Archive for Anxiety

The Practice of Lovingkindness Meditation

In 2011, I had the good fortune to attend the Spiritual Directors International’s (SDI) Conference in Atlanta, GA.  Without really knowing many of the presenters, I chose to sign up for a three-hour session on what I thought was compassion.  Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who I had experienced briefly at an Academy for Spiritual Formation conference, was the teacher.  The presentation was an eye opener for me to a whole other way of practicing meditation and prayer. 

Rabbi Shapiro presented from his book, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice.  One of the practices he taught us was called Metta or Lovingkindness Meditation.  Metta is a Pali word, which can be translated as love. The best translation of this type of love in Christian terminology is agape. It is a love that is unconditional: open and unobstructed.  According to Sharon Salzberg, who is the cofounder of Insight Meditation Society,

Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world.  Practicing metta illuminates our inner integrity because it relieves us of the need to deny different aspects of ourselves.  We can open to everything with the healing forces of love.

Metta has two root meanings; gentle and friend.  It is likened to a gentle rain that, without choosing or selecting, falls indiscriminately.  This reminds me of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).  The practice of metta begins with us gently befriending ourselves.  This is sometimes even harder for us then praying for our enemies.  We are more likely to judge ourselves harshly and not spend much time in self-compassion. With the metta practice, we can uncover the possibility of truly respecting and loving ourselves as part of the human race. 

There are various phrases that meditation teachers use for this practice but the overall flow of the practice is the same.  One begins by taking a comfortable posture, either sitting in a chair, on the floor or lying down.  In metta, we always start by saying the phrases for ourselves.  We focus on our breath and imagine our heart being open and welcoming.  We then say some phrases that are a variation on the following traditional phrases (some alternatives are in the parentheses):

  • May I be free from danger (May I have safety, May I be free from fear)
  • May I have mental happiness (May I be peaceful, May I be liberated)
  • May I have physical happiness (May I be healed, May I be healthy)
  • May I have ease of well-being (May I dwell in peace, May I live with ease)

I prefer to use Rami Shapiro’s phrasing as it resonates with our American life for me. His suggestions are:

  • May I be free from fear
  • May I be free from compulsions
  • May I be blessed with love
  • May I be blessed with peace

One suggestion that Rabbi Shapiro made when we pray for ourselves is to invite a mental image of ourselves as a young child, especially if there is one that is wounded within us.  As we say this prayer, we say it to that child. And then we get an images in a progressive sequence of our teen age self, our middle age self and one of ourselves when we are much older than we currently are, ending with one when we are on our deathbed.  As we say this prayer to each image, we begin to feel the warmth of compassion extending to all various selves we carry within us.  This can allow real healing to take place.

After praying this prayer in a repetitive fashion for ourselves, we move on to say it for a person close to us whom we love or are friendly towards.  Next we extend it to a person we know but not very well, such as the person we buy our coffee from daily.  Lastly, we bring to mind the image of “an enemy” or a person with whom we are currently in a conflict situation.  We say the same phrases to them without anger or judgment but with an open and loving heart.  It can change the attitude we have towards them and thus be a change agent in the conflict situation.  We can also extend this metta prayer to include all living beings and our world. 

This practice has been a life changer for me, especially in the current state of the world that is full of divisiveness and hate.  If I seriously pray with an open heart for those who I feel are “enemy,” I can begin to look at them though other eyes.  I can see them as humans with fears and compulsions.  I can see that their desires are similar to mine: for peace, acceptance, and love.   I will be honest, for some people, I have to repeat this prayer over and over again before I begin to feel a shift in my own attitude.  That is all that I have any real control to change—my attitude.  This practice gives me the spaciousness of heart that allows acceptance of reality.  It helps to connect me to the oneness that connects us all, which I know stems from the heartbeat of God.  It is in that oneness that I know that Julian of Norwich’s statement is true; “all will be well and all manner of things will be well.”

Resources:

Shapiro, Rami. The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice

Salzberg, Sharon. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree/loving-kindness

https://jackkornfield.com/meditation-on-lovingkindness/

https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditation-loving-kindness/

Help! My life is out of control!

stressWe all know that life is stressful. In fact, without a certain amount of stress, life would be boring to most of us. We use certain internal stressors such as deadlines to make sure we stay on track with our responsibilities and appointments. Some stress comes from positive events in our lives such as a new marriage or birth of a baby. Other times, it is from a death in the family, financial worries, or too many demands at work. We live in a fast paced world that asks us to keep up a whirlwind speed that can become overwhelming at times. When we become overwhelmed by tasks, deadlines or commitments, we can move from stress to di-stress.

Stress and anxiety are the fight or flight instinct that is our body’s natural way of responding to emergencies. When there is an actual emergency, this instinct allows us to think clearly and quickly respond to what is needed. Hormones race through our body to speed up our heart and other physical processes. They help us to avoid or deal with the threat. However, because we have the ability to anticipate problems, many of us fall into chronic worry or planning for possible problems that never even materialize. Thoughts about these possibilities can trigger the same flood of hormones and stress. Chronic anxiety leads to impairment of the immune system and increases the risk of physical and mental problems. This can lead to increased physical problems such as autoimmune diseases, coronary artery disease and decreased satisfaction with life.

Signs of stress vary among individuals but may include:

  • Worry, anxiety, or panic attacks
  • Sadness or depression
  • Feeling pressured and hurried
  • Irritability and moodiness
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Physical symptoms, such as stomach problems, headaches, or chest pain
  • Allergic reactions, such as a skin rash or asthma
  • Problems sleeping
  • Drinking too much alcohol, smoking, or misusing drugs
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Eating too much or not enough

Mindfulness is a great tool for coping with stress and anxiety. This practice involves stilling the mind by letting go of thoughts or emotions as they arise and tuning back into the present moment. Simply focusing on the breath or our body can do this. It is a practice of letting go of the thoughts that will, without a doubt, arise. The only definition of successful practice is that when we notice we are thinking or feeling, we name it and let it go, returning to the focus of the present moment. Practicing this type of stillness is best done as a routine before we are in the midst of an upsetting situation. Then when these situations occur, we can lean on our practice of letting go of anxious thoughts that are not helpful to solving the problem but just add stress. A great resource describing how to apply this technique specifically to anxiety is The Mindful Way through Anxiey: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life by Susan Orsillo, PhD & Lizabeth Roemer, PhD.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is also another tool that can help to alleviate the anxiety we feel. There are several different techniques in this field that can be applied to anxiety. The first step is learning how to identify these thoughts and differentiating the rational from the irrational. A therapist can help us to isolate the thoughts that are causing the anxiety and teach us ways to challenge them to decrease anxiety. This type of therapy has been shown to be a very effective means of reigning in our chronic worry, anger or depression. A good resource to read to become familiar with this tool is When Panic Attacks by David Burns, MD.

It is also important to remember to take time for self-care in the form of spending time with friends and family and getting the proper nutrition, exercise and sleep. Participating in positive activities and having fun is an important stress reducer. Watch any negative self-talk about not being able to cope or being competent. Seek out people that are supportive and caring. View problems as challenges rather than insurmountable obstacles. Remember, stress is normal but anxiety can be met head on and decreased. Don’t be afraid to seek the help of a friend or therapist if life begins to feel overwhelming and nothing seems to help. We all need help at one time or another and no one needs to go it alone.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

IMG_0508When Bobby McFarren first came out with the song, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, I thought he must just be high on something.  It sounded too pat an answer to life’s many difficulties.  It couldn’t be as easy as just telling yourself or someone not to worry and focus on being happy, could it?  Maybe he was a typical laid back man from the tropics who lazed around in the sun all day.  What did he have to be worried about?  Well, it turns out he was from the States and a world class musician to boot.  And what he had to say is true.  We can control the level of our worry by  focusing on being happy.

How can we do that?  Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, and Dr. Richard Mendius, a neurologist, havewritten a book called Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, Love & Wisdom.   This book outlines in detail how to decrease our stress and be happy. According to them, scientists have recently mapped out the neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) that are involved in emotions such as anxiety and depression.  These chemicals are key to firing parts of the brain that alert us to danger in our environment so that we have an increased chance of survival.  Over the thousands of years of human evolution, these pathways have developed to a level that our brains can make split second decisions whether to fight or flight or just relax.  Since these pathways are key to our survival,  they get the most traction in our brain.

We have evolved to pay greater attention to unpleasant experiences. This has created a negativity bias that overlooks good news and focuses on any possible dangers or threats in our environment.  With the development of our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain that separates us from other animals), we have even been able to imagine possible scenarios, thus developing anticipatory anxiety about the danger we might meet in the future.  While this might serve us well if we were ever to meet such a circumstance, for the most part this tendency causes us to worry unnecessarily, even before something happens.  It causes unnecessary suffering more often than it prepares us for disaster.

The good news is that we also have the ability to retrain our brains to focus on more pleasant experiences which can increase the neural pathways that are devoted to feeling good.  You can actually change the “wiring in your brain” by using some simple, easy remedies.  Drs. Hanson and Mendius suggests first of all that we look consciously for and take in positive experiences, letting them sink into our awareness by actually savoring them.  This helps them to be consolidated in our memories. We can then use the positive memories to counteract a painful one that is occurring in the present.  For example, during the birth of my second child, I was able to use the memory of how good it was to hold my first child after he was born to help me cope with the pain of labor.

Their book is full of many other helpful suggestions that help us cool the fires of the sympathetic nervous system which is the one that produces the stress-related hormones.Instead, we use these techniques to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which allows calming, soothing and healing hormones to spread throughout your body.  Some of these techniques are familiar to many of us, such as progressive relaxation, deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation and imagery.   Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can be of help in this area as well, challenging negative thoughts with realistic challenges.  The authors’ suggestions are too many to cover in this brief article.  I would recommend that you read their book.  Don’t be scared off by all the technical terms for the brain and its wiring.  The authors really explain this in a way that we all can understand.  Dr. Hanson also has a website that is worth visiting .  (http://www.rickhanson.net/)

So Bobby McFerrin was on to something in 1988 with his catchy tune.  I even can catch myself these days humming a few bars as I take his advise and let go of the negative filters. Instead, I choose to focus on the blessings and gratitude I feel for all that is positive in my life.  I would suggest the same for you.  Don’t Worry, Be Happy–it will change the way your brain works!

 

Fear Not

“Worry is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.” Arthur Somers Roche

For the past two years, our country has been in the middle of the worse recession since the Great Depression.  Little does it matter that the economists have declared the recession over.  Many people are still struggling to find a job or are fearful that their job might disappear in the future.  People are upset and angry at their senators and representatives in Washington, DC. We have become a very anxious people.  Fear appears to reign supreme.

Now we begin another election cycle and both parties will attempt to use this fear to sway the voters.  We will be bombarded by negative ads until November.  Candidates will claim all kinds of outrageous things about each other and we will be left not knowing what is the truth. We are easily manipulated by fear if we place our security in external factors such as government, relationships, wealth or power.  If instead we base our sense of security on our abilities to adapt to changing situations and focus on what we can do to make a difference, we will find our anxiety diminishing somewhat.  Yes, there are things out of our control.  However, spending useless hours ruminating about them does not change anything but our ability to respond in the best way possible.

We become exhausted from the worry rather than from any effort to influence what it is that we can change. It is important to pay attention to anxiety when it rises within and to listen to what we are telling ourselves.  If our thoughts have snowballed out of control with a bunch of catastrophic predictions or “what ifs” then it is time to confront these cognitions with a more rational assessment of reality.

We need to watch the attitude with which we approach life and look for moments of joy and gratitude even in the midst of turmoil.  While this will not make the economy improve over night, it will allow us to adapt in the best way possible to any situation in which we find ourselves.  It is not the “end of the world” or even the end of prosperity in this nation. We will find a way to achieve a balance again as a nation even if it means we will need to be more thrifty and resourceful.  This country has been founded on solid principles which can lead us back to a better future.  Let’s use this as an opportunity to join together as a nation and work for the