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Anxiety is one of the worst feelings in the world. Whether it’s a generalised feeling of unease or a full-blown panic attack, it can be utterly debilitating and very difficult to manage once it takes hold.
What happens is our thoughts generate feelings of anxiety, fear and dread. These feelings then keep us locked into a kind of thought-emotion feedback loop. Because the body can’t distinguish between a real and an imagined threat, it releases the same stress chemicals it would in the case of, say, being chased through the jungle by a lion. Stuck in this fight or flight loop, the body is under continual stress and the adrenals and other systems become depleted. We not only become emotional wrecks, but physical wrecks too.
I’d like to share a very simple technique for dealing with anxiety that I discovered quite by chance but which have found to be remarkably effective.
It can be practised anywhere at any time of the day. All you need to do is take ten minutes where you can be alone and undisturbed. Heck you can even do this while enjoying a cup of tea (preferably decaf!). Set a timer on your phone, and perhaps play some soft calming music or nature sounds. Or try a playing a video like this:
Here’s the trick.
For ten minutes, all you have to do is simply RELAX, LET GO AND ACCEPT EVERYTHING EXACTLY AS IT IS. No resistance, no judgement and no attempt to change anything.
Anxiety is typically caused by the mind focusing on and trying to solve problems, whether real of imaginary (the ‘what ifs’ of life). For these ten minutes, you are not going to try to solve anything. You don’t need to fix the world, or your life, or anyone else’s. That’s not your job. You’re off the hook. Your job, for just ten minutes, is to relax and accept everything exactly as it is.
This may seem radical for some people. Look upon it as an experiment. Approach it with an attitude of curiosity and just see what happens.
The challenge is to accept every single part of reality as it is; and to cease trying to control anything. By letting go of this inner resistance to life, there’s a gradual but immense sense of release and relaxation.
Until the timer ends, your only job is to simply accept everything in the present moment as it is; including everything in your environment, and in your body and mind. If you’re experiencing feelings of anxiety and stress in the body, instead of resisting that, it has to be accepted and neither resisted nor held onto. The same goes for negative thoughts. Complete acceptance, and no resistance.
The relief when we cease resisting any part of our experience is immense. According to neuroscientists the stress hormones produced by the brain typically pass through our system and cease in only 90 seconds, as long as the brain isn’t continually producing more of the chemicals. This practise of completely letting go calms the nervous system and shifts the brain out of its focus on whatever has triggered the anxiety and back to the present moment.This simple form of mindfulness meditation is a very effective way of getting back in control of the brain rather than being controlled by it.
Give this a try and see how it works for you.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all born storytellers.
Human beings understand life in terms of stories. From the moment we’re born, life is a never-ending stream of experience. As we grow, develop and move through life, the way we make sense of reality is to convert these experiences into a narrative. This narrative is series of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, other people and life. Human beings are, as Jonathan Gottschall puts it, “storytelling animals”.
Our stories determine our entire experience of reality. The way we make sense of reality–which is to say, the stories we tell ourselves about it–shapes our entire personality and worldview, which in turn determines the way we interact and transact with life.
“Life is incredibly complex,” explains psychology professor Jonathan Adler. “There are lots of things going on in our environment and our lives at all times, and in order to hold onto our experience, we need to make meaning of it. They way we do that is by structuring our lives into stories.”
Objective reality becomes inextricably bound with our mind-created subjective reality. This is an unconscious process, often leaving us unable to distinguish between the two. Our interpretation of reality becomes mistaken for reality itself.
A single event can be experienced by a hundred different people and those hundred people will each have a slightly (or perhaps radically) different experience and interpretation. Our stories are therefore not so much based on objective experience, but on our subjective interpretation of experience.
As Shakespeare said:
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
The other day I caught myself saying to someone, “I’m having a bad week.” In actual fact, in reality there was no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ about it. Like any week, it was simply a series of events. Events and happenings only have the value the mind assigns them. Depending on one’s personal preferences and predilections, what might be a good experience for one person may be a terrible experience for another. Some people absolutely thrive on challenge and feel alive when life is crumbling down around them, whereas others find the stress unbearable and prefer the quiet life.
So, our stories about life are determined by who we are. And to a large extent, who we are is determined by our stories about life.
From early childhood we begin crafting a sense of self generated by the things that happen to us. A large part of our ‘story of self’ is based upon what others have told us to believe about ourselves.
The question is, were we brought up to believe we are strong, capable and in control of our lives, or did we internalise the notion that we are somehow lacking, deficient and at the mercy of a cruel and hostile world? Are we sufficient to deal with all that life brings, or do we believe that we’re somehow not good enough and don’t have what it takes?
“The way you tell your story to yourself matters.”
Our story will ultimately make or break us. So, is it a positive or a negative story? Either way, it’s just a story. And stories can be changed.
Many of us have a tendency to focus on our perceived lacks and failings. These are determined by the mind alone. Excessive focus on lack and failure results in a distorted internal narrative and an unhealthy view of self. Instead of being the hero of our own story, we might be a victim, or even worse, a villain!
If we view ourselves as helpless and downtrodden and at the mercy of an unjust and cruel world, we’re defeated from the very start. We’ll feel powerless and lost, and this hopelessness can lead to all kinds of mental and emotional problems and a crippling sense of paralysis. It’s clearly not an empowered, healthy state from which to live. But the thing is, it can be changed in a moment.
Whatever your life has been, and whatever role you’ve inadvertently cast yourself, it’s essential to recognise that you are the King or Queen of your own story.
We have all suffered in life. We have fought, loved, dreamt and yearned, had our heart broken to pieces, and won at some things, while losing at others. We’ve all had traumas, lost people we loved, and struggled to find our place in life and deal with hardship and challenges of many kinds. This doesn’t make us a victim in life. It makes us a FIGHTER.
Whether we care to admit it or not, life is something we don’t often have that much power to control. But we absolutely can control the way we interpret it, the meaning we assign to it, and the way we respond to it. That’s where our true power lies.
So, take a moment to explore and if necessary re-evaluate the story you tell yourself about yourself.
If you don’t see yourself as an absolute King or Queen, and a courageous kick-ass fighter dealing with what will always be a difficult and challenging world, then you need to start seeing yourself in that light.
You’ve been through so much and you’re still here, and still fighting on. Why focus on what you might perceive as failure or lack instead of recognising the way you’ve come through multiple adversities and challenges?
The greatest stories ever told reflect what Joseph Campbell called ‘the Hero’s Journey’; the path every human being must take through life. It’s a journey of adversity, challenge, loss, adventure and ultimately redemption. And we are each the hero of our own journey; our own life.
It’s perhaps time to recognise that and see yourself as the hero that you are.
– 64 –
What is at rest is easily managed.
What is not yet manifest is easy to prevent.
What is rooted is easy to nourish.
What is fragile is easy to break.
What is small is easy to scatter.
Put things into order before they exist.
Prevent trouble before it arises.
The giant pine tree grows from a tiny seedling.
A tower nine stories high starts with a single brick.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
By forcing a project to completion,
you ruin what was almost ripe.
People usually fail when they are on the verge of success.
So give as much care at the end as at the beginning,
and there will be no failure.
The Sage takes action
by letting things take their course.
He does not collect precious things.
He learns not to hold onto ideas.
He helps people find their true nature
but does not venture to lead them by the nose.
Here we have perhaps the most famous line of the entire Tao Te Ching: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In keeping with the previous verse, it offers wise advice for taking action and dealing with whatever challenges we might face in the course of our lives.
We are urged to lay solid foundations, to deal with potential problems before they arise and to have the patience to avoid rushing things to premature completion. Instant gratification and immediate results are very much of the focus of our fast-paced society. But the Tao Te Ching advises us to avoid rushing into action and instead to pay careful attention to each step of our journey, being sure not to rush or force things. The more we rush, the more mistakes we make and the more we grasp, the easier it is to crush the very thing we are trying to nurture.
Everything in life has its own flow, its own pace and speed. If we can tune into that and align ourselves with it, we can achieve without undue exertion and enjoy effortlessness ease in everything we do. We instinctively know what to do and when to do it. This intelligence and flow is the Tao at work in and around us. Relax into it and allow the Tao to direct your life.
– 63 –
Act without doing,
strive for the effortless.
Enjoy the plain and simple.
See simplicity in the complicated.
Achieve greatness in little things.
Difficult problems are best solved
while they are still easy.
Great projects are best started
while they are still small.
The Sage never takes on more
than she can handle,
which means that she leaves
She never strives for greatness,
thus she achieves greatness.
When she runs into a difficulty,
she stops and gives herself to it.
Because she always confronts difficulties,
the task is always easier than planned.
This verse offers advice for daily life, for approaching work and projects of any kind and for dealing with difficulties and avoiding undue problems.
The Sage sees the large in the small and simplicity in the seemingly complex. Simplicity seems to be the key message. Rather than chasing after the grandiose, the Sage keeps her focus on the small details, simply doing one thing at a time, and never taking on more than she can handle.
She works simply, effortlessly, without forcing things and is sure to tackle problems before they get out of hand. These simple instructions offer a Tao-based approach to daily life and promise an easier, smoother path than we might otherwise experience when we lose touch with the natural flow.
If you have enjoyed this series on the Tao Te Ching, it is now available as a collected volume in both paperback and ebook format on Amazon.
– 62 –
The Tao is the true nature,
the secret source of everything.
It is the good man’s treasure
and the bad man’s refuge.
If a person seems wicked,
do not cast him away.
Awaken him with your words,
elevate him with your deeds,
repay his injury with kindness.
When a new leader takes office,
do not give him gifts and offerings.
Instead offer to
teach him about the Tao.
Why was the Tao esteemed by the ancient Sages?
Because, being one with the Tao,
you find without looking and
when you make a mistake, you are forgiven.
It is the source of all good,
and the remedy for all evil.
It is the most noble thing in the world.
There’s no doubt that in this world we often have to deal with ‘wicked’ people; people that are so misaligned and dysfunctional that they cause untold misery for themselves and all those around them. Relating with such people can be an enormous challenge. The Tao Te Ching advises us to embrace rather than reject them and, in so doing, to shine a light in the darkness.
In spite of all appearances, the darkness can never harm the light, for it is merely the absence of light. If you walk into a dark room, you deal with the darkness by switching on a light—and it’s gone, just like that. It may not be quite so simple when dealing with people, for many stubbornly cling to their darkness, having made an identity out of it, but the principle remains the same.
It’s worth bearing in mind that we shouldn’t try to force others to change, but simply accept and embrace them. In so doing we may help them to become all they are capable of being.
– 61 –
A great country is like the lowland,
toward which all streams flow.
It is the reservoir of all under heaven,
the feminine of the world.
The female overcomes the male with stillness.
Her tranquility gives rise to her humility,
The more powerful a country grows,
the greater the need for humility.
If a great country lowers itself before a small one,
it wins friendship and trust.
And if a small country can lower itself before a great one,
it will win over that ‘great’ country.
If a nation is centred in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people,
if it does not meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be of great benefit of all others.
Most nations want to achieve ‘greatness’: to be higher, more elevated, prosperous and powerful than other countries. Nationalism is born of the ego’s desire to cement a stronger identity for itself and it does so by trying to convince itself that it’s somehow better than others.
This is not the way of the Tao. Lao Tzu asks us to adopt the opposite approach and to recognise the value of humility. Instead of trying to be bigger, stronger and more powerful than others, Lao Tzu suggests we embrace humility, to become like the lowland toward which all streams flow along their path to the sea. This is the feminine approach, which is one of stillness, equanimity and peace.
There’s no place for conflict, war or erroneous notions of being ‘greater than’ and ‘less than’ when a country is at one with the Tao. We’ve tried it the other way. It didn’t work. Perhaps it’s time for us to approach world affairs and foreign policy with an altogether different approach.
This doesn’t mean that we become the doormats of the world. To embody the Tao is to be in perfect balance, not idle passivity. It’s a state of alignment and a necessary recalibration after centuries of striving to subjugate and dominate others. True victory is not coming out on top: it the realisation and actualisation of unity, peace and harmony between nations.
If you have enjoyed this series on the Tao Te Ching, it is now available as a collected volume in both paperback and ebook format on Amazon.