Earlier this month I presented a program at Pittsburg State titled “One Minute Mindfulness for Anxiety and Stress Relief.”
It gave me a chance to share some of what I’ve learned on the subject as well as savor the stress and anxiety of putting the program together and presenting it to my peers.
The key word here, and one that looks pretty out of place at first glance, is savor. According to my etymological dictionary, savor is of Old French and Latin origin and can be used as a noun (delight, pleasure) as well as a verb (taste, breathe in, appreciate).
Given those definitions some might find it odd – not to mention ironic – that I might choose to use savor to describe experiencing anxiety and stress.
I had much of the same kind of anxiety and stress the week before as I worked with Darlene Brown of the Stilwell and my fellow poets, preparing for our book signing and poetry reading in the Timmons Ballroom. (What if nobody shows up because I didn’t promote it well enough? What if the sound system goes out? What if they don’t like me? What if they don’t like our poetry?)
What’s getting me through it is that I’m coming to accept more and more that stress and anxiety have positive virtues as well as negative ones. The trick is being mindful enough to sort out which ones I choose to attach to.
To be sure, this was not always the case. In years past I’ve experienced stress, anxiety and stage fright to such a degree that I’ve been on the edge of a panic attack even though I was preparing for something I truly enjoy doing.
What I have discovered in recent years is that when I practice mindfulness, in this case acceptance and patience with the underlying rawness of uncomfortable feelings, I am far less likely to be dragged over the edge to panic.
There’s a Cherokee Indian legend that speaks to this in which an old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life.
“A fight is going on inside me,” he tells the boy. “A terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, regret, self-pity, inferiority, false pride, superiority and fear.”
“The other,” he continues, “is good – he is joy, peace, love, humility, kindness, truth and faith. The same fight is going on inside you and every other person too.”
The grandson though about awhile and then asked, “Which one will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Anxiety and negative thinking are normal, but, if it becomes incessant and out of control (mindless) it can lead to mental and emotional torture (panic attacks and depression) and the destructive coping behaviors (alcohol and other drugs, food, sex and spending money).
Through mindfulness we can witness our thinking patterns, gain the power of choice, and develop the ability to direct our negative thoughts to more positive ones. There’s a version of the Serenity Prayer that speaks to this: “God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the person I can, and the wisdom to know it’s me.”
I’ve shared before in this column a variety of ways to engage in mindfulness meditation, from resting at the bottom of a river as the negative flow by on the surface to sitting and listening to the sound of a KCS freight train hauling stress and anxiety out of town. The one ingredient in both – and all other mindfulness exercises I’ve studied - is deep breathing. (If you go to Breathe2Relax site on your computer or smartphone you’ll get simple instructions on deep breathing.)
One thing I haven’t written much about the idea of ‘savoring’ it all, say in the same way you might savor a juicy steak at Jim’s or delectable plate of ravioli at Josie’s.
I must admit, I’m just getting started on it myself and it feels a little weird to savor anxiety, sadness and depression as I let it pass through as opposed to fighting it head on. But I have been noticing that it hangs around less if I operate this way.
At the end of my presentation at PSU I shared a poem by Rumi, a Sufi Muslim mystic, titled “The Guest House” that speaks to this. I’d like to share it with you, dear reader. See if you can savor it.
“This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
a joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”
— J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Training and Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-1852 or email@example.com.