Equal Time – Practicing with Anxiety and Joy
As we move through many years of practice it is sometimes startling to notice how addicted we still are to fear and anxiety. Everywhere we turn, as we scratch the surface of people’s outward personas, we often find a tender human struggling to cope with large or small difficulties that show up in each day.
The surprising part is not that we struggle, but rather that we are so attached to our struggles. Ask someone if they have episodes of anxiety and fear and most will quickly say yes. Ask the same group if they have times of experiencing joy and they are more likely to express skepticism about what joy actually is, or express fear that it should not be acknowledged because speaking of goodness is dangerous and can trigger an avalanche of bad things if stated out loud.
It can be very freeing to acknowledge anxiety and fear rather than run from them. And it can be very freeing to acknowledge genuine happiness, and yes joy, when it presents itself. In bringing forward the practice question, “Am I genuinely happy right now” the key word is genuinely. With the conditioned thinking mind so often running our lives it is easy to misidentify mind chatter as real life. And often we find our thoughts about happiness are actually consumed with anxiety and fear of not finding happiness. We can find ourselves mentally creating scenarios that don’t actually exist and become lost in the doom of these thoughts and the hopelessness that they represent.
By facing our anxiety, by being willing to sit with the thing we dread the most, we can allow an opportunity for the monster thoughts to be exposed for what they are—just thoughts, not real life. It is also possible to find that our fear of anxiety is bigger than our anxiety itself. And if we stop worshiping it as the most powerful experience of our life, we can allow equal time for another most powerful experience: the experience of quiet and genuine joy.
As we practice with anxiety it can be valuable to ask the question, "What is it we fear the most right now?” As we begin to identify our biggest fears we can then zero in on “What is really going on right now?” It’s important to acknowledge how much we don’t want to do this. We want to do just about anything rather than sit with our anxiety. But no matter how we try to avoid it, sooner or later we will see that it won’t be denied. The discomfort of anxiety is part of our life experience. We are better off becoming intimately familiar with the thoughts and sensations of it than we are trying to hide from it in vain.
No matter how much we strive to control life, it is continuously going to remind us of the impossibility of the quest. What a relief. We can live the miracle of life rather than try to manipulate life. We can witness its presence in our churning stomachs and pounding hearts, and tenderly and compassionately allow the experience to rest in the inhale and the exhale of the breath.
We can expose the comparative, judging, critical mind that we use to evaluate where we are in relation to our running list of entitlements. It loudly tells us where we are in relation to our expectations. But as we learn in exploring our internal process over time, the thinking mind alone cannot tell us if we are genuinely happy. On its own, it is too consumed by our conditioned ego structure to be an accurate barometer of genuine happiness.
We can begin to recognize the difference between reasoning rather than fretting. Noticing insight and skillful action rather than dumping our anxiety and anger on the person next to us. Offering love rather than worry, we can recognize the best use of the reasoning mind without allowing it to block out the larger experience of spaciousness that is present in the vastness.
As we begin to tap into some spaciousness around our anxiety, we may discover a place of equanimity, of graceful stillness, acknowledged as a lack of anxiety and fear. The space between and around our suffering that is waiting to be acknowledged with as much value as the judgmental and fearful critic.
We might experience a moment of kindness for ourselves or another and our heart may melt with satisfaction in the moment.
Too often we quickly skip over the tenderness of these moments and instead hold up our latest disappointment. Maybe rather than attaching to our fear we might give equal attention to the absence of fear. What if we allowed our quiet moments of spaciousness and gratitude to be perceived as equal to our moments of restlessness, pain and fear? Not better than or more frequent than but just equal?
Genuine happiness is evidenced in a larger experience of Being. It lives in the inclusiveness of breath and body and environment and wide open awareness of a moment that certainly can contain thought but is not restricted by thought alone. Genuine happiness includes the texture of the moment, embraced and valued fully for exactly what it presents. The light and air are part of it. The sounds and scents and subtle movements are part of it. The openness that is “I-as-awareness” that surrounds the experience of “I-as-a-me” is all part of it.
Genuine happiness exposes itself gently in that quiet vastness that doesn’t need applause or jumping up and down. Genuine happiness does not insist that anxiety and fear go away forever. It only asks for acknowledgement that it is patiently waiting in the wings to be recognized.
As we explore practice with curiosity it is possible to open ourselves to the experience of a life where joy and sorrow are an interconnected part of the whole. We can begin to be compassionate toward the very fear that blocks our happiness. We can soften to our experience and lean into the content of our sitting with kindness rather than pre-conceived disappointment in a small story of life. And instead of seeing our quiver of fear as a problem that gets in the way of happiness, we can begin to see the miracle of our life, the very pulse and breath of it unfolding moment by moment—just as it is.