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Working With Worry

How to Practice Buddhism When You're a Nervous Wreck

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Worry and anxiety are part of life. In Buddhism, worry is also among the Five Hindrances to enlightenment. The fourth hindrance, uddhacca-kukkucca in Pali, is often translated "restlessness and worry," or sometimes "restlessness and remorse."

Uddhacca, or restlessness, literally means "to shake." It is a tendency to be over-excited or "revved up." For now, however, we're going to look at mostly at kukkucca, which the early sutras describe as remorse for things done or not done in the past. Over time, the meaning of kukkucca was expanded to include anxiety and worry.

Some of the old texts helpfully advise us to replace worry with serenity. Oh sure, you might say. Like it's easy. Don't worry; be happy! Needless to say, if worry is a particular hindrance for you, just telling you to stop worrying isn't much help. You've probably been trying to do exactly that for years. So let's look at worry a little more closely.

What Is Worry?

Scientists think the propensity to worry evolved in humans along with intelligence. Worry involves anticipating that something unfortunate could happen in the future, and the discomfort of worry spurs us to try to avoid this unfortunate thing or at least mitigate its effects. In earlier times, an ability to worry no doubt boosted one's chances of survival.

Even now, there are times when a little anxiety can push us to try harder or work at a higher level. It "keeps us on our toes." Quickly passing worries are a normal part of life -- and dukkha -- and nothing to worry about. If we are practicing mindfulness, we recognize worry when it emerges, and acknowledge it, and take action to resolve a problem if we can.

However, sometimes worry settles in for a long stay. It's especially stressful when the object of worry is out of our hands. We worry about getting a new job, or keeping an old one. We worry when a loved one is very sick. We worry about being approved for mortgages or about the outcomes of elections. When the resolution of an issue will have a major impact on our lives, waiting for something to happen can be nearly unbearable.

For most of us, eventually the situation is resolved and the worry passes. But for some, worry is their default setting. This is chronic worrying, as opposed to the acute worrying described above. For chronic worriers, anxiety is a constant part of life's background noise.

People can become so used to chronic anxiety they learn to ignore it, and it becomes subconscious. However, the worry is still there, eating away at them. And when they begin to practice meditation or cultivate mindfulness, anxiety roars out of its hiding places in the psyche to sabotage their efforts.

Advice on Meditating With Worry

For most people, mindfulness and meditation practice does reduce anxiety, although you may have to take it slow at first. If you are a beginner, and sitting in meditation for twenty minutes makes you so nervous your teeth chatter, then sit for ten minutes. Or five. Just do it every day.

While meditating, don't try to force your nerves to be still. Just observe what you are feeling without trying to control it or separate from it.

Soto Zen teacher Gil Fronsdal suggests paying attention to the physical sensations of restlessness and anxiety. "If there is a lot of energy coursing through the body, imagine the body as a wide container where the energy is allowed to bounce around like a ping pong ball. Accepting it like this can take away the extra agitation of fighting the restlessness."

Don't attach judgmental labels to yourself or your anxiety. Worry in itself is neither good nor bad -- it's what you do with it that matters -- and your anxiety doesn't mean you are not cut out for meditation. Meditating with worry is challenging, but it's also strengthening, like training with heavy weights.

When Worry Is Overwhelming

Severe chronic worry might stem from a traumatic experience that became internalized. Deep down, we may perceive the world as a treacherous place that could crush us at any time. People who are afraid of the world often remain stuck in unhappy marriages or miserable jobs because they feel powerless.

In some cases, chronic worry causes crippling phobias, compulsions, and other self-destructive behavior. When there is extreme anxiety, before plunging into a meditation practice it might be helpful to work with a therapist to get to the root of it. And immediately after a trauma, meditation may not be possible even for experienced meditators. In this case, a daily chanting or ritual practice may keep your dharma candle lit until you are feeling stronger.

Trust, Equanimity, Wisdom

The guidance of a dharma teacher can be invaluable. Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron said that a good teacher will help you learn to trust yourself. "You begin to trust in your basic goodness instead of identifying with your neurosis," she said.

Cultivating trust -- in oneself, in others, in the practice -- is critical for people with chronic anxiety. This is shraddha (Sanskrit) or saddha (Pali), which often is translated as "faith." But this is faith in the sense of trust or confidence. Before there can be serenity, there must first be trust. See also "Faith, Doubt, and Buddhism."

Equanimity is another essential virtue for the chronically worried. Cultivation of equanimity helps us release our fears and patterns of denial and avoidance. And wisdom teaches us that the things we fear are phantoms and dreams.

Replacing worry with serenity is possible for all of us, and there's no batter time to start than now.

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