Unraveling Anxiety

Buddhist teacher Judy Lief explains the Buddha’s deep analysis of the roots of anxiety and shows how mindfulness can help us ease the suffering of an anxious mind.

Judy Lief
8 November 2022

The mind is a tricky, stubborn thing. When we try to force it to behave, it resists. Sometimes it seems as if it’s an external force taking us over, out of our control, in our face. This is definitely the case with anxiety.

Anxiety lodges in our mind and freaks out our body. Once there, it convinces us why it has every reason to move in. There are the big logics: The world is going to hell. We’re all going to die. There are the personal variations: I’m going to get fired.

What if I fail my test? What if she leaves me? I can’t find a job.

Anxiety makes the case it is inevitable. How can you not be anxious, given how messed up the world seems to be? How else could you respond, if you’re paying attention to what’s going on? What else could you feel, given the pressures you’re under?

Anxiety seems to be the only realistic option.

Widespread anxiety is the dark side of modernization. It is like a collective psychic revolt against the dehumanizing nature of modern capitalism with its shallowness and greed, and there is insight there, the visceral knowledge that something is off. But every era has its own form of anxiety. Let’s face it, life is stressful. So, do we just hunker down and get through it, or can we find ways to face stressful situations without being overcome by our anxiety and fears?

Buddhism is filled with investigations into the nature of suffering, such as the suffering of anxiety. After all, that was how the whole thing started—with the question of suffering, its causes, and how it can be alleviated. This is not an investigation that was done long ago by Gautama Buddha and is over and done with. It is a continual, living process each of us goes through. It is not philosophical or merely theoretical. It is deeply personal.

In talking about suffering and its many forms, the Buddha brought his analysis to a deeper level with the concept of dukkha. Dukkha is often translated as “suffering,” but it points to a fundamental dis-ease, a fundamental anxiety, that is ongoing and ever-present. In Indian music, there are delightful melodies of happiness and sorrow in intricately interwoven patterns.

Underlying the melodies of our human drama is the steady, buzzing drone of the tanpura, almost like the buzzing of an electric current. Dukkha is that steady drone, sometimes apparent and other times hidden in the beauty of the tune. It is a subtle type of anxiety, the sense that, no matter what, something is not quite right.

You could call this ground-level anxiety the mother lode, the root problem. It is the inescapable anxiety fed by the false sense of self called ego, which is inherently insecure about its own existence. As long as this is not dealt with, there will be no end to our discontent. The actual world will never be enough to satisfy us; it will never fulfill our endless needs or desires. As long as we don’t confront the fundamental anxiety at the core of our being, our experience of life will be split, dualistic, and we will be forever restless. A residue of anxiety will trail our every thought and action.

The Buddha said that we ourselves create this anxiety through our ignorance and neediness. So there is hope, for that implies we have the potential to stop feeding it. So dukkha is good/bad. This steady drone of deep-rooted anxiety is our biggest problem, but it is also what spurs us to pursue the spiritual path.

The Buddha recognized that a certain amount of suffering is simply a fact of life, our inheritance as humans. He also saw that ironically, the more we struggle to avoid that reality, the more suffering we create. Anxiety is definitely a part of life, like sickness, aging, and death, but we take a bad situation and make it worse by how we respond. We may or may not be able to change what is coming at us, but we can definitely change how we deal with it.

So in accord with Buddha’s insights on basic suffering and the additional suffering we add on, we could look directly at the experience of anxiety as it arises in us. However, our tendency of avoidance is so strong and so quick that before we can even begin to let ourselves really feel what is going on, we get entangled in our thoughts and opinions about it. Rather than accepting our situation and dealing with it, we stew about things not going our way, get angry about not getting what we want, mad at not being in control, envious of those in happier circumstances, and on and on. When anxiety takes over, the what-ifs are so powerful we lose track of what actually is. All that just adds on more suffering.

It is tempting to pile on more thoughts about anxiety in an attempt to get rid of our anxiety. Anxiety is not pleasant, we don’t want to feel that way, so can’t we make ourselves feel something better instead? Where is our “happy place” when we need it? Is there something wrong with us?

When a bad feeling like anxiety arises, the thought bubbles up that we should not be feeling that way, that there’s something wrong. We would prefer to be feeling something else instead. This is what I call “the world according to me” approach. In the “world according to me,” this would not be happening. But it is.

So let’s start there. Let’s feel it. What is it like? Can we be still for a moment and simply be with this experience? It is not so easy to be with pain or uncertainty, and that’s what meditation is all about. Mindfulness is our primary tool for unraveling anxiety.

Anxiety thrives on compulsive thinking, entranced and powered by thoughts of failure and disaster; meditation is based on taming the mind and freeing ourselves from the domination of these kinds of thought. Meditation is based on present moment experience; anxiety is all about the future. Meditation cuts speculation and brings us back to simple bodily experience; anxiety keeps us spinning so fast that we lose touch with our body.

Mindfulness of the breath is especially helpful in working with anxiety. Through meditation practice we learn about our own breath patterns—how our breathing changes from fast to slow, shallow to deeper, from tight to free-flowing, depending on our thoughts and emotional state. As we become familiar with these variations, we are able to work with the breath as a healing force. If we feel anxious, we can deliberately regulate our breathing until it is slow and steady. We can drop the habit of holding and tightening our breathing.

Mindfulness is about learning to slow down. When we are hit with something stressful, often our first response is to panic and speed up. But if we inject even a tiny disruption into that pattern, even a tiny little pause, we can regain our bearings. We can reestablish our ground.

Mindfulness practice can also help us cut through the loops of anxious thinking, changing our relationship to the uncertainty that feeds that process. We can see that our thoughts and speculations about what might happen are just that—thoughts. We never know for sure whether the things we are afraid of will happen or not, and our speculation won’t make a bit of difference.

In meditation practice, we learn to be with uncertainty rather than cover it up in a panic of anxious thoughts. Simply recognizing what thoughts are up to begins to disempower them. In meditation practice, one technique for doing that is to label whatever arises in the mind as ”thinking”—in a very matter-of-fact way, with no judgment—and just return to awareness of the breath.

This may sound strange, but when anxiety builds, I talk with it. I say to my anxiety: What will happen, will happen. I will fail or I will succeed. Things will work out or they will not. In the meantime, will my worry or anxiety change anything? No. Will it help in any way? No. My anxiety won’t make a bit of difference, except for making me suffer for no reason. I don’t try to avoid what I am feeling, but I try to put it in its place.

The fact is that anxiety is an ineffective way of dealing with life’s uncertainties and harshness. We should be anxious, up to a point. If we didn’t worry about the possibility of very real disasters, that would be stupid. But once something has got our attention, our anxiety gets in the way. It doesn’t help us find ways to prevent such disasters, and it doesn’t help us figure out how to deal with matters we cannot fix. The Indian master Shantideva advised a clean and simple approach: If you face a problem you can do something about, do it. Why worry? And if there is nothing you can do about it, so be it. Why worry?
Emotions like anxiety have two sides. They are messengers—they have something to teach us—but they quickly gather strength and take us over, and we lose it.

There is a certain point where excitement or nervousness slips into anxiety. That is a point to notice. Excitement or nervousness can be a good thing. As a writer and teacher, my life is a cycle of deadlines. As I approach the due date for an article or the start of a class, the experience heightens and intensifies. Once I finish, that energy quiets down and relaxes. I think we benefit from that kind of stress–relaxation cycle. It gives us an edge.

But anxiety itself does not benefit us. The more anxious and cautious we become, the more we attract disaster. If you have ever got a ride with a nervous driver, you know how scary anxiety can be. When Simone Biles experienced extreme anxiety during her Olympic performance, she realized how dangerous it would be to continue in that state.

So here we are. We each have our particular sources of anxiety. And along with those, we can’t help but be affected by broader threats on a national and global scale. There are frightening and disturbing realities in our world, scary things out there, but the resulting anxiety is ours. It is not out there but in us. It is a habit reaction, an unhelpful and painful one, and it is ours to deal with.

Meditation is not a frontal assault on anxiety. While meditative techniques like breathing can be very helpful in calming an uprising of anxiety, meditation is not really about fixing, getting rid of, or denying anything. It is about how to find sanity and calm in the midst of the world as it is. What else can we do?

Judy Lief

Judy Lief is a Buddhist teacher and the editor of many books of teachings by the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She is the author of Making Friends with Death. Her teachings and new podcast, “Dharma Glimpses,” are available at judylief.com.