About twenty years ago, my therapist quietly said to me, “Beth, what’s happening is that you’re anxious about the possibility of being anxious.
Bingo! I was living in a constant state of hypervigilance, and when you’re skilled at scanning for threats, you become convinced that the worst outcome lurks around every corner. It’s called anticipatory anxiousness, and it explained a lot about how my life had unfolded to that point in time.
The point isn’t to stop the waves of energy — it’s learning how to ride them.
Why wasn’t I invited to that meeting? Will my daughter’s cough get worse? What if the bank doesn’t approve the mortgage? For much of my life, I ruminated on elaborate worst-case scenarios, backed up by “evidence” and played out in detail in my mind, over and over. I’d perfected the art of thinking, planning, and worrying.
Fortunately for me, that very day my therapist offered to lend me a trio of books by Ani Pema Chödrön. Pema taught me how to stay with the waves of emotion, watching their rise and fall instead of fighting them. It changed my life.
I learned it was okay and safe to hang out in the gap between my arising emotions and future outcomes. At first, it felt uncomfortable, even frightening. Staying put while I noticed my body’s response to fear was new. But as Pema teaches us, it’s the natural flow of life, and thankfully, as she suggested I would, I began to notice that I was big enough to hold the emotion. Slowly I began to trust reality rather than just hope for success in the future. I learned to soften. It was an early instruction in impermanence, completely changing how I related to my day-to-day life and those around me.
In this issue of Lion’s Roar, we share an excerpt from Pema’s latest book, How We Live is How We Die. Pema reminds us that what Buddhism calls the three poisons—craving, aggression, and ignorance—are at the core of all uncomfortable emotions. But if we learn how to unpack the potency of emotion at the feeling or sense level, we can transform its energy in a helpful direction.
The point isn’t to stop the waves of energy—it’s learning how to ride them. Mindfulness teachers often use the expression “name it to tame it.” When we notice the energy of emotion arising in our body before we start telling ourselves some big storyline about it, we can soften into new ways of being in the world, with greater ease and joy.
May these teachings assist you, as they have me, on your journey of working with the rise and fall of day-to-day life.