~ by Erica Dutton • firstname.lastname@example.org
Almost everyone I know worries at times, some more than others. Very few people report little no worrying; I’m not one of them. In periods of high stress, it even affects my sleep. I have a hard time falling asleep, or I wake up frequently thinking about the same thing over and over.
Worrying can involve anxiety, fear, anger, hopelessness, irritability, hostility, helplessness, and depression. It takes its toll on our physical health – headaches, stomachaches, migraines, sleeplessness, fatigue … the list goes on.
Worrying is part of the human condition. It seems to be increasing in our complex, complicated, divisive world and the speed of change has increased so dramatically it leaves us feeling stressed.
How can we survive in this world, let alone thrive, when worry seems to be all around us and in us? Well, first get it know it better. You might say, ‘I don’t need to know anything more about my worrying, thank you very much. I just want it to go away!’ I thought that too.
Worrying is a complex experience. There is much to learn about yourself and about how your worrying process starts, is maintained, and you eventually let go. While we often look just at the surface of worry and judge ourselves if we think we’re failing in some way, meditation gives us the opportunity to explore the process of worrying.
Becoming familiar with your particular way of worrying means you can recognise the pattern earlier and have the opportunity to interrupt it. It means you can see clearly how you feed into the worrying, and build it up until you’re almost immobilised. Examining the reaction you have during the worrying process gives you some distance from your worry. You have a choice to respond to a situation, rather than react from an old habitual pattern. Over time, worrying lessens on its own as its grip becomes weaker.
Each of us has different ways of worrying. Some replay situations that actually happened over and over in our minds. Others do the same with imaginary circumstances. My favourite way to worry is to have a conversation in my head that I might have in the future or wish I’d had in the past.
I’m sure I’m not alone. We can project bad outcomes, getting angry or sad in the process. Or we feel better because in our imaginations at least we’ve achieved something. We imagine saying what we should have said. Sometimes the worry becomes so strong we feel stuck, immobilised, unsure how to proceed, even second-guessing ourselves as to the ‘right’ course.
Unfortunately, we can’t just decide to stop worrying. However there are many tools to help with worrying, and meditation is one of the best for me. The kind of meditation that has helped me most is called reflective meditation.
Reflective meditation is an open, receptive practice with a lightly structured approach. It combines insight, mindfulness and a broad awareness of our experience. When we practice reflective meditation, we give ourselves permission to practice, seek gentleness in our self-talk, and invite curiosity to explore the interior world of mind and body.
We’re gentle when we criticise ourselves and how we meditate. We give ourselves permission to do what makes sense to us in our meditation, and then explore the outcomes. We have autonomy in our practice, learning what works and what doesn’t. And lastly, our interest and curiosity into our inner world naturally develops.
Instead of trying to achieve a particular state of mind, such as peace or relaxation, opening ourselves to the curious, strange, marvellously confusing world inside leads to longer lasting results. We’d all like to achieve peace and relaxation when we meditate, but when we strive for that, it somehow seems elusive. And of course, when we stop meditating, we face the same stressors as before we started.
Meditation isn’t just another self-help strategy – the goal of meditation isn’t to get rid of worry, or to manage it better. In meditation, we learn to be with all things as they are, watch experiences unfold, and see clearly how we ourselves are creating more stress. Remember, stress is a human experience, so as long as we’re alive we’re going to worry to some degree.
But worry doesn’t have to run our lives. In seeing the worrying process unfold, we learn to let it go without pushing it away. We don’t want to be engaged in a fight with worry. Meditation helps us understand it, gain perspective, and then gently watch it go away. Instead of feeding the worry, we pull the plug that gives it energy.
In my teachings, I help you effectively meditate so you can change your relationship with worry. It’s not magic, and over time you’ll understand the patterns in your worrying, how your worrying starts, what triggers it, how you intensify the worrying, what lies beneath the surface of worrying … and then you learn to let it go.
The prerequisites of reflective meditation are simple: a desire to sit quietly and see what happens in our mind and body, and a comfortable position. When we practice reflective meditation, though, it doesn’t end when we stop meditating. After each session, you’re encouraged to take some time to reflect (hence the name) on what actually happened.
I like to journal what I remember about my meditation. I use a small spiral bound notebook to recall my sitting because I don’t remember my meditations easily. Sometimes my sittings are so full and busy that I can’t remember all the details, especially if I’m sitting for a long time. Or it feels like a dream and the experience fades quickly. Writing about our experience helps, but it isn’t the only way; some people draw pictures or diagrams.
You can also spend time recalling what actually happened in your sitting, asking yourself questions about the entire experience, your emotions, feelings and mood associated with the worrying. You can ask yourself if there are sounds, smells, tastes, body sensations or visual images in the sitting. How did you react to the worrying itself? Your teacher may ask even more questions, helping you learn more about this pattern as well as others.
Sharing your experience
The last step, and the most fruitful, is to share your experience with a teacher individually or in small groups. Growth and learning take place in conversation with others about our inner experience. We learn from listening, as well as from the teacher’s questions. A teacher is there to help you flesh out what you recall of your experience, to help you see facets of your experience you may not have noticed, or possibly ignored or minimised.
Often, you will see how your meditation sessions connect to the rest of your life. Being in a small group with a teacher leads to cultivating an honest and safe inner environment where you can learn to meet whatever your mind comes up with, including worry.
Meditating, we encourage opening up to all our senses: what we hear, see, feel, smell and taste. The sixth sense in Buddhist psychology is the mind, which for the most part is very active and often full of worry.
Overall, we sit with whatever arises in awareness: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When I started, I wanted to feel peaceful and relaxed as much as possible. Of course, that wasn’t possible, but that didn’t stop me trying. When I was faced with a racing, worrying, agitated mind, though, I didn’t know what to do. Over time with a reflective meditation practice, I have learned how to be with the worrying, and learn from my experience.
Erica Dutton has been practicing and studying meditation for twenty years and teaching for twelve.
She offers individual and small group teaching, classes and consultation and can be reached through her SkyGardens Meditation Facebook page and at email@example.com