Quieting the Anxious Mind
Updated: Feb 28
A beginner sits to meditate for the first time. After some minutes, the mind becomes restless. Their guide instructed the group to empty the mind, but one notices the mind is disquieted and busy. "This cant be right." Tension arises. The sitter feels something is wrong and reasons from emotion: "If I feel bad, I must be doing something wrong. I feel bad. Therefore, I must be doing something wrong." The anxiety grows. The breathing pattern changes. The breath becomes shallow. The heart rate increases. Fear comes. They resist. Their guide reminds them to reorient attention back to the breath. The sitter notices that s/he is hyperventilating. The body becomes even more tense. The pull of the thought torrent is fierce. Meditation was recommended for anxiety. It was supposed to help, but the sitter is more anxious. The session ends. The sitter debates whether to ever meditate again.
This is not an uncommon occurrence. The story underscores the importance of both proper form and guidance. When a beginner comes to a class or workshop, I welcome both the individual and all of the parts that brought them to the center: the broken part seeking wholeness, the anxiety, the apprehension, the courageous part that feels apprehensive but goes anyway, the curiosity eager to explore, the one who suffers and the one who desires to be free of that suffering.
I usually begin with caveats. Meditation is not for everyone and is not recommended for people with a history of psychosis or for those who suffer from schizophrenia, seizures, multiple personality disorders, or bipolar disorder. Those with moderate to severe depression or anxiety and those with a history of trauma should exercise care. Many psychological afflictions have complex biological causes.
With the caveats out of the way, I share the neuroscience of attentional regulation. The talks are dispassionate, clinical. By understanding how the brain works, we can approach our practice with the curiosity and objectivity of a scientist. We observe non-judgmentally. With openness, we can experiment. We can isolate variables and may be able to replicate findings. But we do not bias the the mind with expectations or seek this or that outcome. Our expectations will invalidate the process. The science helps us approach meditation with a right attitude. If the mind is restless or anxious, we make a mental note of the fact. We don't take it personally. This distance is very useful for the beginning meditator.
During a focused meditation session, it is common to cycle through 5 intervals:
1. Sustained attention
Attention is single-pointedly focused on an object (the object of focus could be the breath, a word, a sound, a sensation, etc.). The executive network is active. This network includes the right parietal cortex, right frontal cortex, and thalamus. When we are focused on the touch sensation of the breath, the parietal lobes are active. The right frontal lobe is responsible for impulse control- among other functions. The thalamus regulates alertness. Acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine, and peptide-secreting neurons are molecular players that alter how alert we feel. Certain behaviors, like breathwork, exercise, or extreme cold help improve focus. Sleep and phasing practice when we are most alert can also heighten concentration.
2. Mind wandering (Default Mode Network)
At some point, the mind may wander. The posterior cingulate cortex, posterior lateral parietal/temporal cortices, cingulate cortex, and parahippocampal gyrus are active. This network, called the default mode network (DMN), is associated with mind wandering, disruption of attention, autobiographical memories, judgment, self-referential thoughts, guilt, and emotional processing. This may explain why meditation is so difficult for beginners. When the mind wanders and they realize the mind has wandered, rather than cut and reorient attention, they criticize their performance (judgment), make self-referential evaluations ("This isn't for me; I'm just not good at this"), and simply reinforce the DMN. Tibetan Buddhists called the DMN nyon-yi, the nuisance mind or neurotic mind. In Sanskrit, this phase is called vijnana, or the divided mind.
3. Awareness of mind wandering (Salience Network)
This interval is the aha moment. This is the moment a practitioner realizes attention has wandered. The skilled meditator celebrates and reorients attention; the unskilled meditator returns to the default state: "This is frustrating!" "I can't do this!" etc. Active nodes include the cingulate cortex and the anterior insula. The cingulate cortex is involved in emotion formation, processing, learning and memory. The salience network and its functional architecture is involved in cognitive control, perceptual decision, and error processing, How we process the error- whether skillfully or unskillfully- will affect perceptions, learning outcomes and performance.
4. Letting go (Executive function) This is a critical choice point. The experienced practitioner chooses to let go of the distraction; the inexperienced meditator allows the choice to be made for him or her. Active nodes: basal ganglia, lateral ventral cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). These nodes are involved in control, habit maintenance, and decision making. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), interestingly, lies in a unique position in the brain, with connections to both the “emotional” limbic system and the “cognitive” prefrontal cortex. The ACC likely plays an important role in affect regulation serving as a mediator between emotions and reason.
5. Re-orienting (Executive function)
The practitioner redirects attention to the object of focus. Active nodes: superior colliculus and frontal eye fields, temporal parietal junction and the superior parietal cortex.
During meditation, it is not uncommon to cycle through these intervals. We sit. We're focused. The mind wanders. At the point we realize the mind has wandered, we activate the salience network (which is associated with error processing and correction). Next, we choose to let go of the distraction, whatever it is, regardless of its content, its emotional charge, or intensity- or we may choose to indulge in the distraction and get lost in it. When we disengage and reorient our attention back to the breath, we activate the executive network. In attentional training, we trust the mind to find its equilibrium, without interference or resistance. The mind may be busy clearing out stuff. We let it work its cycle. Its cycle may include mental noise, thoughts, emotions, or images. We allow these processes to occur without interference.
Focused attention is one meditation technique. Another technique is called choice-less awareness or open-monitoring. This requires presence and awareness (which comes more easily after hours of focused attention practice). As counter-intuitive as it may seem, we sit and do nothing- analyzing nothing, resisting nothing, censuring nothing, judging nothing, expecting nothing, encouraging nothing. The mind may be restless; we are aware that the mind is restless. We remain relaxed, open, curious, and disengaged.
If the mind picks up a thought, we watch the mind playing with the thought like a father watching a child. The father is interested in his child, not the toy.
Here, it is important to understand the difference between having thoughts -which is the mind's activity- and being engaged with thoughts- which is the activity of the doer. When you find you have been engaged in thinking whether for a few seconds or for some time (salience), simply and effortlessly let go (executive), and reorient your attention back to your chosen object of focus (executive), letting go of the doer.
Mind wandering can be a hindrance if not properly understood as a spontaneous and natural epiphenomena of mind. The reactive, conditioned mind can remain resistant to change of any kind. Properly understood, however, a wandering mind offers the resistance you need to train in the same way gravity offers resistance for a weight lifter. As a weight lifter may groan and grunt and strain against the heavy load, you, too, may find yourself groaning and grunting and straining against the resistance offered by your own mind. Keep relaxing, allowing, and letting go. By making exercise a habit, the weight lifter conditions his or her body and grows in strength. The weightlifter does not curse gravity. By training your mind, you strengthen the neural networks underpinning attention. Training is more intense when the mind kicks like a wild bull.
Gradually, the structure of the brain changes- as does the body with exercise- and you will find it easier to sustain attention, to disengage from emotionally charged thoughts, to bring the mind and body to a state of ease.
We watch all mental phenomena arise and pass away. We notice the unfolding, the habitual patterns, the chains of cause and effect, the automatic patterns coming and going, sensations arising and passing away. We do not control- this is a default mode function. Rather than resist, we zoom attention in to experience. We sit with whatever arises- including discomfort. Indeed, we learn to reframe discomfort as a good. This attitude of friendliness and openness makes it possible to sit with tension and fear. We observe whatever arises as it arises: if tension, tension. We sit with that, the tightness, the throbbing, the heat, the pulsing. If we can maintain the attitude of a dispassionate and objective scientist, we can bring attention and curiosity to it. Explore the sensations. Where does it start? Where does it end? How deep does it go? How far out does it radiate? What is its quality? How intense is it?
There is more freedom here. This is empowering. We realize we can choose our response. We are no longer as embedded with thoughts as we once were. We can choose to allow; we can choose to observe. Over time, the discomforts no longer have as much power over us. In time, conditioned responses may even be extinguished. Eventually, we begin to feel less reactive, more equanimous, less anxious.
Practice takes effort, initially, until practice becomes effortless. We learn to let go fully; we stop efforting- which is a default mode function. One may even reach a point of non-doing. Structural change takes time, however. Rewiring the mind takes time. Approach with patience and let the seed of practice germinate. In time, something beautiful will flower in the garden of the mind. And when it matures, it will self-propagate and spread with little effort on your part. You will have tilled and worked the plot you were given, attending to the conditions your seed of mindfulness needs to grow. That tiny seed will do the rest.