Once upon a time in old China a Buddhist Master caught sight of a man running down the road with all his might. He looked exhausted and frantic. “What are you running from?” inquired the Master. “I am running from the wind”, exclaimed the man. “Oh, there is nothing to fear then. Just sit still and it will pass you by”, returned the master. This is a simple enough parable but speaks deeply of Mindfulness and anxiety.
We often spend a huge amount of time and energy running from things. In fact it is a huge problem for society and is in endemic proportion. In our attempts to out run our fear, painful thoughts and feelings, loneliness and unhappiness our methods only end up creating far more suffering. Addictions provide an obvious example. In the attempt to avoid boredom, pain, loneliness, anger and sadness the addict only gets himself into more despair in the long term. As a result of his behaviour he creates guilt, isolation which creates even more loneliness, financial loss which creates even more despair. It is a vicious cycle. We don’t need to be the stereotypic addict to be in this cycle.
Anxiety disorder is another example. It is not the anxiety which creates anxiety disorder. After all, anxiety is a normal emotion which we all experience. At the core of anxiety is avoidance – a life of trying to avoid or get rid of anxiety which in turn creates even more anxiety. This is at the core of a panic attack.
In Mindfulness Training we learn to accept and even give space to unpleasant or painful emotions or thoughts. Mindfulness Training teaches us to accept them for what they are – just thoughts. This is not the same as avoiding or even tolerating unpleasant thoughts. Even tolerating can create a struggle. Many therapies aim at symptom reduction or eradication. The problem here is that we will always be “checking” to see is the symptom is going or gone thus creating what we are trying to get rid of – the anxiety!
At the heart of Mindfulness Training is giving space for the anxiety to be. We are able to stand back out of the struggle as if we are the spectators of a boxing match. We watch the fight but we are not part of it being punched up by the thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness is about breathing into the anxiety and giving it space, naming it, watching it like some creature from out of space but never giving in to it.
If we try to run form our anxiety we will exhaust ourselves like the man running from the wind. The old Master was right. Sit still, breathe, observe and it will pass you by.