As someone who has had anxiety since a young child, I know what it feels like to have the debilitating fear that floods you when the anxiety comes up, from panic attacks to social anxiety, to anxiety that just comes up for no conscious reason at all. So, I decided to try something new after years of using avoidance tactics.
Last week I attended my first mindfulness meditation group in my local area. It was my first group of any kind in 6 years and it was led by a mindfulness teacher of the Shingon tradition of Buddhism (you don’t need to be religious in anyway to attend mindfulness meditations, as not all openly practice Buddhism). On my way there I felt a huge amount of anxiety building, anxiety about being in a group setting again, pressure inside me growing, wanting this mindfulness to work and help me. This was heightened anxiety. My throat was closing up; my heart was pounding; I was so scared that I felt very detached from where I was. And I am sure that anyone who has experience of anxiety knows exactly what that feels like.
The group was set in a small ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ shop overlooking a touristy shopping street; not incredibly busy but with a steady stream of visitors to the nearby Cathedral. I tried to be cool when I arrived, and appear calm, but as any anxiety sufferer will know, trying to be cool and being cool are not the same; they are wholly different.
I entered the meditation room on a balmy hot day (32*C), took off my sandals, and sat down. I was rather relieved that we would not be sat on the floor crossed-legged as my back can’t take that at the moment. The teacher laid out all these beautiful Tibetan singing bowls and musical instruments, opened the windows and the sounds of the street came in. By this time my anxiety had peaked. My heart felt like it was going to pop out of my chest.
We were gently guided through a relaxation meditation, focusing on the feelings in the body, on the chairs we were sitting on and then she began to tone the singing bowls. The anxiety grew bigger and suddenly outside someone started a pneumatic drill very loudly. This was not the relaxing experience I had been pleading for in my mind. And I had this collection of sounds coming from all directions, this beautiful singing bowl sound, some gentle singing from the teacher to my left, and to my right drilling. I could not breathe.
I was ready to run, because when you go to meditation groups you can have certain expectations of relaxation and of coming out of the class floating on a cloud as some kind of bliss ninny. My experience was very different but very worthwhile.
Making Anxiety My Friend Not My Enemy
The fight-or-flight response kicked in. The panic attack was in full flow. My temperature went up, I couldn’t get my breath. This reminded me of my first experience in a Native American sweat lodge. When the heat got too much I was ready to run then too. But I also knew that I had come to this group not to flee from the emotions of anxiety (or any kind of challenging feelings) but to embrace them, to make anxiety my friend not my enemy.
So I sat and I let the panic come. I did not die.
I chose to listen to the sounds around me, instead of resisting the painful distractions from what I thought was my inner peace. The telephone rang downstairs; the seagulls cawed; the drill went off; people walked down the street talking extremely loudly; the cathedral bells rang and I sat and felt all of these feelings.
Instead of resisting, I watched the feelings as an observer and suddenly something new happened. I really took in the sounds, the noise, and I suddenly had this strong message come through to me.
I was not to ignore it or run, I was to meet it head on. And no sooner had this thought entered my mind than I began to laugh inside. It was like someone had flicked a switch and the whole experience was some huge cosmic joke. I really began to realise that the outer world was not outside bothering me, but was highlighting the noise inside me (the anxiety) that wanted me to face it and embrace it – not flee and resist.
The sounds became a symphony of humanity, combined with beautiful chanting, singing bowls, light sea drums and rattles, drilling, telephones ringing; this was life all around me mirroring the anxiety I had been scared to face all this time.
Mindfulness has begun to be the key to making peace with who I am and what I feel. And my teacher said that the noise, the sounds outside of me are my family.