonder, the healthier both our inner and outer worlds can be.
In this practice, we can to treat ourselves well and to tend to ourselves with the most tender attention. We can learn to love ourselves back to life.
A healthy meditation practice is one in which we feel our wholeness. We feel our bodies, the flow of our breath, sensory impressions, sensations and emotions as Prana – life force energy circulating inside us. This is nourishing. Anxiety can make us lose connection to these parts of ourselves. One of the characteristics of anxiety is feeling disembodied and groundless. It is important to welcome our whole flow in meditation, without blocking or distancing through clinical witnessing.
The most uncomfortable and tense parts of us are wounds looking for healing. Our bodies know how to assimilate every touch of life – all we have to do is hold the generous and welcoming space for that to happen. No matter how broken, bad or dejected a part of you may feel, it deserves and needs to be here.
The call is to feel the feeling - the actual bodily sensation. For anxious over-thinkers, the realm of feeling-in-our-bodies is exactly where we need to be. Every thought we have carried an emotional charge. “What do I feel and where and how do I feel it?” is a great path of enquiry. We are not sending the uncomfortable parts of us away like naughty children. We are seeing, feeling and listening to them. For people who have never felt fully seen, this can be so redemptive.
We are cultivating responding to our different needs with sensitivity. It may be a feeling needs to gather into thoughts and sensations of safety, or be soothed by the balm of breath. However it may be that it wants to be felt with all its force and trembling. In people with childhoods where expressing strong feelings wasn’t welcomed, the need is often to allow the feelings to be fully felt – a path which over time leads to new feelings of safety and an ability to be with intensity without feeling threat.
It might feel very uncomfortable at first but meditation is about giving us space and time. Our bodies are learning to relax while tolerating intensity. They can only do this if we allow the intensity some time to be felt.
Relaxation then isn’t forced, it happens naturally. “When I am with myself like this, it just feels safe to breathe” as one of my clients puts it. Under the balm of attention that is not rejecting or accusing, muscles relax their holding-on, the impulses of tension and agitation alchemise into a reverberating hum that it feels good to bathe in for a while. Space opens, there is often an intuition of new perspective and brightness. We learn to holds ourselves well.
We remember again who we really are and we stay in that remembering for a while and until one day, when the sting of anxiety rises up to greet us, we are able to meet it with that remembering and it feels safe to relax again.
Alison Potts is a Brisbane-based coach, teacher and writer specialising in Instinctive Meditation and radical self-care. Her work facilitates people of all kinds to renew their love of life, thrive in their individuality and reclaim their innate sense of freedom, spontaneity and joy.
Connect with Alison @alison_potts_innatebeing