I love to garden. I enjoy planting lots of varieties of tomato, pepper, lettuce, and cabbage. I love watching everything grow and walking out to the garden to cut lettuce and pick vegetables for a salad. It sounds idyllic, doesn't It? What I am not telling you is that while I am out in the garden weeding or picking tomatoes or peppers, the worries, fears, and anxieties come right out there with me. Sometimes in the midst of weeding I am so caught up in seething anger or overwhelming worry that I forget where I am. At other times while cutting broccoli, I am so consumed with anxious thoughts about some upcoming meeting that I feel like running away.
My fears, worries, and anxious thoughts follow me right out to the quiet, peaceful place of my garden. They’re not always there. Sometimes on a Saturday morning I’ll be out planting lettuce or picking a ripe cucumber, and everything is perfect; the temperature, the sunlight, a gentle breeze, and I feel a deep peacefulness and contentment. The truth is that peace and contentment along with worry, fear, and anxiety are always there with me because they are within me.
One sunny Saturday morning in early June, I was out in the garden tying up tomato plants that had grown so quickly that they were bursting out of the bamboo teepees I’d constructed to hold them up. When suddenly these anxious thoughts began to well up and threaten to overwhelm me. I couldn’t believe it! Here was a beautiful day in my lovely garden – a Saturday for Pete’s sake, and these anxious thoughts were threatening to hijack my desire to enjoy something I loved to do quietly; rising like hot lava from an inner volcano of worry, fear, and anxiety within me. I decided to try something different. I began to say a little refrain I’d just learned: “Peace and joy are shining in me now.” At first, it felt a little odd to be reciting this little saying, but I just kept at it, and after a few minutes I started to feel better. So I decided to stay put and continue to tie up the tomato plants and recite my little mantra. I moved to the next bamboo teepee and kept saying to myself: “Peace and joy are shining in me now.” It distracted me for a moment, interrupted the hot, anxious flow threatening to overwhelm me. It helped me refocus. I kept repeating it over and over again: “Peace and joy are shining in me now.” It was like a life preserver in a stormy sea of emotion. I was enjoying thinking about this peace shining in me while focusing on tying the tomato plants and smelling the tomatoey scent that arose as I twisted the vines and tied them into place. I enjoyed repeating the mantra slowly, quietly, over and over again thinking of myself as shining with peace. I continued tying tomatoes, repeating the mantra, engaging my hands, my feet, and even my lips as I silently mouthed the words: “Peace and joy are shining in me now.”
After a while, I realized that I felt a lot better, more peaceful. I was feeling so good that I began to quietly sing “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens and it wasn’t long before I was belting out the lyrics, “Peace train holy roller, ride on the peace train. . ..” I'd finished tying all of the tomato plants, and now I couldn’t remember what I had been feeling so anxious about. I decided then and there that I didn’t want to remember it and quickly refocused on weeding the lettuce patch, singing “Peace Train,” and reciting my mantra.
What happened on that Saturday morning? I discovered that I was in charge of my thoughts and feelings. It wasn’t that hard to change my mind, refocus my thoughts, and keep moving my hands and feet to do what I loved to do. I chose to redirect my thinking elsewhere – to the peace shining in me, and I kept moving. And even though I knew the anxiousness was there, along with fear and worry, I didn’t let them drive. It was wonderful!
What was so different? I made two choices in the garden that morning. The first choice I made was – NOT TO STRUGGLE OR ENGAGE with these anxious, worrisome, and fearful thoughts. Here are a few adages to think about:
What you resist persists.
What you try to get rid of you get more of.
What you attack you attract.
I chose to let all of those anxious thoughts and feelings be there, but I redirected my active thinking to something else –
Something I love – gardening.
A different thought – peace.
In this way, I was physically, mentally, and emotionally engaged. I was early in my recovery, later, when I felt stronger I learned how to watch these thoughts and feelings. For now, I was amazed that such a simple thing as repeating a mantra could disrupt my anxious thinking. It was like I was defribulating my mind, and I was stunned that it only took a short time before I couldn't remember why I was so anxious and worried.
The second choice I made was to CHOOSE TO FORGET. Look, thoughts are just thoughts, sensations are just sensations, memories are just memories, and feeling are just feelings. We all start to suffer when we mistakenly identify and fuse with these thoughts, sensations, and feelings. As if I say to myself, “I am my feelings.” Or I say, “I am my memories.” It is the reason we suffer so much with worry, anxiety, and fear. They are just thoughts, and we get all tangled up in that noise between our ears.
It hit me that after a few minutes of choosing a new thought, a new idea, AND choosing to keep my hands and feet moving, how quickly I could dislodge an anxious thought and replace it with a new one. Remember – worry, fear, anxiety, peace, contentment are all thoughts and feelings that come with you, which means this little practice was not a one-and-done but something I’d have to start and restart many times that day and every day. And there is nothing magical about my mantra. The mantra or refrain has to be one that works for you, and you can change it whenever you wish. It's good to stick with one for a while just so that you can remember what it is when a difficult emotion arises.
You can’t think your way into a new way of living.
You have to live your way into a new way of thinking. (Richard Rohr)
So by actively choosing to focus on peace instead of fear while continuing to do something I enjoyed, I was able to change my mind at that moment.
Through the day, the worries, fears, and anxieties would resurface. But I did something different – I used them as a cue to turn to my little mantra for help as well as realize that if I just got up and did something I would feel better. I always found cleaning up helped me a lot. Straightening up or arranging my desk or the room -- some tidying – was most helpful because like my work in the garden it was something I could see and feel – something tangible.
(Procrastination Warning! If the worry or anxious thought arose because I was putting something off, then I’d have to use a different tactic. It will not come as a surprise that procrastination or perfectionism is a problem for many of us who live with anxiety challenges.)
The most important thing to know is that any strategy aimed at trying to get rid of anxiousness, worry, or fear is doomed to failure because these three guys also carry with them an energy that is not only helpful at times but an energy you can tap into and use.
Remember! You are the driver. You are in charge. You are more than the thought, feeling, or memory. You get to decide what is happening next, what you choose to think about, what you are going to do. (That is why it is so important to be clear about your goals and have a solid and concrete plan in place. I wrote about this a few weeks ago: You Have to Make the First Move) Your thoughts, memories, sensations, feelings, and perceptions are only here to help you to live the life you want to live. Pay attention because they can be helpful. For example:
Anxiousness might energize and motivate you to start a task you’ve been putting off;
Procrastination might stop you from lashing out irrationally;
Worry might motivate you to call someone you know in distress;
Fear might get you moving fast from a dangerous situation or relationship.
So don’t “dis” these guys. . . They are only here to help you live more freely. But do not let them drive and so paralyze you and hijack your life. Use that energy when you need it, otherwise, tell them to be quiet and sit still in the back seat.
Note: There are some forms of anxiety that need more therapeutic help like counseling or medication which you can use along with these strategies. Don't be afraid to seek help. For more information or if you are in a crisis – Call 1 800 567 4673 or text 741741.
The Mindfulness and Acceptance Therapy Workbook for Anxiety; John Forsyth Ph.D., George Eifert Ph.D.;
The Greatest Secret of Them All, Marc Allen;