The other night, at about 4 AM, I woke up feeling very anxious. I’d been dreaming about being in a city I used to know well, and not being able to find my way around. The dream itself was only mildly unpleasant, and certainly wasn’t the kind of thing that I’d associate with the heart-pounding, dry-mouthed, squirming-in-the-solar-plexus kind of sensations I awoke to.
I lay there and tried to think if there was anything that was objectively worrying me—something that would warrant this level of alert. I couldn’t think of anything. In fact, all that seemed to be going on was that I was thirsty. I’d overheated during the night and had become dehydrated. And I think what was going on—because it’s happened before—was that my mind was using extreme anxiety to wake me up so that I could get a drink of water. If that’s what was happening, it’s effective, but it seems like a mean trick.
After downing a glass of water I lay there, waiting to get back to sleep, experiencing the anxiety, which was still strong enough to stop me from getting to sleep. These things can take a while to settle down.
Over the years I’ve adopted many different responses to anxiety. Early on I learned that it was helpful to take my awareness into the body, and away from my thoughts. Simply paying attention to the breathing helps. More specifically, because paying attention to the breathing in the belly has a grounding and centering effect, this calms and slows down the mind, and combats anxiety. Bringing awareness into other sensations that are low down in the body—for example your feet on the floor if you’re standing, or your buttocks on your seat if you’re sitting—has a similar effect.
These approaches are often helpful, but sometimes there’s a tendency to think of anxiety as an “enemy” that you’re trying to get rid of. It’s as if you’re attempting to “game” your physiology in order to replace it with calmer feelings. And they sometimes don’t work at all, or can even make things worse, when you’re faced with very powerful or long-term anxiety.
So when for several years my life became one long crisis—trouble with the IRS because of my tax accountant failing to submit my tax returns, divorce, debt, housing insecurity (including a few weeks of homelessness), cancer, more debt (medical bills this time), and my livelihood being threatened because of technological changes—I had to find a better approach. I had to find a more self-compassionate approach.
I’d learned, and had at times practiced, the art of turning toward painful feelings rather than trying to quell them. This is the more self-compassionate approach that I’ve been teaching for many years now. This is what I now practiced doing. In a more self-compassionate approach, we see our anxiety not as an enemy, but as something beloved within us that needs our support. Some primitive part of us feels threatened, and is crying for help. The sensations of anxiety that I’ve described above are that cry for help. And our task is to turn toward our painful feelings, and to offer them our support and our love.
And so we can treat our anxiety in the same way we might treat a frightened baby or pet. An insecure part of us is communicating through sensations of anxiety. A more compassionate, wise, and mature part of us communicates with it in turn. We can show empathy by letting our anxiety know that we are present for it, and that we care. Also, we can offer soothing touch, perhaps laying a hand on our heart or belly. We talk gently and reassuringly. And we can regard it with a loving gaze.
With mild anxiety I’d say it’s fine to “combat” it, through diverting our attention toward the body. It’s even better, though, to offer it love. And this approach will help with more powerful and long-term anxieties as well. But there’s another approach that I’m turning toward more and more these days. This involves asking a simple existential question in order to release anxiety.
Here’s the question: Who is anxious?
What this question is doing is looking for the “Self” that is experiencing this anxiety. The question leads us to explore around the anxiety and see if there is any entity that we can find there. What I inevitably find when I do this is I find a bunch of ever-changing sensations. There’s nothing solid or stable. Everything is permeable and intangible. There’s no self to be found.
And at that point, happiness arises. A sense of freedom and joy comes into being and surrounds and permeates the anxiety. Sometimes the anxiety vanishes. Sometimes it’s still there but it simply doesn’t matter anymore.
This is a well-known practice, by the way. I didn’t invent it. Probably I first saw it used in the Zen tradition. I struggled with what to call this. I settled (provisionally) on “releasing anxiety.” But you could also call it “Zenning the heck out of your anxiety.” The name doesn’t matter.
This is the questioning that frees. Dogen was the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan in the 13th century. He said, “Great questioning, great enlightenment; little questioning, little enlightenment; no questioning, no enlightenment.”
So I offer you this question, which of course can be applied in other circumstances. Who is upset? Who is angry? Who desires? We can create a sense of freedom and joy around painful feelings and emotions by asking these very simple questions.
I’d add one caveat, though, which is that it may be unwise to seek (and fail to find) the self unless we’re already fluent in relating to ourselves compassionately. From time to time I hear from people who have taken up practices such as these and have experienced great fear, have lost any sense of meaning in their lives, or have found themselves unable to feel joy. This doesn’t happen often, and when it does it seems to happen when people have an unbalanced approach to practice that doesn’t include lovingkindness or compassion meditation, and where spiritual friendship and genuine spiritual community don’t play a role.
But as long as you have the ability to show love and kindness to yourself, I’d suggest that you take up the practice of “Zenning the heck” out of your suffering.
I love this powerful tool of turning towards my suffering and offering it kindness, understanding and compassion, like a parent embracing a hurt child. Its helped me to work through some very painful episodes in my life, especially those from childhood which unknowingly i was carrying with me.
Thank you for refreshing this practice for me!
Thanks for sharing.
A very helpful article – thank you. Particularly appreciate the quote from Dogen about no questioning, no enlightenment – this is an aspect of Buddhism that I really appreciate – the encouragement to question.
Also appreciate the caveat at the end about the importance of self-compassion in this approach.
I appreciated this.
You say: ‘So I offer you this question, which of course can be applied in other circumstances. Who is upset? Who is angry? Who desires? We can create a sense of freedom and joy around painful feelings and emotions by asking these very simple questions.’
Sometimes I simply ask: ‘What is it?’ which seems to have to result of both focusing my awareness and freeing up any fixation around any experience.
Something I have also pondered, which may be a little difficult to express, is how something can be so ‘easy’ and ‘effective’ for one person, but do nothing or frustrate another. In the past I’d always get irritated when a meditation leader etc. would say: ‘And then just contact metta’ or ‘then just generate metta’. Because it just wouldn’t work for me.
But then, lo and behold, some years ago – I’ve lost count on when – metta or simply kindness became much more available to me and then I would find myself leading meditation and saying much the same thing, with my own words perhaps.
The conundrum is to acknowledge this phenomenon and not to expect of others what works for you. We seem to take for granted what works for us, it’s simply second nature and it just works.
There is something very important in all this, which I’m reflecting on and hope to do more with eventually.
much love, Viryabodhi