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The Worry Habit

January 28, 2017


These photos show a cave that sheltered me recently during a three-day rain and snow storm in the desert. I spent many hours there meditating, resting, and just watching the weather move through. It was a lovely, profound time. It occurred to me that they might provide a good backdrop to the topic of the day--the worry habit!


I received an email the other day that contained this paragraph:


 Lately I find myself worrying about things that could happen that probably won't. I then just create the problem in my mind and obsess on it. I need some guidance on how to just live in the moment , not in the future. I know worrying about things that haven't happened just causes undue stress. I think this is interfering with my happiness. I need to clear my mind.  I tried meditating but that lasted a few seconds until my mind starts thinking of all the things I need to do the next day. 


Here is my response:

Dear -----,

Great! That is an excellent place to begin. You said in your previous email that you are trying to gain more spirituality in your life, and it seems to me that working through the process of worry that you described is a terrific way to do that. The fundamental reason we are made to worry (and other processes like worry), from my point of view, is to distract us from God/Divinity/Oneness/Suchness or whatever you call the invisible mystery that causes all we experience to happen (I like the word “Life”). Dissipate the worry and Life will be waiting.


To begin, let’s get clear on something. The way you wrote your email suggests that you understand this already, but just to be sure:


Worry does not produce any benefit. It does not resolve the issue in any way, or assist us in getting to a place of clarity, or anything of that nature. All we get from worry is, as you said, stress and anxiety. If worry actually produced something good it might be worth the pain it causes, but it doesn’t. As I suggested above, worry as a process distracts us from all of the goodness that lives in the moment—peace, joy, happiness, well-being, belonging, and everything else good lives in the moment—and tricks us into living in fear instead.


If this is not clear to you (if you think you’re getting something you need through worry) let me know. We can take it apart some more until you can see what is really going on. It’s important to get it that worry does no good, because without that understanding there won’t be the conviction required to get past it. In that case you would be nursing it and letting go of it at the same time, which isn’t going to work.


As you have no doubt seen, worry is a habit—and like any habit is difficult to break. How do we do it? We break the worry habit by learning how to direct the attention.


Your attention is the power you have to focus your mind and your thoughts on a particular object. If you can direct your attention you can focus it on what you choose. It seems like that would be an easy thing to do, but it isn’t. In fact, almost nobody can do it consistently. Most people go through life with their attention wandering all over the place. The reason is that there is a force within our minds that is directing our attention without our permission. I know you’ve been reading my blogs, so you’ll likely know that I call this force “conditioned mind” (that’s what I learned to call it at the monastery). The fundamental agenda of conditioned mind is to keep us distracted from the moment (where everything good resides), and to keep us in some form of unhappiness instead.


Worry is a great example. You obviously don’t want to worry—you do it involuntarily. Conditioned mind is directing your attention over and over again into a conversation about whatever it wants you to worry about. Every time it does you re-live the worrisome thing again, and fear is produced. You are being manipulated into worrying, we might say, against your will.


I am going to offer you a practice that will teach you how to direct your attention if you pursue it over time. The more you learn how to direct your attention the more choice you will have in what happens in your mind. When conditioned mind tries to pull you into a story to worry over, if you can direct your attention you can just choose to not go there, and keep your attention in the moment instead. It’s really very simple when we look closely at it: go into the story with your attention and you’ll worry, keep your attention here, in the present, and you won’t. Make sense? If not, let me know and I’ll explain it in different words. Hopefully your experience with the practice will show you what I’m talking about also.


Here’s the practice:

Find a quiet place to be where you won’t be disturbed. Can be inside our outside—doesn’t matter. Sit in a way that is comfortable but alert. You can either close your eyes or have them open. If they’re open, have them be slightly out of focus (so that you’re not looking at anything in particular). When you’re ready to begin, breathe in and breathe out, then count “one” silently to yourself. Breathe in and breathe out, then count “two”. Continue in this way until you get to “ten”, then start again at “one”.


What you will notice is that your attention will wander all over the place. It will go into a to-do list (as you’ve noticed when you’ve tried to meditate before), a fantasy, a regret, or any number of other things. In your case it will probably go into worry. All that is fine. The point of meditation is not to have a clear mind, to get rid of thoughts, or anything like that. Every time your attention wanders off, as soon as you realize that bring your attention back to your breath and the counting and begin again at “one”. This is a way of practicing directing your attention. Every time your attention wanders off and you bring it back it’s like building a muscle. With practice you’ll get better at it over time, and as you do you’ll discover that you have more of an ability to let go of the worrying (and every other form of distraction that is happening).


Do this as best you can for five to ten minutes, every day. That might not sound like much, but it’s enough to make a real difference. And then, as you go through your day, practice dropping the worry whenever you notice it and bring your attention to your breath. This will be very difficult at first, and you might not have much success, but that’s fine. Over time if you persist your skill will grow and you will gain more power.


Try it for a few days, then let me know how it’s going. I’ll be eager to hear.

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