It is easy to feel anxious right now. The Cubs and that other team are headed into the last game of the World Series and, if you are in the greater Chicago area — you are on tenterhooks. The fall is valiantly fighting for its life in a battle it is guaranteed to lose. And — oh yes — there is an election that has lifted the divisions in the US up into brutal light. Of course, I have all sorts of political opinions about the presidential election — but, as a minister in a congregation — it is my responsibility to forgo party politics. Still, not to comment on this atmosphere would be morally and pastorally irresponsible.
As a nation, we have fallen victim to some of the oldest tricks in the handbook of political manipulations: pitting the powerless (or at least the less powerful) against each other, falling for slogans instead of digging for truth, picking out scapegoats for our problems, painting pictures of good and evil rather than pictures that represent human realities, hoping for magic bullets, and falling for fear over facts. Almost any one of these things would, in a healthy democracy, be a warning sign that it’s time for a serious second look, a trip to the democracy doctor, a time out…
It would take a pretty powerful and wise leader to get a nation to take a collective time out, But it only takes each one of us to decide to take a time out in our lives — to clear our heads and open our hearts again. Anxiety is a self-reinforcing cycle. If you can’t remove the cause of the anxiety (for example, when I was little it made a tremendous difference just to have a light on in my bedroom at night — even a nightlight could do the trick) then you have to work on your internal response. And, geez, this is both simple and totally not easy.
Full disclosure: the advice given here is not of my own creation — this is the wisdom of centuries of sages — some living now. However, it is from my personal experience that I offer these simple words of advice — because I know that it can help.
Take a deep, cleansing breath.
When one is anxious, breathing can be a challenge. It’s like we are holding our breath waiting for the threat to pass. Sometimes it does pass or seems to. but more often the threat is not something one can control. So holding the breath just deprives one of vital oxygen — needed for clear thinking and, well, life. So — while dreading an external threat you might just become your own internal threat by accident. If you decide, instead, to stop and think or stop and take a break from thinking– (not for ages, not succumbing to navel gazing instead of action) — for 20 minutes or 10 minutes or an hour or whatever you can tolerate — you can find some relief.
Try it now. You’re probably sitting already. So after you read this next couple of sentences, close the screen and then come back later.
Next couple of sentences: Take a deep breath — really deep — feel your chest expand and your belly rise. Then let the breath out. Check in with your self. Are you shoulders hunched or relaxed? Let them drop and take another deep breath — really deep — let the breath stretch you inside — where there is space — and feel your chest expand and your belly rise. Then let the breath out. If you feel even the smallest degree of relaxation, you are on the right track. Do the steps again.
This is not perfect, magic, easy. But, if you feel any relaxation at all then go back and do it again. Here is the thing: the feeling of relaxation that you may have had — even just a momentary unwinding — is an experience of freedom. It’s stepping aside — not being a domino in the world of pressures….
It is not allowing forces outside of you to fully control your inner world. You can’t live there in the quiet of the breath, meditating forever — but neither can you live nor contribute to life if you are running in panic from one reaction to another, from one reactive response to another. For a long time the message on my email responses was one from Rollo May — from his book “The Courage to Create.”
“Human freedom involves our capacity to pause between the stimulus and response and, in that pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight. The capacity to create ourselves, based upon this freedom, is inseparable from consciousness or self-awareness.”
But there is also this passage from Viktor Frankl who tested his ideas in one of the hardest laboratories on earth — a concentration camp.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” -Victor Frankl
Take a time out.
Take back your power to choose.
Take back your mind and heart.
And find the freedom and strength to engage in the world more wisely, courageously, compassionately, and in a way that affirms your own life as well as the lives of others. Then choose…