I was really looking forward to spending five days in silence during my meditation retreat in the mountains of North Carolina. Five days of peace, meditation and vegetarian food, in silence with nature.
My mind had been really active so I welcomed the silence and the peaceful surroundings to quiet down the stream of thoughts that had been generating a lot of unhappiness lately. I was planning to meditate, take nice walks on the hiking trails, sit under a tree and just observe nature, enjoy the green lush foliage and breathe clean air. I would enjoy my time and find some well deserved inner peace.
But my mind had other plans.
As we settled in our cabin and before we went into silence, the retreat manager told us the rules about wake up time, bathroom signing sheet, housekeeping chores, meal times and other things. Just when he was about to finish he says, “oh by the way…” and I knew something not pleasant was coming up. “I have to let you know that there is poison ivy pretty much everywhere so do not touch any plants. Also, be careful where you sit , this is rattlesnake country and they can be hiding anywhere, so be alert. And one last thing, from time to time we also see bears wandering around the campgrounds, looking for food, they could be very dangerous”
That’s all my mind needed to go into a non-stop description of all the bad things that will happen, without a doubt, if I leave the cabin for even one minute. If I go on a hike, I will get poison ivy and when I sit to scratch the painful rash , I would get bitten by a rattlesnake and attacked by a bear. And the worst thing was I wouldn’t be able to call for help because it was a silent retreat!
The anxious thoughts kept coming into my meditation like a powerful torrent. I had left behind the stress of traffic and work only to create new stress with whatever was available to my mind.Wherever we go, we take our minds with us. Needless to say none of this things happened but all that thinking created a lot of unnecessary suffering.
Anxiety can start with just one small thought and grow out of control to take over our day. And if happens day after day, it can really take over our life. Anxiety is energy that is channeled back into thinking. It's a toxic loop of unobserved thinking that creates very uncomfortable feelings and suffering. But those uncomfortable feelings are also familiar feelings so many times we choose to go there just because it’s our pattern. It’s a harmful pattern but is recognizable. When we find ourselves in situations where we are comfortable and safe, maybe even happy, we may not recognize that feeling so we unconsciously go back to the anxiety loop. Thinking, anxiety and more thinking.
I was feeling happy but I decided to create a rattlesnake and a bear to go back to a more familiar pattern of being on guard and careful. Back to anxiety .
"Anxiety is energy that is channeled back into thinking." -JJR
What if instead of just being trapped in that toxic loop, I turn around and simply observe that loop? What other people refer to as leaning towards the fear is simply turning around and facing the fear.
Facing the fear simply means observing the fear, by observing the effects it has on our body. Observing the physical sensations of anxiety on our body and how it makes us feel actually changes the effects it has on us. Observing the process can change the process. We see the suffering it is creating and seeing that suffering instead of being caught in it gives us the way out.Mindfulness is the way out. Mindfulness breaks the toxic loop of uncontrolled thinking. It brings compassion for our own suffering and gives us a way of alleviating that suffering.
Being present channels that energy into action instead of thinking. Action does not eliminate uncertainty but it changes it. Most importantly the action that comes from mindfulness comes from a deeper place, a more balanced and controlled place , that allows us to respond instead of simply react. When we are in auto-pilot we react unconsciously and keep the loop going but when we are present and cultivate awareness we can respond. And by being present we develop self- compassion, we decrease the suffering and we start living more fully.
“Action does not eliminate uncertainty but it changes it.” JJR
Being present utilizes the part of the brain that will help you change that uncertainty , fear utilizes the part of the brain that feeds more fear. The way out of the loop is by training the mind to be present.
Don’t create rattlesnakes and bears. Be present instead.