What does your body tell you when you’re anxious? C. Pierce Salguero explains how Buddhist practice can help us tune in when strong emotions arise.
How do you know you’re anxious? What exactly does it feel like? You can begin to sense what Buddhists refer to as bodymind energies if you start paying attention to what happens internally when you’re having a strong emotion.
Many forms of Buddhism teach that the body and mind (together referred to as “bodymind”) is permeated with a subtle energy, a life force that is constantly flowing, keeping everything moving, growing, changing, and becoming. In East Asia, this energy is normally talked about using the Chinese term qi or the Japanese equivalent ki. In Tibetan and Thai Buddhism, energy is spoken of as “winds” called rlung or lom respectively. Buddhist traditions from many parts of Asia describe a system of channels throughout the body along which these energies flow. Certain traditions also add the notion of the chakras (simply meaning “wheel”), which are akin to whirling wheels of energy in the body.
These Buddhist ideas about subtle energies have some similarities with some other Asian traditions, such as Hindu systems of yoga and traditional Chinese medicine. The main ideas in the Buddhist models are that, while the subtle winds flow everywhere throughout the body, there are three main channels that run up the midline of the body from the genitals to the crown of the head. Located along that central axis, there are a number of chakras (exactly how many differs from tradition to tradition), which are locations where certain energies originate and are stored, manipulated, or cultivated. Practitioners work with mantras, visualizations, breath work, and physical postures to develop control over these energies and to move them intentionally through the system of channels and chakras. The ultimate goal is always to be able to use these subtle winds to facilitate spiritual development, but they say that you can use these same techniques to promote good health, to cure disease, and to extend your lifetime longer than it normally would be.
This all sounds complex and difficult, and of course a full understanding of these models would require training in a particular Buddhist system of practice (check out Yantra Yoga or Ruesri Dat Ton). But, the underlying principles are quite easy to understand. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything mystical or supernatural going on here. Rather, I see these as culturally specific ways of describing common everyday experiences that all human beings share—and that any of us can notice if we pay attention.
Next time you are anxious, pay attention to your body and mind. In my own experience, the initial provocation that causes anxiety to arise is a thought. That thought triggers a clenching in a specific location deep in my abdomen. Then a wave of jittery or fluttering body sensations rises from that location vertically toward my heart. This feeling can cause my heart rate to increase and my breathing to get faster. I then usually experience a cold tingling sensation that rises from my chest up to my shoulders, neck, and head, which then floods the rest of my body. Do you feel something similar in your body when you experience anxiety? Take a look and see.
With a bit of practice and close attention, you can also begin to understand what people mean when they speak of controlling or manipulating these responses. Again, speaking from personal experience, I have learned that once that anxious feeling starts up in my body, it can start my mind off on a spiral of anxious thoughts. This activity in turn can trigger more clenching in my gut, which results in a cascade of sensations that grows more and more intense until it seems to take over my whole bodymind. But I have also learned that I can intervene in this process. As soon as I notice anxiety in my body, I can take a deep breath and just observe the tension or tingling at that spot with a neutral mindset. Sometimes it takes a few breaths, but if I’ve got enough concentration and am able to relax into the sensations without reacting to them, I can often calm my whole system down quickly.
Is your experience of anxiety the same as or different from mine? Maybe you would use different words than I have, but can you relate to the feelings I’m describing? Could you also see how someone else may choose to describe these same experiences in terms of an agitated wind that moves along specific channels and that can start or get stuck in certain spinning wheels located in their torso?
Personally, I don’t think that language is bizarre or even off-base. Of course, if it’s unhelpful for you to think in terms of these metaphors, then feel free to use others. Or just focus on examining the experience without getting hung up on the words. I think the main point of the Buddhist approach is that it’s helpful for your health to improve your interoception, your attention to what’s going on inside your body. When you pay more attention to what’s going on inside, you can see how the mind triggers negative reactions in the body and the body responds to the mind. Once you can observe this process in real time, you can learn ways to intervene in order to bring yourself a bit of relief.
Dramatic feelings like anxiety are a good place to start, but as you learn to notice the fluctuations of your bodymind, you can cultivate more and more subtle levels of interoception. Improved awareness of how your body feels on an ongoing basis might help you to better regulate your sleep, your diet, your exercise, and other facets of your life in order to optimize your mental and physical well-being. Instead of allowing yourself to become controlled by unconscious habits, you might better tune into the natural rhythms inherent to your body. Maybe you could even sense when something is going awry right from the beginning and intuitively know how to intervene most effectively before any major symptoms appear.
Eventually, your sensitivity may get even more subtle than that. If you continue to explore your energies in ever more nuanced ways, you may find yourself experiencing a deep healing of the entire bodymind. Many Buddhists would say that taking this kind of work seriously can ultimately result in Awakening or Enlightenment. Other practitioners prefer to focus on the concrete benefits for mental and physical well-being. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether to call all this spirituality or medicine, but I think you’ll agree that the line between them can get pretty blurry.
If we’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s the importance of taking care of ourselves in these uncertain times. Tuning into the interactions between the body and mind in this way is an invaluable starting point for any self-care routine. Just remember to relax, stay curious, and be gentle with yourself while you do so. You’ll discover that what initially seemed complex and difficult can actually be quite natural and simple.
Excerpted from Buddhish: A Guide to the 20 Most Important Buddhist Ideas for the Curious and the Skeptical by C. Pierce Salguero (Beacon Press 2022). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.