The Attitude that Causes Anxiety
When Buddha described our constantly recurring problems, he said that its origin was ignorance. This is a specific type of ignorance, one that misunderstands the nature of existence. Whereas things are dependent on other factors and are constantly in flux, ignorance apprehends them in a very concrete fashion. It makes everything seem super-concrete. We especially make ourselves very concrete, thinking, "Me. My problems. My life. My family. My job. Me, me, me."
By observing how we live our lives, we see that we have incredible attachment and clinging to this self. We want to take care of ourselves. We want to be happy. We like this; we don't like that. We want this and we don't want that. Everybody else comes second. I come first. Of course, we're too polite to say this, but when we observe how we live our lives, it is evident.
It is easy to see how anxiety develops because of so much focus on "me." There are over five billion human beings on this planet, and zillions of other living beings throughout the universe, but we make a big deal out of just one of them -- me. We pay an incredible amount of attention to everything that has to do with me. The very small things that have to do with me become extraordinarily important, and we worry and get stressed about them. For example, if a colleague is criticized, it doesn't bother us. But if we receive even a tiny bit of negative feedback, we become angry, hurt or depressed. If the neighbor's child does not do their homework one night, we don't get anxious about it. But if our child does not do their homework -- it's a big deal! If somebody else's car gets dented we say, "Well, that's too bad," and forget about it. But if our car gets dented, we talk about it and complain about it for a long time.
Why is this? We can see that anxiety is very intricately related to self-centeredness. The more we think "I am the most important one in the universe and everything that happens to me is so crucial", the more anxious we are going to be. My own anxious mind is a very interesting phenomena. Last year, I did a retreat by myself for four weeks, so I had a nice long time to spend with my own anxious mind and know it very well. My guess is that it's similar to yours. My anxious mind picks out something that happened in my life -- it does not make a difference what it is. Then I spin it around in my mind, thinking, "Oh, what if this happens? What if that happens? Why did this person do this to me? How come this happened to me?". My mind could spend hours philosophizing, psychologizing and worrying about this one thing. It seemed like nothing else in the world was important.
When we are in the middle of worry and anxiety regarding something, it's as if our mind doesn't have a choice -- it has to think about this thing that has monumental significance. But I noticed in my retreat that my mind would get anxious about something different every meditation session. The next time, another anxiety became the most important one and everything else was not so bad. I began to realize it isn't the thing I am worrying about that is the difficulty. It is my own mind that is looking for something to worry about. It doesn't really matter what the problem is. If I'm habituated with anxiety, I'll find a problem to worry about. If I can't find one, then I'll invent one or cause one.
Dealing with Anxiety
In other words, the real issue is not what is happening outside, but what is happening inside of us. How we experience a situation depends on how we view it -- how we interpret what is happening, how we describe the situation to ourselves. Thus the Buddha said that all of our experiences of happiness and suffering don't come from other people or other things, but from our own minds.
Having a Sense of Humor
How do we deal with our minds when we become very self-centered and anxious? It is important to learn to laugh at ourselves. We really do have a monkey mind when it comes to anxiety, don't we? We worry about this and then we worry about that, like a monkey jumping all over the place. We have to be able to laugh at the monkey instead of taking it so seriously. Sometimes our problems are pretty funny. If someone else had this problem or was acting this way, we would laugh at it. Sometimes I do that: I step back and laugh at myself, "Oh, look how Chodron feels so sorry for herself. Sniff, sniff. There's so many sentient beings having so many different experiences in the universe, and poor Chodron just stubbed her toe."
No Sense Getting Anxious
For those of you who can't laugh at yourselves, there is another way. The great Indian sage Shantideva advised us, "If you have a problem and you can do something about it, then go ahead and do it. If there is nothing you can do to solve it, getting anxious about it is useless -- it won't fix the problem. So either way, whether the problem is solvable or unsolvable, there is no sense in getting anxious or upset about it." Try thinking like that about a problem and see if it helps.
Not Worrying About Making a Fool of Ourselves
Sometimes we are anxious and nervous before going into a new situation. Afraid that we will make fools out of ourselves, we think, "I may do something wrong, I'll look like a jerk, and everybody will laugh at me or think badly of me." In these cases, I find it helpful to say to myself: "Well, if I can avoid looking like an idiot, I'll do that. But if something happens and I look like an idiot then okay, so be it."
Paying More Attention to Others
Another way of dealing with anxiety is to lessen our self-centeredness and train our mind to pay more attention to others. This doesn't mean that we ignore ourselves. Of course we need to take care of our body and we should try to keep our mind happy. However, it is very different from the self-centeredness that makes us so distressed and restless. That self-centeredness puts undue emphasis on ourselves and makes every small thing into a big one.
Start by thinking, "Everyone wants to be happy, just like me, and nobody wants to suffer, just like me." If we focus on that thought alone, there is less space for anxiety in our minds. Try doing this today. Whenever you are looking at people -- for example, when you are in a shop, on the street, in a bus -- think, "This is a living being that has feelings, someone who wants to be happy and doesn't want to suffer. This person is just like me." You will find that you will no longer feel that they are complete strangers. You will feel like you know them in some way and will respect each of them.
Some people may think, "But I do care about others, and that's what makes me anxious," or "Because I care so much about my kids and my parents, I worry about them all the time." This kind of caring isn't the open-hearted loving-kindness that we are trying to develop in Buddhist practice. Who are the people that we care about so much? All the ones who are related to "me" -- my kids, my parents, my friends, my family." We are right back to "me, me, me". Instead, we want to learn to care for others impartially, without thinking some beings are more important and others are less worthy. The more we can develop equanimity and an open, caring heart towards all, the more we'll feel close to everyone else and the more we will be able to reach out to them. We should have this broad attitude, expanding our care from the small group of people around us so that it gradually is extended to everyone.
You Are Not Alone in Your Problem
When we are in the middle of a problem, we feel like nobody is helping us. We feel all alone with our problem. When this happens, think of the other people in your life -- your family, your relatives, your friends, your teachers. There are a lot of people around you who have their own problems, but are ready to help. You are who you are today because of the kindness and caring of a lot of people. Think even of those you do not know, like the people who built your cars, make the books you read, and collect your garbage. So many people serve us in countless ways. If we can open our heart and see how much we have received, our attitude completely changes. We become very grateful, content, and joyful.
More people could even help us if we would open ourselves up to receive from them. If we think like this, we do not feel stuck and alone in our problem because we see that there is actually quite a bit of help and assistance out there.
Overcoming Anxiety by Developing Love and Compassion
After we meditate on the kindness of others, it is easy to feel love and compassion towards them. When love and compassion are alive in our hearts, we will want to take responsibility to benefit all others and will have a great resolve to do so. From this comes bodhicitta, the altruistic intention to become a Buddha in order to benefit others most effectively. When we have this altruistic intention to become a Buddha, we become a bodhisattva. When we are a bodhisattva, it is guaranteed that we will have no anxiety. Look at Kuan Yin. She looks at all sentient beings and wants them to be happy. She does whatever she is capable of doing to take care of all of us, but she does not get nervous, upset, worried or stressed out. She is able to do what needs to be done to help others and lets the rest go. We never hear of Kuan Yin getting depressed or having anxiety attacks. She is able to handle everything that happens. We can also become that way.
We can look to Kuan Yin for inspiration while we practice the Dharma. She is the embodiment
of and represents great love and great compassion towards all living beings. Kuan Yin was
once an ordinary being like us, with all of the same confusion and anxiety. Through
practicing the path with great effort, she developed such wonderful qualities and became
a bodhisattva. If we study the Dharma and practice in the same way, we too can develop
qualities just like hers.