By Madhav Bhargav.
It was 16:30 pm on a Friday evening and I was standing beneath the neon light patiently waiting on my turn to be called in for an interview for a PhD position. I began to feel a tingling sensation flow through my body. It was excitement, contentment, fear of failing and the uncertainty surrounding it. At that moment, I realised it wasn’t just excitement and sadness that I was feeling. It was a set of expectations I had set for myself. Expectations my family and friends held. What if I fail? What if it all turns out to be a dream?
We must thank the guiding light of natural selection for a number of reasons, for example making our brains so enormous that let us do amazing things. Our astounding minds brought us to mars, captured a photo of a black hole, cured polio, and gave us Star Wars. But our powers have come with a cost – anxiety, depression and other unpleasant feelings.
Anxiety has been a constant companion of mine. This is the case for a lot of us. Much of our anxiety arises from the expectations that we have for ourselves and others have of us. Human beings have a tendency to cling to and pin our hopes on happiness and fulfilling expectations. This is natural; natural selection has made us think in this way. Let me explain; (For example), for me, my morning cup of freshly brewed coffee will be sure to give me a moment of that fleeting happiness. I have come to expect this each day upon returning from my morning workout sessions.
Robert Wright in his book “Why Buddhism is True”  writes, “Natural selection didn’t design our mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that will help you to take care of your genes”. Natural selection does not care about whether we see the world clearly. Happiness is something that is designed by natural selection to fade away because that keeps us motivated. For example — we eat our favourite meal – that feels good, but the pleasure is gradually fleeting.
As long as we have good reasons to believe that fulfilling an expectation will make us happy, and we take the necessary steps towards fulfilling those expectations; it’s all good and there is nothing wrong with this. Imagination is necessary to strive, so are our endeavours to action it. The problem of expectation occurs when we expect something to happen without it being pragmatic and perceivable. If I believe that my expectations themselves will bring me what I need, I am being delusional and looking towards that existential anxiety to sink in again. It’s quite straight forward when we are talking about brewing that coffee. I can’t make that coffee just by imagining it into mere existence. I need to take realistic actions to have that cup of coffee. For starters, I need water, grounded coffee etc., then I can work with them towards my goal.
Buddhist practices, such as mindfulness, can be useful in helping us to manage or ‘accept’ our anxieties. They can teach us to channel these emotions and understand them as they are, separate from us. Sometimes, it might feel like a complete waste of energy and time (I have been there), but it’s a part of the process. A longitudinal study revealed that higher scores in mindfulness predicted lower depression scores within a 4 month period .
While practising, try focusing on the physical sensation you have within your body when you feel that anxiety. Is it the tingling sensation beneath your feet? Palpitation of heart? Focus on it, see it as it is, without its essence. What I mean by this is to channel that anxiety you are feeling as an external entity. This scepticism toward your feelings makes sense when you realize what they were engineered to do (like that coffee for me), and that scepticism towards your feelings is a part of this exercise.
Mindfulness has also been associated with reduction in anxiety levels, coping with depression, burdensomeness, self-harm . A key research study conducted to look at mediating effects of mindfulness on anxiety and non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) outlined that mindfulness intervention strategies amongst individuals with heightened anxiety may reduce the risk for repeated NSSI in individuals . Research also suggests that practicing mindfulness for only 5 min over a few weeks, can significantly improve individuals’ trait mindfulness, and depression, anxiety, and stress levels .
While Mindfulness has proved effective, and has become popular again of recent times, we must not also forget, love and connection as indispensable antidotes to the plague of anxiety. As we live in these times of uncertain circumstances, the need for connection, to love and being loved feels yet more important than ever.
- Wright, R. (2017). Why Buddhism is true: The science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment. Simon and Schuster.
- Royuela-Colomer, E., & Calvete, E. (2016). Mindfulness facets and de- pression in adolescents: rumination as a mediator. Mindfulness, 7(5), 1092–1102. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-016-0547-3.
- Clerkin, E. M., Sarfan, L. D., Parsons, E. M., & Magee, J. C. (2016). Mindfulness facets, social anxiety, and drinking to cope with social anxiety: Testing mediators of drinking problems. Mindfulness, 8(1), 159–170. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-016-0589-6
- Bock, R. C., Berghoff, C. R., Baker, L. D., Tull, M. T., & Gratz, K. L. (2021). The Relation of Anxiety to Nonsuicidal Self Injury Is Indirect Through Mindfulness. Mindfulness, 1-12.
- Strohmaier, S., Jones, F. W., & Cane, J. E. (2021). Effects of length of mindfulness practice on mindfulness, depression, anxiety, and stress: A randomized controlled experiment. Mindfulness, 12(1), 198-214.