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How Mindfulness Helps Manage Anxiety Attacks

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Anxiety is caused by endless loops of the mind thinking of the same fear.

The below article is a close transcript of the video:

I still remember over 20 years ago when I suffered anxiety attacks, my sister told me an idle mind is a playground for the devil. I believed her then, but I would like to correct that statement now. An anxious mind is not idle at all. It is busy looping the same thoughts over and over again. This is well described in what the Buddha calls the second arrow.

The Buddha said that the first arrow that hits you, gives you physical pain. The second arrow is what the mind does about the arrow. In this case, the mind would start worrying, “What is going to happen to me? Am I going to die? I am going to bleed and the pain will be unbearable.” He said it is not the first arrow that is the problem, it is our mind’s resistance to what is happening that increases the suffering. Granted, our bodies are dying daily and will age, fall sick, and die. But our minds need not suffer with the body. Suffering arises when we resist.

Resisting is what anxiety is about. Because there is fear of the feelings of anxiety, there is resistance to that feeling. Resisting the fear, the mind keeps thinking about how to defend itself against the feeling and fight against it. Then it creates a loop of constant thinking about that anxiety. Thinking about something actually brings that feeling to fruition, and anxiety is a feeling.

There are many conditions that cause anxiety. Some people suffer from separation anxieties, some suffer from the anxiety of claustrophobia, the fear of heights, to even thunderstorms. When these conditions arise, there is anxiety. What I suffered from is the anxiety of all anxieties — existential fear. No matter what conditions cause these anxieties, it leads back to one thing — the fear of not having control and maybe dying from it. Existential fear is the fear of death and death means no control.

Although mindfulness has been marketed as a method for stress reduction — which is true — the Buddhist teaching of mindfulness is really to become aware of awareness, and it helps us to understand life and death. When we become aware of awareness, we realize that it doesn’t change, it is stable and it is unconditioned, compared to our feelings and thoughts, which are changeable, unstable, and conditioned by our senses. Conditioned by our senses means that we react to what we see, smell, touch, hear, and taste. It includes our reaction to others’ ideas (thinking is also a sense base in Buddhism).

There are many ways to become aware of awareness. But in order to know awareness, we need to learn to understand the quality of feelings. When we pay attention to feelings, we realize how our world of experience really revolves around feelings. When we understand feelings of anger, fear, jealousy, and envy give us hellish experience, we learn that it is more helpful to create experiences of peace, calm, compassion, and forgiveness which feels more heavenly. To experience mindfulness, we need to gradually turn our minds towards more wholesome experiences, which makes mindfulness easier.

Over 20 years ago, my anxiety spiraled out of control and there was so much fear of being alone. Anxiety attack brings on a rapid heartbeat that makes one think he or she is going to die. There is shortness of breath, and the body freezes from fear. People were not very sympathetic about anxieties at the time, and counseling didn’t work. I had to depend on medication from a psychiatrist who advised me to lock the memories that caused anxiety in a box and not open the box again. He didn’t understand that I was having existential fear and this problem would pop up again and again.

One day, I had the realization that anxiety wasn’t killing me. I also had the insight that thinking of anxiety (by not wanting it) brought it into my experience again and again. That made me treat fear as a friend. In doing that, I changed my relationship with fear. Instead of treating it as an enemy, it became a friend that was kind to me. I replaced my medication with lozenges. At the time, I didn’t know I was practicing mindfulness. I was aware and alert that at any sign where the feeling of anxiety might arise, I would say hello to it and welcome it as a friend.

Mindfulness is not about sitting in meditation and just paying attention to the breath and blanking out in our minds. Mindfulness is the quality of knowing whatever is most salient in our experience, it could be body sensations, related to our feelings, and feelings related to our thoughts. They are all interdependent. Thoughts arise when our mind is continually connected to a particular persistent feeling. We can change our thoughts to change the tune of our feelings.

Fast forward to more than a decade, the combination of stabilizing attention with sitting meditation and being mindful in daily activities helped me stay steadily aware whenever anxieties arise. There were no episodes of anxiety attacks, just the feeling of anxiety.

Buddhist teachers often use the ocean as a representation of unchanging knowing awareness and the waves to represent our ever-changing feelings and thoughts. When I have strong awareness, I really do experience fear as the waves or vibrations coursing through the body. Whenever I could do this, anxiety or fear becomes a more intimate friend because I was getting to know it.

With Covid-19, I had two attacks, one of which I was unable to manage at all, and went to the doctor. However, thanks to the years of progressive practice which has deepened, I was able to overcome the tendency of the mind to be led by the strong waves of fear by chanting a certain prayer and visualizing the words of the prayer in my mind. It takes some strength of the mind and effort. At other times I was able to remain as the ocean of awareness, watching the fear like a certain energy vibration (waves) running through the body.

As you can see, my practice has progressed from turning fear into a friend to becoming intimate with it by allowing it to run through the body without resistance. There is also the turning of the mind from fear to calm tranquility by chanting the mantra mentally.

The ultimate aim of mindfulness is to learn to rest our minds in this wide and spacious ocean as much as possible. To do that is to take every opportunity, in particular during difficult times when our minds are totally lost in lamentation, grief, or fear to bring our minds to awareness. Awareness has also been described as the mother that has the ability to embrace the child (our unwholesome feelings). So in mindfulness meditation, we are not getting rid of our experience, whether good or bad, but embracing our awareness without getting lost.

I offer meditation for anyone suffering anxiety and you can get in touch with me at Mindful Breath.

Mindful Breath

Mindful Breath is committed to sharing the systematic training of mindfulness with anyone who is keen and open to exploring their relationship with their inner experience for better health and caring relationships towards a gentler and friendlier society.

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