We’re living in a time where fear is a completely natural and understandable response. It feels like the world is perilously close to the edge of ruin — nuclear tensions between the world superpowers are higher than they’ve been since the Cold War; our governments are doing very little to deal with the environmental problems even as we’re seeing the effects that have long been promised; the fragile network of agreements that form our civilization seem to be breaking down. Many of us are living perilously close to the edge of personal ruin, too. I know personally that if I lose my job and don’t find another one immediately, things would get really bad really fast. I think the tone of our public discourse reflects how much fear has become entrenched in our lives. Anything and everything that makes us feel safe and in control is inviolate, no matter how flawed or dangerous it is. I’ve been swept up in the current myself, fearful of what happens if things get worse, angry that they’ve gotten this bad, ashamed I’m not doing more to fight against it.
This year I wanted to step back and rethink my approach to what’s happening in my personal, professional, and social life. So much of the way I react to things these days is instinctive; if something makes me angry, there isn’t enough of a pause to think about the best way to express that anger, for example. I need to do something different — the way things are right now is just making more anxious, which makes it more likely that I indulge in the mindless, easy behavior that relieves that anxiety, which makes it more likely I’m just transferring my suffering elsewhere instead of really dealing with it. How can I deal with my anxiety more responsibly? I keep coming back around to this idea from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, which has been quoted so often it’s become a bit of a cliche: “Smile, breathe, and go slowly.” What does that mean? What does it look like when it’s applied to how you move through life?
I’ve often thought of this idea as a simple mantra that can draw our attention back to the present moments, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. Meditation, after all, trains us to view our breath as an anchor that ties us to our present experience. Whenever we catch ourselves getting caught up in our thoughts, or running away with some imaginings, we recognize what’s happened, allow the thought to be completed, and return to our breath. Going slowly forces us to pay attention to whatever we’re doing; that pace encourages us to really look at each part of our actions and perform them with care and consideration. Smiling, though, is often the part that I tend to ignore. I feel silly smiling to myself, and a lot of the time I just don’t think it makes that much of a difference, but it does.
One of the big reasons we become anxious and afraid is that we’re having trouble accepting what’s happening around us, or the possibility of what might happen to us in the future. This attachment — the attachment to safety, to certainty, to a knowable and controlled future — causes us great suffering all the time. In order to relieve that suffering, we have to ease the iron grip we have on our expectations that life will work out and that things will be OK. The less we hold on to that desire, the less power that small voice that goes “What if things will not be OK?” has over us. They key to weakening that desire is learning how to accept things as they are, even if they’re not the best they could possibly be.
We tend not to smile when we’re nervous or afraid. But we could, and it might help us to dislodge the pit in our stomachs when we think about a stressful situation. Smiling is a sign that we are content and happy, that things are well just as they are. Taking a moment to smile as you draw your attention to the present moment can serve as a primer, a way to think about what’s happening around you in the best possible light. Very often, especially in my most depressive states, my brain looks for a reason to feel sad and hopeless; if that sort of mechanism lets me attach meaning to those emotional states that arise for no reason, why not happiness as well? Smiling prompts our brain to look for a reason to be happy and content in the present moment, and after a while we actually get better at finding them.
Breathing, of course, takes our attention away from the internal chatter of our brains and places it with our physical experience. In meditation, we train ourselves to focus on the sensation of the breath: the way our stomach or chest rises with the inhale, how it feels for the air to be held within our lungs, what it’s like to push it back out through our nose and mouth. Sometimes, a single breath is all it takes for us to stop the train of our thoughts and check in with how we’re thinking and what effect that has on our mood. I like to think of my breath as a mental ‘door’; it’s a portal that I use to leave one ‘room’ (thought) and enter another.
Going slowly is probably the most difficult thing to do these days. We’re always so busy, dashing from place to place to get things done. Many of us feel like we don’t even have enough time to think about the tasks we’re doing as we’re doing them; we might be loading the dishwasher while thinking about an email we’ll have to write as soon as we’re done, or we might be dreading traffic while we’re standing in line at the store. But going slowly encourages us to really place ourselves with the tasks we’re presently doing. We might notice that the dish we’ve been wiping for the past few minutes is thoroughly clean, or that another checkout line has opened and the cashier has been trying to wave us over. Moving slower, paying more attention, can have the paradoxical effect of letting us do what we’re doing faster — by giving it our focus, we can be more efficient and make fewer mistakes.
I’ve found that placing a higher value on focus instead of productivity has helped me quite a bit with all of the things I’ve been trying to do. I enjoy what I do a lot more, and I’ve noticed that I can put more effort into it, which helps me to improve. I’m definitely not perfect with this, that’s for sure — this last year has taught me that more than anything. But when I remember to, taking a moment to accept my situation, clear my mind, and pay attention to where I am has consistently made my day better for just a little while.
So this week, when I’m on Twitter and see something that gets my blood hot; or when I’m stressing about all of the time-intensive stuff I’ve got to do and what I’ll need to push off in order to get it done; or when I’m well and truly frightened by a news headline or a Presidential tweet, I’ll try to remember to smile, breathe, and go slowly. It doesn’t change anything about the world that’s making me afraid, but it helps me figure out what to do about it with a clearer head.