I have written of this topic before but it deserves more love and more attention and more presence. Because it is so painful and so debilitating. Anxiety. That icky cocktail of equal parts dread, nervous tension, fear, doom, sadness, grief or some other unwelcome vibration that most of us will find a way to avoid dealing with (or at least blame someone else for). This “argh!”-feeling is the root of just about any addiction or distraction known to man.
Personally, I thought I was beyond avoiding or numbing my anxiety because I stopped drinking alcohol shortly after taking up meditation in 1989 — but a 10-day vipassana retreat showed me otherwise. The urge to ‘check my cell-phone’, eat something sweet, eat anything, call a girl-friend, snuggle with my boy-friend, read a book, write in my journal, do busy yoga, go for a walk. Do something! Anything! Other than feeling anxious was, there is no good word but I will approximate it by saying: excruciating.
We were instructed to arrive empty handed; bring no books, no journals, turn in your mobile phones, car keys (just in case you’d find yourself wanting to escape at midnight to eat something, and yes, I did find myself wanting to do just that). We were to observe complete silence and not even look at each other. In other words, we were left completely alone with ourselves and that meant experiencing the raw emotion of anything and everything that we had escaped feeling, most of us for a very long time.
So there it was. Surfacing. Anxiety. Subtle at first. Then louder and louder. More and more shrill and terrible. Until I caved in and was left to do one thing and one thing only. Feel it. Oh Lord, don’t make me do this: Yes. Feel it. Be with it. Don’t run. Stay. Be with it. Be with it. Be with it.
Feel the magnitude of being human. The excruciating condition of a Spirit being locked into the oh-so-real illusion of being cut-off and alone. Scared by all the life experiences of feeling un-loved. Un-wanted. Of being abandoned. Of failing to live up to some perceived something that would earn some acceptance and not rejection. And one by one, we all crumbled and the sobs and wails could be heard in the meditation hall, in the dormitory, in the court yard. Some students ended up leaving and those of us that stayed, wept and sobbed and because we had cleverly been set up in such a way that we could not escape these feelings, we had to simply be with ourselves. Just be.
It sounds horrible and it really was. But eventually, we all got it. That being present with the un-welcome feelings soothed them and eventually they did transform and were replaced by a deep abiding peace that seemed to illuminate each and every cell of the body in a fantastic, orgasmic, ringing, joyous, I am going to explode with the sheer Light of my own being feeling. We experienced in a very physical way that the very presence of our own Presence was the healer of these feelings that we had all stuffed into the farthest corners of our being.
At the end of 10 days, when the group could finally meet, look at each other and talk, we were overtaken with exuberance. Such love and relief — and also, I know now, a naive assumption that we were somehow healed and had now released the grief forever, entered a state of Light, and would henceforth walk with peace.
But that is not the case for me or anyone I have talked to. In fact, this 10-day practice was only the beginning of realizing the powerful, necessary, but not at all easy, process of ‘applying presence and empathy’ to the old wounds and the persistent stories that course through our story-telling mind as some outer circumstance or villain repeatedly activate our own special cocktail of disomfort (to put it mildly), or over-the-top reactivity and drama to put it bluntly.
The practice of being present with anxiety doesn’t get easier. Sitting with what arises and hurts will possibly never be pleasant. But we can, and as meditators we do, stretch our capacity to do so anyway. Just like we would not lock a scared child in the basement; we hold it — we hold ourselves. Just sitting there. I am here. I am here. I am here. I am not going anywhere. I am with you. Maybe no one else will ever be with you this way but you will be with you this way and that’s enough. Your Light, your Loving Presence is all it takes. When you do this work. You are an alchemist. You are transforming the dark, unconcsious, wounded, dreaded, oppressed feelings into Golden Light — and so the wounds become the very portal into the Light we have always longed for.