Blueberry flower

Post #1998: Is meditation really my thing?

I have been home with a cold for the last two days which has given me the luxury of a little time that I would not ordinarily have had. On the other hand, I slept pretty much all of Sunday night and straight through to yesterday afternoon, so a good half of that time was given to rest. Today, I have been reading and thinking about meditation, in addition to engaging in some mindful cleaning of both our sleeping space and our studio space – both of which needed focused attention. Perfect when I am feeling ill and have nowhere to be, a slow tidying up of things is right up my alley. I’m thinking that I might even tackle my sewing area while dinner is on the stove in a little bit.

Even though I was coming down with this thing, I spent all of Sunday at the Zendo that I attend – it was my first half-day retreat, followed by the jukai ceremony for two members of the community. Jukai is like an initiation where the lay practitioner of Buddhism formally receives certain precepts (admissions to a way of life that encourages clear mind). By the time we got the ceremony I was feeling pretty ill so I didn’t take it in as much as I would have liked, but the morning retreat – an extension of the regular Sunday service – was a gentle opening up of practice and a reminder that I can sit even when I am feeling a lot of physical discomfort (something I couldn’t do a year ago).

I have two retreats coming up – my first “real” retreats – both in May. This is not by design – I signed up for a residential retreat almost a year ago, then I got involved in the Zendo and a non-residential retreat was scheduled for May as well – so now I am having both experiences very close together and am looking forward to them for quite different reasons – though I am also trepidatious because I still feel very much like a novice to this whole experience of meditation. I am reading Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier at the moment (after hearing him on CBC’s Tapestry on Sunday) where he writes about his discovery of meditation, including his first ten-day retreat (as a real novice to the practice) and I have to admit that I feel somewhat more prepared than he seemed to be (in his telling – he’s got self-deprecation down to an art, so it’s hard to know exactly where he was at). The fact he got through the ten days and came out the other side still in the practice is heartening! In fact, I love all the stories of how non-spiritual folks find their way to meditation and to Buddhism because – hey – it’s my experience too! And everytime I go to the Zendo to sit I wonder – is this really me? But it is really me, and it rounds out my life in a very satisfying way. I find with Zen in particular, I am able to participate in a non-judgemental way – because my teachers do not require that I believe magical things or focus on the enlightenment experience (two things I find distracting, and that get in the way of my practice).

I am writing this as I am choosing something to listen to in the meditation session that I lead once a week – we alternate between me guiding, silent, and listening to music. Because I am coldish and cough when I talk – tonight will be sound focused. These sessions are utterly unlike the zen sitting that I prefer for my own regular practice, but they are the kind of meditation gatherings that I would have appreciated when I was just becoming acquainted with sitting. Also, they give me a chance to teach as I learn – which is another kind of learning, and provides me more opportunity to think about what is meaningful in the practice.  There are only a few people who come every week – between two and four women – and they have expressed how much this fills a particular need and curiosity. Meditation without ascribed belief. Awareness practice in the company of progressive others who have made a bond over the weekly touchstone of sitting together.

And so it is, that I am sick and spending my days reading and drifting and meditating through my illness – hoping to get back to work tomorrow – but also grateful for a couple of drowsy, dreamy days.

Sage bouquet

Post #1997: And then it was Friday…….

Wow. Started out this week with all sorts of posting intentions – but there have been no extra minutes between my last class, exercise, playing a show, meditating, working, dinner with friends and so on – and now it’s Friday and I am pushing to get more work done so that I have something to show for this rather chaotic week. It’s been interesting too, because often when I am so scheduled I get overwhelmed…. but as I learn to let go of what I “should do” and accept what I “am doing” it has been less stressful to go from one thing to the next. I am seeing the wisdom in the Ghandian quote “action expresses priorities” and recognizing that what I choose to actually do is the priority, the way I am subconsciously (or actively) arranging things. Right now I seem to be prioritizing social interaction, exercise, health-focused activities – and not spending so much time on sewing or crochet projects. The garden has a priority spot only because it’s the season and a now or never type of thing – or else I expect it would be something different outside (hiking!) not more time spent inside wrestling with an extra-curricular activity that doesn’t give me a lot of pleasure at the moment.

These are all just ways that we choose to spend time, none of them life or death requirements, but it’s amazing how in-knots I can be about how I judge the arrangement of activities in my head. No one else judges how I live my life – what I spend my time on, who I spend it with – except me (though I often project onto others like my husband, it is again – entirely in my head). In part, I credit my meditation practice, with the recent ability to actually listen to what I am telling myself over and over and then bringing a close to some of those persistent and distracting thought modes. On Wednesday night, for example, when the show I played went later than expected (much later), I observed myself worrying about how tired I was going to be “tomorrow” which was pulling me away from enjoying the music of a friend who was on stage. Once I gave up on my projection of how I might feel the next morning, I was able to focus fully and breathe out the “what if” of worry. (As it was, the next day I slept in a little later and had to skip meditation, but still managed to walk to work and do a killer weight routine in the afternoon – it wasn’t like a later bedtime incapacitated me for work or anything).

It’s not that I don’t believe in planning, or intentionally prioritizing one thing over another – but when I just experience what falls into place as I organize my days – I can see that there are clear patterns which emerge over time (often in sync with the seasons or other cyclical events) and that it’s perfectly acceptable to simply be in the flow of things rather than trying to push against it with an idea of myself (and who I could be if only I had more time).

 

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Post #1990: Following this self to one conclusion and back again

I am having a difficult day today – trouble with sleep in the last couple of weeks has left me feeling a bit down – and I missed my class at the gym today because there was a disruption outside our work building and I didn’t feel like wading through it. I’m not complaining about that, but it has kept me at my desk, and so without an opportunity to boost myself I have sunk deeper into my exhaustion instead.

When I remember, it’s times like this that allow me to put my meditation practice into action (as incongruous as that sounds), because if I am truly mindful about my state I tune into the fact that mostly, it’s not the physical tiredness that brings me down, but my feelings about the tiredness. That is, when I am tired, I am not only experiencing reduced energy, but I am also feeling frustration and self-reproach (as though I have chosen fitful sleeps in the last little while), and I start to tell myself negative things about my lack of capacity when I am tired, deriding each effort as not enough. In essence, I divorce what I consider to be *myself* from current state – as though the only me who *can* exist is one with lots of rest, or perpetually happy and productive. As though any other manifestation of myself – whether tired, or ill, or irritable – is not who I am, is wrong – and so I resist those states which only brings about more mental difficulty, frustration, irritation, and exhaustion. You get the picture.

But although this is not a new insight for me, it has taken me the whole day to get back around to realizing this – it is so easy to forget when I am caught up in my own self-referential experience. But remembering! That allows me to step back and empty my mind for a moment, sit at this computer and let the experience click-clack onto the screen. Becoming aware of the nagging voice of frustration, I can dial it down a little, back out of it entirely – so that I am just typing this note to you, telling about how I am the same as you and there is the capacity in all of us to be a little nicer to ourselves. And if we wish to notice the space between the in-breath and the out-breath, we will find that to be a place in which that inner voice is actually quiet, and in which we can take a break from being so into ourselves (and our problems).

And then maybe we return to the flow of things, click clack, without having the bad thought-feelings return.

Post #1970: The violence I have suffered.

I cannot count the number of quasi-violent encounters in my life (they are numerous but require too much explanation) and so the below list is not as long as it could be, but if I reflect on just the very overt cases of violence I come up with the following (in no particular order):

  • sexually assaulted twice in my 19th year by the same person
  • mugged at knife point in a bank machine enclosure at eight in the morning (on my way to work) by a drug sick man who needed some quick cash
  • had my apartment broken into while taking out garbage – when I turned back towards my building there was a man in my window, masturbating and watching me (I moved out weeks later, as I could not encounter anyone in the hallway without startling after that)
  • numerous instances of holes in walls, doors torn of hinges, or broken furniture in various relationships
  • a boyfriend (who only lasted a few months) who broke into screaming/terrifying rages whenever I tried to assert my own needs (such as whether I wanted to live with him or not)
  • more than one boyfriend who had sex with me against my stated interests, or in ways that I had expressly said no to (there are two who stand out in mind as particularly egregious in this regard)
  • grabbed during an argument so hard that bruises were left on my upper arm that did not fade for a week
  • childhood punishments which involved spanking or hitting, and verbal/emotional abuse

I don’t think about these things very often, you know, and I certainly don’t walk around with a catalogue of abuse at my fingertips – but during today’s morning meditation I could not stop thinking about it. Could not stop thinking about all the conversations that have been floating around the Canadian mediasphere in the last week and how strange my responses are to allegations of abuse, even as someone who can so readily come up with such a list. (All the perpetrators in my list are/were men – that as much as I have had other kinds of shitty encounters with women, none of them have taken on the character of violence such as I have listed above.)  And even though I know that there are some men who do a lot of violence in the world – far more men than women – I still find myself judging women (silently, inside myself) for coming forward, for not being tough enough, or for being too sensitive.

I wonder why they feel the need to speak out when I have got on with my life just fine, thank-you very much. Or else I think, well that’s just the way it is, and there isn’t anything you can do about the past. Sometimes I think that somehow it must be all about me and about my choices so it must be all about other women and their choices. But looking at this list helps me recognize just how much violence was a part of all my formative years into early adulthood, and in that context, it seems ludicrous to interpret as solely about me and my choices. In fact, one might look at this list as something to get a little bit angry about, rather than be ashamed of. And if that’s the case, then I might be able to get angry alongside all the other women who are talking about abuse and sexual violence right now instead of trying to downplay the amount of violence that is actually happening – right now and all the time and in particular to young women!

It is true that I pretty much characterize the above experiences as having helped me to get strong, determine my priorities, and plot a life course that included self-sufficiency at its core – but that’s just a way to turn lemons into lemonade, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure I could have developed a lot of the inner strengths I now possess without having had someone break into my apartment to masturbate.

But even so, looking at the list and recognizing that I should be angry about it, and thus angry that the whole damned human enterprise is so fucked, still so misogynist, still subjugating the rights of women at every turn – I am actually more exhausted by it than anything. Because it’s so tedious, so banal, so everyday – and because I’ve long since left it behind – I feel like all I can muster is a shrug before I turn my back on it again. I’m sure I’m not the only woman in Canada who feels just this way right now and is saying nothing as a result – I’m sure that the voices we are hearing are really the minority – not that women who have been abused are in the minority, but that those who have been *and* also speak out are.

Which means that most of the women we know are walking around with stories like this. Stories they don’t tell. Maybe not a list as long as mine – or maybe a much longer list. It’s terrifying really, how much we accept this as the status quo. How much we accept that for our daughters, our sisters, our mothers, our girlfriends – because it’s so exhausting that we just turn our attention to other things rather than fight back.

But that’s exactly what I do, and will keep doing – while at the same time trying to build the positive pole that my life has become – full of good and amazing people (women and men) whom I love and spend much time with.

My life these days truly is one of privilege and without the violence that characterized so much of my younger life – I have the privilege that has afforded me the construction of a life in which I am cocooned in a home that I own, dictating the conditions of my employment, reliant on myself and my relationships so that I do not have to step outside to where it is dangerous very often. It’s not that I live in fear of the outside world – but I am cautious when in large groups of strangers, I do not like to be downtown on weekends among the unpredictable drunks, I am always aware who is walking behind me at night and whether the doors to the house are locked when I am by myself. As much as I am weary, I am also all too aware that it is not about me, this violence. That it is everywhere and is unpredictable in all but its gender.

This is no call to arms, but a pledge to myself and to other women: I will publicly acknowledge my own history of violence so that I can acknowledge yours. I will be compassionate to myself in the telling of my own stories so that I can hear yours with the same compassion. I will not blame myself for the violence done to my mind and body, just as I will not blame you when you speak out to friends or to the media. I will not simply “leave the past behind,” so that you are left standing alone. And finally, I will not accept violence as the status quo for any group of people in any society. 

And to everyone who’s reading this: thanks for listening. I needed to get that out there. xo

Post #1958: My secret weapon

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Two weeks of really intensive, high-stress, work have put my meditation superpowers to the test. Apparently I am now able to handle twenty tasks at a time, respond calmly to people who are having mini-meltdowns, and ask for things nicely during a crisis. Also no post-work breakdowns or excessive drinking needed to cope. Meditating daily for the last year has surely been worth the time and effort.

The truest prayer I know.

“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men—go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families—re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.” ~ Walt Whitman

Part Five: Attending

“An unfortunate one is a rootless ghost,
His walk a mad angel’s gait.
Insolent steps of one thrown from
heaven
To toil in red dust,
As if he had not had enough
In a thousand previous lifetimes.
Where is his heart? Where is his soul?
To call this heaven’s will
Is a cheap answer.” Deng Ming-Dao

What does it mean to attend to the world, to be present? Meditation is one practice of attending to ourselves and to the world around us, but as Ming-Dao observes it seems a “cheap answer” to limit our engagement with the world’s problems our of some notion of predestination.

In class one student observed that the world is perfect just as it is, and our desires and efforts to change it are a byproduct of ego we must let go of. But this contains its own conundrum, for if the world is perfect as it is, then even those who are struggling to reduce poverty, war, racism, ecocide, and the like, are part of that perfection. And taken this way, we could understand that all things have a place in our world, even those which are forceful and sometimes violent.

We have the examples of great spiritual teachers across cultures – Confucius, Socrates, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed – all who possessed some level of enlightenment. Not one of them rejected their role in bringing an end to suffering. The Buddha did not attain his awakening, and then keep it to himself. Jesus, upon understanding the conditions of oppression and a path to grace in this life and beyond, did not remain a lowly labourer in Nazareth. Each spiritual elucidation has been accompanied by the responsibility to impart that knowledge in an effort to ease the suffering of humankind.

This is a kind of action, and not one without consequences.

There are no actions without consequences, and more often than not the outcomes contain both the light and dark. We fought for more social housing in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver for decades, creating a ghetto no one can leave because social housing is confined to a single neighbourhood of the city. Quebec students marched against one government’s bad education policies and were successful in bringing them down, only to see another party elected who has now launched attacks on the religious freedoms of non-Catholics. In achieving one thing, we invite unintended outcomes, which was my classmate’s point. We might just be making things worse.

If we do not act against suffering, we are cruel. If we do act to effect social change, we might cause other suffering to occur as a byproduct. Bound by this paradox we might think it’s better to abstain completely, to remove oneself from society and meditate ourselves to enlightenment instead. But then we still must accept that there is no way to be human without being a part of the wheel of suffering, in which case the lesser evil seems to include being active rather than passive in the face of injustice, lack and violence. It seems that assisting others to live in ways that allow them to fulfill their potential has a much better chance of minimizing the world’s sorrows than choosing to remain in hermitage. And it also appears that in so doing, we might also fulfill our own potential for a good life, one in which we nurture measured action and a turn towards those who suffer instead of away from them.

This does not preclude the possibility that some action is taken out of the deepest of delusions and the needs of the individual ego – and there is no doubt that much of what passes for protest-activism at the moment is focused on the “I” and the individual, no matter how much it implies otherwise. The Occupy movement being a case in point, where various Occupy encampments, ostensibly set up for the purpose of bringing justice to the many, became battlegrounds over the selfish and self-centered behaviours of some participants. My own history in protest activism has lead me to reflect on the damage caused by ego-driven behaviours, and the lack of overall effectiveness when we pursue things with force and violence.

But because we live in an world increasingly stratified between the illness of greed at the top and the sickness of poverty at the bottom, it is too easy to cynically turn away convinced that we are above it all, or retreat to the monastery in an attempt to do no harm. Our ability to attend starts with us, our practice and our compassion, but it does not end there.

“We need to be weapons of mass construction, weapons of mass love. It’s not enough just to change the system. We need to change ourselves.”- Assata Shakur

Part Four: Meditation

(From the essay That which moves the spirit)

“Once you find deep solitude and calm, there will be a great gladness in your heart. Here finally is the place where you need neither defense nor offense – the place where you can truly be open.” – Deng Ming-Dao

I have just now returned from an hour of walking meditation at the labyrinth below the retreat centre. The stones are set in a community park, overlooking Snug Cove and the North Shore mountains across Howe Sound. I can’t imagine a more fitting place in which to ponder the depth and grandeur of life. And yet, my walking meditation asks no questions, and I focus only on letting all my thoughts go and experiencing the world moment by moment. I feel the stones uneven each time I raise and lower my foot, the cool air moving around me, my breath in and out at the tip of my nose. I become caught up by the rapid movements of a small bird on a bush beside the path, startle at the deep cry of a raven, and note the sound of cars starting up down the hill and rumbling away. At times I wonder when this walking will end, but then dispel that impulse and slow my movements further to allow each sensation to sink in and travel through me. In a world where there never seems enough time, I am learning there are ways to make each second an eternity.

I arrived at this most recent exploration of meditation via my academic studies. While writing a paper on the modern development of neuroscience in the spring of 2013, I couldn’t help but notice study after study confirming the benefits of meditation, and in particular the effects of meditative practice on the so-called “plastic” brain. It wasn’t my first exposure to the concept of meditation as a positive practice in relieving stress and anxiety – I have unsuccessfully attempted daily practice at other points in my life. But this time around I was piqued by the idea that meditation was good for more than just stress, and very likely could play a role in rewiring the brain to make it more resilient to the effects of aging, aid in the development of intellect, and additionally boost immune system response.

This interest in the science of the brain lead me to a course on spiritual enlightenment, of all possible turns, because I believed it was in that structured learning environment I would find the support for meditative practice and the discipline to approach it daily. In early September 2013 I resolved my main work for this course would be exactly that – a time in each day which would be reserved for some form of meditative practice.

At the outset, I promised myself that meditation would not become one more thing on my to-do list, that I would not approach it as a chore, nor would I set expectations with regard to length or quality of sitting. I wrote in my journal at the time, “I want my desire for meditation to grow naturally rather than imposing upon myself another set of goals.” Though not wanting to put pressure on the situation, I did recognzie that finding the discipline to practice every day was key and I found myself encouraged by these words by Deng Ming-Dao:

“In order to start, we must make a decision. This decision is a commitment to daily self-cultivation. We must make a strong connection to our inner selves. Outside matters are superfluous. Alone and naked, we negotiate all of life’s travails. Therefore, we alone must make something of ourselves, transforming ourselves into the instruments for experiencing the deepest spiritual essence of life.”

And so I have done, meditating almost every day for the past ten weeks. In the beginning, I sat for ten minutes per day, though quickly moved that to fifteen and then twenty. Now I sit for thirty minutes at a time and when I can manage it, twice a day. On this retreat I am in practice for three hours per day between various sitting, lying and walking meditation, plus community worship.

Early on, I was fortunate to discover that a Ch’an Buddhist teacher in my workplace was offering eight weeks of meditation classes on Thursday afternoons. This would seem coincident with my desire to start meditating, except it turns out that she has offered this course for years, and it only came to my attention because I was receptive. The timing was good in any case, and so I found myself learning a very formal style of meditation which includes eight-form moving meditation, sitting meditation, walking and lying down meditations as well as prostration. In the beginning of my practice, I complemented this formal teaching by listening to guided meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn which included bodyscape, breathscape and lovingkindness instructions. I ended each session at home by reading poetry or spiritual instruction from my personal library. For times when I could not be at home with enough time or energy to meditate, I planned out where I could go downtown to have 20 minutes without interruption. My workplace has an all-purpose room that is not used after work, and SFU Harbour Centre has an inter-cultural space which made it convenient on the days I could not be in my home.

In making meditation a priority for ten weeks, I hoped I would experience some difference in my being, but at the same time was prepared for nothing to happen at all. After all, it’s just sitting. Disciplined sitting, yes, but it is a practice of doing nothing, with no expectations, and no goal! None of this comes naturally to me, and I had to overcome my doubts in order to get started. Especially in the beginning when I could only sit for ten minutes and my thoughts were continually returning to the pettiest arguments and grievances I had with the world. But after only a few days, this annoyance turned out to be my first insight: It wasn’t just in meditation that my mind was running over old wounds, it was every time my mind drifted at all. Interesting. No wonder Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to this process as “dropping in” on oneself.

My hopes for meditation are for an end to the negative voices, the nagging and the doubt inside me. I have always wished for a calmer disposition, a more tranquil mind and way of being in the world. I’m a high-intensity personality, after all, which has advantages in this world but frequently leaves me exhausted by my own actions. While I did not enter this practice in order to change my core being, I am interested in pursuing any practice that introduces a greater sense of ease and grace to this life I am living. I did not expect that a mere ten weeks of meditation would bring me to some fundamentally new place in my existence, nor has it, though I do believe I have seen a glimpse of that calmer and more thoughtful way of living I seek.

I am living the paradox of internal change through my practice, which seems vast and infinitesimal at the same time. There are the small periods of calm which I have introduced to my days by sitting apart from others, alone with the present moment. And then there are the openings to sensation that occur when I bring my attention to bear on some part of me, a sensual awakening that at times seems overwhelming. In general I believe myself to be less emotionally reactive, and I have noticed that I regain my equilibrium faster when my emotions are aroused. I have also noticed that in some instances my emotions come much more freely, as though I am shedding layers between myself and the world. On more than one occasion both in and out of practice I have been suffused with a feeling of wholeness, joy, and connection that is greater than me. In a recent group meditation, I had the experience of a great warmth entering and leaving through my breath, an expansion of my being and a lack of physical constraint that was entirely novel. These are states I have rarely known before, and not with such sustained intensity when they have arisen.

There have been instances of greater visual perception after sustained meditation, such as the labyrinth walk cited earlier. When I left that hour of meditative walking to return to the retreat centre I was suddenly in command of a whole range of visual detail I had not been aware of before. This effect is brief, though I believe that with mindfulness practice it is a state I could more frequently attain in daily life.

And then there is this small change which belies a much larger shift underneath: for the first time in my life I have spontaneously stopped chewing my fingernails and they have grown quite long, so much so that I have to trim them. This was not an intention, nor did I put any attention on this longstanding bad habit (having given up trying to quit long ago). I simply noticed one day after about five weeks of practice that my nails were growing and healthy for the first time ever. Given that this is a neurotic impulse largely attributed to stress, I would deduce from this small clue that my stress levels are at least slightly lower than normal despite being in a very busy period of work and social life.

Ten weeks is such a short period on which to reflect when it comes to a practice as ancient and varied as meditation, and I feel that there is much depth and learning still to come. Whatever else arises from daily meditation, I believe the attitude of building a life with more ease to be worth the challenges – the discomfort, boredom and frustrations – that are a part of any daily practice. I intend to continue daily meditation, without making it a chore or goal, and with an openness to whatever lessons it continues to bring.

Part Three: Anxiety

Many years ago a friend who is a trauma therapist said to me, “you know, not everyone lives as though the next disaster is just around the corner,” to which I reacted with disbelief. “How on earth,” I responded, “does anyone plan for the future if they aren’t assessing every possibility?” I wasn’t being disingenuous either, at that point in my life I believed that my anxiety and constant worry were totally normal and in fact, admirable. Didn’t it make me a good planner, ready for any disaster, more competent at life as a result? I just couldn’t see how it was harmful to live in that state. Problem was, I also couldn’t see that I was suffering through a debilitating period of depression and social anxiety, as my experience had primed me to inhabit that state so naturally and seamlessly, it had just crept in without my noticing.

I come from a family of worriers. Both my parents are anxious much of the time – my mom on the depressive side, my dad on the neurotic/obsessive – which is not to blame them for my condition, but to say that I come by my anxiety honestly. It’s a bit of a backdrop for everything that happens in my life, really – I get in my car and I visualize what kind of accident I am going to be in, I say good-bye to my husband as he leaves for a work trip and I think how sad he would be if I died in his absence, I send my boss an email and if I don’t hear back in 24 hours I’m sure they are planning my layoff. Pretty much everything triggers a worry. Though I don’t dwell on them very long, they are a persistent, negative visualization of my life.

Fortunately I am not one of those people who believes in The Secret or any other law of attraction nonsense so I’m not anxious (really) that I am sabotaging my life through my thoughts. Unfortunately I am one of those people who believes that unnecessary stress can lead to health problems such as the aforementioned depression, heart problems and so on. Also, being anxious all the time is exhausting and it makes me not much fun to be around. Ultimately anxiety is fuelled by the delusion that life, and the happenings of life, are in our control and the anxious person (me) is engaged in some kind of an arranging event to ensure that everything goes smoothly (and that we don’t die).

Last year I picked up a book by William B. Irvine called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy where I was introduced to what he calls “negative visualization” but what was actually called praemeditation malorum (pre-meditation on evils) by the Stoics. Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote describes the motivation and practice thus, “For the Stoics… our judgements…. are that we can control, but also all that we need to control in order to be happy; tranquility results from replacing our irrational judgments with rational ones. And dwelling on the worst-case scenario…. is often the best way to achieve this.”

As we started our semester with Hadot and the Stoics, I took this lesson up once again and alongside my meditation practice (which has served to highlight my anxieties), I have been trying at intervals to ask myself of certain worries that arise “What is the worst that can happen in this instance?” in order to release them of some of their power. Investigating worries also has allowed me to recognize how many of them are not in my control at all.

Taking the example of the car accident worry which I have pretty much every time I get in the car, I might first note that whether I get in an accident or not is only partly in my control, but not very much given all the circumstances that can lead to a crash. But then the worst thing that can happen to me? Well, I could die, but I wouldn’t know about it and none of us get to choose our death anyway. I could kill someone else, which might only highlight for me to be mindful when I’m driving, but also if that were to happen I would have to find a way to live with and atone for it. I could end up injured, but again, I would simply have to go through the process of healing and thankfully we have a free medical system. And so on.

For my much more mundane worries like “There will be no one at the retreat centre to meet me” or “They won’t have my reservation for Saturday night” which are only some of the things which occurred to me on my journey to Rivendell, the “What’s the worst that can happen” question reveals how trivial those worries really are, and also that I have no control over them in the first place so worrying about them is utterly pointless.

Practicing with this question for the past two months has allowed me to step back and evaluate those worries as they come to the fore of my attention, and drop them just as quickly so I can move on to other things. What’s also true is that by meditating on the worst case – such as never seeing my husband again due to some misfortune on one of our parts – I can focus on how much I appreciate him in the immediate moments we have together. Moments that I can never be sure will follow the present ones. In the event my worries are grounded in something real and controllable, I might note what action to take in order to forestall inconvenience and alleviate future concerns. For the most part it’s only the thoughts I can take action on, and I’m left with the question of how to further develop my outlook so I can avoid some of the needless worries altogether.