Breathe That Anxiety Away
I woke up, anxious, in the top bunk of a shared hostel room in Florence, Italy. My roommates had already gotten up and left the room, and I lay there alone. I felt strongly pulled to get out of bed and distract myself in one of the most beautiful cities I’d ever experienced, to see more art and history that I’d only ever heard about.
But I knew that it wouldn’t really help. I’d still find myself half-distracted by my own thoughts, insecurities, fears, and anxieties. I’d still lay down at night isolated, alone, and at the effect of whatever demons flared up that day. I’d still wake up in a near-panic, my mind in the throes of a mental typhoon.
Screw it. On that sunny morning in Florence, with the tall, wide window looking out onto an Italian neighborhood, I decided not to get out of bed until I felt the peace that I’d read was there. I’d been “studying” Buddhism and trying to meditate, and if perfect nature and well being was just beneath the storm of my conditioned thinking, well I was going to feel it.
I lay there unmoving with my eyes closed, feeling the feels from every part of my body - hands, arms, legs, feet, torso, neck, head. Staying present to those feelings, I brought focus onto my breath: in, out. In. Out. I then imagined a soft sweeping through the top of my head, the bristles of the imagined straw broom slowly sifting through my mind, side to side, side to side. Sweep…sweep…sweep.
I gently swept thoughts from my mind while breathing into my feeling body. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Thoughts either fell away, or I breathed them out.
And, no joke, in less than 10 minutes I was free. I was awake, present to my body and my surroundings, and the thought storm had subsided. In its wake: joy and relief and a bit of excitement.
After a couple more minutes of feeling that calm, I got up and joined my Canadian and Australian friends for a visit to the Uffizi Gallery.
I graduated from college not long before this experience. I was in the top 5% of students in high school and college, and I had a supportive, healthy, and loving childhood. I grew up going to church each Sunday and had believed in it deeply.
Yet this fundamental insight into my own nature, this simple skill of grounding myself in my innate well being and wisdom, I totally missed somehow.
The trap that I found myself in then, and still find myself in from time to time, is that I tried, by thinking, to claw my way out of uncomfortable feelings. But my thinking is what lit and then stoked the flame of those feelings, and those feelings led me to try harder to think my way out of it.
I was trapped in an inaccurate model of experience, one that says my feelings are a response to the world I sense.
These days, when I wake up into a feeling of anxiety, I play a brief game with myself: "thought, thought, thought, thought, thought" I point out each thought that I "see" in my mind. In less than a minute, the anxious feeling subsides and I am free.
I don’t want our students to grow up and miss these most important lessons: we never need be a victim to our own emotions and feelings, and ease, clarity, peace of mind, and mental well being are always right there, usually just a couple thoughts away.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s [unwillingness] to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Thanks for reading ❤️.
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