We have been hearing a lot lately about a worldwide mental health epidemic of anxiety among people of all ages. This very natural fear response—to the ongoing Covid crisis, climate catastrophe, and scary threats to democracy—can be debilitating. It can often foster depression, confusion, and a tendency to self-isolate, to blame, to be angry and irritable. Buddhist teachings and modern neuroscience both offer a similar way of understanding this frightened reactivity and transforming it. This way involves investigating our own experiences, which can, in turn, empower us and re-open the doors of our hearts to clarity, compassion, and inner peace.
“Mindfulness is the ingenious method of turning an obstacle [to our lives] into an object that can be directly known,” wrote Bhikkhu Analayo is his book Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Liberation. He is pointing to an object which we can choose not to take ownership of, or identify with: an object which we can learn to relate to skillfully. Mindfully, we can face and actually choose to be curious about this anxiety or dis-ease that we feel in our collective lives—not to deny it, not to turn away from its “creepiness,” but to actually be curious about it. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a well-respected neuroscience researcher, suggests that we enlarge our vocabulary around our anxiety, and give the feeling other descriptive names and phrases, such as weakness, pounding heart, fear, confusion, clouded mind, can’t think clearly—or sing, or read—doubt, upset, aroused, restlessness, can’t sleep, unworthiness.
Barrett tells the story of her twelve-year-old daughter’s training for a black belt in karate. She was in a testing situation with a number of bigger boys and men. Seeing that she was becoming anxious, the instructor came over to her and said, “Now, get your butterflies in a row.” He was encouraging her to mobilize those free-floating agitated sensations that she was feeling, the fear, and turn them into an energy that she could use to perform. And she did. Hearing the instructor’s advice, she passed the test and earned the black belt.
Interest in our situation mobilizes energy and brings us into the present moment. That is the only time when we can be fully alive and have access to the pleasant feeling that lets us touch the simple joy and contentment of being free and able to choose what to do. Once our resilience is awakened, calmness, peace of mind, and the very energy we need are within reach. “We can do this,” we say. Or, “How can I help?”
The most important information our brain is receiving about any situation we are in is found in its feeling-tone, what Buddhist teachings call vedana. There are two perceived ranges of vedana: that of pleasant to unpleasant, and that of agitated to quiet. What we call anxiety is actually known directly by the brain as “unpleasant, agitated feeling tone.” On perceiving this feeling tone, and based on past experience of the body’s reaction, the brain predicts what it is and what to do about it. We might call this an educated guess—but it is not necessarily a well-educated guess. What if we called the unpleasant, aroused state “butterflies” and remembered the metaphor of lining them up to build energy? “We have more control over what kind of person we are than we think,” says Barrett, and “we have more control over what kind of effect we have on others than we think.”
This is what the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are telling us too. The First Truth assures us: there is agitation, stress; there are uncomfortable states of being that arise in a human life. The Second informs us that these states are perpetuated by an unwise identification with them (clinging). The Third says that there is a way to transform and end them, while the Fourth offers us a set of guidelines for accomplishing this—remember the sixth factor in this Eightfold Path, the one on wise effort: “It takes practice.” A key element in this practice is developing a sustained, attentive energy, one that is fueled by a “pleasant, unworldly feeling-tone” and not by grim duty. This good feeling is not so much the birthday joy or the popcorn-and-a-good-movie joy, but the joy we feel in giving or receiving kindness; the natural benevolence we feel towards a toddler taking her first steps or laughing for the first or the one hundredth time; the awe we feel at seeing a distant mountain covered with snow; the deep sigh of relief we feel as the body begins to relax from long-held tensions that we didn’t even know we were experiencing; the simple joy of being alive in this moment and being aware of it. This joy is very close to contentment, and “it is only the benevolent, happy heart that can let go,” says the wise Buddhist nun, Bhikkhuni Dhammadinna.
Each year in the midst of the busy holiday season, Valley Insight offers a meditation retreat. The day of practice provides an opportunity for us to slow down and remember our deep roots in kindness and in clear seeing—and the joy of knowing these roots. As the natural world around us grows darker and quieter in anticipation of the deep pause that is winter, we also dare to stop and rest together—to connect with the simple joys and to cultivate inner peace, a tranquil rebalancing of our life energies. (You will find more information on the Retreats page.) Please consider joining us as we move into this second winter of Covid and political unrest. Perhaps, all together, we will free our butterflies from their chrysalis and allow them to join and align with the Buddha’s two wings—compassion and wisdom—flying into this deeply wounded world that we share and knowing “how deeply our lives intertwine.”
In conclusion, here is some butterfly news from JerriAnne Boggis in the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire newsletter to remind us that things really do change, sometimes in unpredictable ways, and to lift our hearts a bit in these darkening days.
“I just finished reading an article about the return of the Monarch butterflies to coastal California in numbers not seen since the late 90s. In 2020 the numbers of migrating butterflies from the North to the coast had plummeted to below 2,000, scaring scientists about their possible extinction. However, this year the numbers are starting to pick up. Biologists and volunteers across California have already counted more than 100,000 monarchs.”
This seemingly magical reprieve from extinction, an unprecedented revival in such a short time.”