We all know what anxiety is. That feeling that arises when we react to perceived threats.
Some people experience it daily and intensely. Others experience it occasionally.
It is actually a normal and healthy human emotion that can propel us into action. However, the problem is when it can get out of control and become destructive, taking away our quality of life.
The author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has a very useful way of understanding what anxiety is and how to deal with it when it arises.
He refers to the concept of the “pain-body”, which is an old emotional pain living inside of you. It may have accumulated from past traumatic experiences and sticks around because these painful experiences were not fully faced and accepted the moment they arose.
By understanding the pain-body and how to accept your experience in the present moment, you’ll be much better able to deal with anxiety and live a much better life.
The pain-body gets amplified by the ego
According to Tolle, the pain-body lives in human beings and comes from the ego:
“When the ego is amplified by the emotion of the pain-body, the ego has enormous strength still – particularly at those times. It requires very great presence so that you can be there as the space also for your pain-body, when it arises.”
This is everyone’s job in this life. We need to be there and recognize our pain-body when it shifts from dormant to active. At that moment, when it takes over your mind, the internal dialogue we have – which is dysfunctional at the best of times – now becomes the voice of the pain-body talking to us internally.
Everything it tells us is deeply influenced by the old, painful emotion of the pain-body. Every interpretation, everything it says, every judgement about your life and what’s happening, will be totally distorted by the old emotional pain.
If you are alone, the pain-body will feed on every negative thought that arises and get more energy. You end up thinking about things for hours, depleting your energy.
Eckhart Tolle explains how we experience emotions like anxiety, stress or anger:
“All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”
[Not only does Buddhism provide a spiritual outlet for many people, it can also help break the cycle of anxiety, stress and unhappiness we can all experience. Check out my new no-nonsense guide to using Buddhism for a better life here].
How to catch your pain-body
How can we be present and catch our pain-body at an early stage, so we don’t get drawn into it depleting our energy?
The key is to understand that little situations trigger enormous reactions, and when that happens be present with yourself.
You need to create space inside yourself for the pain-body, and then remove yourself from that space. Be present with yourself, and look at the situation from a detached place.
As Tolle says:
“If you are present, the pain-body cannot feed anymore on your thoughts, or on other people’s reactions. You can simply observe it, and be the witness, be the space for it. Then gradually, its energy will decrease.”
Tolle says the first step to enlightenment is to be an “observer” of the mind:
“The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not “the thinker.” The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. You then begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind. You begin to awaken.”
Of course, the next question we have to ask is:
How can we go about becoming an “observer of the mind”?
At one of his retreats, Tolle revealed a simple exercise to become an observer of your mind and let go of your thoughts.
Here’s a video of him talking about it:
The gentleman asks Eckhart Tolle how to strike a balance between letting go of thoughts in the mind without getting annoyed when the thoughts come back in the mind.
This is a common struggle for many of us, so I think Eckhart’s response is very helpful.
Here’s a summary of his advice for what to do when your mind can’t stop thinking:
1) First, avoid yourself from giving too much input to your mind. A great test is to do this when in conversation with others.
2) When in conversation with someone, try to listen 80% of the time and speak only 20% of the time.
3) While listening, feel your inner body.
4) One strategy to do this is to be aware of the energy you feel in your hands. If possible, try to also feel the energy in your feet.
5) Feel the aliveness in your body, while continuing to listen.
6) This helps you become more aware of your body and the information you’re receiving, as opposed to your thoughts.
I think this is an excellent strategy. In fact, there’s a scientific reason why this works in getting your mind to focus more on the present moment.
Neuroscience explains how to stop overthinking
A 2007 study by professor Norman Farb at the University of Toronto found that humans have two different sets of networks in the brain for dealing with the world.
The first network is for experiencing your experience. This is called “the default network”.
This network is activated when not much is happening and you begin thinking about yourself.
It’s the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating. It holds together our narrative about the world.
The second network is called “direct experience network”.
When the direct experience network is active, it becomes a whole other way of experiencing experience.
When this network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or even yourself.
Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses.
For example, if you are in the shower, this network is activated when you notice the warmth of the water hitting your body.
The interesting thing is that both these networks are inversely correlated.
If you have an upcoming meeting while washing dishes, you are less likely to notice a cut on your hand, because the network involved in direct experience is less active.
You don’t feel your senses as much.
Fortunately, this works both ways.
When you intentionally focus your attention on incoming sensory data, such as the feeling of the water on your hands while you wash, it reduces activation of the narrative circuitry.
Therefore, whenever you intentionally activate your direct experience network by using your senses, you’re reducing activity in your default network, which is involved in overthinking.
This is why meditation breathing exercises can work when you’re overthinking, because you focus your attention on the sensory experience of your breathe.
This is why Eckhart Tolle’s strategy is so brilliant to reduce getting lost in your thoughts.
In regards to the pain-body, this is how Eckhart Tolle describes to go about it while focusing on your senses:
“Focus attention on the feeling inside you. Know that it is the pain-body. Accept that it is there. Don’t think about it – don’t let the feeling turn into thinking. Don’t judge or analyze. Don’t make an identity for yourself out of it. Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you. Become aware not only of the emotional pain but also of “the one who observes,” the silent watcher. This is the power of the Now, the power of your own conscious presence. Then see what happens.”
(To learn more about mindfulness and how it can benefit your life, check out Hack Spirit’s best-selling eBoom on the art of mindfulness here)
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