“If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
Do you know that feeling when you desperately want life to turn out a certain way? Or are you sometimes afraid of what the future will bring, the unknown? We can call it anxiety. Indeed, anxiety isn’t just a modern phenomenon. Lao Tzu already wrote about it thousands of years ago. But although our security for survival in life has dramatically improved over the last centuries, we may be facing feelings of anxiety more than ever before. So, what causes anxiety? And how can we embrace it and transform it into a creative force, instead of being a cause of suffering and stagnation?
What causes anxiety?
Anxiety is usually caused by trauma, stress, an unhealthy lifestyle, and living and working with an attachment to specific outcomes, or being obsessed with the future outcome and not being grounded in the now.
Anxiety is, to some extent, detrimental to our survival. When we feel endangered, our heartbeat increases, our nervous system gets in a state of fight or flight, and we are extra alert. This response can be extremely useful when a hungry animal is after us or when we are driving a car, and suddenly there is an unforeseen object in our way. But, the problem arises when we are perpetually in this state, and we don’t give our nervous system the necessary 'rest and digest.' Nowadays, the hungry animal is likely not to be a beast but a projection of our mind.
Living in the present moment: a free anxiety medicine without side-effects
We cannot change the past. And it may even be a philosophical discussion about whether there is free will. But one thing is for sure: we can live in awareness, the present moment, or blindly react to the reactive patterns of our personality. While living in reactivity, we keep on acting out the same patterns of our past. When we are living in awareness, in the present moment, we tap into an infinite source of freedom beyond anxiety. Living in awareness, or the present moment isn’t just a beautiful theory or an abstract idea. Every time we tune into our body sensations or the breath, as in certain forms of meditation and Hatha yoga, we reorient ourselves towards the eternal present moment. It is impossible to be fully present with the breath and at the same time to worry about passing an exam, our kids or our future, or winning money on the stock- or crypto market. We can apply this method every time we feel traces of anxiety or stress, as a micro practice several times throughout the day.
Another cause for anxiety is trauma or undigested painful memories. It causes us to project memories of the past onto the present moment. For example, when we were abused or suffered in whatever way, we subconsciously may keep on linking the environment we were in at that time to the traumatic experience. This is not only causing us anxiety, but prevents us from feeling truly free. For example, if we were on holiday in Spain and our partner ended the relationship or did something that triggered a painful response, we may feel that Spain is a terrible country for the rest of our lives. If we have many situations like this and block out every situation that triggers those memories, life may become more and more restricted. Eventually, prison is only in the mind, and so is liberation. The essence of our being is eternally free and infinite.
Anxiety and suffering, according to Yoga
Patanjali’s yoga sutras, written almost 2000 years ago, say that suffering (anxiety is a form of suffering) is caused by ignorance. This ignorance is the identification of our true nature with the ego. The ego will always try to recreate pleasure and escape the pain. This is a natural response. We may enrich our lives by creating pleasurable moments and environments. But sooner or later, painful situations are bound to come our way. If we blindly react to them and forget to be the seer or witness instead of the thought or emotion itself, we are doomed to suffer and feel anxious.
Pain can create more depth and transformation in our life. We take a step toward freedom when we learn to observe a painful response without directly reacting and identifying with it. When facing challenges in life that cause us anxiety, we may ask ourselves, ' Who is seeing’? ‘Am I the thought or emotion, or am I able to witness this? Is the witness really affected by all of this, or is our self-created ego suffering due to identification with thoughts and emotions?
Meditation is a tool to train and redirect the patterns of our mind
There are many meditation practices, like anchoring the awareness on the breath, body sensation, mantra, an abstract concept like Brahman or infinity, or redirecting the attention towards the seer (subject). Whatever meditation practice we follow will ground us in the now. Often beyond the surface of our conscious mind, meditation reorientates us toward the Pure Self, peels off layers of false identity and masks we have built out of fear and ignorance. Further, it has been proven that regular meditation lowers anxiety and stress levels and regulates blood pressure. Anxiety levels are bound to drop whenever we live more in the now and less in the future.
Meditation makes us more aware of our underlying tendencies, thoughts and emotions. Every time we react blindly upon a specific impulse, we reinforce the same behavioral pattern. The same principle applies the other way around. Whenever we observe a thought that pressures us to do a specific action that we already recognize as one that doesn’t serve, and we don’t react in this preconditioned way, we weaken the pattern. An example is the addiction to smoking cigarettes. First, we must recognize that smoking cigarettes aren’t the behavioural response we like to recreate whenever we face anxiety. Once a smoker decides to stop, the first days and weeks are the hardest. But every time a smoker will not react upon the impulse to smoke and maybe finds another outlet, the addiction will weaken.
Meditation offers many opportunities to overcome these reactive patterns or physical/mental addictions. When we sit in meditation and feel discomfort in the body or agitation in mind, our ego may want to avoid the situation and get up to drink a coffee and eat cake or smoke a cigarette. Instead, if we redirect our attention to the object of our meditation, like the breath, we weaken the reactive pattern of the mind, or trauma. We can afterward still decide to have a cake and coffee. Why not? It’s not about judging this as good or bad. It’s about freedom versus slavery to the mind. A repetition of thoughts, actions and patterns forms the mind.
If anxiety is too intense to handle, we may need professional help or psychotherapy. But for many of us, meditation, yoga, being in nature, self-reflection, and a lifestyle change may be sufficient to become your own healer! Whenever we tune into the Eternal now, we flow with river towards the ocean of Freedom. Don’t look too far. We are already free of anxiety in the eternal abode of the here and now.