11/23/2011 09:52 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2012

Overcoming Anxiety Through Kindness and Meditation

Recently, a member of the Open Heart Project wrote asking if I knew of any meditations for dealing with anxiety and this really started me thinking. I struggle with anxiety myself and it has been through attempting to apply the dharma to my own experiences that I have come to see its extraordinary applicability. As such, I have several suggestions to make. They are all predicated on having some kind of moment-to-moment, non-conceptual relationship with your own mind and heart, so a meditation practice is pretty much irreplaceable.

About 10 years ago, out of the blue, I started having panic attacks. When I say out of the blue, I mean out of the blue. They began when I was sitting on a plane about to fly from Boston to Denver. I have flown all over the world. I used to have a job that required me to fly to Europe frequently and I've lived outside of the U.S. Never been a problem -- until this particular date when I took my seat on a United flight, strapped on my seat belt and began to sob and shake uncontrollably. My mouth went dry. My palms began to sweat. My heart felt like it was going to explode in my chest and adrenaline flooded my belly. It was as if my life had been threatened by a force of terrifying and unrelenting evil. (Some may think that's not a bad description of United Airlines in general, but that's another story.) I had no idea what was going on, only that I Had. To. Get. Off. That. Plane.

And so I did.

I tried to get on the next flight. Same thing. Uncontrollable terror. I got off again. This time I thought, "I'll get drunk. I don't really drink very often so it shouldn't be difficult." Au contraire. I had too much adrenaline in my system to get drunk. Three double tequila shots later, I sat on the floor by my gate stone cold sober with a splitting headache. Yes, I was in a fight or flight situation, but I could not fight, nor could I fly. I went home. Thus I discovered I had been stricken with a wicked case of claustrophobia.

The next morning, armed with Valium, I boarded a new flight to Denver. Don't try this at home, but I had to take 15 mg just to stop shaking when normally a single mg would turn me into a zombie. (I have a low tolerance for, well, everything.) I sat in my seat relaxed, yes, but crying.

The flight attendant asked me if I was OK. "I'm a little claustrophobic," I said. "Would you like to speak to the captain?" she asked. Sure, I thought. Take me to your leader. In any case, out came a nice man in a uniform who looked me right in the eye, smiled broadly, gave me his hand and, as we shook hello, told me his name (Captain Denny Flanagan) and that he understood I was a little afraid to fly. I nodded, tear streaked, shaking, distraught. He said something along these lines: Well, I can tell you that we have a beautiful day for flying. We have Missy in the front and Biff in the back of the cabin (can't remember their actual names) and they are going to take great care of everyone. I promise that I am going to get you to Denver safely.

It wasn't his words that put me at ease. It was his words plus his steady gaze plus his warm handshake PLUS the unmistakable quality of sincerely caring about my well being. I felt better. About an hour into the flight, the flight attendant came to check on me and handed me a business card. It was the captain's. On the back, he had written this:

Susan -- Hope everything is going fine. If I can be of any service let me know. Thanks for your trust and belief in me. Capt. Denny Flanagan

At this point, I began to get a little panicky about leaving the plane. What could be better than to be among people who knew how to be kind? On this day, I realized that if I could get someone to be kind to me, I could work with my anxiety. So now, when I begin to panic on a plane or elevator, I say to someone nearby, I'm a little claustrophobic. Would you mind talking to me for a few moments? I promise not to bug you beyond that. I cannot begin to tell you about the kindnesses I've received. Every single person I've turned to has responded to me with some kind of generosity, be it to tell me about their own fears, to assure me that God loves me, or simply to ask me my name or where I'm from or some other form of chit chat. Each time this happens, I relax. I'm not saying that few nice words from a stranger are going to cure your phobias, but there is a principle here that is worth paying attention to.

Among other things, anxiety has to do with feeling threatened and alone. When you connect with your fellow humans in a simple and genuine way, anxiety lessens. To connect, you can take one of two routes. You can request kindness from others (as I did, blunderingly) or you can offer it to others. Just as helpful as hoping for the kindness of strangers is to notice those around you and offer your kindness to them. If you're on a plane, you could smile at and thank the flight attendant. If you're in an elevator, you could simply notice those with you and send them good wishes, silently. (Otherwise it could get a little weird.) If you're at your computer, dreading opening today's emails, make the first message you send one of care to someone, anyone. If you're unable to sleep at night because you have a worried mind, spend a few minutes wishing that all beings who suffer and can't sleep because they're afflicted with a worried mind could find relief and a peaceful rest. Expand your circle of concern to include all beings--which doesn't mean expelling yourself from that circle. After all, "all beings" includes you if I'm not mistaken.

The ability to relax with your fears long enough to consider options such as offering or receiving kindness is cultivated through your meditation practice, which teaches you to soften toward your own experience which naturally, spontaneously gives rise to the ability to soften toward others. When we live in a world of kindness, we will have the world we deserve. Thus, gentleness is your super power and the antidote to anxiety is, well, love.

And when you begin to doubt in the basic goodness of your fellow humans, please refer to the token I carry with me in my wallet, always: