This is an edited transcript of a lovely discussion we had this Tuesday in our anxiety/stress class on Zoom. We were discussing the various myths around worrying: that it shows we care; that it is useful in heading off problems; that we can't stop it.
Worrying is an addiction, because it doesn't serve any purpose, just in the way that heroin doesn't make you peaceful, or sugar doesn't make you happy.
Worrying doesn't solve anything. It's just a selfish addiction. Sounds quite harsh, but that's essentially what it is. You're revolving everything around yourself over and over again, thinking about all the possibilities of how it's going to impact you or the people that you love. And it doesn't add anything of benefit to the universe.
There's a cool-headed analysis of what might happen, but you can do that in 30 seconds. Spending a whole day worrying about the week ahead is not helpful. And sometimes you do have to get off that train.
There's a wonderful writer called Mark Epstein. He's a psychotherapist and a Zen practitioner. And he was talking about how he had a therapy client who was addicted to using prostitutes. He just couldn't stop himself from going to have casual sex, paying to have sex. And they talked about it, and they talked about his childhood, and they talked about all the psychodynamic issues behind it, and what it meant, and was the prostitute his mother, or was it his sister, and blah blah blah. For years, they talked about it.
And, at one point, Mark Epstein's teacher was in, town, And the client asked, "Is it okay if I go and see, have an interview with your teacher?" And he said, "Sure, that's great. And then the next session, Epstein said, "So what happened?" And the patient goes: "I told your teacher about my addiction to prostitutes. And he said, stop it. Stop doing that. Don't do it anymore. So I did!"
Sometimes you just need someone to point out that it's not doing anyone any good, so just stop it. Stop doing it. Make a concerted effort to find a way to make worrying so boring that you don't do it anymore.
That's what Buddhism says: at some point, you just have to stop doing unskillful things with your mind. And use your mind more positively.
You have to get off that worry train or find a way to stop it. And this "leaning in, leaning out" practice is a good way because you're not saying, "OK, I'm never going to worry" because then you just drive yourself crazy every time you worry. And you're also not saying, "I'm going to indulge my worry" because that just strengthens the neural pathways.
Instead, you're saying, "OK, I'm going to repeatedly give myself 60 seconds to worry, but I'm going to be really conscious of it". And then, inevitably, you get bored. Because it's boring. And I find that's a good strategy for stopping worrying.
The idea that if you don't worry about things, bad things will happen is magical thinking, I'm afraid. It doesn't make any difference whether you worry about something or not.
You can skillfully plan not to go out in a hurricane. But you don't need to worry about it. Just make the decision and don't do it.
Of course, we can be bred into worry, (I'm not sure we're born worriers) but certainly our family can get us into the habit of worrying. But again: we are ultimately owners of our own minds. There are skilful ways of working with the mind and changing. Otherwise, why would we come? Why would we come to these sessions?
These gentle in-and-out meditations, I find to be an excellent way of tackling that.
I should also say that it's important not to shame yourself for worrying, or shame other people or your family for worrying. Loads of people worry all the time. But we need to have a gentle recognition that it doesn't mean that we care, it actually means we only care about ourselves. Because worrying is a loop into the self. It doesn't extend out. It doesn't help anybody. As you well know if your mother or some relative of yours says, "Oh, I've been so worried about you." That doesn't help. Don't tell me that you've been worried about me. Come and visit me or come and do something.
Worrying is a very common thing and there's nothing to be ashamed of and we shouldn't shame other people for worrying. But it's not skilful.
And, at some point, we have to recognize what is skilful in our mind and what is not. And then try, as much as possible, to do something to counter the unskillful things. Because we only have one life, (well, if you're a Buddhist you think we have many lives), but this life is very precious.
We have these wonderful minds, we have lots of privileges that many people on the planet don't have. There are great, sources of inspiration all around us. it's important to use our mind, our human mind, the best we can. So, without beating yourself up, there is an intentional energy that we can use that is about freeing ourselves and therefore freeing others. Not being a nuisance to others, but being of benefit to the world.
And worrying doesn't benefit anybody, at least of all yourself.
Please do join our 3x weekly meditation group on Zoom. You can find the details on how to come along here:
And if you have any insights or comments about worrying, please do take a moment to jot them down in the comments sections below!