After having a mild anxiety attack Sunday evening, I googled "Buddhism and panic attacks" to see what would pop up. I found a half-hour dharma talk on 3/24/11 by Josh Korda at Dharmapunx NYC + Brooklyn about anxiety relief. I recommend it. He discusses both the Buddha's and modern neuroscience's wisdom about why anxiety arises in our minds.
I won't rehash the whole talk, but I do want to share what he says early on. Korda explains that when the amygdala (the fear center in our brain) fires up, it's often because it misfires (that's just its nature) as well as for reasons of which we aren't usually consciously aware. When we experience the physical unease associated with the release of cortisol, the meaning-making part of our brain looks around and tries to explain why we feel anxious. It'll come up with an explanation and is startled when the unease doesn’t go away, not realizing that an explanation often isn't needed because it's just the amygdala doing its dysfunctional thing. We get caught in our explanations, though, telling ourselves the same stories over and over, wounding ourselves again and again.
Korda then switches from neuroscience to a short discussion of what the Buddha said about the seven anusayas, otherwise known as "underlying tendencies of the mind." Here are the seven things that the human mind tends to do:
1. Latch on to things that feel good.
2. Fear things over which we have no control.
3. Have opinions and views about how we think the world should be and how people should behave.
4. Have a lack of faith in the things that are good for us in the long term but don't pay off immediately.
5. Think self-centeredly and take everything personally.
6. Hold the desire to live forever.
7. Be ignorant about what causes our stress. We think outside events or what people do or say to us is the primary reason for our anxiety, but really it's how the mind is wired.
Korda says that these tendencies are always operating unconsciously, glomming onto whatever arises in the course of our daily lives. The tendency and the event make "contact," which causes underlying physical stress and mood to arise, followed by the thoughts that try to explain why we feel craving, fear, aversion, etc. It happens almost entirely unconsciously. It's when consciousness notices those uncomfortable feelings that it kicks in with possible explanations. The mind shrinks around these thoughts and sensations, and if we don't get some breathing room and develop awareness, we can have anxiety attacks or start withdrawing from the places where we have these experiences and become avoidant.
He spends the rest of the talk suggesting how to find relief from anxiety, and I'll let you listen to him for those ideas. The main things that interested me in the early part of his talk are (1) the idea that the amygdala often misfires, setting off a whole string of dysfunctional thought and behavior, which over time can result in depression and anxiety disorders; and (2) the mind has these tendencies simply because of how it is built and then interacts with the outside world. These tendencies are not personal failings but rather just how all minds operate. Therefore, developing meditation and mindfulness practices are crucial to living our lives more skillfully and with less suffering. We have some faulty wiring we need to be aware of in order to keep the entire house from going up in flames!
for Mindful Monday