Q+A – Meditation & Anxiety in the Modern World

A student asked me, “Why is there such angst and anxiety in the world today, and how do I cope with it?”

“Why do I worry about Russia sending warplanes over the Baltic Sea? Why do I worry when our government begins to break down? Why does my wife take a tone sometimes? Are these the same?”

My first answer is yes, they all basically come from the same place. They come from a place of fear. It is how your old brain was programmed to respond to everything in the world around you; and while you cannot change the way your brain works, you can change the way your brain processes and responds to that information.

Instead of having to respond with your fight or flight auto-response, you can train yourself to pause, to contemplate – even if for a second – and choose to take a different route than the one your primordial brain has laid out for you. In truth, you can choose to live your life your way.

The net/net is that the brain creates pathways that you live by.  We call them habits. Neuroscientists call them auto-responses; but they are so much more. They are the responses that you live your life by, and they can often lead you down a path that you will probably regret later on.

Neurologists have a saying – neurons that fire together, wire together. Eastern Philosophers have another saying, you are what you think. They are the same.

All that nervousness, that anxiousness, that angst? It is the result of the patterns that have been developed over eons of evolution. And this is the problem. Many of them date back tens, and even hundreds of thousands of years. They worked wonderfully in the past, they got us to the top of the food chain, but in the modern world you now live in, most of them have little relevance in your life.

The fear that rises when you read about other countries becoming more aggressive is no different than when a primal ancestor saw a shape moving on the horizon. The fear that rises to anger when you read about our government is no different than the worry that was felt about a field of crops failing. And the perceived tone that your wife is taking? Again, it is your old brain preparing for the worst.

If you doubt this, just think about what your brain scrolls through when any of these events take place. They are always worst case scenarios.

Always remember, there are two parts to your brain. There is the old brain that has just one objective – your survival. Then there is the modern brain, the part that most of us think of when someone asks us about the brain. It is that magnificent organ that sits on the top, the part that is responsible for the executive functions in your life.

The old brain becomes uncomfortable with anything that implies risk – taking a new route to work, watching as a new employee enters your workplace, hearing your loved one take a tone. It jumps at every ping and chirp from your mobile device just as it did when a twig snapped in the forest thousands of years ago. It keeps getting distracted by all the things going on in the world around you, looking for danger; even though most of them are completely irrelevant to your survival.

When you begin to get involved in any higher-level thinking, preparing a report, reviewing a PowerPoint file, or looking toward the future, your modern brain focuses in on the task at hand. But, your old brain is still working in the background. It kicks in when it hears a ping, sees movement out of the corner of your eye, or detects a tone. At that moment it begins releasing adrenaline and cortisol.

It starts slowly, preparing you for a potential threat, but as you respond by getting nervous, it elevates your threat-level and starts to release larger and larger amounts of these hormones [adrenaline being produced by the adrenal gland]. It is what happens when your boss calls you into a meeting out of the blue. It is what effects an architect when a client changes a floor plan.

Your modern brain realizes that taking a calculated risk is often the safest path to a secure future. Your old brain does not, and that is where the problem begins. One still thinks that the old way is best.  The other knows that in today’s world the new path is more often the right one. The result is you feel doubt and insecure as the two battle it out.

The key is to remind yourself of this when you start to feel anxious or when you feel self-doubt. Remind yourself that all that angst is simply your old brain trying to keep you safe, and bless it’s heart, what it thinks is safe is dated by more than 40,000 years.

This is why you should step back the next time you feel off and take a meditative breath to calm yourself. Then acknowledge whatever it is that is before you and label it for what it is. It may sound like “boss calling me into his office,” or “client changing something that we agreed on,” or “the one I love is using a tone with me.”

Breathe into the issue that is before you. Take a moment to contemplate just how serious it is, and then let it go. Let each issue go for now as you return to whatever it is you were doing right before it came up. Smile as you give yourself a moment to calm down before responding. If it’s on text, give yourself an hour; email? a day, because the moment you are in is probably different than the moment your old brain sees you in, even though it is right here, and right now.

Walk Your Own Path

Do not try to find yourself.

That only leads to unhappiness and frustration.

Simply allow your journey to unfold before you.

Remind yourself to enjoy the ride as it opens up.

Enjoy the experience before you without judgment, and allow it to pass.

Simply observe, be aware, and breathe.

In time you will look back and see how far you have come.

Monday Moments – The Sounds in Your Life

You live in a tactile world, yet not everything is soft.

You touch the granite of the buildings as you pass.

You touch the cold glass and steel of the car before you enter.

You enjoy the hard foundation that Terra Firma provides you.

So why do you allow yourself to grow angry at the hard sounds of your life?

Perhaps it is time to rethink your approach to them.

Instead of turning away from the harsh sounds, embrace them and welcome them. Allow them to flow into the wonderful cacophony of white noise that is your world. Instead of viewing the experiences of your life as good or bad, begin to see the world as it truly is.

Learn to limit the noise in your life as you create harmony in the sounds that are all around.

  • The people talking at the table next to yours? Let it go.
  • The noise of the traffic? Let it go.
  • The annoying pitch of your boss’s rant?  Let it go.

See the world as it is all around you.  Refuse to let your brain weave patterns for you as you grow aware of the substance rather than the noise.

Take the time taste the air with every breath. Smile at the scents as they play upon your tongue. Enjoy the thoughts your mind creates. Just do not feel the need to live in them. Be aware of each, without feeling the need to respond.

Hear, taste and smell the details of the world you live in – then decide what to focus on and what to let slide into the background of your world.

Are you actually nervous, or are you smelling the pheromones of an ancient beast about to attack?

Is it your ego playing on your response based on 40,000 year old programming, or is there really a modern day threat?

Make sure the choices you are making are truly your choices, and not some pattern created by that fight or flight response that kept our ancestors alive.

Be aware of the noise in your world, and choose what you want to let it and what you want to let go.

It truly is up to you…

After all, it is YOUR life.

Why not live it as YOU want?

Monday Moments – Short Sits

Short Sits

For most of us, the idea of sitting on a hilltop for an hour is a lovely idea. The reality, however, is a far cry from that dream.  Rarely do we have an hour.  Rarer still is there an empty hilltop to sit and enjoy.

Perhaps it was realistic 3,000 years ago when meditation was first introduced, but today, nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is you have more stress in the first thirty minutes of your day, than someone did in an entire day 3,000 years ago.

The answer is not stressing about finding a quiet place to sit for two hours, or even twenty minutes. That is not necessarily the most effective way to meditate in today’s world anyway.

The fact is that research is showing us that sitting for shorter periods of time more frequently actually produces better results for those seeking to reduce stress, find balance, and yes, even reach their inner calm.

So, the next time you feel anxiety or panic come on, or when you realize the trigger for your stress is going to be in that meeting coming up, sit for a short time.  Just three to five minutes will do.  Then take a very short break of maybe thirty to sixty seconds, and sit again.

Just be mindful of whatever it is you are doing during your break. Keep the rhythm of your breath going and try not to lose your natural ease. Smile to yourself as you sit again, and feel the joy in what you are doing.

What you will find is that taking short breaks like this will extend your meditation and create a living meditation within your world.  You will feel your life become richer and more inspiring than ever before.  It will help you mind the gap between your seated meditations and the very real life you live every day. It will also take the clumsy, irksome and solemn nature out of a more traditional practice.

Very quickly, you will find the barrier that once separated your meditation from your life disappear. Instead, the distractions that once undermined your work, and even your meditation, will fade away – leaving you in your natural state, free from the mind-chatter that once used to cause such dismay.

As I have often said, “A meditator may leave a proper meditation, but a proper meditation will never leave the meditator.”

After all, it is YOUR life.

Why not make it YOUR meditation?

Simplicity in Meditation

Simplicity is the product of tempering a great idea with modest expectations.

When you simplify your life you learn to quiet the noise and distractions that can pull you away from your destiny.  You learn to cultivate the friends and family that will bring your dreams to life.

It is why we teach meditation. Not as an end unto itself, but as a path to a community of people with whom you can share. You see, family and friends are more than a random selection of stragglers you end up with.  They acknowledge the joy that can be found within the nuances of taste.  They touch the notes of music you enjoy.  They savor the sights and the smells that are a part of who you are.

It is why curating your life is about so much more than just letting go of the bad. It is about replacing it with the good.  It is about creating a path to the joy that you should find in every article of clothing you own, in every candle you light, in every window you open, and in every meal you enjoy. Clearing the clutter from your life, is about peeling back the layers that have prevented you from being your authentic self, and opening yourself up to an enlightened life.