To Control Anxiety

We are entering a brand new world… Lots of things will change – and quite quickly. How and where we travel; how we meet; how and when we shop, to name only a few. Change is never comfortable. And the news makes all this even scarier. Anxiety is a natural body reaction to the unknown.

There are spiritual practices which can help mitigate natural anxieties. We will explore the following:

      • Practices that keep us in the Now

      • Practices that remind us that “all manner of things shall be well”

      • Practices that keep us from “running ahead of the Grace”

      • Practices that keep us in the Now

Spiritual leaders from almost every major world religion have all advised that there are best practices for staying in the “Now.” It is totally unhelpful to either regret the past or imagine a future. The only time that really exists is right now. Our monkey brain just loves to fret about what is not yet. Our task is to mindfully remind ourselves – over and over – that only the present moment exists, and it has all we need to live it well. More easily said than done, I grant you. Here are some spiritual practices that have worked for me:

        • Mindful breathing

It’s amazing how many spiritual leaders suggest that we start with paying attention to our breathing. I scoffed at this at first too. However, over the years, this has proved to be the best tool I have to bring myself back into the present moment when I find myself racing into the future of all kinds of disastrous scenarios.

Mindful breathing is as simple as paying attention to our breathing, and saying to ourselves, over and over “Breathing in….”; “breathing out…” When I find myself distracted yet again by some future imagining, I simply begin again: “Breathing in… breathing out…”

        • Praying a Mantra

One step above simple mindful breathing is breathing with a Mantra as breath prayer. There are as many Mantras as you can create. They are not magical incantations. They are merely ways to keep you focused on the present moment.

One that I particularly like – and use quite often – is this: “Present moment – perfect moment.” I may not always feel that this present moment is indeed perfect. But it is! It is exactly what it is supposed to be. It is what it is. It is thus “perfect.” Repeating this Mantra with every breath slowly seems to convince us that, indeed, the present moment is quite acceptable.

I also use this one: “For this moment – I am grateful.” This has the additional advantage of adding the dimension of gratitude. This moment is gift – all moments are gift – and I am grateful for this gift.

Finally, one of my close friends uses this Mantra: “I am here – You are here.” For those of us who value our relationship with God, this one reminds us that at every moment, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, God is present, closer to ourselves than we are. (There’s a whole theology – panentheism – behind this, which we won’t go into.)

Buddhists are very fond of this practice, and it works wonders to keep us focused on the present moment. Walking meditation involves very slow, deliberate and mindful walking, with each partial movement of each step being experienced in slow motion. One slows one’s step down so that one can actual experience every single muscle, bone, sinew as it shifts and moves to form a single step. One continues in this manner for several minutes. This practice focuses the mind, and tends to keep us from being anxious, since all that matters is what I am experiencing at this very moment as I walk.

        • Eating meditation

The same kind of practice is useful when eating. Try taking a full minute for each and every bite you take. Focus on every aspect of biting, chewing, savouring, swallowing, digesting. Do not hurry the practice! Its primary purpose is to return some of the rich experiential dimension to each and every mundane movement. I am convinced that, in this way, we return to the present moment a great deal more depth and richness – enough, perhaps, to keep us from anxiously worrying about a future moment which is not real.

        • Accepting the “What is”

Most spiritual masters point out that the heart of enlightenment, or of any other form of spiritual maturity, is to accept the present moment as it is. Accepting what is undercuts all of ego’s plans and values. Of course our ego is thinking through other things for us that it believes are “better” for us. Of course our ego is always evaluating things in terms of whether it is “good” or not for us. Accepting what is undermines all that. But it also puts us in touch with what is really and truly happening rather than what we would like to have happen.

A prayer I have found very helpful to accept what is is this:

May I have the courage to see what there is to see,

the intelligence to understand it accurately,

the heart to respond to it in love,

and the hope to believe that “all manner of things shall be well.”

      • Practices that remind us that “all manner of things shall be well”

In the previous prayer, we quoted from Julian of Norwich and her firm conviction that, in God, “everything shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” This is far more than a mere pollyannish dream. This comes out of the firm conviction that if this is indeed God’s world, then of course, in the end, it shall be the fulfilment of God’s Dream for it. Not in our lifetime, for sure, but the generic direction of the Universe is toward its growth and blossoming – including ours.

There are a number of practices that help us develop and maintain the mindset of Julian of Norwich (and of all the other Christian mystics for that matter!). I suggest a few here:

        • Meta – the practice of “loving-kindness.”

This is a Buddhist practice which can take many forms. Essentially it is a form of meditation practice that invite us to see ourselves as spreading the light of loving kindness to an ever-broadening circle of people and environments. It is described in another part of this website.

        • Lectio Divina on classic passages about God’s Presence

Lectio divina is an ancient meditative practice, described elsewhere on this site. For our purposes here, the following are some texts that might be useful in developing the sense that we are in God’s hands: Is 43: 1-7; Lk 12: 22-31; Ps 23; Ps 91.

        • Countering negative stories and misinformation

We are being told repeatedly that there are people out there who are determined to undermine the good order of our society – either for personal or political reasons. During this time of pandemic, we are flooded with information. This is a good thing: we do not want to feel trapped. We need to know. But we also have no need to be fed with misinformation or stories designed expressly to leech hope out of us or get us to mistrust those who are working so hard to keep our communities safe. Here are a few suggestions:

          • Select your sources of information on the pandemic very carefully

          • Avoid all conspiracy theory sites

          • Avoid apocalyptic or “wrath of God” sites which interpret this pandemic as “God’s punishment for our sins.” If we have learned anything from our reflection on the life of Jesus is that God is “Abba” before anything else. A “Wrath of God” theology is a human pushback on the more radical Christian understanding of a God of unconditional love. (If this is new to you, you might consider reading John Dominic Crossan’s How To Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian.)

          • Avoid sites that make links to numerology about “2020” or “2012” or such like. Progressive theology is evidence-based if anything, and casts a suspicious eye on such easy interpretations.

          • Take in all you see and read with a critical eye: How reliable is the person saying this? Who stands to gain from saying this? Is this corroborated by other sources I trust?

      • Practices that keep us from “running ahead of the Grace”

In Ignatian spirituality, there is the notion of never “running ahead of the Grace.” “Grace” is God’s ongoing gift of God’s Presence whenever and wherever we are. The key is this: we need the constant reminder that God is with us in the Present Moment, not some imagined future moment. And so, we need a mindfulness practice that allows us to catch ourselves whenever we find ourselves imagining a dire future.