How to work with fear, anxiety, and other difficult emotions

In his book In Love with the World, the Nepalese Buddhist monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche writes about “adding wood to the fire”:

“Generally, people go through life taking note of those experiences that recurrently enflame our anger or anxiety or fear—and then we try to avoid them, telling ourselves things like, I can’t watch scary movies. I cannot be in big crowds. I have a terrible fear of heights, or of flying, or of dogs, or the dark.

But the causes that provoke these responses do not go away; and when we find ourselves in these situations, our reactions can overwhelm us. Using our inner resources to work with these issues is our only true protection, because external circumstances change all the time and are therefore not reliable.

Adding wood to the fire deliberately brings difficult situations to the forefront so we can work with them directly.”

In other words, we can’t escape painful feelings, so we might as well try to work with them when they appear. We might as well move in their direction rather than resist them. We might even want to try to put ourselves in situations where they’re bound to come up.

Back in 2012, as the Occupy movement was fizzling out, I went to the first meeting of the Washington, D.C., reading group for the socialist magazine Jacobin. I walked in with a big ego, thinking I knew a bit about the problems with capitalism.  

But it’s D.C. Everyone was not only brilliant but also well-versed in socialist history and all the various tendencies of Marxist thought. There were a handful of experienced organizers and even PhDs in the room.

I didn’t say a single word and left feeling horrible—so small, uninformed, and insignificant. Part of me wanted to give up the whole politics thing and stay with what I’d spent the last decade doing, singing in a rock band.

Yet, another part of me sensed that, yes, this is exactly what I need. This is the only way to grow.

Eventually, I got in politics doing what I love, writing. Countless moments of letting my ego get gut punched no doubt helped me get there.

The Zen priest angel Kyodo williams calls this becoming undone: “We’re not trying to become something; we’re trying to un-become. We’re trying to undo ourselves.”

Usually we do the opposite by ignoring fear, anxiety, grief, and other painful feelings. We try to appear a certain way to others. We numb ourselves with Netflix or Facebook or drinking.

Psychologist Sheryl Paul writes, “You can resist the call and numb the pain, or you can walk through the center of the fear-storm and surrender to the most transformational ride of your life.”

Now, sometimes the pain is too strong, and it overwhelms us. We might need help from other people, like a close friend or therapist, especially when working with trauma. 

But we can learn to be with many of our feelings by practicing mindfulness meditation.

We’re sitting and we notice a tenderness in the middle of our chest or a lump in our throat. We feel its raw sensations. We notice that our mind is telling stories about it, trying to figure out why we feel the way we do.

Following the practice’s directions, we then let go of the thoughts and bring our mind’s attention to the tenderness, to its raw sensations. We let it just be there, even if it grows and fills our whole body. Eventually, like all feelings, it goes away.

What we’re learning is the priceless skill of adding wood to the fire, of allowing rather than resisting the substance of our life.

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