6 years ago, I was suffering from heavy stress and anxiety.
I was having a hard time paying my bills and an even harder time figuring out what to do with my life. I felt like a failure, a screw up, and like most of my daily life was just one big fuzzy trudge through the mud.
Then I found out I was going to be a dad.
It was completely unexpected, but it took a few months before it really hit me. Once it did though, my stress and anxiety was amplified.
I wanted nothing more than to be an example to my soon-to-be son, but I had absolutely nothing to show for it. Those two things, on top of everything else, collided to create a sort of restlessness in me that perpetuated constant stress and anxiety. I had to find an answer.
What happened next was a long process of search and discovery, one thing leading to another before I finally landed on the answer. Of course, the answer wasn't what I thought it was (and at first I didn't like the answer), but I found it. I’ll get to that in a sec.
We all think our situation is unique. We think our minds are crazy and chaotic and we can’t sit, let alone stop, and that there’s nothing we can do about it. Or, we’ve tried some things and nothing’s worked. Either way, we think it’s just how we are.
The reality is though, this is a universal condition we all suffer from. “The monkey mind”, a term coined by the Buddha over 2,500 years ago, is a basic condition we experience simply from being human.
In 8 Mindful Steps to Happiness, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (the author of Mindfulness in Plain English) enlightens with this interesting information about the period of time the Buddha lived (in the area which is now the India/Nepal region):
"Rapid technological advances. Increased wealth. Stress. Stable lives and careers come under the pressure of accelerating change. The twentyfirst century? No, the sixth century b.c.—a time of destructive warfare, economic dislocation, and widespread disruption of established patterns of life, just like today.
In conditions similar to ours, the Buddha discovered a path to lasting happiness. His discovery—a step-by-step method of mental training to achieve contentment—is as relevant today as ever."
When I first read this it really surprised me. “So, the world the Buddha lived in isn’t all that much different from our own.” I thought. This, to me, is very enlightening.
We aren’t as different as we think. The conditions which create stress are the same for all of us and have affected humans for thousands of years. And the cure has existed for just as long.
Buddhist wisdom tells us that just as there’s a central quality to all of our suffering, there’s a central cure for it as well. Stress and anxiety are no exceptions.
When looking at stress and anxiety, certain recurring themes rise to the surface. If you can work on these principles, in tandem with your daily mindfulness and sitting meditation practice, you can not only relieve stress and better manage your anxiety, you can even break the patterns of behavior that cause stress and anxiety in the first place and overcome them completely.
The steps below are what worked for me personally, so know that I talk from direct experience.
3 Steps to Relieving Stress and Anxiety with Mindfulness and Buddhist Wisdom
In The Little Book of Mindfulness, I talk briefly about the first aspect of meditation: samatha.
If you haven’t read it yet I’d suggest doing so as it will give you much more information that will aid in your efforts. You can get it free (just an email is required) by clicking here.
Samatha is a Sanskrit word which can be translated as “stopping”, and it’s the act of stopping, calming, resting, and healing to cultivate a tranquil mind.
Within this piece of Buddhist wisdom exists essentially all the components needed to not only relieve but altogether overcome stress and anxiety.
By letting the light of mindfulness guide you, you can use this ancient wisdom to transform your everyday state of mind and realize a great amount of relief from both stress and anxiety.
1. Bring the pebble (mind) to rest
The first step, and really the foundation of all meditative practice, is to calm the mind. So it goes without saying that establishing a strong mindfulness meditation practice is the key here.
By taking time to:
- Learn mindfulness meditation
- Establish sitting meditation as a daily habit, and sticking with it
- And then work on making mindfulness a way of life
...you can cultivate an extraordinary ever-present state of tranquility within you.
The basic state of a stressed or anxious mind is of chaos, disorder, or a lack of unity.
So by focusing on a central point, especially something which has a significant effect on our state of mind and stress and anxiety levels already (the breath), we experience great relief and generate a still calmness, like a pebble resting at the bottom of a lake.
And with that calmness comes clarity and the ability to identify the very patterns of behavior which are generating our stress and anxiety.
2. Identify harmful patterns
Once you’ve begun to calm the mind, you’ll start to be able to identify harmful stress and anxiety-creating patterns of behavior with your everyday mindfulness practice.
Before calming the mind, you’re traveling through life with dulled senses. Lots of things are happening “behind the scenes” (in the mind), but you can’t detect them because you’re not tuned correctly.
Just as you can’t see down to the bottom of a body of water with ripples running across the top of it, without calm you can’t have clarity, and this affects your ability to navigate life’s challenges skillfully.
By cultivating a tranquil mind, you not only calm the mind, but you remove obstructions which kept you from seeing with clarity. This is critical, without which this step wouldn’t be possible.
Examples of harmful stress and anxiety-inducing patterns of behavior are:
“I can’t stop, I have so much to do."
“I can’t handle this, I’m not capable."
“As soon as I get this done, I’ll take a break.” (hint: the break never happens)
“I’m fine, I’ll stop later.”
“What if this happens?"
‘What am I going to do”
“They’re supposed to listen to me."
“Why didn’t this happen the way I wanted!!"
Another great example of this is in the West’s idea of a vacation. Many in the West make big plans for vacations with a set of events and a to-do list.
But what ends up happening is you get back from vacation more tired than when you began! And with that, the point of the vacation is lost.
We’ve forgotten how to truly rest our body and mind and suffer greater stress as a result. By identifying these harmful patterns of behavior, we're halfway to cutting off the source of the stress altogether and experiencing the greatest relief.
So what are you actually supposed to do?
Your only job here is to acknowledge these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with your mindfulness as you notice them. Don’t read into them, don’t pry, just acknowledge what arises nonjudgmentally.
This sounds simple, but it's often difficult and takes time.
Patience is very important from this point on, but you've gained considerable relief along with the other benefits of your meditation practice, so provided you continue practicing consistently you should have more than enough motivation to continue (most of the time at least).
3. Be present & give yourself time to heal
Once these patterns have begun to arise and become gradually clearer to you, you need to give yourself time to heal.
Continue to be present for these patterns- the thoughts, feelings, and actions- and have patience.
Patience can’t be overstated here. Developing mindfulness as a way of life takes a lot of work, but it’s so worth it. You need to have patience and allow things to develop and come as they will.
It’s also very important to be compassionate with yourself as you tend to face somewhat uncomfortable things about yourself at this point.
Prioritizing your mindfulness practice truly is the most important effort here, not just for clarity and calm sake, but also to stay nonjudgmental. This will help you generate and maintain self-compassion.
Making the effort to simply be present, patient, and compassionate with yourself as these things arise will greatly help you reduce their hold over you with time.
Your mindful presence is a very healing energy. Truly nothing else is needed.
A final word
The truth is, daily stressors and the situations which cause you anxiety may never go away.
Nearly every day, I’m confronted with challenges that test my patience. But just because those potential stressors exist doesn’t mean you have to be controlled by them.
You can change your relationship with those stressors. By changing how you relate to them you can not only manage them better but with time you can cut off the source of the stress and anxiety altogether.
Work to bring calm to the mind, identify harmful patterns of behavior, and be present, patient, and compassionate for the healing process.
Relief is possible if you let the light of mindfulness and the wisdom of samatha guide you.