As I wrote about a few weeks ago, our son was recently away on a canoe trip for eleven days. Throughout his trip, my anxious mind sent me several worst case scenarios and I had to work with all of them. These days, “working with anxiety” means that I catch the catastrophic headline scenario quickly, gather it up, hold it close, and, like a Harry Potter witch, cast the spell that will reveal what lives at its core: raw vulnerability, uncertainty, and, most of all, the heartache of missing somebody I love. Once properly named (for a mind “demon” need to be called by its true name before it can be transformed), I either soften into grief and let tears prick my eyes or send the worry along the channels of trust. The entire process takes less than a minute.
I can do this quickly because the “spells” – or spiritual practices – that both allow me to name the intrusive thought or image as protector and messenger then drop into the heart and remind me to let go of the illusion of control and instead rest into the great arms of trust are firmly in place.
I’ll share an example:
One morning while our son was away, I woke up from a nightmare about him and I had to harness all of the tools that I teach every day not to take the dream literally. I reminded myself that this was my dream, not his, and when I explored it through the lens that it was showing me a place inside myself that needed attention, the charge and the temptation to take the dream at face value faded away. From there, I could soften into an early place of pain around social anxiety, which allowed me to individuate from my son in that moment so that I didn’t overlay my pain onto his experience. And from there, I could tap back into the bigger mind of knowing that, even if he was struggling socially, he was also okay, meaning he would find the resources to move through it.
In times past, I might have taken the dream at face value and spent the entire day ruminating. While I did feel the tendrils of worry prick my soul throughout the day – after all, the dream was quite poignant and it left a visceral feeling of worry in my gut – for the most part I was able to drop into the core of the dream, like the core of an intrusive thought, and bring a layer of healing to my young, socially scared self who was needing attention while also tapping into the bigger layer of trust.
The work is the same for all intrusive thoughts, whether they’re focused on health anxiety, relationship anxiety, money anxiety, parenting anxiety: to name the defense at the core so that you can gather the gold of both your heart softened by the grief and the deep-breath-inhale-and-exhale-place-of-peace that happens when we can transmute the habit of anxiety, which believes that if it worries or ruminates enough it can prevent bad things from happening, into trust. This is how to find the gold at the center of anxiety.
Grief and trust are manageable; anxiety is not.
Grief and trust are spacious; anxiety is tight.
Grief and trust are direct pathways to joy; feeding anxiety only leads to more anxiety.
Central to working with anxiety and intrusive thoughts effectively is having reliable, personal, and meaningful practices that help you let go of illusions of control and arrive at deeper trust.
Without guarantee, without certainty of my son’s well-being, I reached for my practices, and because these are practices that I, yes, practice daily, they reached back for me. As I teach in Grace Through Uncertainty, we commit to regular practices not only because they offer a daily, consistent, and accessible way to fill the inner well of Self, but also because in times of greater uncertainty, they will be one of the tethers that ground us, one of the limbs of the tree that attaches us to something greater that we might call trust or faith.
Without this relationship with the invisible realm, we’re like a leaf in the wind, floating where the breeze of time and change and transitions and the risk of loving takes us in any given moment. So while we can’t control outcomes – there’s nothing I could do to make sure that my son would be safe or happy for those eleven days (or ever) – I can control how I respond to this inescapable reality of life: that loving deeply, that exposing ourselves to risk in any way – whether though relationships or work or friendship – means opening ourselves to the possibility of loss and sometimes failure.
We must all find our own roadmaps back to Self and our own practices that connect us to something bigger than ourselves. For some people, that might mean a traditional religious devotional practice of following the prayers, rituals, readings, and customs of their lineage. For many others these days for whom religion isn’t a fit, a spiritual practice may come through creativity, connection to nature, working with dreams, meditation, through their own innovative prayer practice, or a hundred other ways.
As Rumi writes, “There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” by which I think he means that there are infinite ways to express devotion, to touch into the place where earth meets heaven, where the body meets the spirit, and in those intersections discover that we’re held in the place where it’s all okay.
Grace Through Uncertainty is a roadmap that will help you discover the personal, meaningful, and doable practices that will help you heal one of the root causes of anxiety: our need for certainty. When we learn how to let go of the fruitless ways that we try to control – ruminating, obsessing, compulsing, worrying, Googling – and instead commit to practices that will help us rest in the true place of okay-ness, we find the anchors and ground that help us navigate this uncertain life with more ease. It’s through these practices that we learn how to spin an intrusive thought into gold.
The next round starts on Saturday June 19th, 2021, and I look forward to meeting you there.