The summer after I graduated from college I headed off to fulfill a dream -- I traveled solo through Europe for two months. Sauntering on Parisian streets; sipping vino in Italy; snuggling under down comforters in Switzerland and Austria; and noshing on pastries in Belgium, and Prague -- I was finally free of all the obligations that my schooling had entailed and was embarking on the path of my adult life.
At least that's how things seemed on the outside.
What I actually felt on the inside was a whole other story. Before I had left the United States, I was diagnosed with the early stage of cervical cancer. This left me scared, anxious, and not knowing how to relate to myself or my new reality. Riddled with anxiety, each train I caught to the next exotic city felt less like a dream-come- true and more like I was simply running away from that unsavory, fluttery feeling in my solar plexus. If I just kept moving, I thought, maybe I could outrun it.
Boy, was I wrong. The thing is, my attempt to run away from myself is not uncommon. It's human nature. How else could we have survived as a species for as long as we have? It's the fight or flight syndrome in action -- only now we face less external obstacles to our well-being (when was the last time you hunted for your food or fended off an enemy?) and more and more internal ones (self criticism, workaholism, addictions, and worry, to name a few).
Luckily, just after gallivanting through Europe, I moved to Thailand to work. There, I was immersed in the abiding calm of Buddhism, the national religion. I attended my first 10-day meditation retreat and started a daily sitting practice. Little by little, I expanded my capacity to observe my thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations--to feel and accept them, rather than run from, change, or control them. This was truly my first step to inner peace; and today this practice, coupled with yoga, forms the backbone of my life.
That's why I am so passionate about sharing what I have learned with others. Yet, often those new to meditation feel intimidated by it. They think: how can I ever stop my thoughts? All this is doing is showing me just how crazy I really am!
The thing is, meditation is not about stopping your thoughts. It's about being with them compassionately. Noticing them. Giving them space to be what they are without acting on them or getting entangled in their enticing stories. Then, gradually, when stronger storms of emotions arise, you have strengthened the "witness" part of yourself--she who sits and watches, rather than reacts. You are able to see the thoughts and feelings in your body that accompany your emotions. Then something like fear or anxiety actually becomes interesting and dynamic, rather than scary parts of yourself that you need to shove into a dark, internal corner of yourself.
One caveat: there is no magical solution! Difficult emotions never go away -- they are part of the human experience -- but, by engaging in the practice below over time, they can lessen and soften as you grow your capacity to relate to them with loving kindness and non-judgmental awareness.
To get you started, here are five steps to help you befriend your anxiety through meditation and breath:
1. GET COMFORTABLE. Take a comfortable seat, either on the floor or in a chair. Be sure that your spine is extended and your chest is open. (Remember that you can do this anywhere--on the bus, the airplane, etc). Consciously let your body relax and sink into the support beneath you, whether that be a cushion or a chair. Soften.
2. NOTICE YOUR BREATH. Now, turn your attention to your breathing--without trying to change it (sure it will change a little once you become aware of it). Does it feel deep? Shallow? Where do you feel it in your body? What parts of your body aren't receiving the breath? Is your inhale longer or shorter than your exhale? Do this for a few minutes. Notice the changing nature of your breath.
3. BECOME CURIOUS. Since your breath is the vehicle of embodiment, you might find that now it is easier for you to feel what's actually happening in your body. Be inquisitive about it, like a child seeing something for the first time. Ask yourself, what does this feel like? What temperature is the sensation? Where is it? Is it moving? If so, how quickly? Does it feel hard, soft, sharp, pulsing, what? Again, stay with it for some time, in each moment, feeling it, then naming it.
4. WITNESS AND PARTICIPATE. Now, if dominating thoughts come into your mind--judgments, fears, worries, or stories associated with your anxiety, notice what they are. See them like you would see words or images on a movie screen. Don't engage with them, witness them. Then, if a strong bodily sensation arises, return to feeling and labeling that. See what calls your attention most strongly and attend to it in the moment. If your body needs to move or if you need to make a sound during this, let that happen, too. Witness and participate without judgment.
5. ACKNOWLEDGE CHANGE. After some time -- whether it be two minutes, ten minutes, or one hour, conclude your meditation by feeling your breath once again. Let yourself re-soften into your surroundings. Now ask yourself, how am I feeling? What are the sensations in my body? More likely than not, you'll see how your state has shifted since you first sat down.
Let this experience remind you that you are NOT your feelings, you are NOT your thoughts, you are NOT your anxiety -- you are that wise, loving, underlying presence that feels and observes without preference or judgment. Return to your day illuminated by the remembrance that you can abide in this presence whenever you choose to.
For a free audio download of this guided meditation practice to help overcome anxiety, click here
To read more from Sara, visit her website.