We are what we think, right? Well, partially but no, not really. We are more what we love than what we think about. More clearly, what we love is what we will think about because what we love shapes our character and our very being. The mind will think about anything, as long as we let it, and train it to do so. Most of the time, our mind is on auto-pilot because we’ve never trained it properly.
In the last year, I’ve thought about a lot of things: the weather, why fast food stinks, the pine tree that keeps dropping sap on my car, whether I will ever marry and if I do will I be happy, if I’m getting fat, God, about my parents and family and friends, about the future of our country, is the planet really warming or not, am I doing the right thing in my life, is Trump really a decent person, and on and on and on. I know, it’s silly, but we all think about silly things.
The brain is there for a reason- to think and solve problems. What problems we give the mind to think about and solve are based on the way we see ourselves and the world around us. Anxiety, or worrying or obsessing is fundamentally caught up in this question: what am I here for, and what am I supposed to think about? Without any general guidance on this question, it is easy to see how the mind could recede into chaos.
Cerebrus is the 3-headed dog of Greek mythology who guards the gates of hell, to keep everyone in. Cerebrus offers us a useful metaphor for dealing with anxiety because it allows us to picture what a type of hell anxiety can be. We are trapped in by this barking, howling, and general madness of an anxious mind that won’t seem to stop.
So if to think and love (something) is human, the question of anxiety becomes one of what should I think about and what should I love? If I’m thinking of things which are unpleasant, not true, even destructive, and things I don’t really want to think about, shouldn’t I think of something different?
Principle 1: We are not our thoughts and feelings.
Eventually we may find we can turn off the mind, and just concentrate on being or being aware, which according to Martin Laird of Into the Silent Land, is the same thing. But for now it is important to get some separation- WE ARE NOT OUR THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS. Laughter is permitted and recommended at this point.
I enjoyed an occasional Yoga session from the first time I did it. It was an excellent way for me to balance out weight lifting and running, and stay flexible, and I always felt great after I did it. That being said, the eastern focus on Yoga “emptying out” the mind never really resonated completely with me, so I never used Yoga for that reason. I also tried off and on to meditate but to no avail. It was frustrating because I am a disciplined person. Why couldn’t I meditate?
I have recently been able to get over the hump of starting to meditate (it’s a work in progress) by using a prayer word instead of just sitting there breathing. The Christian scriptural teaching of “praying without ceasing” fits quite well with the idea that we should ground our thinking and awareness not in nothing, or emptying out, but in love itself which is the ultimate end. I was surprised to find out that historic Christianity has a great tradition of meditation. To me, the basis of reality is love, not nothing, so that is what I have chosen to meditate on.
Principle 2: When starting to learn to control anxiety, or obsessive thinking, it is helpful to learn to concentrate so the mind will have something to focus on, and a mantra or prayer word is helpful in this.
For you, it may be a verse of scripture, or a mantra of faith, hope, love or some other useful tool. If you share a different faith or viewpoint, you can try something else. Over time, you may find you don’t need a formal prayer or mantra anymore. At first, it may even be helpful to say it out loud.
So back to the beginning. If we want to beat anxiety once and for all, we must first decide what we want to think about, what we should think about, and what is worth thinking about and what is not. In order to answer the question of what to think about and what not to, let’s first decide what story we’re in and what role we want to play, and then we can decide what to think about. I never said it would be easy, but beating anxiety can be done. It’s ok. Many have gone before you and traveled the same road.
Principle 3: We are creatures of habit. We must train ourselves on what to think about so it becomes automatic and drowns out everything else. Write down your values and what you’re about, so you will know what to think about as a habit.
As cliché as it sounds, every moment really is a miracle. When we are aware of this we can draw ourselves back to the present and concentrate on the conversation, the tasty meal of avocado and eggs, and the sounds of the birds. In “The Spiritual Power of Habit”, philosopher James KA Smith teaches us how we can re-orient ourselves towards an automatic flourishing. What we do, according to Smith, and what rituals we engage in shape us more than our thinking, which supports the idea that we should decide on ultimate telos (according to Aristotle), or meaning, and in turn values and then live accordingly. That way our living controls our thinking, not the other way around.
We are here for some reason, we are not essentially a “reactive” creature like a lizard, but we are men and women and capable of more. A lizard doesn’t have to do anything to be a lizard, but we are different. What must we do then to “be” men and women? Like music, it takes the discipline of a singer or piano player or harpist to make good living happen. Otherwise: chaos and disharmony. We need to be disciplined in thoughts, and gently correct ourselves and our thinking (we’re not perfect), so that we can make the “music” of being fully human. What must we do, what must we value and how can we make it a habit to think about this? If you decide this, you can lay out a path to victory over anxiety.
Judo and martial arts contribute greatly to the conversation. Entering the mat, a player bows to the sensei, entering the ritual space. Then exercises and etiquette are displayed in a ritual way. Learning takes place with repetition. With years and years and years of practice, and humility, and submission, a Judo master is made. One thing I love about Judo is the respect for authority and respect of accumulated wisdom, but what an affront to an individualist culture- after all, I know everything and can do everything and am a god already! That’s why we drop out, of Judo, or guitar, or anything else that allows us to make “music”.
Principle 4: Mastery takes time, whether it is music, or public speaking, or writing, Judo, or anything else, so we should not expect to be perfect in mastering our thinking or awareness right out of the gate. Be patient and allow yourself time to think about the right things and to learn to relax.
If you stay committed, you’ll get there. Life is hard when you live it the easy way, and easy when you live it the hard way.
I’m a big fan of walking. Some time, try to walk out the front door with no plan in mind. This is an ecstatic experience. I believe one reason I love New Orleans so much, is that it is an interesting place to walk. Where you walk doesn’t matter. Experiencing life and being open to it matters. There is a truth out there, but you don’t have to find it in your walk, just enjoy your walk and you may find it anyway. For example, you never really know what you’re going to write about until you start writing- the same with a good ecstatic walk. We learn by walking, and writing, and doing and being present.
Principle 5: Exercise can be a healthy way to learn to focus and to be aware, which will prevent worrying.
When you exercise, turn off your music, TV, internet, and think about the breathing, sets, reps, etc. or just look around and enjoy the view. Exercise also boosts the natural chemicals in the brain that help us to relax, which I wrote about in Movement & Meaning.
In reality science and wisdom go hand in hand, because without wisdom science doesn’t mean anything. Vocabulary doesn’t make a language just like knowledge doesn’t provide wisdom. Science can help us use knowledge, and in turn wisdom more effectively, and on that note: Breathing is unique in that it is both unconscious (like our thoughts) and conscious (like our thoughts). Breathing helps us to become aware and present, which kills obsession and worry. Breathing is your most potent weapon, aside from deciding on your telos, ( from Aristotle, which again means reason for being ), in the battle against anxiety.
Principle 6. Use breathing with your prayer or mantra and your battle to end anxiety will be tilted in your favor.
What about noise, and distractions? Oh they’re there, and we have trained ourselves to pay attention to them. Or rather, they are training us to love them. They own us. I love a good conversation, but unfortunately one can be hard to find. Why is that? Because we can’t think and talk and listen all at the same time and we’re always distracted. Listening is not waiting until the other person shuts up. Repeat back what someone says so they will know you listened. Anger is a legitimate emotion, and I think one reason we have so much anger in the world, and rage, and hatred, is that people don’t feel listened to. People want to be heard. People matter. You never know who you may encounter who needs to be heard.
Principle 7: To get out of your head, go and get in someone else’s and talk to them and listen to them.
Make a sincere effort to ask questions and get to know someone and how they’re doing. I’ve been doing even more of this lately, and credit to my friend Jeff for pointing this out, how conversation is an art. There is a fantastic anxiety - relieving conversation to be had at every corner if we are open to it. An artistic conversation is like a dramatic tennis match, and the rhythm of the ball going back and forth as the volley continues. I can almost hear it going back and forth. P.S. If you know of a conversation vulture (you know the type) then run and stay far away!
Principle 8: Silence is golden and should be pursued to calm the mind, but silence can be cultivated in noisy environments.
Sometimes, we can't get into a truly silent environment but silence, when attained from within in spite of our environment, can teach us quite a bit. Silence can draw out the uncomfortable truths we don't want to think about, or what we've been avoiding. Pursue silence, first in your environment, and then in your mind. Make it a deliberate point to be in silence regularly, so you will can learn to listen to your conscience and your innermost self. This will help you see your thoughts more clearly and get some space. When you can't find physical or auditory silence, make it happen on your own by employing your breath, awareness, and prayer word.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, or the tip of the mind if you want to look at it that way. Practice these principles and your mind will start to form different thoughts, perceptions, and feelings, you will focus on better things, and you will wake up to the goodness, humanity, and freedom of the moment.
As John Milton once said, “The mind is its own place, it can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven”, so let’s make it a heaven.
You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, by James KA Smith
Into the Silent Land: Silence, Awareness, Contemplation by Martin Laird
Also, please contact me if you or anyone you know would like to do some personal coaching. I am seeing success with my tough-love style and have room for 1-2 more clients.
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