Having a hard time meditating because of anxious thoughts? Try saying your worries out loud.
Q: I’m 54 and I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my life. I’ve tried meditating but I have trouble getting past all my anxious thoughts. My mind is such a noisy tangle! I can’t seem to get to the peace that I assume other people find in meditation. I’d be grateful for any tips about how I can deal with anxiety better in life and in meditation.
I like the late Thomas Keating’s statement that the first thing we run into when we try to quiet the mind is our afflictive emotions. He likened our anxieties and other difficult inner turmoil to the choppy surface of the water. It takes a while to drop below that turbulence to a gentler, deeper current.
I encourage you to let go of what you assume others find in meditation and keep learning about your own experience of it. Meditation isn’t primarily about getting to peace. It’s more about non-judging awareness and acceptance of whatever is here in our external world and our inner world.
At any given time, there are two streams of consciousness flowing through each of us. One is the narrow stream of the small self. That stream is full of logjams—anxieties, doubts, to-do lists, judgments, and so on. We often equate that stream with “me.” But I think of every human being as a tributary of a Great Stream of Consciousness (which some might call Source or God). Even when we’re logjammed in the narrow stream, we’re still connected to the Great Stream.
I’ve been trying something new recently in my meditation practice and sharing it with some of my patients. After a period of sitting in silence and calming my body with breath awareness, I say out loud one of the small-stream thoughts or emotions flowing through me at the moment. It might be something like, “I’m worried about my daughter being on the road all day.” Then, after allowing 15 seconds or so of silence, I give voice to words that sound more like the Great Stream: “I accept that I cannot protect my children from every danger.”
This may not sound that profound, but at least I now have vocalized two versions of myself: the one that often feels stuck in anxiety and the other that meets whatever is here with non-judgment and acceptance. Sometimes in this practice I voice five to ten small-stream emotions one at a time, pairing each with a corresponding Great-Stream thought.
Why do I say the small-stream and Great-Stream thoughts out loud instead of just noticing them in the silence of meditation? Because my inner world is similar to what you called the noisy tangle of your mind. When I say a single anxious thought out loud I separate it from the rest of the mind-tangle. I let it out into the air by itself like a fish jumping briefly above the ocean, and when it splashes back into my brain I am able to admit more clearly that the troubling thought is present in me at the moment. Voicing it out loud somehow reduces any sense that I shouldn’t be having the anxious thought. When I keep an anxious thought silent in the tangle with lots of other thoughts I’m more prone to try to suppress it or push it out of awareness. But when I say it out loud, it feels like a simple admission: Yes, this anxiety is here right now.
Saying an anxious thought out loud might seem like the easy part, but how do we find the voice of the Great Stream to which our narrow tributary is always connected? For me, the words “I accept …” are the way to find that voice. “I accept” does not mean “I like” or “I approve” or “I’m passively resigned.” Rather, “I accept” means I acknowledge what is here in the moment without judgment. The narrow stream is jammed with our judgment of life, the moment, ourselves, and others. The Great Stream meets life with acceptance and non-judgment.
I’m not big on “tips” for dealing with anxiety because anxiety is part of our daily human existence. It is a universal part of the inherent difficulty of life which the Buddha taught in his first noble truth. Rather than give tips, I’d suggest that if your stream of anxious thoughts seems to block your access to the Great Stream, consider talking with a therapist or a spiritual director. Sometimes we all need an outside perspective when we’re in a jam.