At some point in life, something extremely challenging happens to everyone. Death of a loved one, an accident, a mental health issue, loss of a job, or something of that variety that severely affects one’s day to day. How one responds, of course, is the question.
Heading into my senior year at Ursinus I was slated to be a cross country team captain and I would be student teaching in the Fall. I was on track to attain “summa cum laude” and had been fairly successful with running. You probably think you can tell where this is going. However, this is not a sappy story or a really sad and inspirational one. Instead, one of anxiety, resilience, determination, proper support, waking up, and more. Now I can tell why those with an anxiety disorder would tell others you can never understand what it is like until you go through it. That sounds condescending and dismissive of those who wish to understand, but the experience can be rather hard to describe.
I started to get a variety of physical discomforts a few weeks before moving back to school. At first there were headaches and nausea, then stomach discomfort and chest pain. I went to the doctor multiple times as I thought these were all separate issues. At one point I convinced myself something was wrong with my heart or lungs. School then started and the symptoms continued. I saw the nurse practitioner at Ursinus a couple of times and she suggested I see one of the school psychologists. I was open to figuring this out in any way possible and thankfully I went. Meeting with my counselor on a regular basis ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve made. I learned that all the physical symptoms were manifestations of anxiety. Student teaching was definitely a struggle at first as I was still so naive about the strength of anxiety’s symptoms and I was a 21 year old teaching high school seniors. As I learned more and gained more comfort I’m thankful to say that student teaching ended well and strong.
I think everyone suffers in little ways each day; there does not have to be a large scale issue that pops up. Ever wonder why so many people turn to different forms of addiction? Drugs, alcohol, porn, social media, video games, constantly being attached to one’s phone. When I use the word suffering I do not mean intense pain, rather a range of feelings such as discomfort, anger, jealousy, or wanting. Simply wanting things to be different than they are at a given moment is an easy example of a form of suffering.
Now on to what I consider the good stuff.
Just to reiterate quickly from earlier, seeing a counselor on a regular basis was a remarkable choice. I think just getting the opportunity to talk with someone about anything you want in a free space is something anyone could benefit from. If you feel like you could really use help in some way, then of course seek assistance from a professional. But even if you don’t feel that way, I would at least consider it. Most don’t because of the stigma. Proper support is essential. Most of this comes from family and friends or community, but a different open space can do wonders.
My counselor also introduced me to mindfulness and meditation. He did so through offering books I could read related to anxiety. I got hooked. As an English major I enjoy reading and I gobbled up some of his suggestions related to the broader idea of mindfulness. I also started to listen to podcasts. One trope throughout them all is that even though meditation is secular in and of itself as an activity, there are Buddhist roots. The books I read were actually all kind of Buddhisty. And I loved it.
The Buddha is not a divine being whom his followers idolize and believe every word he said. In fact, the Buddha specifically said he does not want people to believe him just because he said something. He wants them to find out for themselves. The wise investigation of oneself and the practicality of the practice are attractive to myself along with many others in the West because they align more with the scientific and psychological aspects of our culture. This does not take away from spirituality, though; just because dogma and belief are not as evident does not mean spirituality is totally absent.
What the Buddha accomplished is incredible. He sat down under a tree and figured out how his mind worked. He observed the mind in all it’s different states and gained great knowledge just from doing so. Most of us are scared to spend one minute alone with ourselves without some form of a distraction. The Buddha woke up. I do think he attained enlightenment, but that is besides the point for this modern lifestyle we lead. He woke up in the sense that his mind and all the conditioned habits that come with it did not run his life anymore. He experienced profound awareness and recognized the fact of impermanence in that things always change.
I’m trying to wake up bit by bit. I’m not pursuing enlightenment but I’m trying to improve in a variety of ways. Anxiety can still be hard sometimes for various reasons- the worst being intrusive thoughts-but getting proper support and doing a lot of research and work on my own has helped me gain confidence in dealing with it. Rather than worrying what others might think about my appearance or how I act (contributing factor to anxiety), I’m working on loving myself and who I am without concerning myself with others opinions. I’m finding out what my own values are such as trying to cause as little harm to others as possible or staying both physically and mentally fit. Values help guide how I want to live.
This past year I participated in a nationwide service program called City Year where I worked as a mentor and tutor with 6th graders at a school in North Philadelphia. I enjoyed this experience immensely and recognize the need for quality educators. This helped me develop a new path, at least for the near future. I will be getting my master’s in School Counseling from Eastern University over the next two years. I will miss being in school with my students as they were consistent joys, but understand that more schooling will help me gain knowledge and I will develop skills to be a prepared professional in any school setting.
I’m working hard and find myself incredibly determined to act for the well-being of others. I try to be proud of things I’ve done in the past and those I’ve had a positive effect on. I work on being thankful and grateful for today and our precious human birth. And I keep working to “act for the good” today and in the future.
We love to work on our bodies in the gym and implement all the fad diets, but forget we can train our mind as well. I’m far from competent or consistent at the moment, but will continue to work at it through meditation, intentional mindfulness of the present, generosity, service, and more. We experience everything through our mind, even physical sensations, so working on it and being gentle and caring towards oneself is important. I can be my harshest critic and still am at times, and while the term “self-love” has become over-used at this point, it rings true. If I can take care of myself mentally and physically then I will be better prepared to help others.
Anxiety sucks a big one as it often manifests as fear of irrational things that never end up happening. Probably 90% of the problems in our heads never end up happening. Dealing with difficult emotions and being able to just sit with them is astonishingly hard, but incredibly helpful. The mind is like a muscle in that it can be worked. I’m really trying to work with mine.
To see someone at total peace with themselves and with others in the world is something I look up to. The Dalai Lama talks of inner peace and the ability to handle whatever comes ones way because of this trait, both externally and internally. This is something I aspire towards.
The title of this post, “Waking Up,” is actually a book title and podcast title from my boy Sam Harris. Definitely just borrowing it here.
Thanks for the read! Really appreciate it.