spinning thoughts were actually spinning them into a gigantic snowball. The story gained momentum with each retelling.
Last summer I picked up The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle for the first time, and at once something clicked. With incredibly lucid, unadorned prose, he describes exactly how we perpetuate our own suffering in our minds, keeping our pain and worry alive with our repetitive thoughts about past and future. We expend a great deal of energy this way creating problems for ourselves, and making ourselves a problem, when what would actually free us is a return to awareness of the present moment (the only moment that truly exists). Although I’d read something like this before in other books — usually by prominent Buddhist teachers — it hadn’t sunk in on more than an intellectual level. And I had certainly never known how to apply it in my day-to-day life.
The key word he used was nonresistance. Which meant neither running away from discomfort nor fighting it. Instead of immediately commencing the usual struggle, he recommended that we allow the feeling, and give it no more attention than nonjudgmental observation. I honestly didn’t know if I could I sit still and just be with an experience, even when the experience was wholly unpleasant, but it was worth a try. Could I refrain from jumping on the thought train and turning everything into a major issue? Could I break a lifelong, ingrained, unconscious habit?
The answer turned out to be yes — when I’m paying attention! I’m a lot more conscious of my unconscious reactions now than I was, so when the intense anxiety possesses me, as it did when I was in the midst of packing for my latest move, I can sometimes catch myself in the act of resistance.
I was in the car with an old and dear friend, on the way to what I had hoped would be a lovely Sunday brunch, when it seized me, violently, like a blindsided hostage. I was seasick with dread; my stomach knotted and my heart raced. The downtown streets looked ugly, squalid, and hostile. At first I tried to fight the feeling, then despaired at the thought that our outing was ruined.
Suddenly I remembered Tolle’s words: resist nothing.
I relaxed into my discomfort. As if it were the most normal thing in the world. Okay, I decided, so I’m going to feel like this right now. I neither battled nor ignored the sensations, but simply allowed them to blow through my system like a minor typhoon, as my friend continued to tell me about her new house. By the time we were parking, they were already ebbing away. When we sat down at a table, it was hard for me to believe how I had felt only minutes before, and we did have a lovely brunch, after all.
Who woulda thought it? Certainly not me. But that’s the beauty of not thinking.
A Beautiful Meditation
A postscript for other anxiety and panic sufferers: in addition to surrender, I have found this breathing meditation, adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh (and borrowing a gesture from Kundalini yoga), very helpful. It can be done while lying down or sitting in your favorite meditation posture. Placing your right hand over your heart, breathe deeply from the belly while silently reciting each line with the appropriate inhalation or exhalation:
Breathing in, I calm my heart.
Breathing out, I smile at my heart.
Suspending each in-breath and out-breath for a few seconds will help slow your pulse.