Wednesday, January 01, 2014

applying meditation to tame anxiety

And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?  —Jesus
In every life we have some trouble. But when you worry you make it double. —Bobby McFerrin
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. —Epictetus
'I wish none of this had happened.'
'So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.'  —Frodo and Gandalf
Pardon my French, but Cameron is so uptight, if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in 2 weeks, you'd have a diamond. —Ferris Bueller
I've always been upfront about my superficial commitment to meditation. It's part of my regular schedule out of pure self-interest for my well-being. On one hand, this ensures that my goals for it are modest, attainable, and verifiable. On the other hand, I admit that my shallow attitude is also a distinguishing characteristic of a lousy pupil: namely, underestimating the value of any knowledge that doesn't match short-term motives and narrow preconceptions. And it implies that I'm unwilling to pay the price of attaining greater status than a novice...or a dabbler. My overall impression is that rigorous meditation instruction typically costs more time and dedication than mere money, but all three are limited resources.  

Fortunately, I've confirmed for myself that my routine meditation really does reap a satisfactory benefit. In meditation, my brain repeatedly practices the skill of averting the domination of my attention by numerous distracting thoughts. But unsurprisingly, a lot of those riotous thoughts either provoke or accompany anxiety. Therefore, regular meditation turns out to be a superb tactic for preventing and alleviating the experience of anxiety. And in my pleased opinion, lower anxiety alone is sufficient justification to continue meditating. 

Of course, given that natural anxiety level differs by individual, I can't claim that everyone else would feel exactly as much gain. It seems to me that my susceptibility to anxiety is lesser than a few. I've never been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I've never suffered a panic attack. I can "function" adequately in most normal situations. I can adapt to unforeseen problems rather than shutting down. And my life hasn't been that traumatic.

However, in comparison to so many others I've met, anxiety is a larger hindrance to me. Although it doesn't drastically interfere with common activities, its simmering influence is exposed by my "tense" body language, my usual caution to anything unknown, my aversion to making inconsequential errors, my intense sensitivity to social situations, or my sometimes-disturbing mental reflex of picturing improbable tragedies. To some extent, it's an acknowledged ingredient of my identity. When I state that meditation has lowered my baseline anxiety, I don't mean that now all of my thoughts are unfamiliar or my personality is unrecognizable; I mean that meditation gave me more practice in minimizing anxiety's uncomfortable disruption to my subjective experiences. I'm more attentive to the rise of incipient anxiety and more adept at keeping it from hijacking my chosen focus.

Moreover, just as lower anxiety isn't as equally valuable to all individuals, my adopted form of meditation is far from the sole approach to achieve it. Drastically different mythological beliefs have contained remarkably similar anxiety-reducing strategies, regardless of verification of the rest of the beliefs. Believers may let go of their momentary worries by murmuring short ritual prayers to their favorite deity. They may temporarily detach themselves from the heat of the moment by pondering how their ancestors wish them to act. They may notice a bad aura or spirit in themselves and make a quick incantation to reject its power. They may recite the famous Litany Against Fear, in the book series Dune. They may coolly remind themselves that unpleasant events won't last forever or that pleasant events/companions/things can compensate. Pragmatically/objectively speaking, they may recall that allowing their attention to drift deeply into emotional rumination has previously produced temporary pain and no lasting reward. In general, I question the simplistic assumption that separate cultures cannot invent or express analogous ideas—an assumption usually based on contrasting stereotypes of those complex cultures.

Nevertheless, for multiple interrelated reasons, obviously I prefer the unadorned meditation-based approach that I use. First, it doesn't introduce jumbles of metaphysical complications, especially because I'm accepting it as a discrete activity broken off from its original context. That's precisely why it's inaccurate if not offensive to present myself as even a moderate or secular Buddhist. Second, it doesn't explicitly reinforce a dependence on anything external to myself. It depends wholly on my own effort to cultivate selective tendencies in my brain. Third, it doesn't require specialized companions, settings, or paraphernalia. To be honest, eventually I bought a firm zafu cushion to better support a stable and elevated sitting position, but I started with a stack of (too soft) cushions I owned already.

Fourth, the meditation-based approach doesn't include instructions which appear to be mysterious and arbitrary. I realize that this is another distinction between many of the historical forms of meditation and the "demystified" kind that appeals to me. For example, on basic principle I'm resistant to the notion that particular symbolic parts of other cultures are somehow inherently meaningful or useful to an outsider like myself. I don't understand the reasoning behind the value of droning chants or mantras from languages that I don't speak. Nor of contemplating artifacts such as mandalas that are inconsistent with my perspective on the universe. Given that I never presume that anyone in my cultural background has ever demonstrated the confirmed capability to directly absorb "true spiritual reality" and then communicate it through a perfect set of symbols, it's quite fair to extend an equivalent standard to anyone in foreign cultures. I'm guessing that this is a case in which familiarity breeds contempt. Else why exactly should the novelty of a foreign culture automatically enhance the credibility of its prophets?

Fifth, the meditation-based approach doesn't include instructions which appear to be indirect and disingenuous. By carrying out my meditation session, I'm not aiming to gradually develop a side-effect. I'm increasing my proficiency at what I'm doing: meditation. And that's fine. All my reading material has placed an admirable emphasis on the applicability of meditation proficiency. A brain that manages itself more effectively during meditation is a brain that may manage itself more effectively during the rest of the day.

It works as follows. The sensation of anxiety attracts systematic scrutiny in the midst of dedicated meditation, but it's likely to return at less peaceful times. In meditation, learned responses (ingrained brain-paths) are rehearsed too. With time the responses then tend to activate alongside the perception of anxiety. It's true that I generally can't sit motionless and shut my eyes whenever I wish to respond to anxiety, but my brain can do what it did earlier. No allegedly miraculous panacea is promised; the brain must be prepared by persistent repetition. Like progressive desensitization to phobias, sustained self-control comes more easily to someone who has actually exercised it on a smaller scale, again and again. As I've mentioned in previous entries, prolonged meditation yields the realization that because only each successive instant is accessible anyway, a long period of self-control is very much like a divisible sequence of manageable tiny periods.    

Sixth, the meditation-based approach doesn't include instructions which appear to be trite and/or unattainable. This is a primary reason why some of the other approaches I tried failed to work reliably. Platitudes are dull weapons against unreasonable, disproportionate anxiety. In the middle of a crest in anxiety, logical and accurate verbal statements are as compelling as gibberish. Praying for a supernatural injection of calmness didn't work consistently either—though I suppose such petitions have worked well at various times for various religious adherents, who commonly report "sudden inner peace" as one of prayer's less-ambiguous outcomes.

By contrast the meditation-derived approach provides a doable repeatable plan of action: first isolate the current sensation of breathing and then closely observe the remaining thoughts/perceptions also as phenomena which happen to be currently competing with the sensation of breathing. It doesn't involve words. But in verbal form it says, "Like my breath is happening, anxiety is happening. I'm perceiving it and its simple unimpressive characteristics. It's not a monster or logical debater. I don't need to flee it, hide it, or pretend it isn't there. And I don't need to battle it or destroy it, because it will fade after I don't agree to its demands for constant attention."

Lastly, it doesn't include instructions which appear to be potential future sources of anxiety. For instance, if an approach tames anxiety through logic, then anyone who thereby fails to remove their anxiety could worry that their thinking is abnormally illogical. If it tames anxiety through supernatural intervention, then anyone who thereby fails to receive divine aid could worry that they're not faithful enough to deserve it—though I suppose some of my religious relatives would reasonably object that anyone who's excessively worried by their religion is either believing in the wrong one or not believing properly in the right one. If it tames anxiety through dependence on a soothing trinket, then the owner of the trinket could worry that they might misplace it or that the trinket might degrade.

I concede that the meditation-based approach could possibly lead to some initial anxiety for the beginner, until they become more knowledgeable and reassured and experienced. At some time they will learn or rediscover two ancient invaluable insights: an obsessive ambition to meditate correctly is counterproductive to the whole endeavor, and one or more sincere meditation attempts with steady albeit "mediocre" results are still far better in the long run than nonexistent or halfhearted attempts. To sulk about skipped or disappointing sessions is to inflict additional damage. (Naturally, these motivational insights are relevant to personal habits beyond meditation.)

In any case, I can't overestimate the personal impact of more frequent subjective qualities of lightness and leeway. I'm not as overloaded or constrained as before. When I avoid the pressure of one oppressive concern, I'm left with more attention to respond in the same way to upcoming concerns; hence the shift fuels itself to some degree. And when I more fully attend to my chosen concern, I can complete it with more speed and thoroughness—thus ensuring the present concern will be gone and then remain gone.

Furthermore, greater tranquility over time permits me to project a less exhausting presence. I don't feel as deeply imperiled or driven, so I can relax the tiresome and defensive "mental crouch". It's easier to be welcoming and gracious when I'm not as worried about miscellaneous threats. Needless to say, it's a more pleasant posture for me as well.