Living with Anxiety
I don’t know how old I was when I started to recognize unease: that hollow, edgy discomfort that inhabits the space under your ribs. The emotion was easily overlooked on good days, only to return with certain triggers, like dealing with the mean kid at school, or the test I wasn’t prepared for. In my understanding, the causation was always external, an irritant that could be avoided, appeased, or controlled. I need only pray to the right deity, act the right way, avoid certain situations, and voila! Back to smooth sailing.
There were problems with this theory. Everyday stressors only increased as I grew older, making it difficult to maintain an even keel. I realized the origin of my anxiety wasn’t external; the discomfort felt inherent despite the blessings of my life. I didn’t feel overtly anxious, I wasn’t depressed. Instead, my underlying unease felt like a failing, like I just couldn’t cope.
It wasn’t until my thirties that I started to explore Buddhism. On a bone-deep level, Buddhism simply made sense. I recognized the teachings as being part of my direct experience. No leaps of faith, no divine quid pro quo, just the challenge of self-understanding and compassion. In terms of my anxiety, I was no longer alone. Buddhism gives the pervasive sense of alienation a name - dukkha. Dukkha is both timeless and universal, encompassing all the subtleties I couldn’t pin down - discontent, being unsatisfied, hollowness, reaction to change. Though it is often used interchangeably with the term “suffering,” dukkha doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English. It is the basic uncertainty that is an inexorable part of the human experience.
This explanation provided mixed comfort. Dukkha was recognized, codified, but could I get rid of it? As I understand it, no. Dukkha is part of life, arising in unavoidable forms (death, sickness) and avoidable forms (reactions to those unavoidable forms.) As an adult I developed habits to mitigate dukkha - reading and exercise. One is passive, the other active, but both are immersive. It is simple: when my attention is focused or distracted, my dukkha retreats. Unfortunately, there is a rigidity to this approach; you must have time and sufficient control over your schedule. Lacking this consistency (and life is rarely consistent), your dukkha spikes, something my husband notices when I haven’t gone running in a few days. I was on to something…but wasn’t seeing the big picture.
The good news is that there are ways of training your mind to work with dukkha, one of which is mindfulness. Jon Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the moment, non-judgmentally.” Bringing your mind intentionally to the here and now - no past, no future - even for a moment, can transcend the turmoil of dukkah. Sometimes I focus on my breath, a sound or sensation, anything to quiet my mind. It can be as simple as noticing a birch leaf (color, shape, texture) between the chaotic rush of bringing my son to school and starting my work day. It can be the steps from my car to the office door (sound, feeling, flow.) Each small, conscious attempt is part of the practice of calming my mind. Even when the relief is fleeting, just knowing there is recourse from dukkah, just the basic awareness of that possibility, gives me great hope and curiosity. It is the part of the lifelong practice of making this life just a little bit saner.
Hilary is an IT Support staff member at Namchak.