I am going through a nasty divorce after 28 years of marriage. I’m anxious all the time about where my life is going and how I’m going to make it financially on my own. I do mindfulness meditation for 20 minutes every morning to get a brief break from the anxiety, but all day long my mind keeps going over and over fearful thoughts. How can I live through this without being consumed by fear?
Kevin: I’m sorry you’re in such a difficult and prolonged period of struggle. In Falling Upward, Richard Rohr writes that we grow most spiritually when we are in hard times. When everything is status quo, we don’t have as much motivation to grow as when things seem to be falling apart. In times of crisis, Rohr says, we can spiral downward or fall upward (toward God or a higher spiritual awareness). But I’ve not met too many people lining up to go through intense, fearful times just to reap the spiritual growth benefits!
Because you meditate daily, you’ve likely heard of “monkey mind.” Reading your question made me think of something I’ve come to call “dog mind.” A friend’s dog recently had surgery and had to wear a cone on her head for a week to prevent her from chewing open the stitches. When we’re under chronic stress, we constantly feel the itch of a wound that is not healed and will not be healed anytime soon.
For dogs and people, it is difficult to resist the urge to chew on the wound! Rumination is a major reason depressed and anxious people stay stuck in dysphoric emotions. Ruminant animals, such as cows, regurgitate and chew their food repeatedly. This is what we do when we ruminate on depressing or anxious thoughts.
Just as when a dog chews on a stitched wound, such ruminating only makes things worse and prolongs our suffering and delays our healing. When my friend took his dog’s cone off to allow her to eat and drink, she wasted no time in taking the opportunity to go right back to chewing on the itchy wound. This is why one period of mindfulness meditation per day is not enough.
In hard times we need the cone of mindfulness on our heads—moment by moment, all day long. After this one metaphor came to me, I started playfully drawing my awareness back to my intention to interrupt rumination by forming a cone shape with my hands near my head. When my anxious mind is dogging me, I must become a conehead!
We practice mindfulness formalin longer stretches so that it is available to us in each moment of our lives. Mindfulness taken as needed like a PRN medication throughout the day allows us to be aware of our tendency toward rumination—or catch ourselves partway into it again—and return our awareness to the breath and a centering thought such as, “I accept this anxiety and my life in this moment without judgment.”
How many times each day do we need to wear the cone of mindfulness? During hard periods it might be hundreds of times per day. This sounds daunting, but we’re breathing all day long anyway! Using even a single breath to return to mindful acceptance is less time-consuming than getting caught in the trance of rumination. We don’t practice mindfulness just to get to a peaceful pleasant moment we hope will last all day. We practice to create a habit of noticing and accepting the present moment without judgment.
This is most necessary and helpful when the present moment is challenging, as when dog mind keeps trying to take us back to chewing on fear or depression. It’s a fun coincidence that “dog” flipped around spells “God.” When we wear the cone of mindfulness all day, we get lots of practice being aware of dog mind, noticing the itch of anxiety without scratching it, and moving into “God mind.” I can’t say for sure what God mind is, but I choose to think of it as flowing with acceptance, non judgment, self-compassion, forgiveness, patience, courage, and other high energies.
Early in the COVID pandemic, I was interviewed on how people could stop touching their faces using mindfulness. Noticing an itch in the eyes, nose, or mouth area and not scratching it is mindfulness in the service of protecting ourselves from COVID and other illnesses. Likewise, wearing the cone of mindfulness protects our mental and spiritual health by keeping us from chewing on the fear and uncertainty in our lives.
Your need for frequent mindful moments all day long is not a failure of your longer morning practice. I hope you will consider the need for hundreds of mindful moments each day to be advanced training that will deepen your mindfulness habit and serve you well long after your current crisis has passed.