Every day when I meditate, I feel anxious and sometimes I can’t shake that feeling. This sometimes cuts my meditation shorter than I’d like and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.
Thank you for your question.
Sorry to hear that you feel anxious.
Anxiety is a too-common occurrence today, and the way we organize our society around time and money and achievement is definitely not helpful! It also doesn’t help that we tend to individualize things, which can lead to blaming ourselves, labelling ourselves as somehow ‘weak’ because of the way we feel and so forth.
Insight meditation offers a magnificent path to help us deal with these kinds of feelings and counter the messages we’ve internalized. This path is a path of self-compassion, self-awareness, and the slow but sure transformation of distress into joy. But what about your situation, in which the very feeling you are aware of is throwing up a barrier to your practice? That is tricky!
Anxiety has a sneaky way of feeding on our very aversion to it. The more we avoid it, the stronger it seems to get, and the more we avoid activities associated with anxiety, the more these feelings start to cramp our style. If it gets really bad, we can even start to avoid previously enjoyed or necessary activities. Avoidance buys some short term relief, but only tends to reinforce the anxious response in us.
The way out of this cycle is to walk that very fine line between challenging ourselves and exercising self-compassion. We can start by establishing attention on the breath or a calming word or phrase or starting a body scan. When the unpleasant feeling comes up, we will then be in a better position to see it and explore it a little. We can gently send our attention to the feeling. What does it look like? Where in the body is it experienced? How ‘big’ does it seem?
Are there verbal thoughts that our mind uses to describe it – things like “This is awful,” “I can't stand it,” or “What is wrong with me”? It can be helpful to remember that these kinds of thoughts are just that – thoughts. Thoughts like these will come and go, and though they may be frightening in their intensity, none of them are the anxious feeling itself, neither are they truly you.
If we summon up the energy of mindfulness, we can breathe into and out of the anxious feeling, paying attention to it non-judgementally. This can be quite challenging, when our inclination is just to GET OUT OF IT! We resist this urge if we can, even for a moment. We try to just be with it, and ask ourselves: How bad is it right now, in this moment? For just this moment, is it tolerable?
As we learn to just experience sensations – even the most unpleasant ones – the verbal interpretations might fall away. We identify less with the thoughts and feelings, and more and more we become the non-judgemental observer, able to see the phenomena for what they are, and to let them go. As we let go, we might be able to move into a new calmness and stillness.
If we can ‘just be’ with the anxious feeling for a few more breaths, it may be wise to then declare the sitting over, and get up. Ending on a positive note in this way, we’ll be more likely to take up the practice again the next day. This is a skillful way of putting US in control of the feeling, and not the other way ’round.
Remember that this kind of healing takes time. If this way of working with the anxious feeling is helpful and allows us to stay in sitting meditation a little longer, we can gradually increase the length of the meditation sitting sessions. But please be patient, gentle, and kind with yourself. There is no need ever to increase suffering in any way. Compassion and skill will triumph over coercion and suffering every time.
Exploration of what is behind the anxious feelings can be fruitful too. Are we perhaps feeling guilty about taking time for ourselves? Do we associate sitting quietly with something anxiety-provoking from the past that leads us to expect that something bad is about to happen? Does too much caffeine, or any medication we are taking, produce a physical feeling which we then experience as anxiety? It can be worthwhile to examine where the feelings might be coming from so that we can care for ourselves better.
Finally, if you feel that anxiety is a significant problem in your day-to-day life, there is help available. Your family doctor is often a good place to start. Informing yourself is important too. Helpful resources include www.anxietybc.com, which is a website that provides up-to-date information and tools to help. There are also excellent self-help books, including ones that embrace the mindful approach known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Lastly, if you are – or anyone reading this – is feeling truly overwhelmed, there are excellent resources here in Winnipeg, including Klinic at (204) 786-8686 and the Anxiety Disorders Association of Manitoba at (204) 925-0600.
May you be well. May you be peaceful and at ease.