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.
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, worry helped our ancestors survive.
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.
Worry evolved to spur us into action, but sometimes there is no action to take at the moment. Maybe the matter is out of our hands. We worry when a loved one is very sick. We worry about being approved for mortgages or about the outcomes of elections. We worry about our jobs when we're at home and about home life when we're working.
This is where mindfulness comes in. First, acknowledge you are worrying. Then acknowledge there's nothing you can do about the situation right now. And then resolve to let it go.
Focus on what's in front of you. Your only reality is the present moment. If you are cleaning the kitchen, let there be nothing else in the universe but cleaning the kitchen. Or filing papers, or driving to school. Give whatever is at hand all your attention and energy.
The first few times you do this, you'll probably still be worrying. But in time you can learn to drop the worry and stay in the moment.
For most of us, eventually the situation is resolved and the worry passes. But for some, the 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.
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. The 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.
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.
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.
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 better time to start than now.