I lie in bed, a band of pain across my forehead.
My heart feels like a crowd of people stomping their feet. I am exhausted but I can’t sleep. It is 1:00 am, 2:00 am, 3:00 am, 5:00 am, 7:00 am. I toss and twist in sweat soaked sheets. My gut is unmoored and swimming in the noxious sea of my belly.
But this isn’t the worst of it, not by far.
It’s the thought, whatever the thought of the day (or night) might be, the thought that is stuck in my mind like a thorny burr, refusing to let go. The thought, the thought—it circles round and round; no end, no beginning, gathering power with each lap until I simply want to scream and scream it out, get it out of me: this thorn, this dart, this poison.
Or one form of it anyway; rumination, obsessive thinking. A true curse to those who suffer from it. It seems to have gotten worse as I age, replacing my more familiar depression— an ailment of dark paralysis—with what feels like madness. Manic, crazed, never still, but also never productive, it settles on me like a cloud of bees whose wings beat hard enough to shake the atmosphere.
Often unpredictable and not linked to any real event, an episode can last in varying degrees of intensity for up to two weeks, by the end of which I am as ragged as one of those single shoes one sometimes sees cast inexplicably aside along the highway.
Despite my anxiety’s maddening lack of logic, there are some identifiable triggers, the most powerful of which is anyone’s displeasure with me.
This is challenging, because as a mom, a wife, a daughter, a clinician, and just generally a human being, there are plenty of ways for me to piss someone off. To avoid these triggers I have become a chronic people pleaser, apologizer, negotiator, student of human behavior and professional fixer.
Despite my best efforts, people still get pissed.
Most recently, a terrible argument with a family member spun me out into one of my longest running bouts of obsessional thinking ever. It was a complicated affair, one that had lots of sides, and levels, and ways of being perceived, and also a lot of old pain for both of us; a situation ripe for a massive anxiety attack.
As I lay in bed sometime during week two of the attack, I remembered a fragment of an idea by Michael Singer which he’d written about in The Untethered Soul. He discussed awareness, as being separate from the mind, and as being the true essence of one’s self, or the soul. This is not a new idea, and it is not new to me.
I am a trained yogi, so stilling “the monkey mind,” or the ceaseless chatter of the brain as a means to find peace and connect to the soul is a concept that is near and dear. But there was something about the way he was discussing it that stood out to me.
The constant quest to release the attachment to one’s monkey mind feels reactive, like I’m trying to un-do something negative, or at least accept it and move on, but this can be done in more than one way. I was taught to watch my thoughts without judgement so that they might lose their power over me, but by watching them, I am still making them the focal point. Singer made me wonder, what if I could bypass my thoughts altogether and connect directly with my soul?
As I lay there in the throes of my anxiety— well, semi-throes, as I now I was on to something outside the realm of my current obsession thus nominally alleviating it—I imagined my soul being located somewhere within my chest. Not in my heart (that was too compromised), but somewhere slightly beneath it. It seemed like a small, hidden, sacred thing that was very real, and very much there.
Then I imagined my brain, and all the thoughts that were flying around it, and realized I could choose to stay literally inside my head, or move things down into that safe space beneath my heart. I gave it a shot. It seemed I could move my awareness freely between these two places! By refusing to connect with my thoughts, and instead redirecting my attention to my soul, I could turn off the terrible torment of my obsession.
Well, for a split second anyway. Obsessions are very seductive, after all.
But I practiced, and it got easier. I was able to sustain my connection with my soul for longer periods of time, and this was cause for great rejoicing, especially by my husband, who was pretty tired of hearing me moan about my insomnia and what an unfair and terrible place the world is if you happen to be me.
I began to try this practice of actively choosing to connect to my awareness rather than my thoughts in non-obsessional moments as well. What simplicity and depth and gratitude I found! It’s funny, because as I said, this is not a new idea, but sometimes an old idea gets framed in a new way that allows the picture to come into very sharp focus, even if that frame is just a simple square, in this case in the form of a book by a man who is a great deal smarter than me.
The image I have is this: there’s me. There is that swarm of bees and their deadly buzzing around my head. If I want, I can avoid those bees entirely and hide out in a cool dark cave inside my chest. That cave has a nice wide mouth, through which things look reasonable, and true. I never really have to go near those bees at all.
Okay, I need to go near the bees if I’m doing things like driving my car or making phone calls, but I can spend a lot less time with the bees and possibly even learn to avoid being stung by them by not swatting around wildly and expecting that to do anything other than enrage them.
If you suffer from obsessive thinking or any kind of anxiety and would like to try getting out of your head and connecting to your awareness/soul/spirit/
- Sit or lay down somewhere comfortable. If you’ve been tossing and turning in bed for hours, get up, straighten the bed, plump the pillows and maybe take a sip of water.
- Gently close your eyes and relax your face, your forehead, your eyeballs, your ears, your shoulders, your chest, your belly, your arms and legs, your hands and your feet.
- Now look at the bees for a sec. Feel the fact that you have had all your attention on them and nowhere else in your body for however long. Feel what a small place your head is and how busy and full it has been.
- Now locate a place in your chest beneath your heart. You can envision it as something if that helps. Some things that might work are a cave, a safe room, a lake, the forest floor.
- Put all your attention on this place. See it in detail and once you can visualize it, imagine being inside it and allow yourself to rest. When you feel your attention being pulled back to the bees (which will happen), imagine saying the word “no” calmly and firmly, and redirect. Repeat as necessary.
I am not pretending this is the answer to all of my (or your) anxiety woes, but I believe it is a helpful and effective tool. May we all learn to live with our bees and maybe even squeeze a drop or two of honey from them as they fly their course.