Anxiety is an epidemic. Why don’t you try this O.P.E.N. prayer right now? It is a prayer of opening our clenched fists and our knotted hearts to the healing, hopeful love of God.
Why does it seem like so many people are anxious? Some researchers say an increase in reporting issues with anxiety is due to greater access to treatment. So an actual increase in anxiety may not be proven yet. But there certainly has been a lot of talk about anxiety in the past few years. And one researcher, among many, says there are common reasons people report more anxiety now than in the past.
The United States is breeding anxious people:
- Society has shifted. Kids are set for “extrinsic goals, such as materialism and status and away from intrinsic goals, such as community, meaning in life, and affiliation. Motivations are drifting away from the community and onto the individual.”
- More people are living alone. Some people like to live alone. But many more are forced to live alone — and loneliness increases anxiety. In 1960 under 7 percent of U.S. adults lived alone; by 2017, that figure had soared to well over 33%.
- We live in a chemical bath. Nobody knows just what is going to happen to us as a result of constant exposure to chemicals. Studies suggest that the cocktail of plastics and other pollutants children drink daily may contribute to their future anxiety.
- The introduction of social media platforms changed things. The onslaught of social media has changed relationship structures. Studies show, all over the world, that the more one uses it, the more likely they are to be depressed and anxious.
- Life, in general, seems more stressful. Are jobs more stressful? Is commuting to blame? When we tell kids that they can “achieve anything if they try hard enough,” are we setting them up to fail? Is our self image being driven into the floor by the constant bombardment on our senses of perfectly filtered, digitally altered models? Has capitalism shifted our attention to vastly unobtainable personal desires, leaving us with a gaping chasm we know we can never fill? Climate change, nuclear apocalypse, Ebola, flesh-eating viruses, antibiotic resistance, ever-growing economic inequality, dictators, fake news…the list is endless.
Then we start talking about all these things on all our media, and the reverberations amplify our anxiety!
Last Saturday at the thirtysomething retreat, we boldly talked about the anxiety-decade. If you are thirtysomething, a naturally challenging time of life is happening when the world itself provokes anxiety
So I offered a prayer that might help us find some peace. This outline is commonly used and I adapted it for our purposes.
O.P.E.N. to your Newness — the true you in Jesus
The next time you find yourself over-thinking past situations or feeling overwhelmed by life’s stresses, try this prayer that leads you to cooperate with God’s compassion and restore your attention to the present moment.
Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Notice how your body feels—tension in the stomach or heaviness in the shoulders, for example. Then notice the thoughts you’re thinking in the moment or are dwelling on from the past, and name them, such as, worrying, fearing, replaying, or planning.
When we notice where our bodies are carrying stress, we can focus our attention and relax our body parts. When we observe our thoughts, we’re able to choose which to believe and which to let pass, which are condemnation and which are freedom, which come from anxiety and which come from love. What are knee jerk reactions of your old self, what are death-defying traits of the new you in Christ?
We’re going to try it in a minute, so this is just an overview to get ready.
Now that you have identified the stress or seen the battlefield from a helpful perspective, let’s find peace. When you are ready, invite peace to your body and mind by saying things like, I am deeply hurt and it is okay to feel the way I do. (Receive comforting words to ease your distress about a specific situation or feeling).
Some other sentences that may deepen you peace: Even if other people judge me, I don’t have to judge myself. What other people say and do is about them, not me. I am angry but angry is not me. Jesus, guard my heart.
Cooperate with the peace of God.
Take a deep breath and take a moment to sit in the calmness of mind and body. Dwell in goodness. If you are using the Bible as part of this process (as I suggest below), enjoy the words or enjoy the pictures the words bring to mind.
Say to yourself: The moment has passed and now I am at peace. I am new in Christ. The God of peace is with me.
Let the goodness rise in you. More times than not, returning to the present moment — in which you can attend to yourself and to God, is an anchor, a solace in the midst of chaos. You can always come back to the place where you meet Jesus in the here and now.
At the retreat, we used a familiar portion of Philippians 4 which is a comfort of millions of people around the world. It could be read in an anxiety-provoking way: If I am worrying, I should not be. My heart is unguarded, so something terrible is going to happen to me. I can’t think straight, my mind races too much to dwell on something good. I am so inconsistent, God must not be with me. I can’t do it right, so I should give up.
Much of the Christianity in the U.S. runs according to the anxiety-provoking ways of the U.S. But I don’t think Paul, much less God, calls us to anything but the basic peace of Christ, moment by moment, forever. We kept affirming this : God is for me, in this moment and the next. Memorize that line so it is ready to recall when you need it — like when the police stop you, when the baby is crying inexplicably, when your husband is late, when the doctor’s diagnosis is iffy, when there is a midterm election, when you don’t know why you feel so fearful.
Why don’t you try this O.P.E.N. prayer right now? It is a prayer of opening our clenched fists and our knotted hearts to the healing, hopeful love of God. You wouldn’t have to use the Bible to do it . But Philippians 4 enriches the process.
Observe – Note your body and thoughts. Let the tight parts of your body relax. Choose the thoughts you need to hold on to and let the others go.
The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Peace – Invite peace into your body and mind by saying the honest truth about you and God
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Enjoy – Breathe. Take a moment to sit in the calmness of mind and body. Dwell in goodness.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Newness – Let the goodness rise in you. Be anchored.
Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. — Philippians 4:5-9
It would be great to hear about how you experienced this prayer!
[What to see it as a video? Here it is: https://youtu.be/U3e09WeLzdI]
I was at a conference two weeks ago and one of the common maladies being considered was the “panic attack.” They are more common than ever, it seems. You may have experienced your heart racing and your mind filling with doomsday visions as you worry about everything around you, including whether you’ll have more panic attacks or not be able to stop them.
About 40 million people eighteen or older in the United States, that’s 18% of the population, will suffer from an anxiety disorder this year. David Rosmarin, the director of the Center for Anxiety at Harvard says, “We’ve seen a massive increase in services in New York City in the last six months. From North Korea to hurricanes, we live with a greater degree of uncertainty. What it boils down to is: How much can people tolerate it when they don’t know what’s going to happen next?”
To make matters more anxiety-provoking, there’s an overwhelming number of methods to which you might turn to help you manage life in these uncertain times. (Coping might not be a DIY situation for you, so you might need to contact Circle Counseling).
Check your thinking: just because you are anxious does not mean you’re disordered
There’s an important distinction between anxiety and an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a natural reaction to stress — it’s not necessarily pathological or dangerous. There’s the point where it becomes a “condition.” It depends on the level of persistence, the severity, sense of distress, and if it’s impacting day-to-day function.
So, for example, if you feel anxiety while watching the news, you probably don’t need to do anything about that (except maybe turn off the TV, go for a walk or take some deep breaths). But if your anxiety is interfering with your concentration, ability to focus or sleep (or, as the DSM-5 says, if you have worry for more days than not for at least six months) — those things point toward disorder and you should find a counselor. But for anyone who has some nervousness, anxiety or stress, there are many coping strategies you can try on your own.
Even at extreme levels, anxiety is uncomfortable but generally does not result in death. (Even if it doesn’t feel like that at the time.)
Get out of control
Anxiety is an excessive focus on something that might happen in the future. It is always related to a perceived lack of control.
Jesus followers started following Jesus because they saw the truth that they were not supposed to be in control and could not manage the authority of being so, so they returned to a proper relationship of trust in God.
When things feel “out of control” we can do very practical things to put ourselves back in an appropriate track. Rather than focusing on what we can’t control, we can focus on what we are given to manage. Think about how you can contribute, do things, make progress. Just walk outside — even that does wonders. Talk therapy is rarely a bad thing.
You might think about “editing” your life to help bring back a sense of empowerment. This means giving up things that contribute to anxiety.
Medication can have its place
Many doctors urge caution, however, with regard to prescriptions, as well as indulging too heavily in “self-medicating” with beers or rosé with friends. Keep in mind, however, that there’s an increased association between anxiety and alcohol and other substance abuse. And drinking too much can ultimately make you feel even more anxious. So turn to rosé cautiously.
Meds do have a role for some people either short or long term as they are generally safe under the care of a doctor. A person should use them only so far as they help deal with the problem, Ultimately, people have to face their fear. To get a person to that place, that’s the art of therapy.
Even people who don’t care about God think praying is great. It doesn’t have to be scary. Begin with a very simple daily practice in the beginning of the day. Keep it to five minutes, or do five breath cycles if five minutes causes anxiety. For example, breathe out anxiety, breathe in goodness, strength, or whatever you’re trying to cultivate, all in the safe presence of the Holy Spirit.
If you sit down and enter a space you’ve decided is safe and healthy and healing, it sends a message to the rest of your system that you are not just at the whim of all the other things that are going on.
This is also where you might work in gratitude, or the practice of being grateful for what you have. I have a friend who keeps a list of things on her iPhone that make her feel good (reading a few of them made me feel good, too!). Others write in journals or think of a positive thing — or several — before going to sleep at night.
Go into more natural settings and attend to the trees, the weather or the ocean. It will refocus your attention away from the worries and toward God. Going to the cell and the Sunday meeting, getting out to help somebody else or protest, provides ways to be among good human nature.
Control the phone
Lots of people sleep with their phone, or right next to it. It’s generally the first thing they look at in the morning, and the last thing they look at before they go to bed. That’s asking for anxiety. Try turning off your ringer and all alerts so you don’t immediately respond to texts or calls. The Moment app might help you, since it tracks how much time you are looking at apps on your phone. Get off the devices and try to spend time with people you care about and restrict how much you interact with anxiety-provoking topics.
The exercise, dance, sports are not guilty pleasures or luxuries, they are ways to take care of oneself so you can engage more meaningfully. Even if you don’t feel that great when you are there, plod to the gym. The endorphins are nice, and the process gives you a sense of mastery over your situation and your body. That reduces anxiety.
Packing our schedules with activities and obligations takes a toll, no matter how much we want to do them. Maybe you need to get over your “FOMO issues” — Fear of Missing Out. Anxiety creeps up when we let demands — even fun distractions — from the outside have their way with us When we say no it feels like we’re reshuffling the decks so we are a priority and not “the things.”
Try working backward. What do you want your life to look like? What do you want your day to look like? Whenever you come up against the feeling of dread, instead of saying “I have to do this,” say ‘I GET to do this, what will this GET me?’ If what you are asked to do does not align, then stop doing that.
… But say yes to the right things
“Self care” has become a suspicious phrase because it’s often a marketing strategy for things that feel frivolous. But we should not throw the baby out with the scented bath water.
Need some ideas? I collected some the other week. But here are some more:
- Do a sheet mask (it requires you to lie down motionless);
- adopt an anti-inflammatory diet;
- sleep at least eight hours a night;
- read poetry or fiction and don’t read all the latest articles;
- watch the best TV, including escapist favorites like 30 Rock, or The Great British Baking Show;
- ride a roller coaster every few weeks. North Korea may be beyond your comprehension. But being upside down at 60 miles per hour is not is a fear you can handle.
- Spend quality time with friends, both furry and human;
- Be with kids, yours or borrowed. They can really help put things in perspective.
Ask for help
Panic often leads to isolation. The shame of not feeling completely, personally capable is part of our original sin. If you need to press the numbers through tears, that’s OK. Call someone. Spending time with people who you find supportive, professional or otherwise, is one of the most protective things.
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The notion that God is absent is the
fundamental illusion of the human condition.
— Thomas Keating
If Cynthia Bourgeault is right (and my own experience says she is), then the way beyond egoic thinking is the way of meditation. She says, “Meditation, more than any other spiritual practice, nurtures the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to divine hope. In the classic language of our tradition, these capacities are known as the ‘spiritual senses.'”
That little paragraph might have seemed so weird it drove you right back into you egoic thinking! So hang on. All “egoic thinking” means is we humans have the capacity to stand outside ourselves and look at ourselves. As far as we know, we are the only species who can do this. Tigers don’t think, “I have a quick temper.” And whales don’t say, “I am really glad to be going north; I’m a cold-water kind of whale.” And tigers and whales don’t write children’s books where tigers and whales seem cute when they reflect. Humans can imagine these different realities, looking back and forward, dreaming and visioning. It is a great thing about us.
Egoic thinking is great…until it’s not
The downside of this reflexive capacity, Bourgeault says, “is the tendency to experience one’s personal identity as separate — composed of distinct qualities, defined by what holds one apart from the whole.” So we all have an anxiety streak running through us because we really need and want to be together, not separate. The ego can’t get enough: praise, security, accomplishment, etc. to overcome that dreadful sense of being left out or thrown out and failing at being a full self. You can see how quickly we have all been driven into sin by this innate anxiety. And you can see why Jesus calls us to see our true selves, look at ravens and lilies, stop worrying and “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” as the means of becoming free of what is depriving us of joy.
Meditative prayer is a way of discovering and nurturing the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to “the Mercy” I talked about last week. It is a primary way to experience the “mystical hope”I talked about the week before, the hope which is near and not the outcome of all our striving. The centering prayer that Bourgeault teaches is “a basic, no-nonsense method of self-emptying — simply letting go of thoughts as they arise — to help practitioners break out of their compulsive attachment to thinking and entrust themselves to the deeper stillness of God.” [Here is Martin Laird’s take on it.] The essence of this kind of meditation is not keeping a perfectly clear mind. The essence is recognizing the moment when one is distracted and willingly turning back into the stillness of the Mercy, toward hope; turning toward the meeting place we have inside as an act of faith and honor; letting go of our own stuff and holding a space open for all God gives and all God is.
We need to get beyond self-awareness and its evil twin: self-centeredness
We have a “self” awareness that is beyond the egoic capacity that makes us human — we also have spiritual awareness. Meditation leads us out of ego-centered consciousness and into a space where we meet God. And so many of us know almost every feeling better than the feeling of communion with God! Someone has said we can also get to this meeting place by having a near-death experience or by falling deeply in love. I do not wish you the first short cut and do wish for you the latter. Meditation is the everyday path. It is the discipline that helps us “die daily” as Paul says he does, and helps us be one in love as he hopes we will be. The prayer of meditation puts a stick in the spokes of our outer awareness and leads us into the warmth and abundance of our inner awareness and into hope in the Mercy.
It is a hard world right now. Maybe you are pretty numb like a newscaster was saying she was after she was confronted with Donald Trump’s and General Kelly’s icky relationship with the family of La David Johnson. Or maybe you are feeling like the pastor who wrote to Christianity Today to voice how tired he is of trying to get into the white man’s church and how determined to separate into a black world until someone approaches him for once. If it were not a hard world, we’d probably make it one. So it is time to pray.
Have you listened to Jesus saying this to you lately?
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.”
Basic to that easy yoke is the prayer of meditation. We keep turning to it in our anxiety and fatigue and it keeps turning us toward hope.
More on Mystical Hope
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Next: There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it
Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses
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Every day, I need evangelized. Like Paul said of Abraham, the faithful friend of God:
“He did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:20-21).
I am also not wavering. But I need to be strengthened. I need to be fully persuaded that God has the power to do what he promises. This strengthening and persuasion happens every day.
To be honest, we, as a church, need to keep the spark of evangelism stoked among us and through us or we might “waver through unbelief” like Paul fears the Romans might waver (or why bring up Abraham, right?). If Paul looked over our church, he might be writing a letter to our leaders and to all of us when he saw the kinds of things we do rather than persuading people that God has the power to do what he promises through Jesus Christ.
Here are three things we tend to do these days that show we need evangelized — no judgment, just things to think and talk about.
We manage lovelessness
This week, all sorts of people are going to bring out the four horsemen in their relationships at home, in your cell and with the leaders. We are going to be tempted to manage the symptoms of their lovelessness rather than teach a better way. Rather than reconcile after our teaching causes conflict, we will be tempted to keep things calm by not confronting the life-sucking lack of love and keeping our mouths shut. We try to manage the lovelessness. This managing rarely succeeds and the territory of the loveless expands rather than stays in the boundaries we set. Basically, we spawn a dysfunctional family like that from which many of us came.
Why did I miss diving into the Divergent series until now? It is totally my kind of thing: anxious twentysomethings/teens forced by the government and their colluding parents to choose an identity that doesn’t fit them. Watching Kate Winslet (symbolizing the authorities) have her hand nailed to a computer screen by a well-thrown knife — what could be more interesting?
There is just so much to talk about here! So much of what the movie’s (and books’) characters face is exactly what people are thinking and feeling in the church all the time.
For instance, in Divergent-world, people are assumed to be pre-programmed. So far, it looks like Tris just isn’t. And it looks like Four/Tobias doesn’t want to be. Isn’t that just what we are all talking about — am I just who I am, or can I be someone more? “Can I choose? Do I have to choose? What if I choose wrong? Who decides the choices? Can they make me choose?”
In that kind of atmosphere, people have a lot of questions about the church, too — which is all about choosing, after all, and all about taking on a new identity. For instance: “Are the pastors a bunch of Kate Winslets with secret plots to use us for their own purposes?” That’s a good question. But, more likely, the question is about choices. “Should someone else choose what I choose (like Jesus)? Are they just programmed differently? Can I say what the choices are? I like choosing more than I like what I choose — what about that?” There is a lot to think about.