zen habits : breathe

A Guide to the Basic Anxiety of Life

By Leo Babauta

Underlying much of what we do is an uncertainty, an anxiety, a fear, doubts, dissatisfaction …

And we react to these anxieties, dissatisfaction and uncertainty in so many unhelpful ways: we seek distraction, we eat unhealthy food, we procrastinate, we get caught in a cycle of anxiety and unhappiness, we lash out at others, we dwell in our loneliness, and then we get in denial about it all.

If we could learn to deal with the basic anxiety of life, we would have much more ease and less struggle.

The Anxiety Underneath Our Problems

On Twitter, I asked people to share a problem they’d like me to write about … the problems were all very difficult, but the basic anxiety of life was the undercurrent to all of them.

Each one has an external problem, with the undercurrent of anxiety, fears or uncertainty underneath the external problem. Let’s take a look at a few:

I think we can all relate to these problems, to not only the external situation but the reactions that we have.

There’s a fundamental anxiety and dissatisfaction that runs through the human condition, about whatever we’re experiencing in life, about other people and about ourselves.

So how do we deal with it all?

Where Does Basic Anxiety Come From?

It’s good to start by recognizing why we have this basic anxiety. It’s caused by:

If you sit right now for 5-10 minutes and just pay attention to your breath, you’ll likely notice the fundamental anxiety … it results in wanting to stop paying attention to the breath, wanting the meditation to be over, wanting to get on with the tasks of life, wanting distraction, thinking that the exercise is stupid, wanting to think about problems you have.

But instead of running from this anxiety, instead of getting away from it into thinking about problems or getting out of the meditation … what if we just stayed with it and paid attention to it?

If we can get in touch with this fundamental anxiety that we suffer through in life … we can start to work with it.

Learning to Deal with This Basic Anxiety

Instead of running from the anxiety, instead of trying to cope by using distractions, food, shopping, alcohol, drugs … we’re going to find the courage to face it, with a smile.

Here’s how to work with it:

  1. Face the physical feeling. Drop out of the story that’s spinning around in your head, that’s causing the anxiety. Instead, just be mindful of how your body feels. What does the anxiety feel like, and where in your body is it located?
  2. Stay with it & be curious about it. Don’t run, just stay with the physical feeling. Instead of rejecting it and wanting it to stop, just open up to it and see it with curiosity. What does it feel like? Does it change? What kind of reaction does your mind have to the feeling?
  3. Smile at it. Develop a feeling of friendliness towards the physical sensation of this anxiety. See it as one of the fundamental realities of your existence, and learn to be friends with it. See this as a chance to work with something that will be with you for your entire life, an opportunity to get comfortable with this discomfort. If you can do that, you’ll need your coping mechanisms a lot less.
  4. Open to a bigger space. Our normal way of relating to this feeling is wanting to reject it, because we’re stuck in a small-minded, self-centered way of seeing it (I say this without judgment, it’s just something we do). Instead, we can start to touch the wide-open space of our minds, like a big blue sky, not a small space but expansive. In this open space, we can hold the anxiety like a cloud against the backdrop of the blue sky, but not be lost in the cloud. We can see the anxiety but also see that like a cloud, it’s temporary, it’s not that solid, it’s not all-encompassing, and it’s just floating by. This wide-open space of our mind is always available to us.

It’s that simple, and yet it’s not always easy. Sometimes the anxiety we feel is small, just a bit of tightness in our chest once we investigate it. But sometimes it’s quite big, a looming depression or a manic energy that we just can’t tolerate. So face it in small doses, just for a minute, just for a moment. Then let yourself run. Continue to work with it in small, tolerable doses until you start to trust that you’ll be OK if you face it and smile at it.

Once we start to touch on this anxiety, face it with courage, stay with it like a good friend would … we start to realize it’s not so bad. It’s just something that comes up, like a ripple in a pond, like a breeze in a field, and it will go away. We don’t need to panic, we don’t need to run, we can relax, invite it to tea, and see that nothing else is required. Instead, we stay, we give it love, and see that this place of uncertainty we’re in is absolutely perfect as it is.

Join Me for a Mindfulness Retreat

Would you like to train with me in these practices? I’d love for you to join me in my Zen Habits Mindfulness Retreat, from April 21-23, 2017 in San Francisco. It’s going to be amazing, and I’m really excited about it.

Read more here, and join me!



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