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I went to a class called Taming Anxiety to deal with the residual feelings of being threatened, anxious, withdrawn.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.

Four Great Reasons to Get a Game Night Going

 

 

While I make time to play with children as often as possible, I also love to play games with other adults. This is a time to unwind and let out my stored up sass. The benefits of play are well researched, and game night is one way to make sure you get a free booster shot of psycho-emotional wellness. As a teacher I believe we can only reinvent the world when understand the one we’re living in. This applies to the game of life. I’m almost always open to changing the rules of a game to make it more interesting, challenging or fair. I look at this as an important life skill. It’s agency at its highest potency. Like will power, we can store up skill sets and cash in when the time is right. Can I negotiate the salary I really want? How well am I at playing by the rules? What happens when I don’t get what I want? Games teach us about and help us to improve upon the parts of ourselves that we want to strengthen.

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For starters, game time involves communication. It’s a time for discussing rules, finding answers, problem solving and sharing. A new game usually requires careful reading—often out loud—and lots of review. These are core skills that can be useful when we’re proposing ideas at work or presenting to a room full of strangers. Game time is face time. There’s opportunity to try on different roles and experiment with personality.

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Some games require lots of negotiating skills. Interesting dilemmas come up when you play a game like Settlers of Catan: Should you trade with an opponent? What’s a fair trade? Whose resources should you raid? These are difficult choices that have to be made while directly facing the intended person. These are small, but not insignificant, ways of dealing with confrontation. They are opportunities to get comfortable asking for clarification, explaining complicated ideas, sticking to a hard decision or ditching a game plan that’s not working. These are real life negotiating skills that can toughen us up for when it really counts.

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Learning a new game requires patience. When I first started to play Scrabble as an adult, I thought I was a complete idiot. I no longer think that. Achieving a score of 333 points helped boost my confidence. (I still keep the scrap of paper with my winning score in the Scrabble box in case I need to charge my battery.) Scrabble is a word game, yes. But it’s also a game about strategy and knowing how to use the board to maximize points as much as it is an actual measure of the extent of one’s vocabulary. This mirrors real life. Sometimes half of what’s happening is how you’re using what you’ve got. Sometimes it takes time to see the possibilities in life and to actualize them. One doesn’t always win the first time around.

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Let’s not forget the oodles of fun to be had. There’s often a great deal of storytelling, laughter and sharing involved in a game night. Frequently, we partake of a meal together prior to the game and invest time getting to know each other throughout the play. When you play board games, it’s a time to sit around and share memories and see how others respond to setbacks and understand what makes them laugh. There’s also competition, which I think needs a positive outlet. And, if you’re really enjoying yourself, playing games with friends can also lead to higher levels of serotonin and dopamine in your system. You can start out playing a game and end up contributing to your own emotional and social wellness.

 

The Serenity of Redwoods: Observations from My First Backpacking Trip

I didn’t even have an inkling that I could walk over 30 miles in just three days. While backpacking in Pescadero Creek County Park, I tested my body, mind and spirit among the Redwood giants and found I was fit for the trail. In addition to experiencing some new levels of self-awareness ranging from the subtle to the sublime, l learned to trust my heart and mind to keep me strong when walking in the wilderness—both literally and figuratively. Although I’ve known for a few years that an altered state of consciousness happens to people who go off into nature (I’ve witnessed my partner return battered yet transformed from his wilderness walks in solitude) until I ventured into this world for myself, I could not fathom the deep and lasting peace it can bring. This new self-knowing, of pushing my flesh with my heart and mind, is enough to hook me for life.

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Rare Flower

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Redwoods at Pescadero Creek

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Cresting Brook Trail

Walking in northern California has its many unique treasures, the greatest of which is easily the Redwood giants. To stand beneath one looking into the sky while never seeing the its highest branches reminds us to respect everything. One feels oneself to be small and sacred beside their enormity. Their canopy creates a perpetual twilight of cool air and many-hued greens that sustains countless life forms. To hug one is to be held in God’s hand. In contrast to their majesty, I saw that people  can be giants as well, clumsy and careless creatures whose every footfall could easily crush millipedes, slugs and wild flowers. One begins to guard every step with the care and sensitivity of reverent steward.

“This is precious. I must guard this life.” I constantly verbalized until my body harmonized with the environment and I felt that there was not an other and myself, but only that the snakes and the coyotes and the flowers were an extension of myself and the woods, each reaching into a purposeful existence by fulfilling our roles, I no longer worried and a silence embraced me from within.Nothing reduces stress like walking in fresh air for long stretches in silence. Petty concerns fell away with each mile as the sounds of my own heart filled my head. My breath became a gauge for my own attentiveness to my body’s rhythm. The usual running dialogue of my life became a monologue of endurance: “I can. I know I can. One more step. Just one more.” My shadow ceased to exist. My song was that of the nearest bird who I tried to reassure with my broken words that we would pass through quickly. In the creek, my red-hot feet smoldered as Hal’s big fish flipped out a performance for his eyes only. I discovered tiny mollusk that mimic rock clusters and spiders that don’t feel the need to hide and scurry. The air was so crisp and fresh that I didn’t want to wear layers and interfere with the physical sensations of being fully alive. Through all of this I found contentment in my body, aching though it was.

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Pomponio Trail

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Fish in Tarwater Creek
Water is the ultimate equalizer. We take so much for granted with our hot showers and bottled water. Purifying water is a humbling process. We take it for granted that water is a public service. We open the faucet a beautiful clear water flows out endlessly. We even have the audacity to buy water in bottles. But pulling non-potable water from a creek teaches humility. Suddenly I was in the company of millions of women around the world who have to haul drinking water.

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Tarwater Creek

In truth, I did not do the work of carrying the water. My gracious host hauled it up the steep embankment while I rested. He showed me how to pump it through a filter. The water was made drinkable in minutes, which is an amazing luxury. The second method is to boil the water, which only kills bacteria but leaves particles. Tarwater Creek is so named because of the deep well of petroleum that spirals into the creek, floating on the water’s surface where it thins out into a film of residue. The taste of this petroleum water is unpleasant. This reminds me of all the people and eco-systems that have been impacted by oil spills and contaminated water. Water is life. Everything works better when it’s fresh and clean. Knowing that I would leave little trace of myself was also a point of pride.

As a partial introvert, I know I need space, solitude and time away from people to feel clear, healthy and at my best. What I understand better after my trip is that the quality of that time, space and solitude matters. Nature can recharge my spirit like no other source. A deep connection to nature can yield a deeper connection to oneself. There’s no posing or pretending or self-consciousness in the woods. You just are. It’s the ultimate meditation. You don’t have to try, and there you are going step by step, surviving each moment, triumphing over yourself, over your doubtful inner critic. My internal climate cooled with every step in the lower canopy of the environment.

Endurance is a battle of the mind and spirit pushing to overcome physical limitations. When one punches through the layers of fear and pain, a clarity takes hold. I’ve heard many athletes speak about this experience. Even though I don’t think this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, nor was it the greatest pain I’ve endured, with every step we climbed along the steep gulch, my confidence grew. The feeling of mastering myself was a powerful motivator. I haven’t felt my shoulders that relaxed in a decade. I’m hungry for more. I’m eager to invite friends to experience the outdoors in this way. In nature, I don’t need to be or do anything special. I only need to walk my walk.