Embracing Our Anxiety

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Silver Spring, Maryland, Community Online on Thursday Evening
September 24, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all Online on Friday Evening
September 25, 7:00 to 8:45 pm

Dear Still Water Friends,

When I learned at Plum Village to invite the bell before meditation, I was told to first calm my mind and settle my body, then to say to myself the gatha (meditation verse) for inviting the bell:

Body, speech, and mind in perfect oneness
I send my heart along with the sound of this bell.
May the hearers awaken from forgetfulness
And transcend the path of anxiety and sorrow.

It is one of the gathas I most enjoy, because it transforms a functional task, announcing the start of a meditation, into a prayer, that those who are with me for this meditation may “transcend the path of anxiety and sorrow.”

For me, the sorrow is about the hurts, failures, regrets, and losses of the past recalled in  the present moment. Though they may have  happened long ago, they are still present in us, and often still very strong. The anxiety, in contrast, is the intrusion into the present moment of our apprehensiveness about consequences of possible future events. Often, because of our anxiety, we worry, or become depressed or irritable.

Anxiety is different from fear. Fear most often has a known trigger, and, usually, there are actions we can take to reduce the possibility of an adverse outcome. The trigger for anxiety is less distinct; there is a felt sense that something bad will happen, and it feels overwhelming, beyond anything we can do.

I’m focused on anxiety because this week it seems to be in me and all around me: popping up in Dharma sharing, casual comments among friends, and present as an underlying disquiet in media reports and election campaigning. There are, of course, reasons why more anxiety is arising. In addition to the always present challenges and difficulties of human life, we have right now a world-wide pandemic; a new clarity about the life-destroying consequences of climate change; a growing awareness of the suffering brought about by racial and social inequalities; and, the most unstable political situation in my lifetime.

Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) advises that when we are tormented by anxiety or other afflictive emotions, rather than ignoring our anxiety or distracting ourselves, we should lean into them, embrace them, and transform them. In Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting through the Storm, he writes:

Mindfulness is a kind of energy that can help bring our minds back to our bodies so that we can be established well in the here and now, so that we can get deeply in touch with life and its many wonders and truly live our lives. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of what is going on in the present moment—in our bodies, in our feelings, in our perceptions, in the world.

We know that the morning is beautiful—the hills, the mist, the sunrise. We want to get in touch with that beauty and allow it into our hearts. We know this is very nourishing. But sometimes an emotion or feeling comes up that prevents us from enjoying what’s happening in the here and now. While another person is able to let the mountains, the glorious sunrise, the beauty of nature penetrate fully into his body and mind, we are blocked by our worries, our fear, and our anger, and the beauty of the sunrise cannot really enter us. Our emotions prevent us from getting in touch with the wonders of life, the kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha.

What should we do in these circumstances? We think we have to remove that feeling or emotion to be free again, so the beautiful sunrise can penetrate us. We consider our fear, anger, and worries as enemies. We think that without them we would be free, and that these feelings get in the way so we cannot receive the nourishment we need. It is in moments like this that we stick to our mindful breathing and gently recognize our afflictions, whether anger, frustration, or fear. Suppose we are feeling worry or anxiety. We practice, “Breathing in, I know that anxiety is in me. Breathing out, I smile to my anxiety.” Maybe you have a habit of worrying. Even if you know it’s neither necessary nor useful, you still worry. You’d like to ban worry and get rid of it, because you know that when you worry you can’t get in touch with the wonders of life and you can’t be happy. So you get angry at your worry; you don’t want it. But worry is a part of you, and that’s why when your worry comes up, you have to know how to handle it tenderly and peacefully. You can do it if you have the energy of mindfulness. You cultivate the energy of mindfulness with mindful breathing and mindful walking, and with that energy, you can recognize and tenderly embrace your worry, fear, and anger.

When your baby suffers and cries, you don’t want to punish him or her, because your baby is you. Your fear and anger are like your baby. Don’t imagine that you can just throw them out the window. Don’t be violent toward your anger, your fear, and your worries. The practice is simply to recognize them. Continue to practice mindful breathing and mindful walking; then, with the energy generated by your practice, you can recognize intense feelings, smile to them, and embrace them tenderly. This is the practice of nonviolence with your worries, fear, and anger. If you get angry with your anger, it is multiplied ten times. This is not wise. You already suffer a lot, and if you get angry with your anger, you will suffer more. A baby may not be pleasant when she cries and kicks, but her mother picks her up tenderly and holds her in her arms, and the mother’s tenderness penetrates the baby. After a few minutes, the baby feels better and may stop crying.

It’s the energy of mindfulness that empowers you to recognize your pain and sorrow and embrace them tenderly. You feel some relief, and your baby is quiet. Now you can enjoy the beautiful sunrise and allow yourself to be nourished by the wonders of life around you as well as inside you.

 “Yes,” you may be thinking, “it’s wonderful and nourishing to enjoy a beautiful sunrise, but what about covid, climate change, racial inequalities, and the elections? Shouldn’t we be doing something?”  I believe Thay’s life and counsel would indicate: “Yes, in addition to enjoying the sunrise, we should be fearlessly addressing the challenges of our time through our words and actions. And, we should be doing it mindfully, compassionately, and lovingly.”

In the Art of Living Thay anticipates and answers a similar question:

“But,” you may ask, “if we are happy in the present moment, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, then who will help living beings become liberated? Who will rescue those who are drowning in the ocean of suffering? Does being aimless make us indifferent to the suffering in the world? If our priority is to be free and happy, doesn’t that paralyze us, and lead us to avoid the challenges and difficulties of trying to help others?”

The Buddha was no longer looking or yearning for anything, no longer striving, and yet he was someone who never ceased to help liberate all beings. Throughout the forty-five years of his ministry, he continued to help liberate others from their suffering, even to the last moments of his life. Being aimless doesn’t mean we are without compassion and loving-kindness. As soon as we have compassion, loving-kindness, and understanding, we naturally have a strong motivation to act and to help.

What’s essential is to bring a different quality of being to the situation of suffering in the world. If we are suffering just like everyone else, how can we help them suffer less? If doctors have the same sickness as their patients, how can they help them heal? Our energy of peace, joy, compassion, and freedom is essential. We have to nourish and protect our way of being. Whatever we do needs to have a spiritual dimension.

When our work and life has a spiritual dimension, we’re able to sustain ourselves, take care of ourselves, and avoid burning out.

 In Peace is Every Step, Thay explains further:

When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help the people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection, we decided to do both—to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?

We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things. Are you massaging our Mother Earth every time your foot touches her? Are you planting seeds of joy and peace? I try to do exactly that with every step, and I know that our Mother Earth is most appreciative. Peace is every step.

This Thursday and Friday evenings we will explore together anxiety and its transformation. We will begin our Dharma sharing with these questions:

  • Are you feeling more anxious these days?
  • If so, how are you managing your anxieties?
  • Are there mindfulness practices that are especially helpful?

You are invited to join us.

In the excerpt below, Thay offers a walking meditation gatha we can use to bring our troubled mind back to the present moment.

May we all transcend, and help others transcend, the path of sorrow and anxiety.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner

Walking Meditation
by Thich Nhat Hanh, from Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices

The mind can go in a thousand directions.
But on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.
With each Step, a gentle wind blows.
With each Step, a flower blooms.

 We walk all the time, but usually it’s more like running. Our hurried steps print anxiety and sorrow on the earth. If we can take one step in peace, we can take two, three, four, and then five steps for the peace and happiness of humankind and the Earth.

Walking meditation is walking just to enjoy walking. Walking without arriving, that is the technique. There is a Sanskrit word, apranihita. It means wishlessness or aimlessness. The idea is that we do not put anything ahead of ourselves and run after it. When we practice walking meditation, we walk in this spirit. We just enjoy the walking, with no particular aim or destination. Our walking is not a means to an end. We walk for the sake of walking.

Our mind tends to dart from one thing to another, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch without stopping to rest. Thoughts have millions of pathways, and they forever pull us along into the world of forgetfulness. If we can transform our walking path into a field for meditation, our feet will take every step in full awareness. Our breathing will be in harmony with our steps, and our mind will naturally be at ease. Every step we take will reinforce our peace and joy and cause a stream of calm energy to flow through us. Then we can say, “With each step, a gentle wind blows.”

You can practice walking meditation anytime you walk, even if it’s only from the car to the office or from the kitchen to the living room. When you walk anywhere, allow enough time to practice; instead of three minutes, give yourself eight or ten. I always leave for the airport an extra hour early so I can practice walking meditation there. Friends want to keep me until the last minute, but I resist. I tell them that I need the time. Walking meditation is like eating. With each step, we nourish our body and our spirit. When we walk with anxiety and sorrow, it’s a kind of junk food. The food of walking meditation should be of a higher quality. Just walk slowly and enjoy a banquet of peace.

A. J. Muste said, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.” Walking in mindfulness brings us peace and joy, and makes our life real. Why rush? Our final destination will only be the cemetery. Why not walk in the direction of life, enjoying peace in each moment with every step? There is no need to struggle. Enjoy every step you make. Every step brings you home to the here and the now. This is your true home—because only in this moment, in this place, can life be possible. We have already arrived.

The Earth is our mother. When we are away from mother nature for too long, we get sick. Each step we take in walking meditation allows us to touch our mother, so that we can be well again. A lot of harm has been done to mother earth, so now it is time to kiss the earth with our feet and heal our mother.

Some of us may not be able to walk. When we practice walking meditation at our retreats, each person who can’t walk chooses someone who is practicing walking meditation to watch and become one with, following her steps in mindfulness. In this way, he makes peaceful and serene steps together with his partner, even though he himself cannot walk.

We who have two legs must not forget to be grateful. We walk for ourselves, and we walk for those who cannot walk. We walk for all living beings—past, present, and future.