About Anxiety - Part one: Investigating anxious thoughts

Anxiety is quite a topic these days. Instead of trying to ignore the impact of it, or treating it as a force we can't seem to stand up against, let's take a pause and look into what we are dealing with. 

What is anxiety and what is causing it?

I'd like to invite you to investigate this with me, checking your own experience at all times.

There will be three articles in this series. In this first one, we talk about the thoughts that cause feelings of anxiety. How does that work?

  • In the second article we will go even deeper: Who is anxious? Who is the “me” who is worried or scared?
  • And finally, the third article will be about just resting in what is.

Enjoy reading!

Anxiety

Anxiety has many forms. It can be a small but tenacious knot somewhere in your stomach or a worried voice speaking to you when you try to sleep at night. Sometimes anxiety can become an overwhelming fear that causes you to panic, even to a point where you can't seem to function anymore. Fear of losing your grip, of losing loved ones, fear of dying or becoming ill. Fear of all the bad things that can happen to you or others. I think most of us have been visited by anxiety in one way or another.
I surely have been, and still am, sometimes.

We all know in the back of our heads that what we imagine is not real—well, not yet anyway…

We all know in the back of our heads that what we imagine is not real—well, not yet anyway…

We tell ourselves to stop thinking, but the thoughts seem to come back like lazy flies. Why? Because we believe them, we plunge right into their stories and never ask ourselves what it is we are listening to.

So let's take a closer look. To begin with, what are thoughts?

Thoughts come up out of nowhere: images or words, or both, appearing freely, without warning, in our consciousness. Thoughts have no substance, no beginning or end (try to find where a thought begins…or ends). They disappear into nowhere, leaving no trace. Thoughts can be supported by feeling, making the thought somehow more meaningful.

Are they real? 

Yes, but only in the mind.

All these thoughts, all these stories pop up from our memory. They really have nothing to do with this moment. This moment is not a memory; it's completely new and fresh. A thought can appear in this moment, though, as a comment on what's happening, or as an association. But it will never be more than that. Whether a comment comes from memory or as an assumption about what's to come, it’s still just a thought.

(And aren't they brilliant! How brilliant it is that we can imagine something outside reality! That we can remember things in order to function, in order to create things! Thoughts make it possible to remember what a fridge is for when you go to the kitchen for breakfast. Or to be able to write down a list of groceries for dinner, or design a building.)

We don't need to get rid of our thoughts. Thoughts are not the problem. We just need to see them for what they are.

We don't need to get rid of our thoughts. Thoughts are not the problem. We just need to see them for what they are.

So what about those anxious thoughts we can't seem to get rid of?

How can we see them for what they are: just thoughts? The thing is, it’s quite difficult for us to make a distinction between reality and fantasy.

Our bodies don't seem to know. While I'm sitting here, safe and sound in this beautiful room, if I think of something that really upsets me, my body reacts. I get a heavy feeling in my heart, and my palms start to sweat. My body reacts to my thoughts as if they are really happening. And we are so easily impressed by what we feel! Feeling makes it all so real. Even when we realise it's not happening now, we tell ourselves (and this is a really clever one) that it might not happen now, but it still is a very realistic thought: It could happen in the future!

We are so easily lured into fantasy. In reality I am sitting here in this room, and all is fine. Worry might come up, as part of what is happening. But it has no reality, it's just a thought.

We seem to be the victims of our thought-feelings. We take them very seriously and try to reason with them. Try to get rid of them. Try to reassure them, or tell them to go away. But the truth is, they don't exist in reality. And when we confuse thought with reality, feelings come up, making thought feel even more "true."

How can you know what is real?

Reality is found only in this moment: Where you are. The clothes you’re wearing are here; the floor is here; the air is here; this body is here; sounds are here. Every story about this is just a story, a thought. It is an interpretation, a secondhand telling. As I said, it is quite brilliant to have the ability to think and interpret and tell ourselves stories! But when you confuse thought with what is really here, it causes deep despair and a feeling of being lost. We are told to believe these interpretations, instead of believing what is right in front of our nose.

Our minds always want more: deeper meaning, understanding, a beautiful, important story, urging us to become someone. But that leads us far from home. Coming back to the complete plainness and obviousness of what is right here, now, is a deep relief. We don't need to invest in our thoughts, to defend and maintain our life stories. We can just rest in this moment and stay where we are. We are already a perfect manifestation of life.

When thoughts come up that make you anxious, or that bring you down, start recognizing that you are in the middle of a story—a story that will dissolve if you don't invest in it. Remember, thoughts leave no trace. That is because they have no reality. The moment you look them right in the eye, they are dismantled. They have no power by themselves.

Still, in daily life, the habit of being mesmerized by our fantasies is not so easy to break. It is something you need to practise. (Well I needed to, but maybe I'm a stubborn person) The question you can ask yourself frequently is: Is this real or is it a thought, a story?

Just bring yourself back to the bare reality: What is here right now? Sitting on a chair. Typing of fingers on laptop. Mug of tea sitting on the table. Sounds of a car driving by. Breathing. The dog resting its head on my foot. A sudden gust of rainy wind on the window.

Practise this as often as you can. Describe the moment and everything in it. Slowly, things will come into perspective. The now is not a concept. It is very mundane and earthly, peaceful and miraculous in its simplicity. To a feverish mind looking for something more spectacular, something more meaningful, the now might even sound boring!

A meditation on anxiety

Here is a 20 minute Meditation on anxiety you can try if you're an EkhartYoga member.

OK. That's it for now. Keep it light, keep being friendly to yourself.
I'm curious about your findings.

Esther Teule

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