Stillness and Anxiety

D: I have been studying Buddhism and meditation for approximately 10 years now, although it has only been in the last 18 months that I have made transitioned my work from an academic study to a spiritual practice.

I have based most of my meditation thus far through in Zen practice, but read more broadly as well. With that background, on to my question:

I have felt that I have made great introductory strides in my practice, and am able to find a clear and still mind with less and less effort as time goes on. I have also felt the effect of these experiences beyond the time set aside for practice. However, within the last few weeks, I have actually developed an increasing sense of (what I feel is irrational) anxiety.

My wife and I were blessed with the birth of our first child a few months ago. We loved her from the start, but that love is blossoming even more as time goes on. While my meditation practice has allowed me to move towards seeing the world as it is, and appreciating the beauty and wonder in all the transient details of life, I feel that it has also opened a door in my heart to allow me to be more loving and more compassionate than I ever have been before, particularly towards my wife and child.

The negative consequence is that I now have been almost consumed, at times in debilitating or paralyzing ways, by anxiety over the fragility of my young daughter’s life, by a consuming desire to ensure her life is as full and beautiful as possible, and by a general pain in contemplating the young lives that do not experience that same full and beautiful life, whether due to circumstance, illness, or death.

I’ve stumbled across this conundrum, which has caused quite a bit of confusion for me. How is it that practicing, and what I feel has been the development of some insight, has aroused GREATER feelings of attachment and GREATER feelings of anxiety than were there before? One possibility is that they were there all along but now I can see them for the first time. Perhaps my practice has allowed me to see things more clearly, but before I can truly work on eliminating attachment, the first step for me is to clearly appreciate just how strongly I am attached to some things in this world. On the other hand, I worry that I am driving towards the wrong goals in my meditation practice and creating new confusion.

Do you have any experience with these types of moments, where breakthroughs first appear to be setbacks or challenges?

I would appreciate your thoughts and look forward to your input. Thank you in advance for your time.

Jay: I do appreciate what you are saying. We have a three year old granddaughter and I can relate to what you are feeling.

I would agree that meditative presence leads to an increased sensitivity, which includes both pleasure and pain.

You talk about breakthroughs and setbacks. I’m taking a closer look at these. By breakthrough, I think you are talking about being able to have a clear and still mind and to feel a little of this outside of formal sitting as well.

I wonder if a goal has been set up in the mind that a clear state of mind is something to be cultivated. That perhaps the “goal” of meditative work is to have the clear state for longer periods over time and to carry it into daily life. This is a common internal goal. Some traditions reinforce this but ultimately I think it is the nature of a certain aspect of the human mind to believe this.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong when there is quiet and clarity in the mind. It happens, especially if one learns to take some quiet time and not overburden the mind. But what has become increasingly clear to me is that it does not matter what the state of mind is. You may well protest that if the state of mind doesn’t matter, what is the point of meditating. Isn’t it about a more peaceful state of mind?

I’ll try to be clear then about what I mean so that it is not misleading.

If there is a recognition that a state of mind, a bunch of thoughts, images, emotions, is active in the mind, what happens next? We are talking about the fact that first there is awareness that the mind is not quiet and calm. If awareness depended on a calm mind, then how could the awareness come in the first place? It couldn’t. The awareness of the state of mind doesn’t come from the state of mind. It doesn’t depend on it.

What’s important is the awareness, the fact that the contents of the mind/body are revealed with some directness. Awareness by itself has its own healing action, its own creativity and its own wisdom. It may bring up questions that help enter more deeply into what is going on. Or it may suggest ways for the body to move to feel more directly what is happening in the emotions. We don’t have to consciously be responsible for these things or to even consciously know what they are.

I think we can say that it is relatively easy to be present when the mind is quiet. It is maybe more of a stretch to stay with the turmoil of the mind in activity. Of course with thoughts that we enjoy, there is often little incentive for presence. The focus becomes the content of the thoughts, acting on the thoughts. When something is disturbing, then interest arises.

You hinted at a feeling that if you weren’t attached to your daughter, you wouldn’t have these negative and worrisome thoughts. Let’s distinguish deep and sensitive feeling from 33her or look at her or play with her? That would be deadness of the most callous kind.

If I understand what you are saying, part of what you are experiencing is the incredible fragility of life. Maybe it is more obvious in infants than in older people but when I look carefully, the assumption that my girlfriend or my brother or myself will be alive tomorrow, an hour from now, even in five minutes is only an assumption. Consider the incredible delicacy of the system that sustains life in us, that allows breathing to continue and the heart to keep beating. Consider the wild and vital energies of life itself. Right now the wind is whipping up outside. A tree limb could come careening through the roof. The world is vast, powerful, ever changing, unknowable and for the most part, uncontrollable.

In this light, the simple reality of this moment seems incredibly precious, not to be missed. When the concerns take over of how to protect your daughter, how to pave the way for her, or the fearful images come up of all the things that could happen to her, what happens to this precious moment right here?

If the beauty of this simple moment and the fact of death, disease, suffering, emotional deadness, isolation – if these two things seem unrelated or contradictory, then sit with this puzzle with all your being. How can this be? Carry this question in every moment, because it is only in this present moment that the reality of human nature can be understood.

I think we can stop here with this inquiry. I don’t know if I’ve addressed your concern but do feel free to write back so we can look at this together.

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