Lenin once said that “there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen”. We all know which one of those we’re in right now. This feels like a whole new world, full of strange conventions and unknown dangers. And we – as evolutionary creatures – are not good with new worlds. You’ve perhaps seen how your pet reacts to something new in the house: it’s treated with the utmost suspicion until it’s been tested out. Well guess what, we’re just the same: the unknown can produce anxiety, and fear. Fear. The fear of empty shelves, of the person standing too close, of the consequences of all this for our loved ones, of what tomorrow will bring – and simply of the unknown.
How can we get beyond this? Well, we’re not our dogs or our cats, we’re capable of so much more.
So let’s start with using some of those capabilities which we have as humans. Let’s start with self-awareness – awareness of what’s going on in your mind. (Cats and dogs may do this to some extent, and some of the great apes seem to have it, but we humans know we have it!)
Using our awareness allows us to stop identifying ourselves completely with what’s happening to us. Instead, we can (mentally) stand back from it. We can do this with our thoughts, too: we can have some part of our mind witnesses what’s going on in the rest of it. It’s curious to see what happens when you do this. When I do it, it feels to me as if the witnessing part is somehow larger than the thoughts, as if it’s a vast space somehow, in front of which the thoughts are doing their thing.
This witnessing part – however it feels to you – can recognise amongst other things that these fearful thoughts are not helpful. When you notice this, you may also see that the thoughts themselves don’t want to let go. They can fight back. They say – sure, although these things aren’t happening right now, they might happen tomorrow, so worry now!
So it’s important to acknowledge that some kinds of worry can be useful – in particular, when they lead to plans and actions. You can’t overcome these problems before they’ve happened, but you can often make a plan about what you’ll do if they happen. That’s useful. If the events do come to pass, then you have at least something of a plan, and you’ll cope better. If you can take action now, then that’s good.
But other kinds of worrying thoughts aren’t useful. Instead, they feed on themselves, and the thoughts themselves make you suffer. These loops of worry leading to more worry can be difficult to stop. There is a feeling sometimes that the more you worry, the more control you have. But that’s not true here – it’s an illusion. Worry will not give you control. Rather, the worry will control you.
So how can you stop these “worry loops”? Again, you start with witnessing: you need to be aware of your thoughts themselves, to catch when this is what you are doing. Of course you often can’t just stop thinking these things when you’ve spotted them, like turning off the light. Your fearful thoughts, in this regard, aren’t voluntary: they are happening to you. These things appear all on their own – you aren’t doing them, they are “doing” you!
But you do have (some) control over what you do next – when you’ve noticed what’s going on. That’s when our best selves can kick in. You might try and make a plan – write it down, perhaps. Even if the plan is to talk to someone else. You might decide to take some exercise – I saw a story the other day about a man who had run a marathon in his back yard! You could help someone else, just with a phone call or a text. Or you can just sit as we do in meditation itself and witness it, and notice that you are bigger than it: it doesn’t define you. It’s a storm at sea – the storm is happening, for sure, but you are the ocean, not the storm. Eventually, this storm at least will pass.
And all of this – from the awareness to the action or the witnessing – you can improve with practice. Start with awareness, the realisation that these things happening to you fulfill no useful purpose, that they are in fact destructive.
Once you’ve done this for a while (weeks, probably), you may come to realise quite how much of the unhappiness is produced by the narratives in your mind. Other people have endured the circumstances you are in without being unhappy – so it’s not the circumstances themselves that are making you unhappy, it’s how they are interacting with your mind. You can choose to continue, or to step out of it. To put your attention elsewhere.
None of this means you shouldn’t recognise the reality of your situation. You have the ability to do this in much worse circumstances. I read an interview recently with Admiral James Stockdale, who had been held captive in a POW camp in the Vietnam war for seven and a half years, repeatedly beaten, and in the end confined to a windowless cell, three feet by nine feet. He spoke passionately about how you could simultaneously recognise the deeply uncomfortable reality of your current situation without letting it overwhelm you. He said “You must never confuse the faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be”. This has been called the Stockdale Paradox – confronting a difficult reality, while not loosing faith that we will prevail.
We can do this, too. It’s not a grand thing, it turns out to be a very simple thing. The reality will still be out there, doing whatever it’s doing. We just need to put a break into the thought loops that are telling us different. Turn it to the breath, specifically to the feelings of the breath, at your nose or your belly. You can either simply watch the breath, or if you find yourself too distracted, you can regulate it. Try “box breathing” – count to four as you breath in, hold the breath for a count of four, count to four as you breath out, then hold the outbreath for a count of four, and repeat. At first it will last maybe five seconds or one breath cycle before you find the worry starting again, maybe at first in the background. As soon as you realise that’s happening, return to the anchor of the feelings of the breath. Keep practicing – start with five minutes. If the anxiety returns later, do it again then. Keep doing it every day. It’s your new habit. It’s you, in control.