Walking home from work today I once again had the increasingly familiar sensation that feelings are made of nothing. After a topsy-turvy day where nothing special happened but the familiar feeling of anxiety churned whenever I had a moment to stop and feel, I walked home intent on taking time to stop and recenter myself.
It’s interesting to see in those moments that much of the power of anxiety comes from the scattering of thoughts and energy. Whenever I feel stressed out at work or feel concerned about how to approach a problem, I notice that it’s usually because I have been thinking in circles, rather than stopping to prioritize and delineate a clear approach to solving each problem before attacking it. It seems very simple, and it is, but before I can stop to do these things I have already gotten caught in circular thinking. Which brings me to the next question: why do I seem to get caught-up in circular thinking way before I realize it has happened?
It’s interesting how it’s all connected…
Some weeks ago I hit a particularly difficult stretch of anxiety and I took what seemed like some radical but intuitive steps to ameliorate the situation. I felt that part of the problem at work was that I was very busy, and didn’t have enough time to plan my work, so I was constantly reacting to situations instead of planning and tackling things methodically. I also found myself staying late to finish tasks but having little energy and emotional fortitude to be productive at that point in the day. The only solution was to come in earlier in the day so that I could 1. prioritize the day’s work, and 2. have some time to work with less noise around me, and 3. get the most important tasks out of the way before the temptation to check work e-mails (and the ensuing habit of responding to every mail immediately as if the company’s welfare depended on it) became too big. Having this critical extra time in the morning necessitated getting up earlier…
Getting up earlier dove-tailed nicely with my need to rest more, as I often felt tired during the week and on the weekend was prone to falling asleep as soon as I allowed myself to lie down and relax (sorry girlfriend!). I had also noticed that I usually stayed up late not because I was doing anything important but out of a compulsive resistance to going to bed. Because the day had been spent at work, and by the time I got home it was night-time (most of the winter), I would compulsively stay up watching videos on YouTube, or reading every last scrap of wanna-be news bit on CNN.com. It was very clear to me that this habit was not contributing to my happiness, but I couldn’t stop myself most of the time. But when my anxiety got bad enough, I saw that I had to go to bed earlier, and at that time I was so worn down with with physical and emotional fatigue that I looked forward to it.
So for about two weeks or so I pretty religiously woke up around 6am, did my stretches, watched some non-dual videos or read a bit (sometimes napping as I read!). Simultaneously I joined a yoga studio and began to go regularly about once a week. It reminded me of how important physical exercise is, especially to us who are not naturally attracted to it. I found myself, though still very busy, less stressed at work, and feeling much better at the end of the day. I also made it a point not to stay any later than absolutely necessary and could do so without feeling guilty because I had come in earlier. I began prioritizing much more and would turn off my e-mail for a couple of hours at a time in order to get tasks done one at a time, without any interruptions (the company did not fall apart because I took a few hours longer than usual to answer my e-mails).
More importantly, the extra hour or so that I had completely to myself each morning, became a pleasurable ritual, and I looked forward to, at some point, getting up even earlier so that I could get even more personal things done before work. And because everything is connected…
I also began to be much more present in my life. I didn’t need to always have my headphones on when I left the house. I could be ok just listening to the sounds of the train on my way to work. In fact, because I was leaving my place so much earlier, the train was less crowded and crazy anyway, and I was usually able to get a seat. I also found myself getting more interested in my sporadic non-dual explorations again and felt myself losing interest in circular thinking. Whenever I found myself caught in it I did not feel the need to wallow in it. I simply recognized I had gotten caught and, even when it was very enticing to daydream and fantasize, turn away from it and toward the present experience. It felt good, really good. But, as with a good diet, or exercise, or many healthy habits, it’s easy to forget how good it feels to do deeply-enriching things and you let yourself slowly slip into little bad decision-making in favor of short-term gains that hurt later on. You have to hurt again to remember how good it felt not to hurt.
I know why I was anxious today. I have allowed myself to get up later again and use the “I’m less busy now” excuse to come in to work later. So I am reacting again, instead of planning and prioritizing. Because I am getting up later, I am also not as in touch with my need for rest when the evening comes so I am going to bed later, and then feeling too tired to sustainably get up early. So my thoughts, as they are wont to do when I am not well-rested and not present in my body, have been getting scattered again, I have a harder time concentrating, and my emotions have been less stable, which makes me want to eat more immediate-gratification foods, rather than deeply-enriching foods. It’s amazing how much of our happiness can be traced back to simple physiological functions.
But this yo-yo, or roller-coaster, does serve an important purpose. My body is my barometer. It tells me how I am living my life, and where my priorities are. When my priorities are in mental pursuits, day-dreaming, and emotional numbing, anxiety creeps up. All of this, in turn, causes my mind to react to the body’s signals in such a way that it seems like there’s more and more problems to solve. The truth is, I am less busy than I have been in many months, and the weather is warming up and the days are getting longer every day.
All of these supposed feelings about things that were wrong, or could go wrong, are just scattered energy and mental distractions. My day felt stressful because my body and mind are not rested and when they are not rested they look for problems to solve, and they create situations that need to be improved, and they reinforce this feeling of a person who needs to control the world and fix everything before it all comes apart. But it never comes apart, and maybe it never will.
Walking home from work today I once again had the increasingly familiar sensation that feelings are made of nothing. In the meantime, there were birds in the park, there were buds on the tree branches, there was life sprouting everywhere and there was me to enjoy it all.