People who suffer from anxiety often end up in their doctor’s office worried that they are dying. It felt that way for me. My heart raced, my throat tightened, my body ached. I’d just left an appointment with a cardiologist who had assured me that my heart was just fine.
That’s how I found myself sitting in the cold exam room of my primary care doctor. She didn’t seem very worried as I describe the symptoms that had made my life utterly miserable for the last year. She shrugged, and asked: “Well have you tried meditating?”
I stared at her. I squashed the desire to cry, yell, or throw my purse; but my eyes still welled with tears. “Yes!” I hissed through clenched teeth, “I’m a priest. Of course, I’ve tried meditating!”
I got the medication I needed.
Meditation Benefits for an Anxious and Active Mind
Meditation is often touted as an easy “fix” for anxiety. But meditation can be incredibly difficult for the anxious brain (even with medication). I can worry about a thousand possible calamities while writing this article while making a grocery list, or while having a conversation with a friend. So sitting down to meditate is likely to make me even more hyper-aware of my symptoms!
That doesn’t mean that meditation isn’t helpful for those with anxiety, it is, but I find I need a little extra help to get going. My brain tends to think that meditation time is the perfect time to dredge up embarrassing events from ten years ago, or horrified wonderings about the future. If you (like me) suffer from anxiety (or a very active mind for any other reason) and still want to meditate, there is good news.
While sitting meditation (which derives most famously from Zen Buddhism) is the most familiar form of meditation it isn’t the only way to meditate. Meditation is possible in all sorts of contexts while walking, running, or practicing yoga for example. For me, sitting completely still for meditation is a recipe for spinning thoughts and frustration. But while I’m sweating (and secretly swearing) on my yoga mat, something different happens.
In the context of exercise, especially an exercise like yoga that concentrates on breathing, I can meditate. My anxious brain gets gently distracted, and I can get some peace and quiet. Meditation and exercise might seem counterintuitive at first. My first experience of meditation was of monks sitting in silence in the monastery chapel for a very long time.
I had never meditated before, so I did my best, but mostly I watched them, or my eyes wandered around the room looking for anything, anything to keep my mind occupied, but I was intrigued. Since that experience, my meditation practice for more than ten years had involved sitting in half lotus position on the floor in front of my home altar sinking into still silence for longer and longer periods of time.
Until my anxiety reared its ugly head those silent moments of meditation were an oasis. But with the onset of anxiety, my cushion and altar became anything but an oasis of peace and calm.
In the midst of my struggle with anxiety, I picked yoga up again. And one day, at the end of an exhausting yoga class, I lay flat on my back in savasana and sank into silent stillness again. Tears ran down my cheeks and for once I was in no hurry to end the class and move on to lunch. I lay there feeling my body and letting my exhausted mind rest.
Since then I have come to my yoga mat, or a ride on my horse, or a brisk walk with the dogs when I needed to meditate. At its most basic meditation allows us to be present in the moment. Humans are bad at this. We tend to spend our time either reliving the past or planning for some future moment. Very little of the time are we simply aware and present in the here and now.
Meditation trains us to become more comfortable staying moored to the present. Physical exertion is a great tool for this. When I am riding my horse my body is fully engaged with the job of staying on, which is more complicated than you might think. My mind follows suit, concentrating on the moment.
On the yoga mat, the instructors constant reminds to breathe in, breath out, and to match our movements to our breath create an anchor better than any mantra. And the work of my body overwhelms the physical symptoms of anxiety in a wash of endorphins.
As I walk my dogs up and down the steep hills of my neighborhood the sensations in my body (as I push on the upslope and balance on the downslope) anchor me to where I am and what I am doing. (The constant possibility that a corgi will dart between my legs after a blowing leaf is also a great motivator to stay present!)
As I walk, my breath changes as the work of moving changes. If I pay attention to it, I begin to notice the first leaves beginning to show on a shrub along the sidewalk, or the way the clouds play with the mountains in the distance. At first, this sort of activity might not feel like meditation. After all, you aren’t sitting still, counting your breaths, chanting a mantra, or even aiming for a blank mind.
But, to butcher a few metaphors: there are many ways to get to Rome. The still, aware, and present mind that sitting meditation cultivates is the same state of mind that walking meditation and other more active forms of meditation also cultivate. The method is different, the result is very much the same.
And most importantly, for a little while, noticing is all there is. No rehashing of conversations past helping and no worrying about a future I cannot yet do anything about.
Whether you have general anxiety, or simply a mind like a hamster happily racing in its wheel, moving meditation offers a different way to experience the benefits of meditation practice. There is no one right way to meditate, pray, or carry out any other spiritual practice. So when the traditional way of doing things doesn’t work, branch out, experiment, and try new things.
We and our journeys are each unique, and anxiety won’t stop us.