Meditating with Anxiety

by Diana Winston

When my daughter is upset, anxious, or angry, my job as a parent is to hold her in a loving presence. I don’t have to fix her emotion, give her advice, tell her not to be sad, or take the pain away. My job is simply be there for her.

The same is often true in meditation—except for myself. Many days, I have sat down to meditate and been overtaken by an emotion. Anxiety, for instance, hits me hard in my gut. It may feel quite strong—so strong that I can barely meditate. I’d rather do anything else than meditate. And I have been known to call it a day and read a book or check email instead of face the emotion.

Yet experiencing emotions is a normal part of meditating. In fact, as you meditate more, emotions often surface more, as if they are plants longing to grow toward the light—emerging in the face of your own loving presence. Our job is to recognize the fact that the grief or fear, pain or anger, or any other emotion, is arising and is the truth of the moment. With positive intentions as a baseline, we can trust the healing that comes as we shine the light of awareness on it. We can let these things that need to be healed surface and move through us, as we hold these processes in awareness and kindness.

This kindness doesn’t force healing to happen; it allows it to occur. When we speak to a therapist or trusted friend, finally able to get something off our chest as they fully listen to us with compassion, we experience a healing effect. Similarly in meditation, our own nonjudgmental, loving, open, and aware mind meets the strong emotion and offers it the safety to integrate and potentially resolve.

When anxiety surfaces during my meditation, I often put my hand on my chest lovingly. I let myself sense the anxiety as it emerges organically. Sometimes I use other practices—like giving lovingkindness to myself or saying the simple, yet incredibly useful phrases “It’s okay” and “You will get through this.” I let the anxiety emerge in a field of loving awareness, trusting that it needs to come forward, trusting that I am up for the task of allowing it to do so.

If strong, difficult emotions arise during your meditation sessions, there is nothing wrong. They are a part of you that can reveal themselves? in the light of awareness. Of course, if an emotion arises in meditation that feels stronger than you can handle, you should seek the appropriate therapeutic or spiritual support. But the emotions arising isn’t a sign that you’re doing something wrong; it’s a sign you’re doing something right. And wise.

Diana Winston is the Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and the author of several books including her new book, The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering your Natural Awareness.

This post taken from the Ten Percent Weekly newsletter.

Stress – Good or Bad?

“Stress! Huh!
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothin’!”
(with apologies to Strong/Whitfield)

“Or is it?”
Kelly McGonigal

I’ve been reading Kelly McGonigal’s paradigm-shifting book “The Upside of Stress” with a great deal of personal interest. For the last two years, I’ve been dealing with one very stressful situation after another. The move from Minnesota to Bellingham. A divorce. A return to dating (for a closet introvert like myself, that is stressful). Intense therapy. And on top of all that, I’ve read all the dire warnings about the effects of long-term, chronic stress on health and longevity.

The classic double whammy. Stress, and stressing about stress. Very depressing.

Not so fast, says McGonigal. Too much of the research on stress has been based on a huge false assumption – that there’s only one stress response, the infamous “fight or flight.”  Turns out the human physio-neuro-hormonal complex is, well, more complex than that. In fact, there are a variety of stress responses, and they can all be good.

For example: There was a period in my life when I believed I thrived on stress: minor crises at work, tight deadlines, major exams – I always felt I was at my best in the clutch. With good reason, says McGonigal. One of the beneficial stress responses is the “Challenge Response.” It fires up the brain and body, provides a motivation boost from a nice cocktail of endorphins, adrenaline and dopamine, and gets you in the flow.

Unbeknownst to me, the key was that I believed that I thrived on stress, and this mindset allowed me to take advantage of the benefits of the stress response. So the key to stress management isn’t reducing stress. Quite the opposite – embrace stress with a positive mindset and let it work for you.

And the best tool for opening yourself up to embracing stress? Mindfulness. When you feel the stress energies building up, instead of trying to calm them down, just be present with them. Unless there’s saber-toothed tiger right in front of you, chances are that this stress energy and be harnessed to help you deal with the situation. Being mindful gives you the space to make that conscious choice.

And in study after study, people who were coached in this technique performed much better in stressful situations (big tests, public speaking) than those who weren’t.

Furthermore, McGonical sites research studies showing a strong connection between generally higher stress levels in peoples’ lives and their happiness and sense of purpose. The connection seems to grow out of their ability to see the many day-to-day stressors in their lives (juggling schedules, social media, cooking, household chores) less as obstacles outside of their control and more as necessary ingredients for the lives they are building for themselves. On a deeper level, performing those tasks, while stressful on the micro level, on a higher level were expressions of their own values. Says McGonigal: “The takeaway should be to change your relationship to the everyday experiences you perceive as hassles.”  Mindfulness anyone?

Before I started reading The Upside of Stress, I had been struck by the fact that, despite my long list of stressors, the last two years have also been among the happiest of my life. Now I know why.

Life on the Edge

This post is adapted from an article excerpted from Joan Halifax’s book “Standing at the Edge: Where Fear and Courage Meet” appeared in the July 2018 issue of Lion’s Roar. In it, she talks about two kinds of “edges” in nature that are apt metaphors for places where spiritual growth happens:  where ecosystems meet – an edge where growth occurs and where the greatest diversity of life is present; and where a cliff edge meets solid ground – an edge “where we need to maintain great awareness, lest we trip and fall.”

Mental states like ecosystems, she says, sometimes friendly, sometimes hazardous. It’s important to study our inner ecology so we can tell when we are on that edge, in danger of slipping off solid ground of health into pathology. If we do fall down the slope, however, we can learn.

Edges, says Halifax, are “where fear meets courage and suffering meets freedom.”

In her own life, complex challenges have given her an understanding of the value of accepting the whole landscape of life. And particularly the value of not rejecting those slides down the slope – each of which, no matter how serious, was never a terminal obstacle, but a gateway to “wider, richer internal and external landscapes.”  These experiences strengthen us “just like bone and muscle are strengthened when exposed to stress, or if broken or torn, can heal in the right circumstances and become stronger for having been injured.”

The compassion lifeline

Her experience has taught her that “the way out of the storm and mud of suffering, the way back to freedom on the high edge of strength and courage, is through the power of compassion.”

She gives two examples from people she has known, one of a therapist whose constant exposure to patients’ suffering led him to burn out, and another of a couple who lost everything in an earthquake, but whose decision to help others affected by the disaster helped them not only recover from their own loss, but thrive.

She concludes:

“How is it that some people don’t get beaten down by the world but are animated by the deep desire to serve? I think compassion is the key.

I have come to view compassion as the way to stand grounded and firm on the precipice and not fall over the edge. And when we do fall over the edge, compassion can be our way back out of the swamp.”

Applying mindfulness in real life

I was deeply struck by this Pema Chodron quote: “How we regard what arises in meditation is training for how we regard whatever arises in the rest of our lives.”

When I read that line, I immediately thought of kindness and how   we can bring it to our practice.  For instance, when our minds wander and we return to the breath over and over again with a minimum of self-judgment, kindness slowly rises up the list of automatic reactions. I have found this to be true in my life. Today in fact, self-compassion is all the way up to third place for me, right behind “instant analysis” and “self-recrimination.”

What she means is that if, when we catch our minds wandering during meditation and bring them back to the breath with an attitude of non-judgment and kindness, we train ourselves to react with kindness to ourselves when we stray from our intended path in our daily life. I have found this to be true for me. Kindness and self-compassion have been slowly replacing self-judgment and self-recrimination as my default reactions to my forgetfulness, carelessness, or laziness.

This realization about kindness and self-compassion got me wondering:  what other ways is mindfulness  affecting my dealings with life? Here are a few of my thoughts:

Feel the sensations, not the story

One of the lessons I’ve learned about mindfulness involves applying it to “unpleasant” physical sensations. It started with my feet cramping whenever I’d sit on a cushion for longer that 15 minutes or so. I’d start to feel pain in my calf or feet muscles, a “certain” precursor to a painful cramp, and I’d immediately shift positions to alleviate those sensations. Then I heard our Executive Director, Tim Burnett, suggest that we not be so fast to react, to instead focus on the sensations themselves without paying attention to the story we tell ourselves about them. As mindfulness helped me slow the cramping process down, I was able to finally see that there was a difference between the actual sensations and the story (“Uh-oh, major cramp about to arrive”) that immediately arose. I could just let the sensations be. And guess what, 95 percent of the time, the sensations just subside on their own – no cramping.

Seeing a bigger picture

Instead of focusing in on something during meditative practice like the breath, or sounds, or the body, the practice of Open Awareness meditation allows my awareness to expand and include everything that’s happening, inside and out. In this type of practice, I am able to sense everything while not being carried away by anything.

Seeing this bigger picture really helps me as I have walked the emotionally difficult path of recovering from childhood trauma over these last eight years. My introduction to mindfulness came by way of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class recommended along the way. And, as with many complicated recoveries, things often got “worse” before they got better. It’s been pretty easy for me to get fixated on the pain, the length of time I’ve been working to get better, and to lose hope. In these moments (well, days really) life seems to collapse into a single dark confined space.

When I get that way, I now remember to relax my awareness (breathing into the fixation) and relax my body, taking in everything, getting carried away by nothing. In those moments I realize there are a whole lot of other things happening in my life beside trauma recovery, that I’ve gone through these “getting worse” phases before, and how I always find progress and even happiness on the other side.  I realize that there is much more “right” than “wrong” with my life.  Over time, slipping into that larger space has become natural, and I hardly ever get caught up in the dismal storyline I used to create automatically.

And even the “little” things

I recently moved into downtown Bellingham to a place conveniently located within walking distance of many things. Unfortunately, one of those nearby things is the train track, and I developed a lot of fear that I’d never get any sleep.

One day prior to moving, I realized I was getting caught up in another storyline, and that mindfulness could help. Starting a couple of weeks before the move, every time I was downtown and heard the trains, I’d pay attention to my reaction (here’s the PG version):

There’s that darn train…holy mackerel that horn is loud…do they really have to blow it five blessed times for every crossing?….And all the live-long night???…I’m an idiot for moving here…I’ll never get any sleep….

And so on, ad nauseum.

So I started intervening. When I’d hear the first horn blast, I’d focus just on the sound, and keep my focus there not allowing the storyline to get a foothold in my awareness (although I could hear it knocking at the door). I’d remind myself that people had told me “I don’t even hear them any more” and figured that that process would go faster if I didn’t have to also learn to not hear the storyline.

Sure enough, less than a week after I moved, the trains rarely awaken me.

I’ve loved everything about mindfulness since the first day of MBSR class. Mostly, at first, I was in love with the ideas and world view. Now that I’ve seen what I do “on the cushion” translate into my everyday life, I’m in love with the fact that mindfulness works

Mindfulness of life wandering

I’ve learned that meditation is a way to practice the skills of noticing when our minds are wandering and returning our awareness to the object of our practice. I’ve often heard this practice as noticing when our mental train has left the station and choosing to disembark back into the present.

The Big Narrative

I have known for some time that there are quite a few deeply engrained habits of thought, emotion and actions that together form the train ride I’ve been on for most of my life. At my age, that train has been away from the Present Station for a long time!

It occurred to me lately that I could apply the same principles of mindfulness that I use in my meditations to my life as a whole. To the Big Train. The Big Narrative. That’s because it would be very fair to say that my life has wandered far from my true path over the decades.


This process started for me on a retreat when I decided to use the Labeling practice all day. Whenever I noticed the thought train leave the station, I’d apply a label to it. It didn’t take long before I realized the same labels appeared over and over again. In particular, I noticed that, although the details varied, most of my past and future journeys weren’t thinking as much as they were daydreaming, and the daydreams were remarkably adolescent – meaning they’d been part of the Big Narrative for a long while. The most common, for example, was re-writing the past or scripting the future so that I, a Lone Ranger-type, swept in and saved the day: A problem would ensue and there I was to fix it right up. Pretty embarrassing daydream for a man of six-plus decades to see, admit to myself, and accept as a part of who I am. But there it was.

Turning Toward

In mindful self-compassion I learned the value of turning toward unpleasant emotions like embarrassment, and how to recognize that while emotions I feel are valid, they are not who I am. I also began to realize that by staying with my unpleasant feelings of embarrassment – rather than turning away from them – I could use the feeling of embarrassment to cultivate new levels of awareness and choice. For instance, I would rather not spend my valuable time on these daydreams. Instead, when I noticed my mind wandering down these familiar train tracks, I could call the past “the past” while planning for the future in more realistic ways.

Practicing mindfulness aa a means of staying with those embarrassment feelings also led me to realize one reason my daydreaming had stuck around so long. For me, it is because the daydreams themselves are very pleasant (as long as I stayed safely in my save-the-day narrative). I began to realize that if I wanted to change my daydreaming habit, to get off that particular narrative train, I’d have to be willing to give up the save-the-day parts of the daydreams as well.

It’s kind of like the effects of eating ice cream: The cold, creamy goodness tastes awesome going down. But once I step off the Ice Cream Express, I begin to notice the unpleasant bloated feeling afterwards…not to mention the expanding waistline.  So maybe it’s better to limit my intake of ice cream?

Wisdom Mind

For me, in-the-present mindfulness has served up a generous platter of tidbits about my life, but by itself it wasn’t effecting any change. For me, the wisdom mind, the part of the mind that steps back and can see what I’m doing – kind of like a silent witness – was the key to getting off the Big Narrative train. This is the part of our minds that, between stimulus and response, helps us choose to move toward freedom and happiness. This is also the part of me that saw patterns in my daydreams, looked beyond their fabricated pleasantness, and was able to admit that their stories were untrue. My wisdom mind is also what imagines me giving up the momentary pleasure of lifeless daydreams in return for more lasting happiness and well-being.  And that’s the route I’ve chosen to take.

These three aspects of meditative practice: mindfulness, turning toward, and wisdom mind, work together to enabled me – for the first time in my life – to step off of my Big Narrative Train. And as I become more and more used to greater awareness of what is really here right now, I am finding that the only place where happiness is truly possible is in the present moment.

Note: I got the basic thread for this article after reading “The Power of Mindfulness” by Diana Winston in the September 2019 issue of Lion’s Roar. Well worth a read if you can find it.

Practicing Mindfulness, Practicing Gratitude

For many, the experience of the holiday season can be an intense mixture of the pleasant and unpleasant. Competing for our attention are the near constant jingle jangle of consumerism and the joy of gift-giving, the warmth and the complexity of family connection, the demands and the blessings of spiritual practices – it can be easy to feel disconnected and adrift. The practices of mindfulness and gratitude can reconnect us to what’s firm and real and enduring. They can bring us home.

With Mindfulness

With mindfulness, we can ground ourselves in our home in the moment. This moment. The only place where things are in fact real. And our present home is available anytime: two feet on the ground and a slow breath will bring us there. This is not to “escape from” the swirl of activity and emotions, but rather to not get carried too far away by them.

With mindfulness, we can avoid making the unpleasant things worse. We remember that while the noise and the demands are real, we can choose to not add additional suffering with stories about them. In the wisdom of our own home, we can choose not to throw the second (and third) dart.

With mindfulness, we can choose where to place our attention, we can return home to what nourishes us. Our breath. The friends and family members who support and love us. The things we are grateful for.

With gratitude

Gratitude connects us to meaning outside of our ego-selves, reminds us that our true home is not the house that ego built.  The practice of gratitude also has been shown to have very similar benefits to the practice of mindfulness, two of which are very apt for the holiday season: reduced stress and anxiety, and the lessening of depression.

Here are two ways to practice gratitude. One is creating a gratitude list and then referring to it whenever you need a nourishment break from the overwhelm. A second involves cultivating an attitude of gratitude. A willingness to meet and greet whatever shows up in our lives knowing, as Rumi puts it, that “each has been sent as a gift from beyond.”

Gratitude advocate Br. David Steindl-Rast suggests that we can cultivate a deep attitude of gratefulness for everything in our lives, seeing, as Rumi puts it, that “each has been sent as a gift from beyond.” We’ve posted our favorite teaching of Br. David’s put to music and images by the film maker Louie Schwartzberg HEREand Br. David’s website is a cornucopia of resources.

The Greater Good Science Foundation has a wonderful section on gratitude science and practice, which they call a “key to well-being” and don’t miss their wonderful lab of practices “Greater Good in Action

Have a mindful, grateful holiday season everyone!

The Guest House, by Rumi

This being human is like a guest house,
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.