When asked how to hold a sword correctly, the actor Errol Flynn replied, “In the same way you would hold a bird, not too tightly and not too loosely. If you hold too tightly you will kill it and if you hold it too loosely it will fly away.” Swashbuckling skills aside, there’s a great deal to be gained from Flynn’s reply if we understand how to apply it in other areas of our lives.
Whether we choose it or not, it’s a mandatory condition in our contract with life that we will experience every emotional state from ecstasy to despair. When undesired emotional visitors show up uninvited, our first and most natural reaction is to slam the door, yet resistance is almost always futile and offers little more than a reminder that what we resist persists. Worry and anxiety trigger an instinctive and natural desire to resist, yet the effort required only increases our sense of tension and anxiety. Paradoxically, once we stop trying to resist, the situation often improves. However, this may be difficult to recall when we are caught squarely in the headlights of the oncoming juggernaut of worry or anxiety.
If resistance increases emotions like worry and anxiety, then accepting them must produce the opposite effect. We might do well to stop resisting and learn to go with the flow. Of course acceptance doesn’t mean we should give in to our unwanted emotions—it means being mindful of their presence and altering how we think about them. The result is an empowering sense of freedom and autonomy.
There are two essential keys that will help us change our response to worry. First we can question why we worry about things in the first place even though we’re all smart enough to know that worrying doesn’t solve problems. If it did there wouldn’t be any trouble in the world—no wars of famine, no global recession. People could simply sit around in group seminars and worry until these problems disappeared. Although everyone realizes that worrying about something won’t change it in the least, what we know seems to have little bearing on what we do and there’s a perfectly good reason why.
We are all pre-programmed to worry. It’s an important and essential aspect of who we are. If you watch rabbits in the wild you may notice ninety-nine percent of their attention is taken up in looking not for food but for potential danger. This hardly seems an equitable distribution in terms of the carrot and stick theory, yet animals in the wild are this way for a good reason. Like humans, they’re naturally programmed to eat and stay alive, though these two factors are not equally driven. If a rabbit is unsuccessful in its daily search for food, the worst that can happen is that the rabbit will go hungry and can try again tomorrow. But if it fails to notice danger signs from potential predators, it won’t have a tomorrow.
Perhaps humans are also unconsciously programmed with a similar primordial instinct that is heavily biased in favour of avoiding danger instead of pursuing pleasure. This may be a reason why many of us have a tendency to worry. If this is true, then resisting our natural instinct to worry could be a most unnatural and futile strategy. Instead, accepting what is natural and healthy may be the real key to change.
Acceptance reduces conflict and we feel more relaxed almost as soon as we stop trying to dam the natural flow of our unconscious instincts. It creates a centre of calm from which we can introduce one of the most powerful and natural resources of all, mindfulness. Mindfulness takes place when we become fully present here in the now. This may sound fairly obvious, but in reality our attention is rarely directed at the current moment of our experience. Our mind works primarily on autopilot, flitting back and forth as we drive, eat or shower and, because thoughts have no reality outside of our mind, this state is comparable to dreaming. Like most dreamers we don’t realize the dream isn’t real and we become entirely seduced by its power.
Practicing mindfulness provides an excellent resource whenever we become worried or anxious. It helps us stay calm and understand the reality of what’s happening now rather than become seduced by the unreal images of dreamlike thinking. Mindfulness quickly and effortlessly breaks the illusion of catastrophic thinking. It provides a state of mind in which we hold an awareness of what we’re feeling without creating the suffocating tensions that arise from holding awareness too tightly.
We don’t have to be experts in something to practice it. We need only develop an understanding of how less resistance can reveal our first step on the path to transformation, and how the practice of mindfulness can enable us to do less while achieving more.
The N.O.T.E. strategy offers a consistently effective resource in times of anxiety and worry. This effective resource for transforming anxiety to inner peace will provide an excellent foundation upon which to cultivate a more grounded and nourishing sense of self.
The N.O.T.E. Strategy
As you sense the early signs of arising anxiety or worry:
Notice the physical location of the emotions your thoughts are creating in you now. (Where in your body do you feel anxious?)
Observe how you create this emotion. Is it a result of your inner voice or an image? (If it’s your voice, slow it down or alter it in some way. If it’s an image make it much smaller.)
Take five deep breaths and try to exhale for twice as long as it takes to inhale. (Do this by breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. Your breathing should always be comfortable, never forced or strained.)
Explore your perceptual field by noticing what’s happening externally. Imagine watching yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you unconditionally. (Explore as many positive and different ways that you can see yourself in this moment. As you start to feel relaxed, ask yourself what thoughts will be most helpful to you now.)