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Mindful : April 2017
experienced—to come away from a session thinking, This didn’t make me more peaceful. It made me even more anxious! Meditation itself does not make you anxious. Rather, meditation puts you in touch with what is making you anxious. It puts you in touch with life. And so, as you sit, with no apparent and immediate threats to your safety, the normal barrage of thoughts beginning to slow a bit, your deepest worries float to the surface: will your daughter find a job that pays enough, how mom’s failing health seems destined for a bad outcome, whether you took the pen out of your pants pocket before you started the washer. It turns out the present moment is not auto- matically a place of rest. It’s tilted slightly for- ward, perched on the edge of the future. What’s about to happen lies just ahead. The next word, the next step, the next thought. We’re always moving forward into the next moment. We are also cautious and self-protective beasts—and we’re vulnerable to being hurt, physically and mentally—so we like to feel that the next moment will be safe. It’s human to fear for our safety and security, and the safety and security of those we love, and indeed the safety and security of the planet. But sometimes it isn’t safe, and one thing is certain, what will occur in the next moment is never certain, and that causes...anxiety. Unavoidable and Even Necessary Our bodies are storehouses of incredible energy, and our brains decide how that energy will be allocated and directed. Using the faculties cog- nitive scientists call concentration and selective attention, we can focus our energy like a laser beam on the task at hand—driving a car, writing a report, painting a landscape. We marshal the most resources, however, when we fear for our safety or seek to arm ourselves for an uncer- tain future. In those moments, the brain sends signals to the body to be primed to rev up the energy needed to act. It’s the famous fight or flight instinct, and it’s a really nifty tool to help us stay alive. Indeed, the stuff of anxiety is our survival instinct converted into raw energy. Police and first responders, for example, usually have big adrenalin spikes when they get a call. If they show up and it’s nothing, a cat in a tree, it still can take a while for the energy to settle. They were primed to fight to the death if need be. On that day I tried to sit in meditation I wasn’t walk- ing into the kind of dangers that law enforcement faces on a daily basis, but the uncertainty I had about my future felt just as precarious. And the thing is, we get no advance training in the classroom for how to live in an uncertain world inhabiting a human mind and body. It’s all on-the-job training, with little more than our survival instinct to serve as commander, our worried minds happy to take the first watch. During meditation, I was regularly exposed to the thought process that lay beneath all the mental and physical gyrations that tied me up in knots. It became a laboratory, a unique oppor- tunity not to think further about each thought, but to quickly see it for what it was, to move on, and then see the next thoughts as they arose. I could experience how they felt in my body, what other ideas they triggered, and how it’s possible to move from a trot to a canter to a full-on gallop as one thought piles on top of another. In med- itation, one becomes a self-anthropologist. Just noticing, not judging too much, just noticing. As a side effect, I began to unclench my mental jaw, to loosen up. I started to perceive thoughts less as big solid entities or monumen- tal truths. They became more transparent. It’s like when you know that someone is making something up—you can see right through it. Instead of believing my thoughts as fact, I was able to observe them as passing events in the mind. For example, if the thought emerged that I might run out of money soon, I could see that as a thought, a response to uncertainty, note it and move on. It did not have to start a cascade of other thoughts that rev ved up my emotions, culminating in the image of me wandering the streets. A thought might even come back, repeat- edly, but it didn’t have to make me anxious. We sometimes like to fantasize that life is not precarious and dodgy. But deep down, we know life is shifty.