By Erica Dutton
Almost everyone I know worries at times, some more than others. A very few lucky people report little to no worrying. I’m not one of them. In periods of high stress, it even affects my sleep. I have a hard time falling asleep or I wake up frequently thinking about the same thing over and over. Worrying can involve anxiety, fear, anger, hopelessness, irritability, hostility, helplessness, and depression. It takes its toll on our physical health—headaches, stomach aches, migraines, sleeplessness, fatigue…the list goes on.
Worrying is part of the human condition. However, worry seems to be increasing in our complex, complicated, divisive world. The speed of change has increased so dramatically it leaves us feeling stressed.
How can we survive in this world, let alone thrive, when worry seems to be all around us and in us? The first thing is to get it know it better. You might say, “I don’t need to know anything more about my worrying, thank you very much. I just want it to go away!” I thought that too. But worrying is a complex experience. There is much to learn about yourself and about how your worrying process starts, is maintained, and eventually let go. We often just look at the surface of worry and judge ourselves if we think we’re failing in some way, but meditation gives us the chance to explore the process of worrying. Becoming familiar with your particular way of worrying means you can recognize the pattern earlier and have the opportunity to interrupt it. It means you can see clearly how you feed into the worrying and build it up until you’re almost immobilized. Examining what reaction you have during the worrying process gives you some distance from your worry. You have a choice to respond to a situation rather than react from an old habitual pattern. Over time, worrying lessens on its own as its grip becomes weaker.
We have different ways of worrying. Some of us replay situations that actually happened over and over in our minds. Others do the same with imaginary circumstances. My favorite way to worry is to have a conversation in my head that I might have in the future or I wish I had in the past. I’m sure I’m not alone. We can project bad outcomes, getting angry or sad in the process. Or we feel better because in our imaginations at least we’ve achieved something. We imagine saying what we should have said. Sometimes the worry becomes so strong we feel immobilized, unsure how to proceed, even second-guessing ourselves as to the ‘right’ course.
We can’t just decide to stop worrying, but there are many tools to help with worrying and meditation is one of the best for me. The kind of meditation that has helped me the most is Reflective Meditation.
Reflective Meditation is an open, receptive practice with a lightly structured approach. It combines insight, mindfulness, and a broader awareness of our experiences. With Reflective Meditation we request gentleness in our self-talk, give ourselves permission to practice, and invite curiosity to explore the interior world of our mind and body. We’re gentle when we criticize ourselves and how we meditate. We give ourselves permission to do what makes sense to us in our meditation and then explore the outcomes. We have autonomy in our practice, learning what works and what doesn’t. And lastly, our interest and curiosity into our inner world naturally develops. Instead of trying to achieve a particular state of mind such as peace or relaxation, opening ourselves to the curious, strange, marvelously confusing world inside leads to longer lasting results. We’d all like to achieve peace and relaxation when we meditate but when we strive for that, it sometimes seems elusive. And of course, when we stop meditating, we face the same stressors as we did before we started.
Meditation isn’t another self-help strategy. Meditation’s goal isn’t to get rid of worry or manage it better. In meditation, we learn to be with all things as they are, watch experiences unfold, and see clearly how we create more stress. Remember, stress is a human experience. As long as we’re alive we’ll worry to some degree. But worry doesn’t have to run our lives. In seeing the worrying process unfold, we can learn to let it go without pushing it away. We don’t have to be engaged in a fight with worry. Meditation helps us understand it, to gain perspective and then watch it gently go away. Instead of feeding the worry, we pull the power plug that energizes it.
In my teachings, I help you effectively meditate so you can change your relationship with worry. It isn’t magic, but over time you’ll understand the patterns in your worrying, how your worrying starts, what triggers it, how you intensify the worrying, what lies beneath the surface of worrying, and then you learn to let it go.
The pre-requisites of Reflective Meditation are simple—a comfortable position and a desire to sit quietly and see what happens in our mind and body. But in Reflective Meditation, the sitting doesn’t end the session. After a meditation sitting, you’re encouraged to take some time to reflect (hence the name) on what actually happened. I like to journal what I remember about my meditation. I use a small spiral bound notebook to recall my sitting because I don’t remember my meditations easily. Sometimes my sittings are so full and busy that I can’t remember all the details, especially if I’m sitting for a long time. Or it feels like a dream and the experience fades quickly. Writing about your experience helps but it isn’t the only way. Some people draw pictures or diagrams. You can also spend time recalling what actually happened in your sitting, asking yourself questions about the entire experience, your emotions, feelings and mood associated with the worrying. You can ask yourself if there are sounds, smells, tastes, body sensations or visual images in the sitting. How did you react to the worrying itself? Your teacher can ask more questions to help you learn more about this pattern as well as others.
The last step, and the most fruitful, is to share your experience with a teacher individually or in small groups. Growth and learning take place in talking with others about our inner experience. We learn from listening to others and from the questions the teacher asks. The teacher is there to help you flesh out what you recall of your experience, to help you see facets of your experience you may not have noticed or possibly ignored or minimized. Often times you’ll see how your sittings connect to the rest of your life. Being in a small group with a teacher leads to cultivating an honest and safe inner environment where you can learn to meet whatever your mind comes up with, including worry.
In meditation, we encourage opening up to all our senses: what we hear, see, feel, smell and taste. The sixth sense in Buddhist psychology is the mind, which for the most part is very active and often full of worry. The overall goal is to be with whatever arises in awareness—the good, the bad, and the ugly. When I started meditating, I wanted to feel peaceful and relaxed as much as possible. Of course, that wasn’t possible, but that didn’t stop me from trying. But when I was faced with a racing, worrying, agitated mind, I didn’t know what to do. Over time with Reflective Meditation, I have learned how to be with the worrying and learn from my experience.
Erica Dutton has been practicing and studying meditation for 20 years and teaching for 12. She offers individual and small group teaching, classes, and consultation. She can be reached through her Facebook page SkyGardens Meditation or by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.