Anxiety, My New Friend

I went to a class called Taming Anxiety to deal with the residual feelings of being threatened, anxious, withdrawn. Fear still resonates at a very high frequency in my body. I am filled with debilitating self-judgments. I am searching for community. I have come to listen to my body and my emotions. I have come to follow my breath.

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Goddess Morrigan by Luna A. Hosepians

Some years ago, ordinary nervousness grew into full-blown anxiety attacks: increased heart rate, tense muscles, cold sweat, nausea and the urge to scream gripped me every morning. My body provided clear reasons and visible signs, the type that even the doctor could not dismiss. I no longer wanted to leave the house.

“May I be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.”~The Four Divine Abodes

Sometimes people interpret symptoms of anxiety as a heart attack. I perceived it as insanity. I could not trust my body to stay dry after getting dressed. My perspiration was activated with proximity to school and the classroom. Where once my formerly steel resolve and confidence were paramount, encountering the violence of colleagues unnerved me completely. I was not only falling apart, I was imploding, feasting on my own nervous system. There was no peace to be found in or around me.

I would rather define self as the interiorization of community. And if you make that little move, then you’re going to feel very different about things. If the self were defined as the interiorization of community, then the boundaries between me and another would be much less sure.

~James Hillman

Through a Buddhist lens, the loss of balance has overwhelmed me. Using this frame, there is a connection between the mind, experiences and society. In this context, heart and mind are the same.

“May I be filled with loving kindness.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes

My falling apart was not gradual but exponential. Trembling became customary. For a time, I could not drive. My eyes averted from those of passersby. My hair thinned as I looked in the mirror. My beautiful complexion lost its shine, morphing into a waxy and irritated skin. I attempted to hide so that no one would see me dissolving. Isolation was the only safe place. The violence of my professional life eroded my joy.

The more recent manifestation of my anxiety is milder, habitual, unfounded.

Rev. Keiryu Liên Shutt gives us a Koan, a question repeated verbatim to a respondent, who answers each time. Rev. Liên insists that we ask it again and again. The Koan works. It leads me back to myself, to the limitations I have imposed on myself by following my thoughts out of the present moment. The Koan challenges the beliefs that I’ve held for some time, that I am responsible for my expulsion from the academy. I have constructed a narrative that serves to form my diseased state, and results in a burden I  carry, alone, in silence.

I think we are indebted to history—and not just familial history, but cultural history, political history and economic history—for our understanding of ourselves.

~Gary Greenberg

How does my anxiety limit my happiness?

While I perform zazen, concentrating on my breath, I feel myself moving around inside my skin like a small animal in a burrow. Once in a while I will sniff the air at the opening to see if I am safe.

“May I accept myself just as I am.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes

After a time, the Koan makes me laugh. It is as funny as the absurd games I play on myself. It becomes clear to me: Anxiety has pushed me out from the unsafe world into a space I have cultivated with compassion and care. This new place is good for me though I am slow to adapt. The tools I need for my serenity are provided by my anxiety, a sounding board in my body, leading me to a world where I can breathe without hyperventilating,  without erupting in stress-inducing illnesses.

“May I be peaceful and at ease.” ~The Four Divine Abodes

I only have to learn the signs and see the pattern to understand the hot burning is not healthy. My anxiety has liberated me from the bondage of suffering, given me the courage to confront my reality. I would never have willingly walked away from my livelihood. I was too fearful to face the consequences without a strong push.

The tools offered by psychiatry are intended to attack the symptoms of emotional suffering, not to promote emotional flourishing. Other emotions do not destroy equilibrium or the sense of well-being as soon as they arise, but in fact enhance it—so they would be called constructive.

~Daniel Goleman

How is my anxiety valuable to me?

It’s so easy to internalize dysfunction, to own and embody a condition that reduces our sense of self to ourselves and within our communities; it limits our ability to navigate in the world. We are less comfortable with looking at the external forces that play a role in our well-being or lack of it.

“May I have inner and outer safety.” ~The Four Divine Abodes

The myth of happiness is woven into the American consciousness. This ideal has not been designed for women and people of color, yet we allow the myth to enter our framework of self-identity and suffer for the shortcomings of that comparison. Until we learn to see ourselves as products of an oppressive society, individuals, who are ill equipped to bear the weight of these burdens, we must carry the imbalances that arise from the pervasive oppression under which we toil.

“May I hold my pain with mercy.” ~The Four Divine Abodes

There is a demand, an artificial one, that insists that we show up in society at 100% at all times. The sense that we cannot fluctuate from that norm is pervasive. With my students, a deep sense of failure was often articulated over an inability to master a technique that is only being tried for the first time. My answer was always that Doing one’s best on any given day is not the same as being perfect, operating at one hundred percent every day of our lives. That impossible goal is overdue for demystification. Aiming at that kind of perfection is not only impossible, it is also detrimental to our health and the health of our communities. It’s a myth that insists we show up as something other than our real selves. It is a myth that perpetuates anxiety, guilt and shame over our true selves rather than fostering a foundation of compassion wherein we can strive and grow into our evolving selves. It is a myth that breeds fear and isolation, components of anxiety.

“May I be undisturbed by the coming and goings of situations.”~ The Four Divine Abodes

The anxiety I feel is useful as a warning system, reminding me to stay in community—to seek it out if necessary. My anxiety pushes me to get help and to find the courage to move beyond the limits of my emotions and to examine the root causes of my dis-ease.

At the height of its grip on me, my anxiety was activated by the unhealthy racial climate at work, which was established over many years, designed to alienate me, and anyone who looks like me, consistently and strategically in overt and covert ways. The absence of friendliness and kindness took their toll on me. After ten years of absorbing toxicity from those in power, my body and my mind worked together to awaken me from my torpor. I could not ignore my anxiety if I meant to survive.

“May I hold my joys and sorrows with equanimity.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes

Ten years is long time to not belong. I had to get over the shame of not succeeding in an environment that never wanted me. Next, I named the climate that actively dehumanized me and treated me as inferior, made me feel out of place in the academy. I abandoned my systematic willingness to enter the war zone, crossing boundaries littered with landmines, peopled with hostile agents, looking for my happiness. I relearned compassion for myself and my oppressors.

“May your happiness increase and never leave you.” ~The Four Divine Abodes

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Goddess Blodeuwedd by Luna A. Hosepians

I can see that during the entire episode, my anxiety guided me toward safety. My anxiety acted as a warning system, alerting me to the changes needed to ensure my well-being and happiness. I may not have caused my anxiety, but I am responsible for the state of my life. With this awareness, I’ve set new intentions to listen to my emotions with a heartmind toward Justice, Peace and Healing, and to foster the conditions under which I thrive. I don’t want to dwell in negative emotions, but I do need to investigate them and use them as catalysts to avoid self-harm, because I am fully aware that I am worthy of love and compassion. Three and half years ago, when I had my first anxiety attack, I never imagined I’d be on friendly terms with this emotion. Now I see anxiety as my friend and teacher.

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The Art of Reconciliation

I don’t know how to fix things. I don’t know how to make things work again once they fail. I’m no engineer. I am a tinkerer.

I know how to listen. I listen with my ears. I listen with my mind. I listen with my memory. I listen with my heart. I listen with my intellect. I listen with my emotions. I listen with my eyes, my experience and my pen.

Each listening hears differently. Each listening possesses its own attunement. Listening is a teacher, a healer and a decision maker. Listening is passive and active. Listening is an ancient form of communication, a dance with the moving molecules of existence.

How do we listen to one another? How do we listen to the beloved? How do we listen to God, to history, to our deepest self?

These simple questions, unpacked, can tell us about how we hear and process the world.

In many religious traditions, a time of quiet contemplation, reflection and solitude are prescribed for a special kind listening and hearing to happen. The challenge in contemporary society like ours is to value and consecrate time to the practice. We unfortunately view quiet and solitude as suspect, luxurious or superfluous. Without dedicated time for listening and stillness, we cannot hear our highest calling—we are not able to listen for our next steps. And, instead, we fill all of our time with noise, in essence, censoring our own receptors from the deep hearing our souls need to thrive.

With what do we fill our lives? For some, life is endless talking without pausing to digest, listen or consider. Next, we permit ourselves to be saturated in the constant bombardment of media from televisions, radios and other sources of media. We are addicted to social-media platforms, unable to eat a meal without a device in one hand, consuming tasteless food and ingesting unexamined content with our eyes. Whether we fill our time with other people, fictional or factual content, sounds in any form, we cannot reconcile without some sort of retreat into solitude and serenity. In the second episode of the deeply grotesque and compelling series, Black Mirror, the main character tries to lie down silently in his room; unable to shut down the endless stream of programing that is forced upon through all of his waking hours, he shatters one of the many screens lining the walls of his room. Even this does not afford him even a temporary reprieve from external stimulation.

The metaphor in the episode is only partially hyperbolic. We are under the constant pull of instant news, messaging and reminders. Only when we are about to burst will we try to shut the devices down—even then, we may not be able to sever ties to the technology that plugs in to the noise. We may not pay in the literal sense that the show depicts, but we come close. Serenity, the show suggests, becomes the domain of the wealthy, but I’m not sure that the wealthy are any better at getting quiet or sitting in stillness.

We all need to step back from life, devices, Internet, news, chatter, magazines, regularly. For some, a daily retreat in the form of meditation or prayer is necessary; for others, a periodic abstaining from external stimulus or a foray into nature will suffice. The dedicated time needs to be intentionally gifted to the self, an official offering of the heart, for renewal to happen. If we don’t make a conscious choice, our bodies and minds will often decide for us. That can be a very painful process.

Clearly, I am not an expert on how to patch up broken moments. I am a woman who was once desperate to repair important relationships, holding to an uncompromising optimism about outcomes and drowning out the pain with business. The surrender for me came when I could no longer exact effort, forced into isolation by physical ailments and immobilized by emotions owing to my inability to repair the damage to important relationships. At that time, I found the opening into radical acceptance, a place of listening and hearing, a knowing that was the entirety of the experience—sitting with my pain with my raw emotions. At first the solitude and quiet turned into an enormous dragon, my monstrous failures eating me alive. Gradually, the dragon settled into a protective guard dog, alert and vigilant, yet utterly gentle and loving, a new experience of the self.

Now I seek moments of solitude, reflection and silence regularly. Cultivating the practice of retreat in myself, I allow for serenity and stillness, to make the necessary peace with my life. Peace requires turning the external world off periodically. We can lose so much of ourselves in the process of life. We are prone to forgetting our priorities when we don’t make time for introspection. The process of retreat is necessary for compassion and healing and opening. The reconciliation with the self, returning the self in loving kindness is the only possible way to find peace. We must cultivate that peace in ourselves.

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A Crash Course in Aikido: Living a Healthy, Memorable Life with Martial Arts

Most of us don’t start thinking about health and longevity until an unexpected death occurs. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for bad news to make changes. The challenge for most of us is to balance lifestyle, diet and family history with physical ability. A great way to take care of the externals is to join a martial-arts school. It’s easier than you think, and with rewards like new friends and mental and physical agility, Aikido may be perfect for you.

There are some unique benefits to joining a dojo like Aikido SF. Aikido is a good way to reclaim health and flexibility, replenishing stamina and energy for doing things with the people who matter. Training with a robust group of children, adolescents and adults at all levels of Aikido provides community and emotional connection. Plus, most people place a high value on staying independent in their advanced years, when it will really count. Maintaining physical and mental plasticity are important ways to promote long-term resilience.

While you may think it’s impossible to train in martial arts after a certain age, it’s really not the case with some non-competitive forms, such as Aikido. And apart from the benefits of increased physical prowess, evidence that intellectual capacity, social intelligence and positive personality traits are boosted by an athletic lifestyle is mounting. The martial-arts community emphasizes community work, civic engagement, respect, participation, health and meditation as part of the practice.

Opportunities to learn in a dojo vary greatly. An example is the annual Aikido SF Seminar, where I watched skilled teachers and students from SF Bay Area train for a half day. There’s a lot to be gained from the venerable tradition of observation, disciplining the mind to understand physical principles, then applying those skills later.

Need more incentive? There’s ample evidence correlating a lack of exercise and poor diet to increased incidences of early onset dementia like Alzheimer’s. That’s evidence I’m not willing to ignore. Most of us want to call our spouses, friends and grandchildren by name. When the consequences of a sedentary life means risking the loss of precious memories, the idea of Aikido training gets even sweeter. After all, a sharp mind is critical to longevity. And, Aikido’s non-competitive discipline is a great habit to cultivate.

With huge gains to garner, like optimal brain functioning and a smaller waistline, Aikido is a big winner. Add caring instructors and supportive peers, and it’s clear that anyone can learn to take better care of her body in a nurturing environment, where physical and mental training are important aspects of good health. Of course, you don’t need to study martial arts to improve your health A small commitment to walk just 15 minutes a day could turn the tide enough to impact the rest of your life. Do it for you. Do it for your family.

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