Sometimes, the mind is filled with worries. It can feel we are worried all the time. These worries can cover many areas, such as money problems, or performance at school or work. But social worries are perhaps the most common. We might worry about saying the wrong thing and creating the wrong impression. For some people this becomes problematic, and may be diagnosed as social anxiety, but it’s a common experience for most of us.
The amount of worrying we do can be influenced by all kinds of factors. Caffeine consumption is one factor which can trigger a lot of anxiety. Perhaps you’ve met someone who knocks back 5 strong cups of coffee each morning, and seems to be constantly on edge. Perhaps you’ve been that person – I have!
But to be fair to caffeine, moderate amounts under the right circumstances don’t necessarily cause any anxiety and can give us a little boost to help solve a challenging problem. It depends on your state of mind.
Worries are thought patterns which can be changed, for example through meditation practice, but it often doesn’t seem possible to change thought patterns with immediate effect.
Why we worry
Worries are sometimes valid: for example when travelling they help us to remember to pack the things we need, to catch our transport connections, and not get ripped off by the local scammers. They also help us maintain harmonious social relationships.
But often in modern life, our worries go into overdrive. And when this happens, as it often does, we experience stress. When we are stressed, we feel as though we are about to break.
So we want to put aside our worries. We want to be comfortable. Perhaps we try to do this with pleasure. Buy an ice cream – a dose of happiness on a stick. Unfortunately it doesn’t last long. Buy a coffee – we like the taste, and it perks us up, but if we don’t focus that extra energy, this can make our worries worse. Even consuming healthy and nutritious foods, we can overdo it if we are trying to distract ourselves from our worries.
Consumption as a solution to worry
Most of us realise that consuming tasty foods is only a short term distraction. Depending on the food, and what our body needs, it may or may not be healthy for our body, but it is never healthy for our mind to consume for these reasons.
The same applies to drugs, legal or illegal. A cigarette gives up a few minutes of escape. It can serve a similar purpose to meditation: for a short time we may drop all our worries and feel our body, ironically feeling more alive as we slowly poison our lungs.
Alcohol can seem more effective: for a whole evening, we might totally relax. Whatever worries we had earlier, no matter, they can wait until tomorrow. But this is only a temporary fix, unless we become alcoholic: not something I will advocate! The effects of alcohol do seem similar to meditation, in that the intensity of our thoughts may subside, but as Eckhart Tolle puts it, when we drink alcohol we are “falling below thought”, whereas through mindfulness we can “rise above thought”.
I haven’t tried all the other drugs, but I can’t see how they’d be much different. One off or occasional use might bring us some insights we can apply to our lives, but if we attempt to use them to avoid our worries this can only be a temporary fix.
Worry and the ego
This worrying is a function of the ego. It is there to protect us, but can malfunction in the current environment which bares little resemblance to the environment in which humans evolved.
Alan Watts describes the ego as being “like a radar on a ship”; a “troubleshooting” scanning system to alert us to dangers in our environment. Because these thoughts of the ego are so prominent in our minds, it can feel as though our ego is who we are. But we are much more than a scanning system. If we imagine that somehow we let go of all our worries, these thoughts of the ego, it may not seem as clear who or what we are, but we still are. We still exist.
Worries and technology
In the past decade or so, a new advance in technology has given most people around the world a tool in their pocket through which they may escape their ego and the worrying thoughts it creates. When we sit with nothing much to do, on public transport, whilst waiting in a queue, or waiting for our dinner in a restaurant, we can pull out our smart phone, and the world is at our fingertips. We can check the news, scroll through Facebook, look up a fact we had been unsure of on Wikipedia, deal with our email, or message a friend. Whilst we do this, our personal worries might be forgotten, so long as we choose an appropriate distraction.
Our phones and the internet are almost always available to us. Whenever our egos kick in, and our head is spinning with worries that we know deep down are insignificant, an escape is already in reach.
This avoidance strategy is far more effective than consumption of food or drugs. You have probably already paid for it, and it’s available at all times. Even if we have only a few seconds, we can use it. Unlike food, there’s no limit to what we can consume. Unlike drugs, it doesn’t change our state of mind or body function. Well that might not be strictly true: but at least, since it’s not via an external chemical stimulus, the effects are far more subtle and we can more easily return to any other activity.
Dropping the ego
In a sense, when we go online we drop our ego. We drop our worries. But although our personal worries are put aside, we may start to pick up on collective worries. We find our personal ego has subsided, but our collective ego becomes stronger. This is especially obvious when following the news. Most of us feel an attachment to our nation, so national concerns start to occupy our minds. Or we may be a supporter of a political party, or a football club. Since we feel part of these groups, we want to protect them, and we want them to survive and thrive.
Perhaps we think we have grown past these tribal attachments, and our concerns are now for the whole of humanity or Mother Earth. But this is still an attachment, and this collective ego of humanity has far more worries than our personal ego. We now have wider concerns of poverty, prosperity, injustice, and pride, which might not appear in our personal lives. We can now worry about the future of our planet. How do we protect endangered species, or stop climate change?
Connecting to the collective ego
A collective ego functions in a similar way to our personal ego. We are scanning for threats, and we want to deal with them. But it’s harder to do so because collective problems require collective action.
Concern for our club, nation, or planet is not at all unfounded. Collective action is important. But these worries can also have a detrimental effect on our well-being, like our personal worries.
So although going online can help us reduce our personal worries and the intensity of our personal ego, taking on collective worries will only increase the intensity of our collective ego.
In moderation, this might be a good thing – awareness of our wider community is necessary in order to take collective action to address community concerns. But since the online world is now so readily available to us, moderation is difficult.
And from a well-being perspective, replacing one set of worries with another is not particularly helpful. We need space free from our worries in order to be well. Consuming food or drugs cannot do this for us in a healthy and sustainable way – we all know this. Consuming information via websites or apps seems better, but when we stop, we can find our worries have increased. A vicious cycle can begin, where we consume even more information to avoid these increased worries.
This is why we need meditation. We need exercise. We need yoga. We need our breath. All of these help us dwell in our body instead of being trapped in our heads, paralysed by our worries. Through mindfulness, we connect to our bodies, and create space for ourselves free of worry.
Mindfulness and meditation are not easy. They can create space, free from worry, but this doesn’t happen instantly. Occasionally, you might be able to just slip into a perfect, peaceful meditation with no worrying thoughts coming up. But usually you have to sit with your worries. With regular practice, you may notice your worries reduce, and stillness begins to emerge in the mind.
If you are aware of your worrying thoughts, good news: you are already taking steps into mindfulness, and you can begin to let your worries go.
Rise up this morningBob Marley in Three Little Birds
Smile with the rising sun
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singing sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true, saying…
“This is my message to you”, singing…
About a thing
Cause every little thing
Is gonna be alright!”