I walk through the dizzying array of autumn splendor and I feel a lump in my throat.
It’s a small fist of anxiety, stubbornly wedged in. The feeling isn’t based in anything much. I’m not fixating on a problem. My life is pretty low on problems right now, which might actually be the problem. When anxiety arises, it’s easier if there’s something to pin it on. Otherwise I’m just bathing in beauty with no right to feel anything but gratitude.
Day after day we walk through the neighborhood, my lump and me. My unusually open schedule shines a light on what’s been there all along: a default setting of anxiety. It doesn’t need a cause. It simply is.
So much of my life is a quest to feel good. There’s nothing wrong with this. Most of the human race is aiming for survival. If we’re lucky enough that we don’t have to fixate on that, most of us are trying to feel good.
Even the spiritual life can be an interminable search for warm and fuzzy feelings. Common narratives include: “My life was a mess, and then I found yoga and everything got better,” or “When I meditate all my stress just melts away,” or “I visualized my best life and attracted it to me.”
This is the thing: none of us can feel good all the time. I’ve known this logically for years, but it’s taking a long time for the reality to settle into my bones. I eat dinner and I want dessert. I read a good book and immediately want another. I enjoy time with friends and think, “I should be doing this every day.” I want the shiny, the easy, the bright.
When I’m out walking, I think I ought to feel good. The sun is on my face. Every day the autumn vista changes, and I’m fortunate enough to see it.
Guess what? Anxiety is part of my experience, too. Yoga, journaling, meditation: I’ve got holistic, healthy, “correct” strategies for dealing with it. I’ve got unhealthy strategies as well: they mostly involve chocolate. But all the strategies (except perhaps meditation) are in some ways distractions. The greatest challenge is to sit or walk and feel the lump without trying to fix it.
This is the thing: I’m not alone in my anxiety. Uncomfortable emotion connects me to the human race, just as much as feelings of joy and gratitude.
Lately I have endeavored to work with that connection: to feel my anxiety, and then use it to fuel a practice called tonglen.
The powerful teacher Pema Chödrön describes the practice:
Tonglen practice, also known as “taking and sending,” reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. In the process, we become liberated from age-old patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others.
[You can read more of Pema’s description here.]
I’m not going to lie to you: tonglen is rarely a “cure” for my anxiety. I don’t immediately feel good when I practice. But you know what? I feel useful. I’m not running from my anxiety. I’m willing to feel it for the sake of others.
So I walk through the neighborhood. I breathe in the anxiety of friends, of strangers, of the world. I breathe out peace, love. I breathe in fear and hardship. I breathe out the beauty of this day; may those who are suffering feel the sun on their faces and let the warmth soak in.
Whatever we’re feeling, we’re never alone. As you feel the vast range of human emotion, may you know your connection to the rest of the human race. May you know deep, abiding love.