Now, this is a story all about how my life got twist-turned upside down, and I’d like to take a minute just sit right there and tell you how meditation cured my anxiety.
Every time I think back to the days when I suffered from anxiety, I find it surreal.
Let me paint the picture for you. For a long time, I’d suffered from a terrible fear of dentists. I don’t know why—and indeed, I’ve found that many of the fears I’ve suffered from in life are elusive. I know they exist, but honestly, I couldn’t tell you why. For whatever reason, I had a crippling fear of dentists. So you can imagine how I felt when one day during lunch break at work I bit into a burrito, and my molar tooth literally fell out of my head—well, half of it anyway.
I panicked. My heart rate went through the roof, and I started hyperventilating. I told my boss I needed to go home immediately. I didn’t even say why. I just left, with a mind screaming and screeching. You’d think I would immediately go to the dentist. I did not. I spent five months—yes, five months— literally terrified because I knew I would have to go to the dentist, and I was too scared to go.
Anyone who suffers from an irrational fear knows too well how it can prevent you from getting the help you need. And indeed, I didn’t get the help I needed because I was terrified.
When I think back to this time in my life, I am awestruck by the staggering ability of the mind to dominate our lives. An unhealthy mind can lead to destructive behaviours—you know, like having half a tooth that’s still rotting in your head and still refusing to go to the dentist.
What I learned from this insanely painful and woefully unnecessary experience was that the way we perceive the world and the way we think have unbridled power over us, and if we want to gain self-mastery, we need to learn to govern the mind and thoughts.
Thankfully, I knew one potent way of mastering my mind: meditation. Prior to my embarrassingly stupid tooth incident, I had dabbled with meditation but never really taken it seriously. Then the event happened, and I realised that I had a choice: I could continue to be put through hell unnecessarily just because my mind was unhealthy, or I could learn to be the governor of my own mind. After all, like Lao Tzu once said, “Correct your mind and the rest of your life will fall into place.”
I immediately started meditating. After my first meditation, I already felt more relaxed. No, meditation didn’t cure my anxiety immediately. I wasn’t ready to go to the dentist yet, and my first twenty minutes of meditation didn’t change my life, but it did put the brakes on my galloping thoughts and help me breathe a little more deeply (and indeed, scientific research highlights the significant benefits of just twenty minutes of meditation ).
During this detour through personal hell, I became somewhat obsessed with meditation, and studied it excessively, including the history of the practice, the science, the spiritual aspects… everything. Indeed, I went on to become so involved with meditation that I am now a meditation teacher. But at the time, I was still terrified.
What I knew was this: in order to get my tooth extracted, I needed to change my mind, and to change my mind, I needed to change my perspective of myself and of the dentist. Thankfully, I also knew that meditation could help me accomplish these things. And so I spent many hours sitting breathing and attempting to do what Zen masters call “Just being”.
I practised a myriad different meditation techniques in an attempt to conquer my anxiety, and I subsequently learned what the best meditations for anxiety are .
There were a few meditations that I found particularly beneficial. And in the hopes that my experience might help someone else to avoid five months of pointless hell, I think I ought to share them with you.
These Meditations Cured My Anxiety
I tried well over thirty different forms of meditation in my attempt to cure my anxiety. And ultimately, I found the following by far the most beneficial (and now, a long time later and with many years of study in meditation, I finally understand why).
Anapanasati is mindfulness of breath. It is the practice of observing the breath moving through the body. Originally a Tibetan Buddhist practice, Anapanasati has been scientifically proven to offer many health benefits , of which the most readily attainable is relaxation.
During my excruciatingly painful months with anxiety, I would always turn to Anapanasati as a way to calm my mind and relax. It helped me to slow down and to stop the perpetual cycle of dread and fear that was dominating my mind.
2: Loving Kindness
Loving Kindness meditation, otherwise called “Metta”, is a meditation in which we focus on giving and receiving thoughts and feelings of love and kindness. I practised this method with one pivotal twist: I focused on giving and receiving love and kindness to and from my dentist, the very person of whom I was terrified. The more I practised this method, the more I felt my relationship with my dentist changing. Eventually, in my mind, the dentist went from being a demon to a regular, friendly guy who wanted to help me. This made me far less afraid of them, and was pivotal in me eventually getting into the dentist’s chair. Later, I learned that scientific research has highlighted how loving-kindness can change personal biases and enhance social connection .
Vipassana is a form of Buddhist meditation in which we meditate on the breath while labelling thoughts and feelings. If, for instance, we are meditating on the breath when we notice a feeling of anxiety, we will simply label it “Anxiety”. Research has shown that labelling thoughts and emotions makes us less reactive to them . The more I practised this, the more I realised that my thoughts about the dentist were just thoughts, and my emotions just emotions. This helped me to stop being governed by them.
Through a daily meditation practice, I was able to change the way I felt about the dentist, quell my anxiety, and ultimately, sit in the dentist’s chair and get my tooth ripped out (a wonderful reward!). But if all that sounds gloomy, remember that grey skies turn to sunshine. It was only by going through this personal hell that I discovered meditation and ultimately became a meditation teacher—funny how our worst nightmares lead to pleasant dreams.