“When I feel anxiety…I take that anxiety from a sense of of looming behind, and I put it in front and really look at it and see — what are things that I can’t really do much about but just need to watch? What are things that I’m thinking are scary and once I actually look at them — you know, actually that thing, that’s not so scary? That’s okay — or it’s easily fixable. And then there are some other things that I need to know about, which is why the anxiety. It’s there for a reason. And so I look at it and I say, “Well — what can I do to actually address it?” And I try to put a plan in place.”
So, how do we look at our uncomfortable feelings?
Using Shamata Meditation to Observe Our Feelings
Often, Shamata practice can help us observe our feelings rather than grasp at or identify with them. Here are some words of wisdom from Lama Tsomo on the matter from Wisdom & Compassion, the second book in her Ancient Wisdom for Our Times series:
“When we practice Shamata, we’re spending a few minutes out of the 24 hours of breathing we do in a day being aware of—present for—our taking in of the divine and being affected and sustained by it. What better foundation for mindfulness practice? What better ushering-in to the tranquil state we’re seeking?”
If we practice Shamata, we’re often better able to go about our daily lives without our minds working overtime in the background. When we sit with uncertainty, usually, the best thing to do is to concentrate on what’s in front of us, whether we’re volunteering to get out the vote or trying to enjoy time with our family and friends while waiting for vote returns.
Calming Our Minds through Meditation
In the words of Lama Tsomo, “A distracted mind is an unhappy mind. So, when we’re making these movies about how life could be, we aren’t living life as it is.”
If you want to hear more about cultivating Calm Abiding amidst ever-changing circumstances and tips on how to incorporate our practices in everyday life, we recommend this teaching from Lama Tsomo.
Jetsünma, an accomplished nun who spent nine years in a monastic university program studying all of the major subjects of Buddhism and then followed her studies by spending nine years in a closed retreat, recently outlined several strategies and ways we can work with our minds to embody more peace and ease. You can watch the full dharma talk HERE, and read her tips for easing anxiety below.
Contemplative Practices for Easing Anxiety
- First, we have to contemplate and understand the four ends — to let go of the past so that we cannot trap ourselves there. When we anticipate the same fear in the future, our minds create a vicious cycle. None of existence is permanently perfect or imperfect.
- Self love introduces us to our innate beautiful qualities that have the capacity to create and enhance a positive perspective towards ourselves, others, and all kinds of situations. Developing self love and confidence can help us do the vital work of acknowledging our existence, and respecting ourselves and the existence of others.
- Anxiety comes when we don’t see our own positive qualities and/or if we are comparing ourselves to others. How can we share and give to others if we don’t have it inside of us? Self love and forgiveness help us free ourselves. We forgive others for our own sake as well as for others.
- We have to look at situations as challenges, not threats — and that means making peace with being imperfect. Fear of encountering failure can stop us from trying. When we use our practice to create a moment of calm, we give space for our logical sense to work through our fear.
Of course, we understand that implementing these strategies is easier said than done — and that’s the purpose of sustained meditation practice. By practicing regularly, we develop the self-control needed to cope with the situation or produce a positive outcome, as well as the insight needed to differentiate between what we can and cannot influence.
Now that we’ve looked at our uncomfortable feelings and talked about how to calm our minds, let’s discuss how we can come to peace with this ever-changing state of being.
A lot of our discomfort stems from everything to progress just as it is. But moment to moment, everything is constantly changing. That can be difficult for us to understand and to process, which is exactly why the practice of contemplating our impermanence can help us make peace with uncertainty and change.
Below, you can find a description of a practice called “Looking at the Thinker,” which is a practice that strips away all that isn’t us to see what’s left. If you want to read more about this practice, you can learn more about Lama Tsomo’s third book in the Ancient Wisdom for Our Times series, Deepening Wisdom, Deepening Connection.
Exercises for Contemplating Impermanence
“Looking at the Thinker
I begin by imagining I’m lying in a bed, no longer able to walk. I can’t even go to the bathroom. So the ‘me’ that is active, nimble, and rather athletic is gone.
Who/what am I? What’s left?
Now I can’t even lift my hands to grab the water glass or even gesture.
Now my senses of smell, taste, sight, and hearing become dim.
There go all those years of learning Tibetan. Who/what am I?
My skills as a psychotherapist, gone.
The piano lessons, singing.
My tendency to get lost even with the best of directions.
I see those and thousands of other ‘me’ things all floating away.
The personality I identified as ‘I’: Is any of that left? It’s my history and mental tendencies.
Those leave, too.
Even being an American.
And even my name.
Perhaps it’s my awareness. Just that—my awareness.
But what’s this ‘my’? What container or boundary is there around this awareness?
I look, but I can’t find one.
There’s just awareness. Vast, universal awareness. It’s not a vacuum, it’s clear. It’s pure potential for all and everything. It’s unity. It’s warm, with pure, total connection—love. Joy.”
— Lama Tsomo, Deepening Wisdom, Deepening Connection
Normalizing Anxiety and Difficult Emotions
One thing we want to leave you with is this: experiencing anxiety does not mean that we are less spiritual, less peaceful, or that we aren’t utilizing our practice effectively enough. Meditation isn’t a replacement for professional, medical help for anxiety, but it is a tool we can use to cope and manage.
We have anxiety because we have hope and fear. And sometimes, we need fear and doubt in our lives. Hope and fear are intertwined because they speak to our ability to imagine a tomorrow that is different from today — and, if we are able to do that, then we can imagine a tomorrow that is more just, more compassionate, and more connected.