“We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace within ourselves.” – Dalai Lama
Our modern lives are peppered with anxiety. Traffic. Emails. Relationships. Parenting. Finances. Social gatherings. Throw a stone and you’re likely to hit a few experiences in your day that cause your pulse to quicken, your mouth to dry, your thoughts to become scattered.
Anxiety and stress are inevitable parts of life. (1) It’s what we signed up for, being in these human bodies that are constantly reacting to stimuli, both internal and external.
And yet, just because we accept anxiety to be a normal part of life doesn’t mean we can’t train ourselves to work with it skillfully. Instead of getting caught in it, we can learn to notice it and implement different practices that change our relationship to it. If we react to our anxiety with more anxiety, the condition is only exacerbated. However, if we respond to anxiety with greater awareness, acceptance, and compassion, we can invite peace into our inner world, no matter what arises. (2)
Here are three meditation practices you can use when you recognize the onset of anxiety. Each offers a slightly different approach. Play with all of them and see which works best for you. Modify as you see fit to accommodate your needs, or even your location (i.e. driving, at work).
Stay open and curious to what your anxiety looks and feels like at the end of your 10-minute meditation. It might just surprise you!
Grounding and Centering
When we’re caught in anxiety, it’s as if we’re thrown off our center of gravity. Things that normally bring us joy now feel dull, the world looks darker, and we’re frustrated by the fact that even we don’t know what’s wrong or how to fix it. A good place to start is returning to our centers.
If you can, find a quiet place outside, or a room where you won’t be disturbed. Take your shoes off and stand for a moment on the earth. Close your eyes and imagine your buzzing energy traveling down your body, through your feet, and into the earth. The earth is large; it can handle it. Send all that electricity down and out of your body.
Take a few deep inhales, then exhale out your mouth, making an audible sigh. If you’re having trouble with the visualization, you can also brush your hands along each arm and down your legs, as if you’re shooting the energy off your limbs with the friction of your hands.
Now, sit or lie down. If you’re sitting, lean against something sturdy, like a wall or the back of a chair. If you’re lying on the ground, notice how your back is propped by the earth. Close your eyes and lean into the support. Scan down your body and relax every muscle until you’ve given over to being held by the earth. You don’t have to do anything; you can rest.
With your eyes closed, feel into your breath, the gentle rising and falling of your belly. You don’t need to force it, just observe it as it is, traveling in and out. Imagine leaving your mind behind and occupying the space of your belly. Here, there are no thoughts, just the movement in and out, in and out. If you notice a thought pulls you into your head, recognize it, then traveling back down to your belly, resting your attention there once more.
Continue for 10 minutes. When your 10 minutes is over, slowly bring your awareness away from your breath and back to the environment around you. Notice the sounds, the temperature of the air, how the rest of your body feels. Bring your awareness back to the present moment and slowly blink your eyes open.
Take a few moments to relish in the feeling of being at peace before returning to your previous tasks.
The Dalai Lama’s rule of thumb can basically be summed up as this: when it doubt, compassion!
Budding research shows compassion makes us happier, boosts our health and longevity, and helps pulls us out of our emotional slumps. (3) The great news is we don’t need to be born compassion experts because we can practice.
Doing compassion practices for ourselves is powerful because we’re more likely to act compassionately towards others than ourselves. (4) Just as the Dalai Lama’s quote above suggests, we must cultivate our own inner peace before we can expect outer peace.
Sit comfortably in a chair or on the ground cross-legged. Keep your posture tall, as if a string attached to the crown of your head were lifting you towards the ceiling.
Take a few deep breaths, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Let each breath fill the belly first, then rises up to fill your lungs. To exhale, simply relax and let the breath naturally flow out. After a few rounds of breathing, allow your breath to return to normal.
Close your eyes and settle in. Feel the weight of your hips sinking into the chair. Feel the contact between your spine and the back of the chair, and your feet planted on the floor.
Do a quick body scan and see how you feel. Are there any places where you’re holding tension? Is there an overpowering emotion? If so, can you sense where it resides in your body? There’s no need to judge this information; you’re simply taking stock.
Now bring your attention to the borders of your body. Imagine your outline, and try to keep a general awareness of your entire being.
In your mind, repeat these phrases, and imagine you’re filling the space within your body with these wishes:
May I be healthy.
May I be happy.
May I be peaceful.
May I be whole.
Keep your breath steady, maybe synchronizing your breath with each phrase – breathing in one phrase, breathing out the other. Repeat the phrases to yourself, letting them wash through your entire body, for 10 minutes. Once 10 minutes have passed, take a few moments to simply rest in the compassion you’ve created.
Scan your body once more and see if it feels different than when you started. Again, there’s no need to judge what you find. Simply observe, with curiosity, the experience of giving yourself compassion. Notice if there’s more space or ease in your mind as compared to when you started.
Implement this practice in daily life as you see fit. It’s also great to do in the moments when you’ve been triggered. Even as you’re standing among other people, you can repeat these phrases to yourself. See if it makes a difference in your anxiety.
The Nature of Thoughts
We think 60,000-70,000 thoughts per day, and 95% of our thoughts are the same! (5)
We’re creatures of rumination. When we get a thought in our clutches, we like to sit with it a while, roll around in the mud together, get reeeeeeally acquainted.
What DID he mean when he said that to me?
Should I buy this new pair of shoes? I really want them, and my old ones wore out, but I didn’t include them in my budget for the month.
What can I do to achieve my weight goals?
Around and around we go with our thoughts. About 47% of our waking day is spent thinking about things other than what we’re doing at this moment. (6) Psychologists have shown that a wandering mind is not a happy mind. I think we can all agree that when we’re ruminating about something, it’s more likely to be a source of anxiety than joy.
So what do we do? For starters, we can recognize our thoughts are not really who we are. Here’s a meditation practice to help.
Sit somewhere quiet and close your eyes. Take a few breaths, and lengthen your spine. Feel your hips sinking into the chair and your feet on the floor. Let your belly be soft as you breathe.
Now, turn your attention to your thoughts. See if you can characterize what they’re like right now. Storming? Aimless? Laser focused? Undefined?
Continue watching your thoughts. What do you notice about them? Are you thinking the same thing, over and over? Do you notice your thoughts changing all of the sudden, and you don’t know what prompted it? Take five minutes to just watch your thoughts and see what you discover.
Next, see if you can identify where your thoughts begin. Watch them closely, like a scientist observing a new animal. Can you pinpoint where they originate, or do they seem to suddenly appear, almost as if you jump a couple of seconds into the development of a thought?
After you’ve spent a few minutes trying to find the start of your thoughts, let the practice go. You can either allow yourself to be swept away by your thoughts or focus on your breath if you want some distance from thinking.
Slowly bring yourself out of the practice and back into the room.
What did you discover? Did you learn anything interesting about the nature of your thoughts?
By studying our thoughts, it becomes easier to treat them with nonjudgment. They’re quite mysterious. Somehow, they’re always there, and they don't have a discernible beginning. They certainly don’t follow our commands. We can’t tell ourselves to stop thinking. Like a heartbeat, they’re just a part of our existence.
From this realization, we can choose to have a different relationship with our thoughts. Just because a thought arises doesn’t mean we have to believe it. The thought, “No one likes me” might pop up when we’re feeling anxious around company, but that doesn’t make it true.
After you’ve explored this meditation practice, you might implement a new practice in daily life. If a negative thought pops into your head and you notice it, you can respond right back, “That’s not very kind, and it’s not true.”
If you catch yourself ruminating about the same thing, and it’s causing you anxiety, you can say, “Huh, isn’t that interesting. I’ve been caught in the same thought for the last 15 minutes!”
Just because something appears in our minds doesn’t mean it’s who we are, and it doesn’t mean we have to take it seriously. In fact, the more playful and compassionate we can be towards our thoughts – anxious thoughts included – the more we’ll be free of their seductive cycles.
Through these meditations, you can start changing your relationship with anxiety. It doesn’t have to be a crippling experience. Over time, we’ll cultivate a greater appreciation for all human experiences, even anxiety, because it’s all a part of being in this wonderful thing we call life.
If you need a little extra help to make these types of practices a daily habit, sign up for Compass. In it, we offer not only different challenge series like 30 Days of Mindful, but also have the Daily Intent series that focuses on helping you cultivate living intentionally every single day. Right now you can get special offers and early access here!