Nothing interferes with our peace of mind more than anxiety. Anxiety is our ever-present friend, stealing our joy, hampering our relationships, clouding our judgment, and wasting our time. Why is this malady so persistent, so resistant to treatment, so common and widespread? Maybe we’ll never rid the world of anxiety altogether. But we can learn how to manage it better, and how to walk away from it one step at a time.
1. Clear the Clutter
The first rule of feng shui, the Chinese art of spatial arrangement, is eliminating clutter. It is difficult to free your mind from chaotic thinking when your environment is chaotic. Clutter, dirt and debris trap the soul in a downward spiral of inertia. The Hopi people share a similar perspective, that the outer world is a mirror of the inner world, and that the way we arrange our homes and offices reflects the order of our minds. Take a long, hard look at your room, your house, your office, your desk, your closets, and your in-box. The office-kitsch witticism a neat desk is a sign of a sick mind is a clever bit of nonsense belied by this essential truth: simplifying and streamlining the world around you frees your mind of untold stress and needless ineffectiveness.
2. Get Back in Your Body
Anxiety is over-thinking, plain and simple. The most direct and immediate remedy is physical activity. Get out of your head and back into your body. Your body was designed to move. Modern life has us sitting down nearly all the time. Push back your chair, get up and go outside. Walk, run, swim, surf, bike, hike, play, work out, have sex, do yoga, dance – whatever you like. Or at least clean out your garage, wash the windows and mop the floor. That way you accomplish steps one and two simultaneously.
3. Be Present
Anxiety is future-thinking. Anxiety only exists in the realm of thought. It cannot exist in this now moment because this now moment is not a thought – it is Being itself. When we worry, we wallow in troubling fictional scenarios that have not happened yet, all of them centered on our victim-status and affirming our weakness. In other words, anxiety is a defense mechanism that prevents action, for if we do not act, then we cannot fail, thereby fulfilling our childish need to be flawless and perfect. Every action is necessarily flawed, ringed round with unintended consequences. It is so much easier to risk nothing and retreat into the safety of our anxiety and fear. To combat this well-worn pattern, drop out of future-thinking and down into this present moment – this room, this conversation, this priceless, fleeting miracle, this simple task. The world will never again be exactly as it is in this now moment. Stay in your thoughts and miss it. Come out of your thoughts and be it.
4. Practice Allowance
We all carry with us a long list of expectations, judgments and ego-demands that deeply interfere with our effectiveness and joy. Simply notice how much agitation is generated by your resistance to what is. Arbitrary and self-serving ideas about how things should be blind us to the only reality we have and lock us away in a fantasy state of alienation and loneliness. Making peace with what we cannot change, letting situations unfold on their own terms at their own pace and allowing people to be who they are frees us from the relentless and agonizing task of trying to control everything and everyone. Living in a perpetual state of disappointment and resentment is detrimental to our well being. Unskilled self-interest leads to bad habits and self-absorption. Genuine, enlightened self-interest leads to allowance and joy.
5. Let Beauty Happen
One of the gifts that arise when anxiety is relinquished is beauty, or rather, the ability to perceive beauty. Beauty is never hidden, but it often goes unseen. When we are lost in the fog of fear and future-thinking we fail to feel the utter perfection of the uplifting moments that make up our lives. The quiet heroism of our fellow-travelers, the shimmering light that bathes every leaf on every tree, the smell of distant rain on the wind from the mountains, the love in the eyes of those who forgive us in spite of our blunders – this aura of abundance shines around us in every moment. We have only to cultivate the eyes to see.
6. Take One Step
The journey away from anxiety is a path of action. We don’t need to think about it anymore. The time for reflection and contemplation is past. Now it is simply time to move our feet. One step is all it takes. Notice how the thought of all those endless steps before us stops us in our tracks. So don’t think. Act. You don’t have to know what all of the next 10,000 steps are. You know what the next step is. Take it.
7. Shift into Appreciation
Instead of focusing on all of the unfinished tasks and challenges unmet, look back and marvel at how far you’ve come. Take the time to appreciate yourself and everything you have accomplished. Cultivate the consciousness of gratitude and let it be the lens through which you see the world. Journaling can be a helpful practice because it forms a chronicle, a written record of all of the myriad ways things go right and how we are surrounded by abundance and beauty. A gratitude journal forms a crucial counterpoint to the mind’s natural tendency to dwell in the consciousness of scarcity and fear.
8. Don’t Resist Anxiety
Instead of turning conquering anxiety into yet another stress-inducing chore on your to-do list, re-frame it as simply an inappropriate or disproportionate response to uncertainty, or as a necessary time of restlessness out of which great creativity will soon emerge. I imagine that a butterfly feels a lot of anxiety as it fights its way out of the cocoon. What if anxiety is as necessary as adrenalin? What if anxiety is an evolutionary adaptation, a needed jolt of juice to spur us to action? The caveman who worried about the saber tooth tiger (whether there was one around or not) survived to pass on his genes. His hapless brother, not a care in the world, got eaten. Turning anxiety into a problem only strengthens and deepens its grasp. Quite often, anxiety is just how change feels.
9. Stop Thinking You’re in Charge
One of the primary sources of anxiety is the groundless yet persistent delusion that we are in charge. Our ego continually mistakes its limited range of power and influence as omnipotence and as a result we take on challenges and tasks that are absolutely none of our business. We don’t have to run the whole world, and in fact we couldn’t if we tried. Gandhi called this shift renunciation and correctly identified it as the core principle of the world’s spiritual wisdom. Paul McCartney lost his mother Mary to breast cancer when he was fifteen years old. Years later, through the voice of her grieving son, she sang a mantra of renunciation to all of us: “Let it be.”
10. Find Your Higher Power
Atheists, have no fear, this works for you too. There is an order, a structure, a pattern, a presence, a force in nature that binds all individual phenomena into a singular whole. Some people personify and deify it. Others prefer to let it float just out of range of the conceptual mind. No matter how you conceive of it in the realm of thought, the Source is real. Make peace with it. Find it in meditation, prayer, service, nature, art, beauty, truth, or in the deepest recesses of your own beating heart. Gandhi didn’t have a personal god, he just called it Truth. When you are rooted in the depths of your higher power, you live in a peace that surpasses all understanding. In what the mystics call God-consciousness there is no room for ego, and therefore no room for anxiety or fear.
This then is how we begin. Don’t try to conquer anxiety. Simply see its uselessness. Even that simple awareness will weaken its hold. Then take one step, then another. This is how we move away from anxiety and toward the joyful life our soul is asking for.