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Q: Can anxiety be cured by Buddhist doctrines such as meditation? I fear the future and what will become of me. Most of all, I fear being on my own during my last years.
In a word, yes. Anxiety and other mental health issues can be overcome through studying, practicing and integrating the various methods found in Buddhist teachings, such as meditation. However, positive effects depend on many factors such as the degree of the anxiety, the level and consistency of practice and so on.
Everyone occasionally experiences anxiety. It’s a normal part of life. We might feel anxious when making an important decision or when facing problems at home or at work. While we cannot control the future, we can strengthen our positive attitudes and emotions that prevent anxiety and that makes us more resilient when we face difficulties. For example, His Holiness the Dalai Lama attributes happiness in his later years to his meditation and practice of compassion.
But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For someone with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety doesn’t go away and can interfere with daily activities such as relating to family and friends, schoolwork or job performance. Anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder and social anxiety disorder are best treated by qualified professionals in the mental health field. In this case, Buddhist teachings and meditation are better used as an adjunct to other therapies.
The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) lists anxiety disorders as the most common mental illness in the US. Through ongoing studies of patterns of illness and health, the NIMH estimates that in 2016, roughly 40 million adults—8% of the American population—struggled with anxiety. Only about a third of the people suffering from these conditions seek treatment.
Meditation is becoming mainstream, and many people practice some form of meditation to lessen or prevent stress and stress related-health problems. While many different types of meditation are found within Buddhist teachings, mindfulness meditation has become increasingly popular in recent years, thanks in part to hundreds of scientific studies researching the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation for promoting physical and mental health. However, many of the studies on mindfulness meditation have been faulted for their lack of scientific rigor, such as not having appropriate control groups.
Recently, researchers at Johns Hopkins University reviewed nearly 19,000 meditation studies to find those that met their criteria for well-designed studies. The JAMA Internal Medicine published their findings, suggesting that mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stress in people with generalized anxiety disorder, depression and pain by significantly altering the stress response, evident in the levels of stress hormones and inflammatory markers.
Another recent study by Dr. Elizabeth Hoge at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Disorders at Mass General Hospital showed that an 8-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction program proved to quell anxiety symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder. This is promising.
Mindfulness meditation as taught for stress reduction is derived from Buddhist techniques. While there are definitely benefits from it, it differs from Buddhist mindfulness meditation. Buddhist mindfulness meditation aims for spiritual liberation and must be done together with the practices of ethical conduct that refrains from harming others and compassion that wishes all beings to be free of suffering.
Buddhist practices other than mindfulness meditation can also help to reduce or even eliminate states of mind like anxiety. Here the evidence is the subjective personal experience of Buddhist practitioners from the past 2,600 years. Buddhist theory and practice is principally concerned with causes and effects within human experience. The Buddha’s principal teaching on the four noble truths describes in great detail the nature of our suffering and its causes, the possibility of freedom from that suffering and the replicable methods or paths that lead to such freedom.
Anxiety arises when we project false, exaggerated characteristics on things, people and situations. It also comes from projecting false motivations on other people. One very useful meditation to counter such thoughts is to meditate on the kindness of others. How do we that? We reflect on how much benefit we have received from family and friends, from our teachers and even from the strangers who grew the food we eat or built the roads we drive on, and so on. Even when the mind insists, “Others have harmed to me too,” we can counter that by weighing how much more kindness we have received than harm. When we reflect on this daily, our whole attitude changes, and a genuine love for others can arise.
When we can develop compassion towards others and focus on their kindness, our anxiety goes way down. Meditating on a love for others that wishes for them to have happiness nourishes a sense of friendliness. We can generate joy when focusing on others’ good qualities, virtue, and success to counter jealous feelings. And meditating on equanimity helps us to develop a steady state of mind no matter what we encounter.
When we examine anxious thoughts, we find common themes such as fear of future suffering from not getting what we want, being separated from what we like and experiencing undesired problems. Such thoughts are based on the assumption that happiness exists outside of ourselves—in things, other people or certain situations.
Much of our anxiety and fear come from not understanding the internal causes of our own experiences of happiness and suffering. And much of this misunderstanding comes from not knowing how we exist: as a constantly changing body and mind dependent on causes and conditions. Buddhism offers a vast array of teachings and meditations for investigating our experiences to discover how we and our external environment actually exist. When we sincerely apply these teachings and meditations to our own life experiences, fears naturally and gradually subside as our compassion and wisdom develop. Please give it a try and let us know how it goes.
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