I’m currently participating in a writing group that meets on a monthly basis. Between each of our meetings, one of the facilitators sends out a topic on which all of us in the group are invited to reflect and write for our next session together. Today, as my post for this blog, I would like to share the inspiration for the group’s most recent topic — an excerpt from a poem by Mary Oliver — and what came to my mind related to anxiety as I thought about it.
Here in Indianapolis, Indiana, we have had snow and ice on the ground in the neighborhood where I live since the day after Christmas (as I write these words, it is January 8). Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t mind snow, at least initially. I don’t even mind ice — well, for a few days, anyway. After almost two weeks, though, as beautiful as I may find the snow and ice at first, I am past ready for the stuff to melt. Then, I’m okay if it starts all over again — really. I just want a break! Actually, to be absolutely honest, I want an opportunity to walk to the mailbox at the end of the work day without ice skating in my slick-soled dress shoes — to not have a break (of an arm or a leg, that is!). If I were on a reality TV show during any given winter, I would be the cast member (in)famous for wacky arms-waving, yelling-out-loud (and cursing under my breath!) incidents of nearly losing my footing every time I walked out the front door. Yeah, I’m that guy. I’m sure sometimes that my real-life neighbors get together, snickering behind the curtains of the window with the best vantage point, just to watch.
Given this winter context, the topic for the writing group — a couple of lines from a poem called “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver (House of Light, 1990) — strikes me as especially ironic, and welcome. After so many days of snow and ice on the ground, I’m ready for a bit of summer — however I can get it! In the poem, the narrator contemplates creation, the company of a grasshopper that eats sugar out of her hand, and she enjoys herself — just being — in fields of grass on a summer day. The lines that the group facilitator asks us to reflect on for our writing this month come from the very end of the poem, when the narrator turns to the audience with a question. In my own head, I hear the question as the narrator’s response to an imagined reprimand for spending the day in what some people would surely interpret as an indolent, even self-indulgent fashion:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
What comes up for me when I read these last lines of Oliver’s poem is what I heard the narrator just describe doing with her own “wild and precious” life during a summer day that she spends in fields of grass — attending to the moment, to her experience in the moment. I hear the narrator’s question, then, as a call to live in the present — a practice that, in my own experience, is so often a challenge when I am feeling anxious. Anxiety has a knack for pulling me out of the present moment, whatever may be happening, whether I’m judging the experience that I’m having as a positive or negative one, and setting my mind racing along the lines of “What if … ” and “Then what … ?” If I’m in the middle of an unpleasant experience, the anxiety does not help — I feel only more miserable, in fact. If I’m in the middle of a pleasant experience, the anxiety cheats me out of enjoying it. Either way, anxiety gets me worrying about things that may never happen, at the expense of being present to whatever is happening in the here-and-now, and being able to make conscious choices about how I want to think and feel about those things, and how I want to respond behaviorally. What is it that I plan to do with my one “wild and precious” life? My own answer to Oliver’s narrator is that I plan to be as present as I can manage to be. Like everyone else with a similar goal (I know that you’re out there!), I am always learning how to do so.
When I feel anxious, I’m aware that I have begun to focus my thinking on fears and doubts. I get caught up in my head this way, with side effects that I notice in my body: an upset stomach, palpitating heart, sweating, and restlessness. When I feel anxious, I am plagued by restlessness of my mind as well, in the form of poor concentration — on everything except what I’m feeling anxious about! What helps me when I’m feeling anxious is to bring myself back into the present moment; I am often able to do this by getting out of my head, centering and grounding myself in the sensory experiences of my body. I may take a few slow, deep breaths, concentrating on my experience of those breaths (the sensation of air filling my lungs, my abdomen expanding, and then the reverse) instead of the anxious thoughts that are spinning in my head. I may take a few sips of cold water, noticing the temperature of the water in my mouth, against my tongue, and down my throat as I swallow. At this point, I may then remind myself of what is going well in my life, a few reasons for feeling grateful, giving thanks, in the present. If I have more time, I may decide to take a walk (if there is not snow and ice on the ground!) or go to the gym, listen to music that comforts and soothes me, or meditate. I may use the idea of “Worry Time,” postponing my worry until a certain period later in the day; when that time comes, then, I usually find myself bored by my anxiety before my allotted “Worry Time” is over.
Now, if your experiences of anxiety are anything like mine, they may feel a bit like losing your footing on the ice — out of control, scary, potentially embarrassing if someone is around to see, tending to induce anxiety about having another such experience in the future (which means, then, a sense of anxiety about anxiety … ack!). Clearly, being able to be present to the moment in the midst of such experiences can be a challenge. As corny as this may sound, I often say to myself, “Wow! I’m feeling really anxious right now! How do I want to handle this experience of anxiety in a way that is going to feel helpful to me?” I remind myself that what I’m going through is only temporary, and won’t kill me. Though I would much rather be experiencing myself as “idle and blessed” in fields of grass on a summer day than seized with a sense of anxiety, whatever the context, I do my best to practice the kind of radical attention to the “wild and precious” present moment of life that I find exemplified by the narrator in Oliver’s poem. I think of the present as “wild” because, even with all of my anxious “What if … ?” and “Then what … ?” thinking, I know that I can’t actually control the outcome of events with that thinking (though anxiety constantly tries to convince me otherwise!). I think of the present as “precious” because, when I’m able to make conscious decisions in the moment about how I’m thinking about things, feeling, and how I want to respond behaviorally, the benefits to increasing my sense of calm and confidence are invaluable.
Here’s to your own increasing sense of calm and confidence!
For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts at thoughttonic.com; you can follow this blog, by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or RSS feed.