| spiritual mapping: let it slow |
"Grappling with anxiety is like driving a car on an icy road. When the car begins to skid, you need to turn with it in order to gain control rather than trying to veer away." - ANXIETY The Missing Stage of Grief, by Claire Bidwell Smith, LCPC
These are some items from my “Gentle Box” which I bring out when I am struggling with depression or a low mood.
Winter lends itself to the practice of reflection with the new year. What I love most about winter is that it doesn’t lie. Landscapes lie dormant on the horizon, rooting slow into the earth turning over, dying, or hibernating in dreams of regeneration. Don’t let this illusion fool you. A lot happens in the dark.
This is the success scenario nature intends. The cycle of life. And this is why winter correlates to the Grief & Loss ordinal of the My Inner Lighthouse spiritual compass (download worksheet). When people told me in private practice that they were stuck, it was a sign to me that there was likely loss that never processed. Something or someone from their past, possibly a younger version of themselves, was seeking attention. Feelings and recent circumstances painted a picture of anxiety with a picture hook connected to the past.
Anxiety is a sense of fear whether the trigger is real or imaginary. This state may be obvious or it may disguise itself. In my opinion, anxiety is our most useful emotion because it’s often our body’s first feedback loop made visible. Body is telling us: pay attention…something isn’t right. Something needs to shift. Anxiety is meant to be a prompt for change not a way of being. Making matters more muddled, we tend to stay on hedonic treadmills* pursuing what feels good, what society rewards, and avoiding pain at all costs. This unaware path only increases suffering, exhausts our mind-body and courts illness. Bypassing isn’t the answer.
What if you are reading this and you’re thinking, “Well, this all makes sense and is fine and good. But what if I can’t tell if my anxiety is an issue?” My response is: I understand where you are coming from and have a seat next to me at the communal table. What you are feeling is absolutely normal. Welcome to the human tribe. We humans were never meant to be an animal that evolves on our own in isolation. We, our bodies and our brains, evolved and adapted to cooperate and regulate with our environment and with one another. We are social creatures. So amidst the chaos of the pandemic, things have gotten a little hairy for all of us.
I’ve been living with anxiety for so long I just thought it was natural to feel the way I felt. Not so much.
In Claire Bidwell Smith’s book, she aptly reminds us that Kubler’s famous stages of grief were written for those who were dying, not grieving. For those who grieve, the stages tend to be more fluid. However,
Anxiety comes after anger but before, or alongside, depression…Anger is a quick way to push away sadness. It’s always easier to be mad than it is to feel pain.
- ANXIETY The Missing Stage of Grief, page 51
I decided this year I would focus on equanimity as a way of bringing some focus into the floodgates of what is showing up in my world. The definition of equanimity brings up words like calmness and composure. For me it’s finding a center in myself that allows me to be present to “all the stuff out there,” recognizing the wholeness that is me. The fear is there, the wonder is there, there is always a smidge of frustration in me and that’s ok. What is important for me to recognize is that living a life as a medium is never gonna be a life of vanilla. I may not be calm but I am me and I’m good with that. In other words, to be present with myself, in myself. Embodied. In the gospel of Kurt Cobain, it means, come as you are.
How do we begin to move from a state of anxiety to a state of equanimity?
Well, I am most honored to introduce you to the venerable, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama approached me in meditation last season when I began reading his book My Spiritual Journey, which qualifies as a “highly recommend." I’ve only made it to page 21 and I am taking so many notes!
Dalai Lama, bending slightly with prayer hands and a tender smile: Hello Sally.
Sally: Hello Dalai Lama. I am so grateful for your being here and sharing your wisdom! What would you like to tell my readers about the topic of anxiety and equanimity?
Dalai Lama: Let’s walk together.
In my mind’s eye in meditation, we walk down North Beach towards Mt. Baker. A plane is taking off from the nearby airport. I take my cues from the Dalai Lama, breathing steadily, waiting. I don’t look up at the plane since his head is watching the stones we walk upon.
Dalai Lama: What is it that the masters told you about a plane taking off?
Sally: To take note. It is a time for new horizons.
He then looks up and ahead. Did his smile get broader? It’s so hard to tell! He is always smiling.
Dalai Lama: Where do you feel we should begin?
Sally: Looking inward.
Dalai Lama: And where does that take you? When you look inward? Uh-oh. This is new. Usually, we sit and meditate together. Then he says something very profound, and we have a brief conversation as a part of my compassion lessons. Afterwards, I write it in my journal to use in a class I’m developing. The master speaks and the student listens.
Dalai Lama: The student first learns from himself. Follow your worry as you would a friend. Let it show you what you need to see. What is it that your anxiety is telling you?
Where do I start? My brother-in-law passing away unexpectedly last week? Starting a new MS medication tomorrow? Every day when I open my email and struggle to remember the steps involved in how to navigate my laptop, let alone the task that is attached to it?
Sally, embarrassed: My anxiety is telling me I have a lot of anxiety.
Dalai Lama: What is the ship metaphor that surfaced in you last month? When you were struggling during the holiday?
Sally: I saw different ships coming into a harbor at the holiday with goods from all over the world. They unload their cargo. The sailors come in and share their news. They find out the news at home, spend time with family and friends. That way they can go out again in the new season, recharged.
It’s coming back to me now. This became a rich source of exploration I talked about with my spiritual director.
The ship unloads some of its ballast in port. I compared the idea of our burdens as ballast. We can lift up our burdens and see them as ballast. Sort them out. The experiences we have… feelings, old beliefs, thoughts. Even material things. Maybe a rock isn’t really something to just stumble upon. Maybe it has a lesson or a gift to show me. I can choose to discard some of them, some of these experiences, overboard; others I can keep as stability in my keel.
Dalai Lama: Yes. I was fond of that concept. This is what I want you to share:
Follow your worry as you would a friend. Let it show you what you need to see.
What is your electronic mail showing you? At this question, I grow silent. I feel a combination of incompetence, shame and exasperation. My working memory operates at less than 20% so when I look at my email, its like groundhog day. Every single day.
Dalai Lama: You see email as an extension of yourself.
I’m arrested by his statement. My heart skips a beat and my eyes well.
Dalai Lama: This is why you have Suzanne. She is your work partner and your friend. She understands and has worked with you for many years now. Why do you take this task on by yourself when a friend can show you the way? Can help you discover a new way of working?
My heart constricts even further. I begin to openly cry silent tears. If you had told me twenty years ago that email would be the most difficult thing I would deal with in regards to MS I would have looked at you like you were crazy. I used to manage two states of dealerships when I worked for Ford!
Dalai Lama, speaking more thoughtfully: There are many ways to be alone. We can be alone when we need to just be by ourselves. This is very important. This aloneness is our time to be present with ourselves so we can take in and separate things for ourselves. Sometimes we need to be alone to question our place and our tasks. Sometimes we are alone because we need silence to recognize ourselves as part of a much greater whole.
When we are alone and there is sadness, there is a part of us that is asking for help. Listening to this voice is the first step.
You talk about accepting yourself. In order to accept yourself you must first learn to be your own friend. Show yourself some tenderness and you will begin to unravel what is the source of this anxiety. Others help you with this. The path of compassion is patient and slow. It begins as a trickle into your heart.
The Dalai Lama stops walking and opens his palms. A lotus appears; its leaves open gracefully and a small pink blossom blooms.
Dalai Lama: It takes a long time for the lotus to make its way through the mud and then through the waters to find light. It grows very slowly, bending its shaft upwards. It doesn’t need to see; it knows. When you slow down, you can become present and open to the truth. In stillness there is no worry. When you seek help and open your world to someone, that is bending towards the light.
We are in a great pond, yes? When I speak to you, remember that I speak as a human being. Not as the Dalai Lama. There is responsibility in being human; we are here to be agents of compassion and to help one another. To listen to all sentient beings. Compassion is an authentic act of love that does not change with different circumstances. Be compassionate with yourself, first. The rest will come.
Anxiety is coursing through you because it seeks your attention. It needs to be listened to. When you slow down and become still, you can look inward. Welcome everything that is inside of you. That is how you open.
I bow my head slowly, part gratitude part reverence. I am soothed by his words.
Dalai Lama: The world seeks your vision, Sally. Accept it as the gift it is. Seek help from others so you can share it with the world.
The path from anxiety to equanimity is seeing yourself through the eyes of compassion.
I will help you.
And with that comment, the Dalai Lama returns to walking down the beach. Another prop plane takes off ahead. His gaze remains fixed on the path.
Find a place where you can relax and bring a journal. Take some deep belly breaths and sink into your heart space. After your thoughts begin to subside, ask your heart what worries you. Notice what comes to mind. If there is a worry that surfaces which is repetitive, be present to the feelings that arise.
Name the feelings that surface (humiliation, sadness, frustration, shame, etc.). Over the next few days, return to your spot and visit your heart again. Ask what help it is seeking. Consider talking to someone about your situation. Ask yourself how much space anxiety takes up in your daily life. Assess whether it has become a way of being for you or whether it’s a healthy response to the current state of your life these days.
Ask yourself whether there is someone or something you feel loss over or need to grieve. It may be the death or departure of someone in your past (a relative, friend or pet), a place you’ve moved away from that offered you strong and stable roots, or even a project from work that you excelled at and is no longer a part of your life. What do you miss in your life? If you are challenged with mood swings (as I am), consider putting items into a box to cheer you up on gentle days. Cards, photos, trinkets from vacations. Anything that helps ground you or is sure to bring a smile to your face will work.
When you consider the phrase, let it slow, what comes to mind for you?
In what ways can you find ease this winter season that can make a sustained difference in your life?
When is the last time you’ve had a “good cry?”
*Hedonic Treadmill conceptualized by Michael Eynsenck is a metaphor on how and why humans seek pleasure for the highs it brings, even though our experience is quickly habitualized. We will pursue this concept in a later lesson.
This meditation is in honor of Thich Nhat Hanh, 1926-2022. Thank you Thay for being my first grief and loss guide. You taught me the concept of "no mud, no lotus."