Lovingly Embracing Anxiety and Depression

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Thursday Evening Online Program
September 15, 2022   7:00 to 8:45 pm Eastern time

Dear Still Water Friends,

I’ve been thinking a lot about anxiety lately. It seems that almost everyone I know has some form of anxiety disorder. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) discusses anxiety and how mindfulness can be helpful in letting go of our anxieties.

Someone asked me, “Aren’t you worried about the state of the world?” I allowed myself to breathe and then I said, “What is most important is not to allow your anxiety about what happens in the world to fill your heart. If your heart is filled with anxiety, you will get sick, and you will not be able to help.” There are wars — big and small — in many places, and that can cause us to lose our peace. Anxiety is the illness of our age. We worry about ourselves, our family, our friends, our work, and the state of the world. If we allow worry to fill our hearts, sooner or later we will get sick. Yes, there is tremendous suffering all over the world, but knowing this need not paralyze us. If we practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting, and working in mindfulness, we try our best to help, and we can have peace in our heart. Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse. Even though things are not as we would like, we can still be content, knowing we are trying our best and will continue to do so. If we don’t know how to breathe, smile, and live every moment of our life deeply, we will never be able to help anyone. I am happy in the present moment. I do not ask for anything else. I do not expect any additional happiness or conditions that will bring about more happiness. The most important practice is aimlessness, not running after things, not grasping.

This summer, I had a very jolting experience. A colleague whom I did not know well, but with whom I had a few positive interactions committed suicide after a long battle with depression and anxiety. At the funeral, the family did not hide the suicide and even described some of the ups and downs leading up to the death. As part of the service, the family shared part of the suicide note read something like, “Please tell our family and friends that I felt their love but their love was not enough.”

Having been acquainted with this colleague and having attended the loving and frank end-of-life service that celebrated their life and career, I was deeply saddened and hurt. Many questions came to mind:

How could someone who seemed so confident and competent on the outside be suffering so intensely on the inside?

How could someone who loved nature hikes, Broadway plays, cooking, and hanging out with their spouse and family have been fighting a lifelong battle with depression and anxiety?

How could a kind, competent, compassionate doctor be so overwhelmed by these mental states?

How could I have had absolutely no idea that this person was suffering?

As I continue to process the grief and fear that these experiences bring up for me, I have been thinking about how I understand anxiety and depression (including my own) and how I can be more aware of this type of suffering in myself and others. What I have realized is that anxiety has been such a part of my life that I have had a hard time recognizing it as a pathological condition or a system of dysfunctional thinking. Often  anxiety feels like my normal state and my behavior often reflects the ways I attempt to mitigate the sense of fear and dread that it conjures up. Most of my life has been spent trying to run from the feelings of fear, dread, and worthlessness that come with a distorted perception fueled by anxiety.

I have dealt with anxiety over the years by bucking up and pushing through — feeling the fear and unworthiness and doing it anyway. This approach has been somewhat successful at helping me to achieve goals, but has not done much to reduce my anxiety. Until this recent experience, I was convinced that anxiety and depression could be overcome with positive actions like expressing gratitude, practicing mindfulness meditation, and being of service to others. I have been judgmental of those who suffer from anxiety and depression and do not take positive actions. I have thought I should set boundaries and show tough love until those who suffer buck up and pull through or get the help that they need (even though I have no idea what that might be). My recent experiences have me questioning this approach.

My favorite Thay calligraphy states, “When we learn how to suffer, we suffer much less.”

What I am coming to realize is that learning how to suffer not only helps me suffer less, but also makes it possible for me to grow my understanding and compassion large enough to embrace the suffering of others. This awareness has completely changed my mind about some boundaries that I had set with our adult children who suffer from anxiety and depression.

This Thursday evening after our regular sitting and walking meditations our Dharma sharing will begin with these questions:

  • What has been your experience with anxiety and depression, and especially, has the practice of mindfulness helped you better understand and cope?
  • Has the practice expanded your awareness, understanding, and compassion for others who suffer from anxiety and depression?
  • What can we do as individuals and as a community to support those who suffer from these afflictions?

I hope you can join us this Thursday evening.

Warm regards,

Eric Donaldson