One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Swami Satchidananda, once said that there is nothing in this world more valuable than your own peace. The first time I heard that statement the words sank so deeply into my being I was changed forever. I feel grateful when I am mindful enough to remember this simple wisdom in a moment of worry or frustration.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an acute awareness of the present moment. This means being as fully conscious as possible of all feelings and sensations. By choosing to maintain your alertness in ever-finer degrees of precision, you are able to process the sights, sounds, and smells that reach your senses with refreshing clarity. You are able to observe your thoughts with a kind of compassionate objectivity. Through the diligent cultivation of loving awareness, mindfulness improves the probability that you will be able to respond without reacting if something unexpected or upsetting happens.
Mindfulness Opens and Allows
Incorporating mindfulness exercises into your daily routine can open your heart in a powerful way. The ability to practice mindfulness naturally encourages gratitude, a feeling I believe to be a kind of secret prerequisite for bliss—one of the most elusive (and amazing) feeling states there is. If you are able to put down judgments long enough, your heart starts to appreciate life. When you can cultivate sincere reverence for life for more than a moment or two, transformation can occur and the spiritual essence of love and bliss starts to flow.
Realistically speaking, you don’t necessarily find blissful love-nectar on the first or even the 31st attempt at mindfulness. It is a sacred and mysterious energy. It is associated with opening your heart, being present, feeling grateful, and loving all of life exactly as it is. Mindfulness offers you a continuous opportunity to practice allowing and focus on accepting the now. After accepting comes the possibility of forgiving. After forgiving comes the possibility of loving. After loving comes the possibility of transcending.
When you realize that the things happening in your personal world are quite small in the grander scheme of things, you can focus less on your tiny little sphere of immediate reality. When this happens, you have the unique opportunity to identify with the collective consciousness—the rest of reality. You can expand. In these moments you are growing—spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally. It only takes a single moment of mindfulness to pull yourself out of a habitual, unconscious pattern of reaction onto a brand-new trajectory where choice is possible.
In this way, mindfulness ultimately grants freedom from overpowering feelings and emotions.
Applying Mindfulness to Reduce Anxiety
Freedom is what all anxiety-sufferers seek! Discipline, unfortunately, is a trait that many anxiety-sufferers lack. You may not associate discipline with freedom, but when it comes to mindfulness, the two are connected. It takes discipline to precisely observe your thoughts. It takes discipline to choose not to over-engage a spiral of negative thoughts or over-react to an irritating event. It takes discipline to choose to respond compassionately to the judgmental impulses or string of worries in your mind.
By practicing mindfulness techniques, you can become precisely aware of yourself becoming anxious and lovingly observe the sensations happening in your mind and body. Feel your shoulders tightening, your heart rate rising, and your breathing becoming shallow and rapid. These are physiologic components of anxiety. Mind and body are intimately connected, so if you are able to regulate one, it absolutely influences the other.
Observe and Move Your Body
By practicing mindfulness for anxiety, you will mindfully recognize when you are breathing rapidly or shallowly. You can then have compassion for your anxiety and take a deep breath. If you sit down and put your bare feet on the ground (preferably outside), you can stabilize your physiology pretty quickly. Add some relaxing music or recorded sounds of nature (if live nature sounds aren’t available) to encourage the shift. Playing singing bowls, chanting a mantra, and even humming a soothing melody can also help the body recover a harmonious physiological state.
Conscious or mindful movement, including dance, Tai Chi, and yoga are additional practices that can help the physiology center and reset. The practice of “shaking” (systematically shaking out arms, legs, and then whole-body) is my personal favorite for quickly releasing tension. It is basically the same technique that animals use in the wild if they survive a life-threatening chase. Shaking seems to help both animals and humans process and diffuse lingering stress hormones.
Without mindfulness, you wouldn’t realize you needed to do these things. You’d just be unconsciously swirling in your own anxious confusions (and delusions)! With mindfulness, you have the option to slow the spin of dysfunctional energy and stabilize it yourself. It’s empowering!
Take a Step Back
With mindfulness, you step back a minute. Once you are aware you are excessively repeating a series of fears (or things to control) and negative emotions, you have the option to stop. Awareness is the first step in making a change (in almost any area of life). So, you can realize you’re spiraling, lovingly have compassion for that, and then choose to take your mind in a different direction. As Swami Satchidananda taught, you can choose to keep your peace.
If choosing peace is not quite enough, then I suggest offering yourself this thought in a moment of worry or anxiety: “I choose to trust that the right outcome for all involved is the one that will happen.”
This sentence is a perfect encapsulation of the surrender necessary to permanently change your relationship to your own suffering. Healing stress and anxiety and panic takes time and effort, consistent practice, and plenty of compassion. It involves modulating your physiology and reprogramming your mind. Fearful, controlling thoughts have to be replaced with loving and trusting ones (such as the statement above). The breath and body must be brought back to a neutral, relaxed state.
Ultimately the question to mindfully ask yourself, if your anxiety is bad, is “Can I be okay with this?” And let “this” be almost anything. Can you be okay with your own anxiety? Start with that. The answer, if you want to get better, is “yes.” Yes, you can be so loving and compassionate to your own self that you can be okay with anxiety. You can honor it and nurture yourself in ways that help stabilize your body and mind.
Anxiety Is a Wonderful Teacher of Self-Nurturance
Worry is basically synonymous with fear, and anxiety is usually about your need to control a situation over which you have no dominion. This is why a key ingredient for healing anxiety is letting go. What else can you do? Hang on, try to control, stress incessantly, drive yourself crazy, and create illness in your body and mind? That is one option, but mindful, compassionate surrender practiced repeatedly is the way to healing, the way to freedom, and the way out of stress and anxiety to the higher frequencies of love and trust.
Practicing mindfulness to help anxiety and surrender does not magically mean only good things happen. “Bad” things still happen. This is life! This is Earth! This is a realm where souls seem to come to learn things. How do you know all that your soul intended to do here? Or what is the best outcome for all involved? You don’t! But, you can be compassionate of your vulnerability and choose peace.
Putting This into Practice
- Mindfully notice yourself becoming anxious in mind and body.
- Compassionately forgive the anxiety.
- Deepen your breath. Connect to the earth (consciously think about and intend to connect to the earth).
- Take supportive steps to further stabilize and nurture your mind and body (put bare feet on the ground, repeat a mantra, empty your mind, meditate, move your body gently (think dance, yoga, and Qi Gong), listen to relaxing music, play music, sing, create art, and write.
- Speak to yourself. Ask yourself if you can release your need to control the outcome regarding the thing that sparked your worry. Ask yourself if you can trust the universe to create the most appropriate result for all involved, humbly realizing that you cannot truly understand what “most appropriate” even is (it’s above your level of operation).
- Be courageous and committed to finding your way no matter what. Belief in your own resiliency is one of the most powerful antidotes to anxiety I have found.
- Still your mind. Release all thoughts. This takes practice, practice, and more practice. (Meditation is made for this step. It will help you have the skill needed to quiet your mind quickly when anxiety hits.)
- Open your heart to the mystery. The ultimate healing of anxiety or panic is true and full surrender to whatever could happen—even your own death. When you can surrender to the fact that the path of life is unknown, you have the option to feel free. When you mindfully, compassionately embrace the unknown with pure, unconditional love, you can transcend anxiety and dwell in peace.
Mindfulness is an ancient technique for regaining control over the contents of your mind and the state of your physiology. It involves patience, observation, acceptance, and surrender. It is simple on the surface but far more nuanced in the face of distress.
There are scientific studies coming out regularly about the many benefits of mindfulness. For example, positive results have been found for mindfulness as a way to cope with anxiety, stress, cancer diagnosis, burnout, depression, and more. Two of the most commonly cited benefits of mindfulness in the medical literature are reduced negative judgments (of self and others) and increased forgiveness. It is heart-warming and hopeful that people exposed to this technique are becoming empowered to see themselves as a source of compassionate self-acceptance. Love is the medicine we all contain. Mindfulness reminds us that peace is not just a concept—it is born from the love inside our own hearts.
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