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The best of PANIC!: A Buddhist perspective on coping with anxiety.

Posted Sep 12 2011 5:45pm

I've decided it's time to occasionally republish the more popular PANIC! posts from the past so that newer visitors to this blog will get a chance to weigh in on them. Following is the first such blast from the past, complete with comments to date (you can view the original post here ). Please feel free to join the conversation!
A Buddhist perspective on coping with anxiety.
The website of the Buddhism Society at Brown University has an article by Venerable Thubten Chodron entitled "Dealing With Anxiety" [note: this article is now available here ], which posits that anxiety is caused by our natural inclination towards self-centeredness
If somebody else's car gets dented we say, "Well, that's too bad," and forget about it. But if our car gets dented, we talk about it and complain about it for a long time. If a colleague is criticized, it doesn't bother us. But if we receive even a tiny bit of negative feedback, we become angry, hurt or depressed.

Why is this? We can see that anxiety is very intricately related to self-centeredness. The bigger this idea that "I am the most important one in the universe and everything that happens to me is so crucial," is, the more anxious we are going to be. My own anxious mind is a very interesting phenomena. Last year, I did a retreat by myself for four weeks, so I had a nice long time to spend with my own anxious mind and know it very well. My guess is that it's similar to yours. My anxious mind picks out something that happened in my life -- it does not make a difference what it is. Then I spin it around in my mind, thinking, "Oh, what if this happens? What if that happens? Why did this person do this to me? How come this happened to me?" and on and on. My mind could spend hours philosophizing, psychologizing and worrying about this one thing. It seemed like nothing else in the world was important but my particular melodrama.

When we are in the middle of worry and anxiety regarding something, that thing appears to us to be incredibly important. It's as if our mind doesn't have a choice -- it has to think about this thing because it's of monumental significance. But I noticed in my retreat that my mind would get anxious about something different every meditation session. Maybe it was just looking for variety! It's too boring to just have one thing to be anxious about! While I was worrying about one thing, it seemed like it was the most important one in the whole world and the other ones weren't as important. That is until the next session arrived, and another anxiety became the most important one and everything else was not so bad. I began to realize it isn't the thing I am worrying about that is the difficulty. It is my own mind that is looking for something to worry about. It doesn't really matter what the problem is. If I'm habituated with anxiety, I'll find a problem to worry about. If I can't find one, then I'll invent one or cause one.
One means to coping with anxiety is to adopt a perspective that goes beyond just yourself
By meditating on the kindness of others, we will see that we have actually been the recipients of an incredible amount of kindness and love from others. In doing this meditation, first think about the kindness of your friends and relatives, all the different things that they have done for you or given you. Start with the people who took care of you when you were an infant. When you see parents taking care of their kids, think, "Somebody took care of me that way," and "Somebody gave me loving attention and took care of me like that." If nobody had given us that kind of attention and care, we wouldn't be alive today...

...Think about the incredible kindness we received from those who taught us to speak. I visited a friend and her two-year-old child who was learning to speak. I sat there, watching as my friend repeated things over and over again just so her child could learn to speak. To think that other people did that for us! We take our ability to speak for granted, but when we think about it, we see that other people spent a lot of time teaching us how to speak, make sentences, and pronounce words. That is a tremendous amount of kindness we have received from others, isn't it? Where would we be if no one taught us how to talk? We did not learn by ourselves. Other people taught us. Everything we learned throughout childhood and everything we keep learning as adults -- every new thing that comes into our lives and enriches us -- we receive due to the kindness of others. All of our knowledge and each of our talents exist because others taught us and helped us to develop them.
It may or may not help you achieve enlightenment, but this sure seems like worthwhile advice.


7/10 split said...
First you say that anxiety is the result of being self-absorbed. Then you say that anxiety causes the self-focus.

Then you say you believe that focusing on the kindness of others is helpful. But in fact, childhood abuse and neglect is a frequent precursor to anxiety disorders. As far as the kindness of teaching a child to talk: the capacity for speech is innate. Any person of normal intelligence, who is exposed to language before adolescence, will learn to speak. People from the most deprived, abusive, and neglectful backgrounds have learned to speak. Your thoughts regarding anxiety are either very muddled or insincere.
3:13 PM

Eric Wilinski said...
First, these weren't my words -- I was quoting from the link. Beyond that, though, we're reading this completely differently. Here's what I read: "Anxiety is the result of self-centeredness. One way to escape self-centeredness is to focus on the kindness of others." Doesn't seem very hard to understand, or very controversial.
7:00 PM

brooks said...
This is excellent. Thanks so much for posting this. I am new to Buddhism and am finding much strength in the rationale approaches you describe. Thank you.
5:30 AM

raymm said...
The reason we practice thinking this way is to develop a wise mind that cherishes all the sentient beings around him.

7/10 split: Yes, innate capacity, but still need people to practice with. You are missing an opportunity to practice gratitude. Try thinking: Anything that a sentient being does that increases my happiness is a kindness, regardless of motivation.
3:39 PM

Juan Pablo said...
It happens to me... the reasons I worry vary from time to time. But the feeling is the same, so it´s my mind and not the events surrounding me. It´s nice to see that I am not alone, and that many have gone through the same patterns as I do...

Certainly I believe that we can cope with whatever comes in life. And when I see things in perspective, everything could be a lot worse than how it is right now. So I better enjoy things as they are now.

It also seems to me that somehow we forgot the ability to live the present. Just to be as when we were kids playing around, focused in nothing but the moment.
2:46 PM

snicole said...
Thank you for reminding me that all worry is based in fear and that fear comes from the basic selfish feeling of not being in control. I like the switch in focus as it reminds me that we live in a loving Universe and there is a guiding force behind it all that takes care of things for us, maybe just not in our timing. I have experienced most types of abuse from childhood and beyond, yet the healing I've experienced and the people I've helped from my own experience are the world's great blessings.
10:02 PM

Emily Sachar said...
I just found your post after reading an article on anxiety in the New York Times magazine from some months back. It mentioned another blog, and I landed here. In any case, I find your post incredibly poignant, and since I'm one of those self-absorbed (I guess) anxiety thinkers, very helpful and thoughtful. I can't tell you how much I agree with the notion that one keeps moving from one topic to the next when anxious, looking to fill the mind with anxious worry.

For my part, I would love the names of any books you might recommend to cope with this. I do not WANT to be anxious. I do not TRY to be anxious. But I also do not try NOT to be anxious. Or I do not try a philosophy that might help. And in the course of a day, I can worry about whether my children love their father more than me, whether my job is secure, whether I'll enjoy an upcoming vacation and -- worst of all -- I think all the time about the past, remembering exactly how I felt, even to the hour, on a given trip. It is so painful. I welcome any and all thoughts or ideas. I'm willing to read until I die to straighten out this 33-year-old habit of self-absorption that I never meant to have!
1:34 PM

CreativeTaylor said...
I appreciate this article as a different perspective of anxiety... it's something I'm going to try very hard to keep in mind. At the same time, after reading this I began to reflect on my own childhood and my anxious mind couldn't help but to start thinking of the abuses and neglect in my own childhood. It is very self-centered, and yet that's all my mind really knows. I understand that there are people suffering far worse than I ever did, but somehow my mind always goes back to the most negative memories and it's such a difficult cycle to break.

Thanks for posting this article - the idea of self-centeredness is something I'm going to try to call upon next time I'm in this negative loop & perhaps it will help to remind me that others have suffered worse and that I'm not the only one that matters.
3:00 PM

figtree66 said...
Very Interesting.

I know in my case,i have always had 2 things.....

Being self centered.......and Anxiety.

I never thought about the possible connection..

Thank you, I will look into this.

6:25 AM

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