curiosity, mindfulness and anxiety

Updated On — 15th Oct, 2022

Mindfulness meditation helps us develop a mental-emotional “check engine light” that flashes in our awareness when we get reactive or anxious.

There’s a song that’s been banging around in my head for a couple of weeks. It was recorded in 1966 by Buffalo Springfield. The opening lyrics go something like this: There’s something happening here/ what it is ain’t exactly clear.

Sandwiched between images of street protests, there is this refrain:

I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down.

Buffalo Springfield – For What it’s Worth (1967)

the check engine light in the mind

It quickly became an anthem among disenchanted youth in the late ‘60s. The song has been kicking around my brain, I think, as a sort of auditory memory “check engine light.”

It’s like my mind was telling me there is something happening here, which is not exactly clear. And that I need to stop, listen and pay attention. Our meditation helps us to develop a mental-emotional “check engine light” that flashes in our awareness as soon as we become reactive or anxious.

The more meditation hours we log, the quicker we can notice these states arise. And the quicker we can stop and listen, the easier it is to pay close attention to them before they blow out of proportion.

stop and listen

My anxiety and indignation have been trying to get my attention, and I wouldn’t stop and listen. My mind was in a fog. So as a last resort they threw me these lyrics; a nostalgic, Hail Mary pass into the end zone of despair.

The contemporary Burmese meditation teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya advises:

When it’s all a fog, bring out curiosity

When I feel I am up against a wall, and my mind feels confused or irritated, I can’t see through the junk pile of the mind. That’s when U Tejaniya advises to bring out curiosity, to take a breath and ask: 

what is happening here that isn’t exactly clear?

What am I not seeing? Hey, what’s that sound? What’s that body sensation? How is this anxiety unfolding in my body?

Curiosity re-energizes the mind, opening space to unclench our fists, to let go of the story and investigate the facts. And the facts are always pretty simple: this much sensation, plus this much self-talk, a bit of memory and a pinch of extraneous sense impressions– and voilà, home cooked anxiety. Or grumpiness.

Or any of a vast number of downer mind states. We can either succumb and whine or be curious and marvel at how the mind and body function. 

get curious and see how mindfulness and anxiety offset each other
get curious and see how mindfulness and anxiety offset each other. Peacock (1924) print. Original from the Rijksmuseum

meditation is really the only sensible approach to our issues.

Sadly, some people use meditation as yet another escape. But when we use it to fully attend to our life, real changes can happen.

We talk a lot about being mindful when the mind is caught in attachments. But I feel this advice is heavily slanted toward “liking” pleasant states of mind and body.

But attachment also happens when you are afraid of something, or dislike something. Attachment happens because of the sticky quality of our emotions.

My job at the hospital these past couple of weeks has been bonkers challenging. During the pandemic, a number of our nursing staff retired early or quit. Before I realized it I was caught in a web of fear, anxiety and complaints. I stopped writing this newsletter and curled into a ball of recrimination.

Then I caught Buffalo Springfield’s pass: 

There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear. 

And when I stopped and asked myself hey, what’s happening here, I began to see through the junk pile in my mind. The popular Tibetan meditation teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche:

Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

FYI,  “mental afflictions” is Buddhism-speak for whatever is in that junk pile: fear, anxiety, irritation, whatever. 

mindfulness is not an emotional fly swatter

Our sticky emotions don’t need to go away. There is nothing to gain, and a lot of harm done, by using mindfulness as an emotional fly swatter. We are simply getting to know what our emotions feel like both in the body and in the mind, in a progressively deepening way.

This increases the accuracy and sensitivity of that check engine light.

When I’m in a fractious conversation with a supervisor at the hospital, I know on a deep level the person I call “me” me is not just the reactive impulses that arise or the feelings of pressure in my chest. 

Rewording a phrase the Buddha often used, since everything is in a constant state of flux, there is really nothing I can grasp as “me.” Furthermore. any attempts to grasp–at self, others, things, or situations– leads to disappointment and discomfort. 

mindfulness and curiosity

Getting curious means we notice our our conditioned reactions to pain — especially the ways we struggle to be with what is. And mindfulness helps us accept things and situations as they are.

But that doesn’t mean I let the supervisor berate or harass me, saying silently “oh, this is just changing phenomena, and not me.” Not at all

When we drop the need for the world to be something it is not, we naturally let go of rumination about how things should be. About how a supervisor should talk to an employee. 

acceptance is not resignation.

The heart of mindfulness is intentionally cultivating an easy, non-judgmental attitude to whatever is happening, moment by moment. This increases our tolerance for all that is unpleasant.

But tolerance also doesn’t mean resignation. It means fully experiencing negative mind states, such as anger and guilt, without swatting them away. It means opening to, and feeling, what is. This draws the stickiness from our emotions, like a poultice on a wound.

Then we gain a little more wisdom and can better deal with what’s in front of us, like that angry supervisor.

Let’s wind down with another pointer from U Tejaniya Sayadaw:

A wise person will take advantage of a [difficult] experience to develop mindfulness, stability of mind, and understanding. Someone without wisdom will just react to the same situation with aversion.

Awareness, from the Moment You Wake Up

Is there not a more appropriate way to end this post? Take it away, Johnny:

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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

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