Music profoundly changes our emotions. Sound has the potential to turn our feelings inside out.
In September, I committed to bringing my mother to the theatre. Local theatres do a lot of film screenings, I found with disappointment. Among them, I spotted The Graduate. I don’t understand why, but I love the film.
The events and characters are grim. The atmosphere is anxious. The ending is certainly filled with angst. But that’s not the aftertaste it leaves.
I rooted out The Graduate in college. Third year of medicine, a year dedicated to learning ginormous amounts of information, weighed heavy on my mind.
It was the weekend. Alone, I had nothing to do other than study and the mood dwindled. Somehow The Graduate lifted me out of melancholy.
In an essay filled to the brim with reference to science, a music cognition scientist (yes, that’s a thing), says:
We never just hear music. Our experience of it is saturated in cultural expectations, personal memory and the need to move.
The revelation reminded me of something a friend said. She shocked me with a simple truth: you start having sex long before you enter the bedroom.
So yeah, our perception runs away from reality at the first chance it gets. I am sitting here imagining: in a film about Macbeth, what soundtrack would I choose? And when you think about it like that, you see that music manipulates emotion like nothing else.
In the professional medical world, Medscape is probably the most trusted up to date online resource. I am delighted to see that yesterday they published an article that highlights some of the more challenging and distressing aspects of meditation based on a recent scientific paper in PLOS One.
The reason I am so glad is that it means we’re moving to a different approach to meditation, one with more well-warranted rigour in how people talk about this intervention and away from the perception that this is something without side-effects.
Crux of the study:
the challenging aspects of Buddhist-derived meditation practices are well described in Buddhist tradition but are less so in Western scientific literature
the researchers interviewed nearly 100 meditators and meditation teachers from each of three main traditions: Theravāda, Zen, and Tibetan.
the researchers developed a taxonomy of 59 experiences organised into seven domains: cognitive, perceptual, affective (emotions and moods), somatic (relating to the body), conative (motivation or will), sense of self, and social.
all meditators reported multiple unexpected experiences across the seven domains of experience.
the duration of the effects people described in their interviews varied widely, ranging from a few days to months to more than a decade, the investigators report.
some meditators reported their feelings, even the desirable ones, went too far or lasted too long, or they felt violated, exposed, or disoriented.
meditation experiences that felt positive during retreats sometimes persisted and interfered with their ability to function or work when they left the retreat and returned to normal life.
the meditator’s practice intensity, psychiatric history, trauma history and the quality of supervision are important factors that influence the meditators experience, but not for everyone.
the study highlights that the one size fits all approach isn’t ideal: “The good news is that there are many different programs out there and different practices available, and with a little bit of homework and informed shopping, someone could find a really good match for what they are after,” she said. “But I think often people just sign up for whatever is the most convenient or the best marketed, and it’s not always a good match for their constitution or their goals.”
Dissecting the side effects
Here are the reported side effects with the percentage of people who reported them in brackets:
It’s fascinating to note that nearly 50% noted a change in worldview. Open mind, new philosophy – fair enough. I would be on the fence about saying that I have a different world view because of meditation. It’s clearer, it’s calmer, it’s more adaptable, but it’s not really changed. Thus, it is possible that people who try to meditate are often looking for a new worldview or are quite suggestible.
Nearly the same number of people reported delusional, irrational and paranormal beliefs! I guess this is all based on Buddhism and there is a strong religious element to it. However, people were clearly made uncomfortable by it. I certainly experienced this: this is why I tread carefully when I go exploring meditation resources. A huge number of them are zealous, either for reasons of unquestioning devotion, or commercial ones. Snake oil requires faith.
Again, over 40% reported hallucinations. Just as a reminder – delusions and hallucinations are the key ingredients of psychosis and good reason to admit someone to a psychiatric ward. Obviously, these must not be quite as persistent as those associated with psychiatric disease, but if I had seen this table before starting mindfulness, I would have thought much more carefully. In this sample, 32% of people had a prior psychiatric history. This doesn’t explain how common all these DSM-sounding symptoms are among them.
Fear, anxiety, panic or paranoia came up for over 80% of people. I think is more a reflection on the sample than on meditation. Why to people meditate? Often they come upon it as a cure for anxiety. Indeed, in my experience, besides actually getting rid of the anxiogenic stimulus, meditation is a great method to deal with it. Depression was very common too at over 50%. Anhedonia and avolition – being unable to experience pleasure and not having any desire to do anything – are hallmarks of depression and were experienced by 18%. Personally, anxiety has always accompanied meditation in some way or another, but not in a bad way. It’s a little bit like saying that exercise cause shortness of breath. However, panic and paranoia are step to far.
Where there are mood changes, there are autonomic function changes and indeed they seem to have been affected too: level of energy, quality of sleep, appetite, etc. It’s unfortunate to note that many of those changes were negative with common reports of fatigue and pain.
As expected, 75% of meditators had their mind bent by Buddhist approaches to the self. We also know from MRI studies, that the anatomical self, seated in default mode network is modified by meditation, so this is expected.
To meditate or not? Meditate, but proceed with caution, a healthy balance of open-mindedness and scepticism – and preferably with supervision. In the words of Dr Walsh, it’s important to be challenged, but not overwhelmed.
As for me, I often take breaks from meditation. If it’s not happening, I don’t force myself too much. Thirty seconds of mindfulness is better than ten minutes of desperate striving effort and then feeling exposed, lonely and inadequate. To give it a Buddhist twist, we can think of the experience as if it is the weather. You may have decided that you are jogging today, but if it is stormy outside, it’s better to be a bit more adaptable, stay at home and practice your planks. Same here.
Lindahl JR, Fisher NE, Cooper DJ, Rosen RK, Britton WB (2017) The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0176239. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239
P.S. Have a look at this Christian blogger explaining the emotional conflict she experienced when exploring yoga. It’s not important to be religious to understand that imposing one system of beliefs over another, whatever it may be, can be highly distressing.
How did the 16 days in May challenge go? Not to the discouragement of my readers, I admit defeat.
This really was a challenge, and I am not that happy with how it went. Why? Life got in the way. I was under a lot of pressure to get a project done with lots of codependencies and lots hinging on it. During the early days of the challenge, I received fairly disconcerting feedback, so everything else went on hold. Anxiety took over.
A lot of people suffer with anxiety. Many refer to a small study that was done among the elderly and asked them what their biggest regret in life was. Many said that they worried too much. Well, of course! With the benefit of hindsight, that’s easy to declare.
A lot of people also say that anxiety isn’t going to help the outcome. Of course it will, otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved it. Naturally, there is pathological anxiety – and I am not talking about that, but in these days of overmedicalising feelings strong anxiety is seen as needing to be gotten rid of.
Maybe the problem isn’t the anxiety? Maybe the problem is the thing that’s causing anxiety? Genius thought, I know. But it seems to be denied any viability in our society. [Then they ask how did we all turn out to be special snowflakes. Hmm.]
Well, I didn’t get rid of my anxiety or try to suppress it. Once I just admitted to myself that I was anxious, a weight came off my shoulders. This is that classic acceptance thing they talk about in mindfulness. Anxious. So what? It’s not a crime. It’s not a defect. It’s just my experience and right now, in this moment, it’s not actually that bad at all. Acceptance of reality gave me the opportunity to work on the underlying cause of the anxiety.
Right, closer to the point:
1. A day without assumptions
OMG. How do you live without assumptions? Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is usually correct. When I got my worrying feedback, I immediately started mind-reading, mitigating the worst case scenario, assigning probabilities to possible outcomes and acting. Acting is such a drug against anxiety. The problem is of course that directionless hustle isn’t necessarily better than inaction. It’s exhausting and it is possible to do damage like a bull in a china shop.
2. A walking meditation
Definitely a win. Interestingly, it was my olfaction that work up by doing this. I spent most of my life living in a city and that’s not the sort of place where you want to expose yourself to smells. Also, a walking meditation is kind of more lighthearted than the more perfectionist sitting meditation.
3. Get one thing that you have been putting off done
I’ve emailed a bunch of people about a project we all committed too, but all left it to stagnate. Two of the three recipients were very helpful in moving it forward and now, somehow, we have a fourth, who just contacted me out of the blue. Coincidence? Providence?
4. Make a list of your habits
I was too nervous to do that with all my stress. What if I exposed something so disappointing or annoying that I would be too upset? I simply didn’t have the reserve to do it at this time. I will add it to my list (guess that’s a habit…)
5. Ask: Why am I doing this?
W was easy. I know what I consider meaningful. I also know that this changes. I know why I am doing what I am doing though sometimes I wish the routes were straight lines. Ultimately, we have to adapt to our environment and respect the peninsulas of circumstance that we navigate around.
6. Wear the worst clothes you own
Haha, well that led to a clearout! (Anyone of eBay?) It wasn’t so bad at all. Where I live, in Dublin, clothes aren’t as much of a status symbol as they are in some places – like Russia, or I imagine China, or even the UK. I am very grateful for that.
7. Spend the day on your own, no social media
Fail. I can spend the day on my own, but social media – that’s tough. I have this sensation that I am about to get some kind of interesting news via social media. All it is in reality is a trained dopamine-mediated habit. I need to get out of it. It’s not that hard, but once again, it may expose things. For example, it can expose just how lonely I feel sometimes. And then, if I commit to not having social media, at least on certain days, then I am leaving myself to confront the loneliness. As a teenager, I used to travel a lot – and it would always be a connection flight. Sometimes, the connection would be 4 or 5 hours. This was before the kind of engaging social media we have now and certainly before widespread free wifi. I just remember that horrible mix of boredom and loneliness and I don’t ever want to feel it again. Having said that, I always say I come up with some of my best realisations in transit. Maybe then, I should just take the bandage of and be alone with myself, whatever may bubble up.
8. Write down the things that annoyed you
Fail once again. I was worried that it would put me in a foul mood. That’s quite presumptuous and possible wrong. It remains on the to-do list.
9. Go through the notification settings on your phone
Done. Much less distraction now. Best decision ever.
10. Try some mindful cooking
I couldn’t really do that. I was worried that I don’t have the time with my project. It also felt a bit wrong to be messing around with new recipes when things are shaky. Once again, pretty presumptuous, but hey, all I can do is all I can do.
11. Note how much of the stuff you do isn’t for you
This turned out to be a surprise. Even from a Machiavellian points of view, I can easily argue that everything I do for others is done as an investment into a relationship.
12. Look back at where you came from and see where you are now
What a magical thing to do. I thought of my parents, of where I was born, of where I started, of the role I had to play in where I am here today. I think so many of us get upset as we feel that life happens to us and that we don’t have any real control. To any human being, it is very upsetting to not be in control. But is it true? On the one hand, in the grand scheme of things we are small and insignificant. But in the context of our own lives, we are a big deal. Just like the Stoics would argue it’s important to focus on what you do or think as a person. Circumstances aren’t always a form of feedback about how well or poorly we are doing. Looking back at how we navigated our circumstances, even back when we were younger and much more naive, is bound to generate some feelings of pride and invigorate the perception of who we are people.
13. Pay attention to the people in the shop queue
Well, let’s just say I was dragged shopping in IKEA during this time. There was a lady in front of us in the queue who changed her mind on what she was going to buy and was hiding the goods she was going to just dump at the cashier under a pile of bags. Before sneaking the stuff away, she looked over at us a bit like a poorly trained dog looks at people passing by when it’s eating. But I really couldn’t be bothered judging. Maybe she has too much sense to just buy 3 French presses (that don’t filter anything by the way)?
14. Check email only twice a day
Fail. What if something super important happens and I don’t even know?! I need to work on this.
15. Look back at the last 5 purchases you made and whether you needed them
They were all quite optional. I’ve learnt the lesson of not having useless clutter a long time ago (moving dorm rooms every year in college will teach that fairly quickly). However, I was quite surprised at how I could have gotten away without having a lot of these things.
16. Thank yourself for trying so hard
This is a lot like looking back at where you came started. Yes, sometimes the seas part, the light shines, the lucky break happens and we should be endlessly grateful for these blessings. However, we should thank ourselves for working so hard and having faith even when things don’t look good.
From a useful superstition with medical benefits to a deeply spiritual practice, mindfulness has seen a variety of labels. Together with Nguyên Giác, we put together a list of common misplaced attitudes towards mindfulness, so that you don’t sabotage your practice. [Watch video instead]
Mindfulness has become quite popular and seems to be gaining further momentum. It is set to soon be mainstream.
As is often the case with explosive popularity, there are some misconception and misinterpretations about mindfulness making the rounds among bloggers and on social media.
1. Mindfulness is a Buddhist concept
It’s not uniquely Buddhist. Mindfulness has roots going back to Christianity. More that that: wherever humans have existed, they have discovered mindfulness. Many traditions poke around the mindfulness bush, some more directly than others. Why? Because mindfulness is healthy. It makes sense, evolutionarily. A mindful population will thrive. A population lacking mindfulness will have a hard time propagating the memes (Richard Dawkin’s meme, not the funny picture, meme.. although they are related) and genes that define its character.
Christianity has elements of mindfulness practice present in ritual and scriptural form (both within and outside of the canon).
There are a number of passages that obviously point to the practice of mindfulness, and there are many others that, when understood in context, point to mindfulness practice.
Whenever you have people that are practicing awareness of what they are doing in that moment, you have mindful people. When people know they are washing dishes, they are mindful dishwashers. Christians who are mindfully carrying candles, passing out bread and wine, and consciously delighting in each other’s company are Buddhist Christians – they are increasing awakeness in the world.
As Thich Nhat Hanh says,
“‘Buddhism is a practice. Like Yoga’. It is not a ‘religion’ in the way that Christianity is a religion. There are no gods. No required beliefs.. Nothing to take ‘on faith’.”
It is an open-handed teaching, hiding nothing, encouraging actual practice, letting you realise things without forcing it. The labels of “Buddhist” and “Christian” can be hindrances. It is nice to respect our spiritual ancestors, but it is foolish to isolate ourselves within the confines of some set of teachings. Old “maps” may not accurately represent the present territory.
Some people make the claim that there is an actual historical link between Jesus and Buddha. Indeed, there were Mahayana Monks in Egypt during Jesus’ lifetime. But, with or without the causal connection, Buddha/Gnosis is one – the message is the same. People can happen across the same spiritual truths in totally separate cultural contexts. The historical connection would be interesting and exciting, but it is not necessary.
So, in conclusion, there are some big chasms to cross as one journeys between world views, but if we look within we will find one human experience– we are unique, but we share common ground. It is beautiful. If we can learn to gently share our ideas with respect and give credit where credit is due, this era of history can be an amazing one.
Naturally, mindfulness occurs in religions other than Christianity and Buddhism, we shall try to address that another time.
2. Mindfulness is about detachment and emptiness
Buddhist terminology also presents some problems for the Western Mind.
The translators of yore did not have the proper conceptual tools to work with the subtle ideas generated by Buddhist genius. And, still, people are hung up on ideas of “nonself”, “emptiness”, “detachment”, etc.
The Christian West has to do some serious psychic judo to make sense of these things without experiencing intense fear and trembling.
There are many potential points of conflict, but, let’s focus on non-self. Anatman. Anatta. No atman. This seems to have been one of the Buddha’s big ideas. There is no independently existing ego, or self-sustaining identity, anywhere in existence. All is dependent on all. Every square inch, square centimetre, every atom is as significant as the largest star. Look at “Indra’s Net”. It’s a nice way to visualise emptiness, or non-self: emptiness and non-self are the same idea. Interdependence is a better word. So when you read, “non-self”, “emptiness”, “voidness”, etc… just remember interdependence.
In the West, largely populated with traditional Christians, many have trouble with all this. There is this idea of “something out of nothing” that the Christian must accept in order to fall in line with dogma. It is totally illogical. Therefore, the Christian declares that faith is necessary. The question, “what was before the beginning?” will never be answered. Those who try to convince you that they have answered that question are liars or fools. Asserting that “God did it” is dangerous, the priests who make such assertions are “like dogs in the cattle manger, they can’t eat and they won’t let the cattle eat”. And, this is what Jesus is implying in the Gospel of Thomas when he encourages us to ignore those who claim to know “the way to heaven”.
On a more comforting note, the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas also recognises this truth of non-self, which is very closely related to the truth of impermanence, another central Buddhist idea.
He also declares that all things that come together will fall apart. Everything will change.
Gospel of Thomas, 11:
Yeshua said / This heaven will pass away / and the one above it will pass away. / The dead are not alive / and the living will not die. / During the days when you ate what is dead / you made it alive. / When you are in the light, what will you do? / On the day when you were one / you became two. / But when you become two, what will you do?
Some people want to hide in their meditation halls, with their tibetan loving-kindness mantras – that’s fine… However, the Bodhisattva (the being tending toward awakening) engages the world and meets people where they are at. By helping others in real life, the Bodhisattva also develops her own Buddha Nature.
3. Mindfulness is part of the positive thinking / law of attraction world view
Many have come to view mindfulness as a close cousin of positive thinking. This is a misconception.
Mindfulness cultivates non-judgement – which the exact polar opposite of insisting on only ever dignifying positive thoughts with our attention.
A concept seemingly resonant with positive thinking/ law of attraction appears in the Dhammapada, one of the primary collections of teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama:
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.”
However, mindfulness emphasises the value of accepting things as they come.
Yes, we “create our own reality”, but we certainly don’t do it alone.
Reality is seen from a fundamentally different viewpoint in the philosophy underpinning mindfulness. The Bodhisattva does not proclaim that things are either positive, negative or neutral– Buddha abides “beyond good an evil” – beyond positive and negative and neutral.
In many Buddhist schools, there is this idea of the Five Skandhas. The Five Heaps. The Five Collections or Aggregates. Instead of a self-sustaining ego, Buddha spoke of these components – the Five Skandhas – that make up a personality.
The sensory experience, contact with sense objects through one of the sense doors (light / eye, sound / ear, chemical / taste and smell, pressure and heat / touch, thought / mind), is either positive, negative or neutral.
There is an event, and there is a knee-jerk reaction to it that is either good, bad, or not good or bad.
“The Five Skandhas are empty”. They are interdependent. Sensation is just one of these heaps. Sensation depends on form, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. And – positive, negative and neutral are also empty!
There is no positive without negative or neutral, and the same is true for negative and neutral.
Our strength is not found in forcing reality to remain “positive”. We are considered accomplished because of the strength we have to endure the snaky shifting of Samsara. We endure the ups and downs, we remain in this mind system with these sentient beings, unperturbed by the positives and negatives and neutrals. We are beacons of peace and stability in this chaotic ocean.
4. Mindfulness is a natural remedy for anxiety
People want to talk about mindfulness like it’s some miracle pill. Despite what we so often hear, this practice of mindfulness is not always roses and cotton-candy. The practice of mindfulness may reveal things one has been been avoiding. This can be painful. This is the real work though! Learning to see clearly requires deep compassion for oneself and for all sentient beings. Gentleness can smooth over those scratchy rough spots.
Mindfulness meditation is work, but it is healthy, soothing work.
New things will be noticed. New things can cause fear. If new things aren’t being noticed, if fear isn’t arising, it is probably a good idea to refocus the practice. But how?
The goal is not to be rid of negative emotions.
Mindfulness meditation teaches us to put harsh feelings into context and not become totally overwhelmed by their presence. The goal is not to become a tranquil yuppy – it is to become present, aware and in touch with actual bold faced reality.
Yes, there are benefits. Mental and physical health benefits.
Breathing meditation can bring calm. “Negative” feelings can also arise – they are as real as “positive” feelings.
During practice, all of these arising positive and negative thoughts are gently touched – and like the fragile bubbles they are, they pop. It is not difficult. There is no strain. However, it is work. Perfectly paradoxical.
There is a lot of cultural appropriation going on around here. Doctors are not far off taking credit for practices that have already been employed for thousands of years. On the surface, this is all fine and dandy, but looking deeper we can see that it’s part of a larger pattern. We Westerners have not been so kind to our friends around the world. We take and take and take. The practice of mindfulness cannot be “owned”, but it seems to me that we should be giving more credit to it’s Eastern roots. Indeed, those roots extend beyond the Buddhist tradition. There are things to be learned from the cultures that have grown up with these practices.
Instead, it looks to me like as Westerners, we are trying to distill the “useful” practices from what we consider to be “superstition”.
Our sciences are constantly revealing a stranger and stranger reality. We would do well to hold our verdicts on what is and is not superstition.
Seneca repeats some form of this thought throughout his letter: it is the most ridiculous thing to be defeated by the fear of defeat.
Why, indeed, is it necessary to summon trouble, – which must be endured soon enough when it has once arrived, or to anticipate trouble and ruin the present through fear of the future? It is indeed foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time.
Men are so thoughtless, nay, so mad, that some, through fear of death, force themselves to die.
Seneca claims that there are two options. Whatever you fear will either be insignificant – and you will make it through, or it will be short lived – because you don’t survive it.
You will thus understand that what you fear is either insignificant or short-lived
Stoics reflect on death a lot. Death is the ultimate worst case scenario – and it’s not that bad, according to Seneca:
Death is so little to be feared that through its good offices nothing is to be feared.
Seneca advocates that we take unmask what we are actually fearing. I believe this is his was to say: what is the worst that can happen?
Remember, however, before all else, to strip things of all that disturbs and confuses, and to see what each is at bottom; you will then comprehend that they contain nothing fearful except the actual fear. That you see happening to boys happens also to ourselves, who are only slightly bigger boys: when those whom they love, with whom they daily associate, with whom they play, appear with masks on, the boys are frightened out of their wits. We should strip the mask, not only from men, but from things, and restore to each object its own aspect.
After blogging for less than a week, I am getting contacted by the audience – this makes me so happy! J. wrote:
I’ve recently started meditating and practicing mindfulness. I downloaded a couple of apps to help make it apart of my daily routine, but still have fears if I’m “doing it properly.” I guess this is a normal fear for most people starting out but I tend to overthink things that are seemingly out of my control. I’ve had this problem for as long as I can remember, dating back to my adolescence. I suppose my question to you is, how do we stop worrying about things and situations that are probably never going to happen?
The first thing that comes to mind is one of my favourite quotations from Mark Twain: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
Even the way J. phrased the question is so interesting: how do we stop worrying about things and situations that are probably never going to happen? Clearly J. cognitively understands that his fears are unfounded: the things he fears are probably never going to happen. However, intellectually understanding something doesn’t always help us feel it. Depending on your personality, it may of may not be possible to outthink a feeling. As an ENTP, I only require a conscious realisation to change the way I feel. The answer is always within us.
What does worrying do for us? Why are we so addicted to it? How do we manage to continue to worry even though it hurts so much? The answer is that on some level we believe that worrying is better than not worrying. How can worrying be better? It is better because it keeps us safe. In a sense, it makes us feel like we are in control. If we are always looking out for what can go wrong – bad things are less likely to happen. This is a likely core belief for someone who worries a lot. Our brains are evolved for fear: fear is the software that keeps us safe. As a species who is only 200,000 years old and whose conditions have changed so starkly in the last few hundred years (food is more available and sabre-toothed tigers aren’t that common), we haven’t managed to change this core software of fear. Fear is our friend. It has kept us alive as a species. There comes a point where it just isn’t feasible to keep budgeting for the downside. Once you are prepared, once you have addressed everything that is in your control, that’s it. Fear is no longer useful (we’re not taking about survival situations).
Seneca’s letters are incredibly helpful when it comes to dealing with anxiety in my experience. The thought of reading or listening to an Ancient Roman philosopher is daunting, but it is surprisingly approachable. Seneca wrote a bunch of letters to Lucilius – and these letters are often regarded as a key text in stoic philosophy. They read like a reddit post though! Letter XVIII. On Festivals and Fasting talks about putting yourself in controlled situations that you fear. It’s not about leaving your comfort zone or skydiving if you are afraid of heights. It is considering: what is the worst case scenario. The outcome is that you become less afraid.
It is easier to believe something when you see it. Everyone has friends who are chill no matter what happens – they are the people you want to spend more time with. Maybe that’s not possible, but you have the internet – lot of bloggers, youtubers etc, who laugh in the face of fear – people who do extreme sports, etc. Seeing that another point of view exists is always helpful in getting out of a rut.
You can also play word associations with yourself. No thinking allowed. Just blurt out the very first thing that comes to mind. Say fear – what would you say next? I was very surprised when I did this exercise. The first thing that came to me was abandonment. Fear of abandonment is a very real thing. Cognitively, I thought that I would be afraid of not achieving certain goals. What bubbled up in this interesting exercise was that I was afraid for my relationships. It didn’t make cognitive sense before it happened, but when it did – it gave me a huge insight into a whole part of my life I was hiding from.
How does mindfulness make this better? It allows these fears to crystallise – when fears are less vague, they are easier to handle. It allows things that we are hiding from to bubble up and be dealt with. And of course worrying is a habit. It requires certain pathways to strengthen. By directing what your mind is doing, it is easier to replace the worrying habit with something much more productive. Scientific evidence that I will go through another time supports the idea that mindfulness helps with anxiety.
Some philosophers and psychiatrists believe that we only have two fundamental emotions: fear and love. It doesn’t make much sense at the start, but on reflection: what is anger? It is fear that someone is crossing your boundaries. What is regret? It is fear that you missed out. What is sadness? It is fear that life will never be this good again. The ultimate fear is that we aren’t deserving of other people’s love, that we’re not good enough.
In that vein, the only way to deal with fear is to focus away from it – onto something else. Instead of asking what can go wrong, ask how can I make it better? Instead of asking how do I avoid peril, ask how can I get what I really want? Instead of asking how do I stop worrying, ask how do I help my friend stop worrying? Our brains will probably default to looking for sabre toothed-tigers, unless we ask the right questions.