This question was asked by Karen who is trying to cultivate a meditation practice. So often when I sit, I get very distracted by worries, and I can’t just acknowledge them and watch them waft away. The worries are about important things. Do you have any advice for calming down, for a beginner?

There are two parts to Karen’s question. The first is that she is immediately distracted by worries. The second is that these are not just any worries. These are important worries.

In my experience, as soon as I sit down to find stillness, the first thoughts to alight in my brain are pesky, negative, critical thoughts. Sort of a worry/criticism combo. Here’s a typical thought to pop up when I first sit down: “You idiot. You forgot to go to the bank. AGAIN.” Have I ever approached the stillness and immediately found a moment of peace, of greatness, of joy? No, I don’t think so. I often hear the loopy tape of conversations that never have and never will occur. When he said that if I would have said this, then he would have said that, and then I would totally have had the opportunity to say this thing I will never have the opportunity to say. Or will I? Can I manipulate the next conversation to provide me the opportunity to say this most brilliant and poignant comment that will finally and totally explain to him why he is so wrong? Of course not.

Karen, your worries are distracting and will always be distracting. The issue is how to accept the distraction without judgment. Observe the worry thoughts. See what emotional response you feel in your body. Do you feel a tightness in your heart? A buzz in your head? Breathe. Focus on your breath or the sounds in the room to help coax the thought away. The worry may subside for a moment. Be proud of this tiny bit of success.

This is my suggestion based upon my personal experience. Pesky critical thoughts are familiar to me. I know these thoughts better than any other kind of response in my head or my body. The voice that chastises me is the most familiar voice in my head. I know this inner critic isn’t going anywhere, but if I concentrate on my breath, I can often get it to take a little break knowing that it has permission to come back later. It’s like your crazy Uncle Harry. He often gets drunk, he frequently says the wrong thing, but he’s still invited to Thanksgiving dinner. I observe the criticisms and the worries and I TRY not to become involved with them. This experience of observing thoughts as opposed to thinking thoughts is a radical thing to do and is very powerful.

The other part of the question is that these worries are about important things. Important things deserve important time. Big worries need to be acknowledged. Our natural reaction to unpleasant and painful experiences and thoughts is to avoid them. But much of the time,  avoiding often makes the suffering even stronger and more resilient. Sometimes we actually worry about being worried.  Accepting difficult feelings can alleviate some of the suffering and worry surrounding the difficulties.

Here’s what I mean. While teaching a class for people living in an independent living facility, a woman mentioned her struggle with the fear of slipping in the shower. No one in this class was under the age of eighty-five and quite a few participants were nearing or over one hundred years old. Everyone here was daily barraged with new insults to bodies and minds. Oxygen tanks and walkers were common accessories. Her fellow meditation students were quick to offer advice: Install a grab bar. Ask an aide to wait outside the door when you shower. But this woman wasn’t looking for helpful advice. She was asking for strategies to enable her to cope with and accept her fear, a fear that most likely extended far beyond the fear of slipping in the shower.

Problem-solving is a less provocative skill than accepting and acquainting oneself with difficult emotions such as fear, anxiety and grief. When you’re sitting and a serious worry descends, if possible, allow yourself to experience the worry without interacting with the worry. This is a place to proceed with caution and compassion. Sometimes it is just too difficult to stay in this painful place very long and it’s perfectly fine to acknowledge the pain, then go back to your anchor be it your breath or something more sensory such as the sounds in the room or even touching the fabric of your clothing and really noticing the way it feels. (It’s important to stay within your “window of tolerance” where the upper level of the window is anxiety, the lower level is depleted energy, as more fully explained in David Treleaven‘s excellent materials.)

Meditation is not about problem solving. It’s about stepping away from the problem solving and developing the capacity to hold your worries a little more lightly.