A spiritual practice from Buddhism works well in situations like that. It is called various things: Zazen, vipassana, mindfulness meditation. Zazen is the shortest and most fun to say. That's what Zen Buddhists call their meditation practice.
There are basically two broad categories of meditation: Concentration and mindfulness. Concentration meditations involve focusing attention on one thing, and when the attention wanders, bringing it back to that one thing. It could be a candle flame or the sensation at the opening of your nostrils where the air goes in and out. It could be a word you repeat over and over. In concentration meditations, you continually return your attention to a central focus.
Mindfulness meditation is somewhat different. There is no particular focus. It is a process of paying attention to your ongoing experience, whatever it may be at the moment. If you have a pain in your knee and that happens to be prominent in your awareness right now, you pay attention to that — not trying to concentrate, but simply noticing it and letting it be there. You don't try to make it different. You don't try to hold onto it. You just notice it as fully as you can, including what is going through your mind about it.
Paying attention to your experience is not difficult, but the mind has a strong tendency to wander off. That's why it takes practice. It is a skill.
But it isn't necessary to practice zazen sitting in a lotus position. You can use everyday opportunities to practice. When you feel like flinching while talking with someone, that is an excellent time to practice because it will help you deal with the situation. Observe your experience — the person you're talking to, your surroundings, your bodily sensations, the thoughts arising in your mind. Just pay attention without withdrawing or flinching. It is very calming.
Fidgeting is not only a by-product of anxiety, but it also produces anxious feelings. Somehow when you zazen the situation, you feel a calm you don't feel when you're fidgeting. And I have noticed that when I pay attention, my fidgeting tends to stop.
The authors of New Directions in Progressive Relaxation Training: A Guidebook for Helping Professionals, a manual for therapists, indicate that zazen is directly applicable to dealing with anxiety. They write:
…focusing on the present moment precludes anxiety…[Anxious thoughts are about the] future and thus can be let go of by gently refocusing each time they intrude on the task itself. This procedure not only reduces the occurrence of anxiety-provoking processes…[it] also maximizes the quality of performance…(anxiety typically interferes with performance).
They use the example of focusing on your interaction rather than on your worries and fears. The person you're talking to is more likely to enjoy your interaction and your chance of producing a good result is much greater.
Use this method especially when you feel uncomfortable — when you don't want to be there. Deliberately be there. Take a deep breath, relax a little, and open your attention to what's happening — not just outside your body, but inside too.
A feeling of becoming open — that's what it feels like. In some way you are closing up, puckering, pinching, protecting, tensing up to close yourself off from your experience of the moment. Zazen is letting it in. It feels like an act of courage.
I sometimes feel my solar plexus is a kind of metaphorical shutter, like you have on a camera. Have you ever seen one? They open and close in a spiral. It feels like my solar plexus opens up when I am allowing my experience to come in rather than trying to close it off. In fact, I have heard that pupils dilate a little when looking at something you like and contract when looking at something you don't like.
That's what seems to be happening psychologically when you zazen a situation. The practice of zazen is opening your psychological shutter and letting in your experience. It is a worthy practice with practical advantages.
In an experiment at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, over a hundred chronically ill patients completed a mindfulness meditation training program. The participants suffered from many different kinds of illnesses, including asthma, panic disorder, cancer, sleep disorders, depression, hypertension and stress.
After the program, the participants' symptoms — both psychological and physical — had improved. They reported they had less tension, more ability to handle stress, and a greater feeling of well-being as a result of the training. The researchers gave a follow-up questionnaire a year later and those who kept up with the practice maintained the benefits.
That's a lot of benefit from just learning to be present.
If you have a persistent problem on your mind, try using zazen on it. Sit in a quiet room and keep your mind on your problem — not trying to think about — but looking at it in your mind's eye. Just be with it for a half hour to an hour. You'll be shocked. The problem will begin to unstick.
be here and experience
This is zazen: Just be here and experience. It is not only worthwhile in uncomfortable situations. It will enhance your life to do it often. Be in your body, wake up to your world, perceiving, being alive, being here right now.
This is a subtle practice. You and I are hardly ever just being here and experiencing. We're usually thinking about what we're going to do in the future, or trying to think of something clever to say, or remembering something that happened once, or wishing we were someplace else, or resisting something, reacting to something, pretending to be something, and so on. It's very rare we think this moment is worth experiencing.
But the moment becomes worth experiencing when we do experience it. And I'm not talking about something esoteric or fancy. Experience is just what's happening: The way you feel, what you see and hear and smell, the thoughts running through your mind — it's just your experience.
You know how you can sometimes be so absorbed in a book that you don't notice a sound or that someone walked through the room? In the same way, you can become so absorbed in what you're doing that you don't notice much of anything else other than your purposes. And for the most part, that's just fine. Being absorbed in a task is a beautiful thing. But there are times when it's worthwhile to check in — just to notice and not try to do anything about it. It only takes a moment, and it's good to do several times a day.
For one thing, it's relaxing, because when you check in on your experience, you'll usually notice is there is a muscle somewhere in your body holding tension unnecessarily. Some muscles you have to use just to sit up or hold your head erect or to do whatever you're doing at the moment, but almost always you'll find you have other muscles contracting for no purpose. And when you check in on your ongoing experience, you'll tend to notice that tension and automatically relax a little. So that feels good. But also, you just feel alive. It's almost like we're machines the rest of the time, doing what we should be doing, and going and going and going like a solar-powered robot. When you just be here and experience, you feel the breeze and notice the weather and take in the person you're talking to — you'll stop trying to impress her and actually be with her and notice her and experience her. It's different. Like I said, it's very subtle, but there is a difference, and it's a difference that makes a difference.
Just try it. Even if you think I'm talking gibberish, try it. Right now, don't try to do anything but be where you are, experiencing what there is in your surroundings and in your body right now. As Alan Watts wrote in Tao: The Watercourse Way:
You are asked — temporarily, of course — to lay aside all your philosophical, religious, and political opinions, and to become almost like an infant, knowing nothing. Nothing, that is, except what you actually hear, see, feel, and smell. Take it that you are not going anywhere but here, and that there never was, is, or will be any other time than now. Simply be aware of what actually is without giving it names and without judging it, for you are now feeling out reality itself instead of ideas and opinions about it. There is no point in trying to suppress the babble of words and ideas that goes on in most adult brains, so if it won't stop, let it go on as it will, and listen to it as if it were the sound of traffic or the clucking of hens.
Let your ears hear whatever they want to hear; let your eyes see whatever they want to see; let your mind think whatever it wants to think; let your lungs breathe in their own rhythm. Do not expect any special result, for in this wordless and idea-less state, where can there be past or future, and where any notion of purpose? Stop, look, and listen...
It's a funny thing to talk about because, what else is there? I mean, I can easily imagine someone thinking, "What do you mean be here and experience? How could I do otherwise? I'm here, aren't I? And obviously I'm experiencing!"
And that's certainly true. But it is different to just experience, just pay attention. The Buddhists call it bare attention and it takes years of practice (mindfulness meditation) to be able to do it for any length of time. As Henepola Gunaratana wrote in his book Mindfulness in Plain English, Updated and Expanded Edition:
The process of mindfulness is really quite different from what we usually do. We usually do not look into what is really there in front of us. We see life through a screen of thoughts and concepts, and we mistake those mental objects for reality. We get so caught up in this endless thought-stream that reality flows by unnoticed. We spend our time engrossed in activity, caught up in an eternal flight from pain and unpleasantness. We spend our energies trying to make ourselves feel better, trying to bury our fears. We are endlessly seeking security. Meanwhile, the world of real experience flows by untouched and untasted.
It requires some effort, but it's tremendously worthwhile. Even if you do it for a moment. As Gunaratana wrote, "The ironic thing is that real peace comes only when you stop chasing it." And that's true even if you only stop chasing it for a minute. You get a minute of peace.
Just being here and experiencing produces an effect. When things are nice, it enhances the moment like a little salt on food — it brings out the savor. And when things are bad, it can prevent you from reacting and that's a good thing, because when we get upset and react, the actions we take in that state of mind will probably be counterproductive or self-defeating in some way.
If there was a way you could remain happy when bad stuff happened — when you were arguing with your spouse or someone cut you off on the freeway — your response would be saner. Using zazen is a way to remain feeling good, or at least feeling better, during stressful events. And one of the positive side-effects is that saner actions will issue forth from you.
When you're upset, you're at your worst. You can't think straight, and your point of view is one-sided and heavily biased. Your reactions tend to miss the mark and tend to be regretted later. So if, when you found yourself in a tense situation, with somebody yelling at you, for example, or something happening that normally sends you into a rage, if you tried to just be there and experience, it would drastically change the outcome of the encounter — for the better.
In fact, in their book Stop! You're Driving Me Crazy, the authors give this as the first step of bringing a situation back to sanity — a situation that is about to drive you crazy: "Stop, look, listen, and feel." That would be a good definition of zazen. Reacting to craziness just makes more craziness.
When someone is upset with you, they're usually not reacting sanely. The powerful negative emotions are strongly survival-oriented. An upset person is no longer sane. The problem is, when someone is upset with you, you become upset, don't you? And therefore not very sane yourself. It's like cornering a wild animal: It becomes ferocious, it goes berserk. It is fighting for its life. That kind of reaction is almost never constructive in the world we live in now. Sure, if you were surrounded by a gang of thugs who were about to beat you to death, that might be a good response, but that's pretty much the only kind of situation where it is. The rest of the time, any reaction you have when you're upset is bound to be unproductive. It'll cause more trouble. You'll end up hurting someone's feelings or worse. It's just not good.
Here is something you can do instead: Just be here and experience. Look, listen, and feel. Feel your face get hot. Hear the rise in the other person's tone of voice. Notice your desire to strike out and hurt. Notice where in your body you feel that desire. Notice what thoughts come screaming into your head. Notice the temperature on your skin. Feel the movement of air over your forehead. Feel your midsection. I don't mean with your hand, but from the inside. Pay attention to the changes as they're happening, without reacting to any of them.
That's the power of zazen. Instead of being driven by the forces of your programming (or conditioning, or upbringing, or whatever you want to call it), instead of being marched around like a puppet by your programming and your biology, you can simply observe the impact these forces are having on you. You can experience the forces while not being controlled by them. When you observe, it takes the center of control away from the machine and puts it on hold. It takes the spinning gears and disengages them so your behavior is no longer driven by your programming or your biological instincts, at least for the moment. And sometimes that is an extremely good thing to do.
good for your health
Facing and experiencing the distressing, painful experiences without avoiding them is saner. It is also physically healthier.
Jonathan Shedler, PhD, professor of clinical psychology at Adelphi University executed the following experiment. He first separated the volunteers into three groups:
1. those who habitually show their negative emotions
2. those who habitually hide negative feelings from others but not from themselves
3. and those who habitually hide it from others and hide their negative feelings from themselves as well
Shedler hooked them up to heart rate and blood pressure monitors and showed them pictures and phrases well-known for their ability to get a rise out of people. These pictures and phrases raise psychologically threatening issues. The third group's heart rate and blood pressure jumped the most — in fact, they had the kind of spike that damages arterial linings, the kind of powerful surge that leads to arteriosclerosis. The other two groups didn't react as strongly.
In other words, the two groups who were experiencing their negative feelings had a less damaging reaction than the group who didn't feel their feelings. Resisting and denying a negative experience creates more suffering than just experiencing it.
Zazen is not just for the negative stuff, but also for the positive stuff. Try it when you're making love. Be there and experience. Feel what you feel, hear what you hear, smell what you smell, taste what you taste, and see what you see. It's wonderful. You become aware of being alive.
We actually forget that we're alive. It's a funny thing. It's the most obvious thing there is, and we're so used to that amazing fact, we don't very often notice it. It's like walking into a house where something is cooking and it smells wonderful. At first. Then after awhile you get used to the smell and forget about it. It's no longer in your experience.
Being alive is like that. It's the most wonderful thing there is. Here we are in the universe, breathing and eating and talking and experiencing. What a wonderful thing. But it becomes so obvious and we become so accustomed to it, we forget about it and spend our time thinking about money and whether these shoes look good and if we're going to make it home in time to watch a TV program — things that are really not that important compared to being alive.
Not that you can go around being blissed out about being alive all the time. You'd get used to the bliss and forget about that too. But once in awhile — even several times a day — it's nice to just be here and experience for a moment. Just be here and be alive. It's wonderful.
Here's an interesting experiment. Researchers had subjects dunk one of their hands into a bucket of ice-cold water and see how long they could stand it. They gave about a third of them this instruction: Focus all your thoughts on the pain. The next third was told to distract themselves from the pain by imagining their bedroom at home. The last third were told to try to suppress all thoughts of the pain.
The average length they could keep their hand in the water wasn't much different between the three groups: About two minutes. But there was a difference in how quickly the pain went away. It went away quickest for those who had focused their attention on the pain. The pain lingered longest for those who had tried to suppress all thoughts of the pain.
what to pay attention to
When you do zazen, what should you pay attention to? Obviously you can't experience everything that's happening all at the same time. You can't fully hear every sound in your environment while noticing every visual detail coming into your eyes while feeling your feet and hands and belly and forehead and shoulders and so on, while feeling the pulsing of your heart while feeling the emotional sensations moving through your body. There is an overwhelming amount of data coming in at any given moment — even when "nothing is going on" — and if you could pay attention to it all, you wouldn't be able to walk across the room, you'd be so busy experiencing!
So let me tell you a little trick to help you. Choose something ahead of time. Then when you want to be here and experience, pay attention to that thing. For example, say you choose the temperature of the air on your face. The point is to have a specific place to start. Notice the sensation of the surface of the skin on your face. From there, you can go to the rest of your body or whatever else you want to experience, right here, right now.
Physical sensations are a good place to start because they are always happening now. If you started with checking your feelings, (emotional experience), you may notice feelings of anger at what someone said to you five minutes ago, and it'll tend to take you away to remembering what happened or fantasizing about what you should have said or whatever. You won't be here experiencing. Your attention will be somewhere else. And usually somewhen else too.
Start with your specific thing. Pay attention to physical, concrete, real experience happening in real time. The teacher, G.I. Gurdjieff, had an interesting take on this. He said paying attention to your experience was nurturing. He said experience was a nutrient and if you don't get enough of it, you would have problems — physical or psychological. His idea was that people could be "experience-deficient" just like they can be "iron-deficient," and the deficiency would have an unhealthy effect on their lives.
I don't know where he got that idea, and I don't know if it's true, but it does seem to be a scientifically testable idea, and I'll bet some time in the future it will be found to be valid. Even some of the studies I've already mentioned it indirectly indicate it is true.
Occasionally taking the time to pay attention to what's happening right now does something. It's subtle, but it's real and you can somehow tell it is Good. It does something good for you. I wish there was more research on the subject and I could tell you something more definitive than that, but I can't. But you don't really need any outside verification; you can try it for yourself. Make your own experiment. No belief is necessary.
You could actually get in the habit of doing this, and it would "awaken" you. It would make you more aware, more alive, more happy, and more sane, and your wisdom and bliss would continue to grow throughout your life. That seems like a huge exaggeration, but it is not. The habit of experiencing your own experience can transform your life. Really.
Aside from any beliefs or systems of philosophy, the practice of this single practice is a Way, in the Eastern sense of a Way of Liberation, or a Way to become wise, or a Way to Enlightenment.
A Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche, wrote,
There is a story that I remember hearing in my childhood in Tibet, about an old woman who came to the Buddha and asked him how to meditate. He told her to remain mindful, present, and aware of every movement of her hands as she drew water from the well each day, knowing that if she did so, she would soon find herself in that state of alert and spacious calm that is meditation.
Sure, you can do it sitting cross-legged, and that's good practice and very calming and healthy. But you can do it anytime and anywhere, and several times, for a moment or a minute, throughout any given day, without losing time or becoming less productive.
This practice changes your attitude. It makes you happier. It'll tend to make you more honest. It will usually make you more effective at your job. It keeps you from wasting your time and emotional energy on fruitless worries. Over time, just from paying more attention to your experience, life will be sweeter for you — even in the unlikely event that your circumstances don't improve.
When you pay close attention to your experience, you begin to freshly notice the difference between those actions that are truly worth doing, and those that aren't. When you pay attention, you just know. It's not a mystery. And when you know what experiences are really worth having, you can have more of them, and fewer of the less satisfying experiences, and your life will be richer for it.
For example, maybe you have a conversation with a good friend, and you are not trying to do anything in particular, you are just enjoying the conversation. During the conversation at some point, you deliberately just be there and experience and you realize this is really enjoyable, this is really worth doing. After the conversation, you know it had a payoff in terms of satisfaction and enjoyment.
Then you have another conversation. You use your wit to prove to the other how clever and successful you are. You've done this many times before without really thinking about it, but this time you pay attention, and, much to your surprise, you notice it has no real payoff. There's a kind of disagreeable glee, but no enjoyment, no satisfaction.
Pay attention enough, and you'll know enough to do more of the enjoyable, satisfying things, and less of other things and your life will slowly change just by paying more attention to it. It becomes richer in truly satisfying experiences.
When you don't know where to go, when you don't know what to think, or when you are just happy as a clam, come back to this practice. Return to right now. Look, listen, breath in, smell the air, feel your arms and legs and torso and face. Just be here and experience. It is your home base. Come home. You can rest here, and rejuvenate yourself.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Direct Your Mind, and Self-Reliance, Translated. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.