When we are anxious our thinking is very much like an out-of-control fire. What would help us therefore is to starve this ‘thinking fire’ of fuel, so that it will gradually become less distressing and debilitating in its impact on us.
In practice however we don’t do this – we do the exact opposite, in fact. We keep on throwing more and more fuel into the fire so that it burns ever more ferociously. We keep throwing more and more fuel on the fire under the impression that this is going to help us. There is never a moment when we aren’t throwing more fuel on the fire…
Every time we think about something we are throwing fuel on the fire, and when we are anxious we are constantly thinking about things. We think about things because we are compelled to do so by some sense of urgency – because we feel we need to do so if we are to stand any chance at all of staying in control of the situation. This sense of urgency, this compulsion, is how the anxious state of mind gets us to keep on feeding it…
When we try to figure out what to do about the anxiety we are suffering from this is also a way of feeding it. The more we think about the best way to get rid of the anxiety the more we are feeding the anxiety! If someone comes along and tells us that doing this or doing that is going to help us with our anxiety then the very effort of trying to understand what they are saying (never mind actually putting it into action) is going to feed the anxiety.
This is because any task we are given (including the task of ‘doing something to help alleviate the anxiety’) is inevitably going to make us think more not less, and the more we think the more we feed the fire of our thinking. If you give me a method to use in order to reduce my anxiety then in order to use the method I am of course going to have to think about using it, which is going to feed the fire of my thinking!
Wherever there is a method this introduces the question of whether I am using the method in the right way or the wrong way (i.e. am I getting it right or am I getting it wrong?) and this is in itself a source of anxiety. If there is a method to follow then this raises the possibility of me getting it wrong and this of course automatically puts me under pressure. All methods involve ‘right versus wrong’, all methods involve pressure. We could say that all methods involve the pressure to get it right (i.e. the necessity to think about how to get it right). Or we could just come right down to brass tacks and say that methods are thinking. Methods are thinking and thinking is about methods – both are about ‘right way versus wrong way’, both are about sorting things into boxes!
Every time I think about what I ought to do in order to improve my situation this is throwing more fuel on the fire. Every time I think about what to do about the out-of-control fire of my thinking this is throwing more fuel on the fire! This is what makes becoming free from anxiety so difficult – every time I think about what I might do to get rid of my anxiety this makes it worse. Every time I think about what I might do to lessen my anxiety this actually increases it…
As we have said, if you come along and give me advice, tell me that if I do X, Y or Z then this will help me with my anxiety then this is also ‘throwing fuel on the fire’. It has to be throwing fuel on the fire because I have to think in order to understand the advice, and then after this – assuming that I have understood it – I have to put the advice into practice, which also involves thinking!
There is no way for me to learn and enact a procedure without this adding to the amount of stuff that I have to think about, rather than reducing it. As Krishnamurti says, there are no methods for ‘not thinking so much’…
The only thing that can reverse the process of the out-of-control thinking (rather than accelerating it) is to starve the fire. Normally I feed the fire – I feed the fire because I always react to anxiety by thinking about how I can fix it or escape from it. So what I need to do is feed the anxious thinking less – to starve it, in fact!
One way to do this is to practice mindful breathing. In mindful breathing I attend to my breathing rather than to my thinking. This is not self-distraction because in self-distraction I am deliberately ignoring something. To deliberately ignore something is to feed it: if I deliberately ignore my anxious thinking then I am feeding this thinking, I am strengthening it, I am putting energy into it. Deliberately ignoring something is the same as fighting with it, after all!
What I do therefore is to allow the thinking to be there. I don’t have a quarrel with it (and I don’t ignore it) but every time I find myself paying attention to it, and getting sucked up in it, I just come back to paying attention to my breathing. This doesn’t mean forcing myself to pay attention to the breathing because forcing is ‘resistance to the way things are’ and resistance always feeds the thinking. All forcing, all ‘resistance’, all controlling, etc stems from our thinking and so it inevitably reinforces our thinking.
Paying mindful attention to the breath doesn’t involve forcing – it just involves noticing that the breathing is there, that the breathing is happening. If the breathing is there then noticing that it is there does not take forcing! If the breathing is happening all by itself (i.e. without me controlling it) then all I have to do is attend to it happening all by itself, which simply means ‘being there with it’.
This might seem very simple but this practice alone is all that is all that is needed to starve the thinking. Anything else would be giving us stuff to think about. Anything else would be adding to the thinking! Complication is not any help here because the mind loves complication. The mind loves methods and complication because methods and complication give it a reason for being there! If I just stick to this basic practice of mindful breathing, come what may, then this gives the mind no reason, no excuse for being there. It is left ‘standing there’ with no justification, no validation, and in the absence of justification and validation it has no choice but to quit the scene.
It is true (in a way) to say that the thinking mind does not want to ‘quit the scene’ – it wants to be the centre of attention, just as a sulking child wants to be the centre of attention. As a result, when we starve the fire of our thinking it will start to get more and more dramatic, it will start to throw tantrums to try to get our attention. It will ‘turn nasty’, or if it doesn’t turn nasty it will get ‘extra-clever’ instead and throw up objections or doubts or fears the whole time. It will keep saying “But suppose such-and-such happens?” to try to scare us.
But no matter what thoughts come up the mindful breathing exercise remains the same, like a rock in the stormy ocean. It does matter what the thought is – all thoughts are only thoughts, after all – even the scary ones. It doesn’t matter how important the thought in question claims to be, it’s still only a thought…!
No matter what the thought is (i.e. no matter what disguise it wears!) I acknowledge that it is there, I allow the thought its ‘right to be there’, but as soon as I have acknowledged it, I come right back to the breathing.
Mindful breathing is not a method. It is not a trick of the mind, a gimmick or a strategy. Once we have got the hang of mindful breathing we don’t have to think about how to do it – we just do it. After all, the thoughts that come up don’t have to be sorted out into ‘right thoughts’ versus ‘wrong thoughts’, into ‘true thoughts’ versus ‘false thoughts’ or ‘realistic thoughts’ versus ‘unrealistic thoughts’ – they are all just thoughts. All thoughts are the same. All thoughts are just thoughts and so I do the very same thing with every thought – I acknowledge it as a thought, then come back to the breathing.
So every time the thinking takes me away from the breathing I just come back to the breathing. And as many times as the thinking takes me away from the breathing, I come back to the breathing, so I am no longer fuelling the fire. By coming gently and patiently back to the breathing I am slowly but surely starving the runaway fire of my thinking…
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.