Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Worry as Meditation

A wise person told me recently that worry is a form of meditation--just in the wrong direction.

When I think of meditation, I picture soaking a certain subject with my thoughts, bathing it, covering it, wrapping it up like a present. Turning it over and over like a smooth stone in my hand. Ingesting it like food. Encircling it with long, inevitable arms. Becoming one with it. When I meditate on God's peace, for example, I want it to become my identity. I want to speak with its voice; i want it to be the voice speaking inside my head--the noise beneath the noise. I want to know it.

When I compare this with the experience of worrying, I see the similarities right away. Whatever I am worrying about (usually the same thing) becomes my mantra, coordinating my jagged breaths. "What if?" on the inhale, "Why?" on the exhale. I turn the same fear over and over till it wears dents in my palms, as though looking for some new angle or facet I've never seen before. Worry sets up camp in my head, erecting Checkpoint Charlie to control what other thoughts may pass. Mr. Brood? Kommen Sie, bitte. Miss Carefree? I'm afraid we're going to need some ID.

I've only recently begun the practice of meditation, but this comparison seems so apropos, since part of the reason I have taken it up is to reverse the effects of worry. We all worry and I think we believe we can get away with it. It's a mere peccadillo, a practice that can be taken up and laid back down like Hammacher Schlemmer. We don't realize how cumulative it can be. There is such a thing as "generalized anxiety disorder," in which people are perpetually plagued by anxiety, and I can't imagine it comes out of nowhere. We cede territory to it and its gang of savage pals every time we engage in the meditation of worry. Just as study after study continues to come out praising the health benefits of meditation, I believe the cumulative effects of the meditation of worry can lead to disorders of both mind and body.

In our hubris, we think we can "get away" with worry and stress. It's not like turning to alcohol or drugs, right? It's not like I could get addicted. It's socially acceptable--even praised. Worry means you are responsible. Stress means you are earning your keep. In my own life, I walked--or, rather, hurtled--down the path of overachieving, outdoing, and self-demanding that kept me in a cycle of worry probably from the time I could walk (or hurtle). I have worried about everything from my grades to how I'm going to die to whether my son is eating too many strawberries and is going to turn irreversibly red. Now I begin to ask myself, with all those years of worry, just what was I hurtling toward? The end result is not a pretty picture.

Life will always be fraught with infinite opportunities for concern. We can choose the twisted meditation of worry, or we can embrace a meditation of trust in God's goodness and control, which is the only avenue to real peace of mind, body, and spirit. I have distilled these thoughts into two sentences that anchor me. Call it a mantra if you like:

If I fear anything, may I fear only God. If I cling to anything, may I cling only to the hand of Christ.