Everyone experiences occasional anxiety and some of us might be fraught with it. Tricycle readers especially are most likely no strangers to hearing or reading about mindfulness-based meditation practices that can soothe the feelings of anxiety. But as anyone who has experienced an anxiety attack will know, what’s almost as unpleasant as having one is hearing someone say “just breathe, relax” in the midst of it.
Although awareness can lessen the experience of anxiety while it is happening, learning to identify and focusing your attention on physical sensations that are involved in the slide toward the end of our mental or emotional rope is critical to avoid suddenly ending up there.
The body always gives warnings as to what is about to happen mentally and emotionally, and as you get to know your body’s sensations, you’ll begin to recognize which are signals of upcoming distress. These sensations can be anywhere and range in severity—you might feel, for instance, your shoulder lift, your gut tightening, your jaw tensing, or the holding of your breath. By getting to know how your body exhibits signs of tension, you can be pre-emptive by moving your awareness into the area of sensation and relaxing it before it has to make much more noise, becoming a raging thought or emotion that’s impossible to ignore.
To that end, here is a mindfulness of body practice for noticing previously unfelt physical warnings that can lead to a state of anxiety. If you do it on a regular basis, it can also help to soothe your nervous system in general.
The Direct Experience Practice:
Take your meditation cushion or a folded stiff blanket(s) and lie down with it directly under your hips. If this causes any discomfort in your lower back, don’t lift the hips so high; use one less blanket or a thinner cushion. Your shoulders and head will be on the floor. Bring your arms down by your sides, palms facing the sky.
Allow yourself to melt into the blanket or cushion, bending your knees and letting your legs relax and knees drop towards each other. Draw your attention kindly to sensations in your body. Watch them as if they were curiosities that you’d like to become more familiar with. If you notice an unwinding of tension, pay attention to any places that started out as tight; most likely these are the areas of your body that will tense before the onset of anxiety and give you warnings about what is to come. Stay with your mind awake and body relaxed for 10 minutes or more. When you’re ready to come off the support, lift your hips, push the cushion to the side and roll down to your back. As you lie flat for a moment, notice changes in how your body and your breath feels—discern as much as you can about how the posture altered your body, breath, and mood so that you know the benefits it might hold for you and why you might wish to repeat it.
When you stand up, continue noticing whatever you can that has changed from when you began the practice: do your feet feel like they have more weight or do you feel them on the ground more? Is your breath more relaxed? How is your mood now?
You can go through this mindfulness of body practice daily, for longer than 10 minutes if you’d like, and even before bed. Like any conditioning, eventually it will alter your system, changing what has become a normal state of high alert to one of being more at ease, as well as allow you to become much more familiar with the territory of your body. Knowing the body can be key to working with the mind, and with intention and kind attention, the body can become one of our greatest allies in alleviating our own suffering.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.