“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” — T.S. Eliot
It’s mid-January. I’m walking through the streets of Berlin, a city known for long, harsh winters. The scene fits the stereotype — I dodge and weave hooded pedestrians, veiled by sleet, chilled by zero-degrees breeze. As I absorb my surroundings, I’m enveloped by a sense of calm. I suddenly notice this ordinary stroll is anything but ordinary.
A volcanic explosion of frenetic energy, a thumping heartbeat, suffocating terror, dizzying tunnel vision, jelly-kneed paralysis, no room, struggling to breathe. Regardless of the cause, experiencing a panic attack is deeply unsettling, and hard to shake off. Consequently, fear of experiencing another attack can become chronic.
During the anxiety ridden chapters of my life, panic struck, seemingly out of the blue, multiple times, every day. I’d desperately try to avoid the debilitating end-of-world terror, but almost all situations were triggering. Public transport, caffeine, meetings, seminars, crowded spaces, emotional situations, intimate situations, eating in restaurants, calling someone on the phone. You get the picture.
The panic attack aftermath: emotional wildfire
When your baseline state is alert and hyper-anxious, fear breeds more fear, like emotional wildfire. I remember feeling completely out of control, as if an unruly entity within me dominated my emotional landscape, striking without notice. If depression is a Black Dog, panic is an Red Tiger.
Even a subtle stirring of the tiger would terrify me — here we go again — and set off the familiar domino effect of anxiety, igniting in seconds. This is panic disorder. It’s horrible.
How you react to a panic attack can reduce collateral damage
Now, I’m fortunate to live a life free from panic. Taming the Red Tiger was a long road, requiring time, the application of many techniques, therapy, and deep reflection into why I responded so viciously to certain situations. Meditation and mindfulness played a significant role; I was able to see the individual components of panic. This changed my perspective.
If you’re seeking support for panic attacks, you’re probably doing what I did — researching ways to prevent them, or ways to manage them once they’ve taken hold. Both of these approaches are extremely important, and I intend to write about them soon. However, there’s overlooked value in managing the aftermath of a panic attack.
Your reaction can make a significant difference in reducing collateral damage. For most of us, the reaction is shame, frustration and criticism. Let’s change that.
Note: I define panic attack as anxiety intrusive enough to momentarily paralyse or debilitate, or stop you from doing what you’d normally do.
The panic attack aftermath from a different perspective
I spoke to a dear friend who had experienced panic recently. Her experience was painfully familiar — the fear being judged, acting erratically, losing control. As my friend recalled the incident, I could tell she was disappointed through the subtle hum of frustration peppering her tone of voice.
My reaction was to give her a warm hug and reassurance. Her reaction was to punish herself, as if she had done something wrong. The same incident, viewed from opposite ends of the empathy spectrum. Then it struck me — the key difference between where I was and where I am on the path to free from panic, is self-compassion.
Using self-compassion to reflect on a panic attack
“How would you feel about this incident if it happened to me?” I asked.
“I’d be sad knowing you felt that way. I’d probably want to give you a hug, too. And I definitely wouldn’t feel people would be judging you, or see you as weak. I’d want to know you were okay and reassure you.”
This was exactly how I felt hearing her experience.
“So, what if you could have this level of compassion towards yourself?” I asked.
The two arrows of pain and suffering: panic and post-panic
Most of us don’t treat ourselves with compassion. Many of the most caring people I know treat themselves in a manner they would never dream of treating a stranger, let alone someone they love. This is deeply upsetting. All of us deserve compassion. The default setting of self-criticism serves no purpose. It makes us feel bad, lowers our self-esteem.
We are extremely vulnerable in the panic attack aftermath. Our systems are in recovery mode. We are in a sensitive emotional state. We are more than likely feeling a little lost, a little out of control. An instinctive, habitual reaction of self-criticism only intensifies this state. After all, panic attacks are grim. Isn’t it counterintuitive to view them with kindness?
A Buddhist parable in the Sallatha Sutta illustrates the importance of how we react to misfortunate. Pain and suffering is compared to two arrows. The first arrow is unavoidable — this is pain. The second arrow is the unnecessary suffering caused by our reaction to pain. This is avoidable.
Using this parable, the panic attack is the first arrow. Granted, there are tools and techniques to manage anxiety. But once experienced, you can’t turn back the clock. For argument’s sake, I’ll stick to the view this is “unavoidable” pain. The focus is on the second arrow — how we interpret the panic attack.
The ripple effect caused by the panic attack aftermath
We feel we fluffed an important interview due to anxiety. We get tickets to watch our favourite band, but we’re unable to enjoy the music as we’re overwhelmed by the crowd. We spend an evening with friends, but instead of relaxing, feel forced, unable to relax. However the unique flavour, the core of extreme anxiety is the sense of I can’t cope.
Because panic attacks are intrusive and debilitating, the fallout can be huge, making the second arrow of suffering harmful and difficult to avoid. In my experience, the typical self-critical ripple of suffering consists of cognitive, emotional and energetic responses:
Cognitive: A critical storyline forms in the mind. The moment is viewed as a catastrophe — you made a fool of yourself… why are you so pathetic? — and assumptions are made about future incidents — I’ll never cope.. this is the way it will always be. You ruminate, replaying the incident over and over in the mind’s cinema.
Emotional: Rumination and self-critical thinking leads to disappointment, shame, guilt, frustration, anger, or a host of heavy emotions. I vividly remember a panic attack at university where I rushed home, went straight to my room, shut the door, closed the curtains and got into bed, turning my back on the world because I was ashamed and embarrassed.
Energetic: Emotions are energy. During a panic attack, the physical elements are intense. As a result, you may feel drained and low on energy after an attack. This makes it harder to be mindful, and can lead to the cognitive and emotional responses taking hold. It’s important to respect this malaise and to rest.
The combination of these responses is the second arrow; panic leads to self-criticism, self-criticism leads to shame, self-worth plummets, low-self worth leads to feeling unable to cope, feeling unable to cope leads to heightened anxiety.
The second arrow of suffering isn’t truth
It’s SO important to remember this reaction is filtered through the anxious mind. It’s not truth. It’s another symptom of anxiety, albeit deceptively palatable. Those thoughts can feel real. It really can feel we’ll never cope, or this is the way it’s always meant to be, or we acted foolishly.
All of these thoughts and beliefs are the second arrow of suffering which can be avoided. Compassion catches the second arrow mid-air. Compassion dilutes the sense of shame and views panic from a more gentle perspective. The below journal exercise is designed to reframe your thinking from a place of criticism to a place of compassion, reducing the cognitive ripple:
Exercise: Journal A Different Perspective
Without planning or worrying about legibility, write about your panic attack experience as soon as you can. Allow all judgements or critical thoughts to rise to the surface in a stream of consciousness. Write, write, write. Rant, rant, rant.
Then take a few deep breaths. Imagine you are a year into the future, looking back on this incident. Write how it feels from this point in time. Emotions are now diluted, and a multitude of new challenges have arisen and ceased since this moment.
Next, write from the perspective of a close friend. Highlight any judgements or criticisms and challenge them. Reframe through the lens of compassion.
For example, if you wrote I’ll never cope, reframe from a place of compassion in third person:
You have a right to feel fed up; it must be really unpleasant! But you can cope, you’ve coped many times. You’re doing really well. Focus on where you’ve come from. Remember there is no shame. Please don’t be hard on yourself — you are loved. You don’t deserve to suffer even more.
Finally, rephrase the statement back to your first person perspective, i.e. I have a right to feel fed up. I am loved.
Shame arises from self-blame
Shame or frustration following a panic attack indicates you are blaming yourself in some way. But you are not at fault. Some days, anxiety levels are sky high for no logical reason. Maybe it’s physiological, a hormonal imbalance, your body chemistry of the day. Maybe it’s tiredness or hunger of sickness. Some days anxiety is just there. That’s fine.
Moving away from the second arrow of suffering by switching perspective really can reduce the anxiety spiral. But the goal isn’t to banish anxiety forever. Anxiety is one texture in a rich emotional spectrum, and attempting to numb anxiety numbs all emotion. Instead, we can learn to develop an accepting view of anxiety, from a place of love. Compassion is crucial to cultivating this state.
The aim of the below exercise is to take compassion deeper, to manage the emotional ripple. The idea is to move from cognitive understanding of compassion, to directly experiencing its texture and energetic sensation:
Exercise: Visualise Yourself With The Warmth Of Compassion
Find a relaxed, quiet space. Sit down. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths into the diaphragm. Focus on the gentle rise and fall of the stomach. Do this for a few minutes.
Now, visualise your recent panic attack. You may notice an emotional response; your heart may begin racing, thoughts may spiral. This is okay.
As you relive the scene from your perspective, imagine floating outside of your body. Now you see yourself from a perspective, some distance away. Notice the change in your physiology. Do you feel calmer?
Next, imagine looking at your distant self through the eyes of someone who loves you. Imagine a ray of bright white light, expanding from your heart. This is the warm light of love and compassion. Feel it flow from your heart centre, into the heart centre of your distant self.
Notice as your distant self fills with this bright, warm light. You see anxiety ease, a smile appear, breathing slow. A change in body language reflects a new sense of serenity and calm.
Now, visualise floating back into your body. See the incident from this new, relaxed perspective. Feel the warmth from within. Know it is okay.
Acceptance: another tool in recovering from panic
Adding self-blame and self-criticism, perceiving moments as weakness, makes return to normalcy even harder. Remember these attributes are symptoms. Allowing these states to be, giving them room to arise and fade away, makes recovery so much smoother. This requires a compassionate and accepting mindset.
I have days where anxiety has made simple tasks seem impossible. I’ve had moments where my voice trembles, where I shake. Where leaving the house is difficult. The thing is — I no longer view these incidents as bad, a failure or sign of weakness. They are mere passing waves in the ocean of inner experience.
Ultimately, we have a choice; when anxiety gets the better of us, we can punish ourselves or choose compassion. We can nurture ourselves, understand our triggers, and aim to improve steadily. We can grow from a place of love, not from a place of fear. No one else can do this for us. Next time the self-critical habit kicks in, breathe, sit back, reframe.
You deserve compassion. And the most healing source of compassion comes from within. Can you feel it?
One summer’s evening in Budapest, I shared my battle with depression and anxiety with a close friend. “There’s always a choice,” he responded, his matter-of-fact assurance a thin veil covering his brotherly concern. These words stuck with me, enough for me to recollect seven years later, not least because I respect his guidance.
Truth is, it was only recently I came to appreciate the resonance of this phrase. There’s always a choice, yet depression deceives us. It makes us believe there are no choices, no escape from suffering, and leads to feeling hopeless. Hopelessness is one of the most damaging aspects of depression, with the potential to move us towards a dark destination — suicide.
I shiver recollecting this destructive feeling. Weighed down by suffering, I’ve contemplated suicide as a futile and self-destructive attempt to find a solution. I’m a firm believer those who contemplate, or unfortunately act upon, ending their own lives don’t want their life to end. They want an escape from pain, and suicide appears the only choice.
There’s always a choice. Yet when our rational minds do what they do best, and search for an explanation or and answer and come up short, our synapses can be diverted to the extreme. It can feel like we have no choices left to us. We feel powerless. We feel we’ll never experience happiness again. Worse still, we feel we’ll never experience any feeling other than the void of nothingness.
Here’s the thing — hopelessness is a symptom of depression. It isn’t truth.
An inability to imagine a worthwhile future when feeling hopeless
You could view feeling hopeless as failing to imagine a future where suffering has ended, and peace or contentment has taken its place. But the future is imagination, it’s not real. And mental projections are filtered by our current state. When filtered through a depressed state, future projections are grim. It’s an illusion mistaken as reality.
I was inspired to cover this topic when an impending life decision triggered suicidal thoughts. You may be alarmed reading this, but to reassure you — this is familiar terrain. Meditation has helped me cultivate distance from such thoughts, and spiritual practice and self-awareness allow me to accept the transient nature of their presence.
Essentially, I now have the resources to experience such thoughts without fearful resistance, undue attention, or allowing them lead to feeling hopeless.
The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.
Regardless, I’m faced with major upheaval, as returning to the UK has become a possibility. I was struggling to discern my options when contemplating this big life decision. Strangely, I relate to Nietzche’s words: “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” My egoic mind has romanticised suicide as some maladjusted attempt to solve problems.
“Hey, Ricky mate, looks like you’re out of options. Ah well, you could always kill yourself.” Such is the puzzling nature of despair, imagine this inner-dialogue presented in a jovial tone, in clear defiance of the seriousness of its implication. I’m certainly not alone in suicidal ideation — a staggering 10 million Americans seriously contemplated suicide in 2015.
A cessation to suicidal thoughts by adding options
Before we go on, I want to distinguish fleeting thoughts from other “levels” of suicidal tendencies. A 2008 study defined suicidal behaviours into three definitions:
Suicidal ideation: thoughts of engaging in activity to end one’s life.
Suicide plan: the formulation of a method through which one intends to die.
Suicide attempt: engaging in behaviour leading to self-injury with some intent to die.
The scope of this article isn’t to hypothosize when the leap from Nietzche-esque macabre escapism turns into something more life threatening. Either way, I’ve noticed a very clear correlation to the times when I feel hopeless and suicidal thoughts popping into my conscious mind.
This time, something very interesting occurred, causing me to meditate deeply on the source of such thoughts: when I opened myself up to the option of leaving Berlin, and returning home to Bristol, the suicidal thoughts disappeared. It’s as if having another conscious option created a path for the problem solving brain to arrive at a healthier destination.
Do we deny challenging options from our conscious mind?
“I regret it when I suppress my feelings too long and they burst forth in ways that are distorted or attacking or hurtful.” — Carl Rogers
What’s going on here? I speculate this process is linked to the unconscious. Sigmund Freud identified denial as a key psychological defence mechanism. Was I denying the possibility of leaving Berlin from my consciousness because I was afraid of the significance of change involved? Did this suppression lead to suicide ideation as a bizarre and maladjusted attempt at problem solving, like a neurological short circuit?
Applying this theory to another example, let’s say your relationship is going through a challenging period. It’s fraught with pain and heartbreak. After an argument, you notice suicidal thoughts appear. Could this be a result of one possibility — the very real possibility of breaking up — being denied from existence?
There are numerous reasons why, in this example, someone may be inclined to deny a breakup is imminent. Believing in the myth of romantic love, a fear you won’t cope alone, framing the breakdown of a relationship as failure. Oh, I’ve fallen for all of these!
Our choices can be internal or external
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” — Epictetus
What about suicidal thoughts arising in times of emotional distress without an obvious cause? Initially I defined choice as existing in the external; choice is quitting my job, going on holiday, dumping my girlfriend, getting a new girlfriend. My choice was changing something external to change the way I felt.
I’ve since learned choices come in many forms. For example, we don’t choose which thoughts enter our minds, but we can choose how to respond to them. We can choose to change our perspective. We can choose to take action. Deciding to find an answer to “what is causing me this much pain” is a choice. Sometimes, staying alive is a choice.
Remember, there’s always a choice.
Opening up to choice, allowing space for faith
Once open to the richness of choice, we need to discern which choices serve our wellbeing and create positive possibilities. Getting shitfaced and sniffing multiple lines of coke is a choice. Having an affair in an attempt to find intimacy during a dry spell in a relationship is a choice. But such choices lead us to extra suffering, exacerbating hopelessness.
This is a theory I’m going to continue to meditate on, but intuitively, it explains experiences I’ve had. One of the biggest preventions of suicide is normalising suicidal thoughts, not from a place of detachment, but from a place of curiosity and acceptance. The more we understand the mechanics of suicidal thinking, the more we can offer solutions, provide space for people to discuss their experiences without fear of judgement.
To conclude, a word on faith. There will be periods when choices aren’t obvious. This doesn’t mean there are no choices — there’s always a choice. You just haven’t discovered them yet. And this is the time to choose faith. Faith these choices will soon arise, which they will. Faith that opening up to new possibilities sets the framework for them to present themselves, which they will.
My sternum reverberates from train-track palpitations. I desperately search an escape route. I avoid eyes. Can they hear the thud? Can they see? This can’t be happening. Not now. I’m not ready. Soon it’s my turn to talk and I’m paralysed: I’ll choke; I’ll be exposed. This is too much to hide.
It’s 2012, around 3pm, an autumnal October afternoon in Sheffield. Second year of university has begun, and I’m in a workshop for radio production. Our group of around 15 are “going around in a circle” sharing ideas for our upcoming project. Uh. How I hate going around in a circle. The anticipation, the rising anxiety. The palpitations and fear are familiar. But this time, something is different.
One spot away from sharing, I stand up. I mumble an excuse and walk out. This is the first time I’ve fled, flight-mode too strong to ignore. I walk out of the newsroom and enter the toilet, hoping my escape wasn’t obvious. I stare into the mirror, my post-panic attack reflection tinged beige by off-yellow fluorescent lights. Fucking beige. Fitting.
I’m hiding. I’m actually hiding. Has it really come to this? Now comes the shame. Now comes the hopelessness.
My sternum reverberates from train-track palpitations. It’s 2018, precisely 6:30pm on a scorching September evening in Berlin. I’m at coworking venue St. Oberholz, minutes away from introducing myself as a member of an expert panel. The anticipation, the rising anxiety. The palpitations and fear are familiar. But this time, something is different…
I’m about to find my voice.
These resources and techniques helped me overcome public speaking anxiety
The short answer to what has changed in those six years would be: a lot. Even with an expanded self-awareness, public speaking is a terrifying prospect — some say it’s feared more than death. Fortunately, my recent experience allowed me to explore, from the inside out, the resources and techniques most useful in managing anxiety, helping me move beyond fear to deliver a talk I never thought possible. These tools, I’m sure, can be helpful for anyone facing a crowd.
Let’s jump back in time, again.
Resource #1: Grounding in the present when pulled into the future
It’s mid-August. I’m in Holy Coffee, Berlin. I’m calm. For a brief respite from work, I check my phone. A missed call and message from my friend, and fellow coach, Sanya. She’s been invited to talk on a panel organised by Vanessa, the founder of Word of Mouth. The panel —Breaking the Silence — is the first in a Deep Talk series. It involves an open discussion on mental health. Vanessa is extending the invite to me.
Immediately when I see the message I’m transported to what I’ll call the anxious place. Facing me, a sea of people, baffled looks etched on faces as I mumble inaudibly, voice cracking, words an anxious jumble. My body responds in the here and now. I’m living it. I’m sat in the same spot, but my stomach flutters as my brain reminds me of the times I’ve choked.
From this moment I begin practising the first resource. I bring myself back to the present by noticing the thoughts, images and sensations without judgement, indulgence or resistance. This helps me avoid being caught up in storylines of how I’m going to mess it all up, of how I won’t be able to cope. I breathe. I call Sanya. After words of reassurance and support, I begin to relax.
Resource #2: Embracing impermanence
“Wisdom is the clear seeing of the impermanent, conditioned nature of all phenomena, knowing that whatever arises has the nature to cease.When we see this impermanence deeply, we no longer cling; and when we no longer cling, we come to the end of suffering.” — Joseph Goldstein, Insight Meditation: A Psychology of Freedom
Unlike normal nerves, public speaking anxiety doesn’t begin an hour before the presentation. Or a day. Or a week. It can begin as soon as the event becomes a fixed point in the mental calendar. I emphasise fixed point because that’s what it becomes; though life flows freely and each moment is transient, when an anxiety-inducing event enters the calendar of the mind’s eye, that point becomes rigid and immoveable.
In the past, I’ve had moments where I’ve been paralysed by visualisations of events months away. A glancing thought would instantaneously transport me to the anxious place. The build-up to this panel was a promising sign. I was transported occasionally, but I noticed a number of visualisations had positive associations. Excitement was outweighing fear.
When those projections were anxiety-ridden, I called upon one of the three marks of existence in Buddhist philosophy — impermanence (anicca). I reminded myself the hour I’d be on stage was as transient and flowing as any hour I’ve ever experienced. Like all hours, this too shall pass.
That being said, the event did play tricks on my mental timeline. It was a hard for me to envision beyond the event — a common theme I’ve detected when the anxious mind fears a specific event. As well as recalling Resource #1 and grounding myself in the present, I accepted this fixed point was in my mental calendar. I didn’t try to fight it.
Resource #3: It’s not now… even now
Another common trait I’ve detected in run-up to aforementioned fixed point is obsessing over clock-time. This is a distinct focus on the passage of time, measured by calendars and clocks, not a mental projection of the future. However, it does appear to share a symbiotic relationship with future projection.
For example, I noticed my mind engaging in a countdown, seemingly subconsciously. Two weeks to go! 10 days to go! AHH — tomorrow! This is amplified on the day of the presentation, as days become hours. The closer the event approaches in clock-time, the stronger the pull of the future visualisations.
To accompany this, I notice myself occasionally resisting time. Resistance increases the closer the event gets. Of course, with resistance comes inner-tension, manifesting as anxiety, stress, despair. Considering the passage of time is a fundamental law of nature, resistance is like jumping from the top of building and trying to resist gravity. It’s futile. And probably dangerous.
The third resource cultivates acceptance of the moment and the inevitable passing of clock-time. I call it, it’s not now… even now. This is a reminder that even when the event is really close, it’s still not now… even now. It’s easier to ground ourselves in the present when we know we still have a few days to go. The purpose of this resource is to maintain mindful relaxation as the event gets closer.
It’s not now… even now is a useful mindful reminder hours, or even minutes, away from the event.
Resource #4: Let the adrenaline elevate you
This breaks a habit I’d long formed, based on a mistaken belief there is a “perfect” way to prepare. Go to bed by 10:27pm the night before, eat 75g of oats with blueberries and chia seeds in the morning, throw salt over shoulder, etc. This was linked another belief that the only way to perform well was to be on my A-game. In the zone. Amped up. The delusion is believing there’s a magic ingredient that would make everything okay. It’s superstition.
Believing in a perfect way to prepare causes unnecessary suffering because anything outside of the concept of perfection would cause stress. Plus, it’s not particularly empowering to believe the only way of coping is following a strict pattern in the build-up. Preparation morphs into an attempt to control the uncontrollable. So this time, I rejected it.
Instead I opted for a different technique. I put every ounce of focus into being present, courtesy of Resource #3. This was all the preparation I needed. I didn’t need to find my A-game — the event would do that for me. Knowing my adrenaline would kick in as soon as I was in position, I focused on being as relaxed as possible.
After years of believing I needed to get in the zone for events such as this, this approach felt counter-intuitive. But once I arrived at the venue, I knew it was a good call. The nervous-excitement of meeting the other panelists and seeing people fill the room one-by-one, naturally elevated me. Because I was coming from a relaxed state, this elevation wasn’t overwhelming.
No blaring Eye of the Tiger or running up the steps of Rathaus Neukölln whilst punching the air from now on.
Resource #5: Loving-Kindness meditation towards the audience
On the day of the event, I turned to meditation for sanctuary. Fortunately those of us involved met at the venue the evening before, so I could visualise the space. I practised a meditation tailored for public speaking, using the metta bhavana (loving kindness meditation) as a foundation.
The aim was twofold; I wanted to extend feelings of compassion and love to the audience and to cultivate self-compassion. I wanted to erode the barrier between me and the audience. A huge factor in public speaking anxiety is being the centre of attention, all eyes on you, rabbit in the headlights.
Instead of sponging up the attention and feeling overwhelmed, this meditation visualised cultivating loving kindness by sending energy into the crowd. This is a powerful tool because it eradicates one of the biggest barriers I’ve faced in connecting with people in the audience…
Resource #6: Undoing the cognitive distortion of labelling
Labelling is a common cognitive distortion. You could call it overgeneralising. I call it — Me Versus Them. Who’s them? Everyone other than me. Though it happens to all of us from time to time, I learned a harsh lesson in this distortion during a paranoid spell, where Me Versus Them became normality. This mindset is threatening and incredibly isolating.
It blinds you from reality, obscuring the texture in social situations that provide counter-evidence Me Versus Them is a mindset. I experienced this form of cognitive labelling on buses, in clubs, in lectures, in the gym. It was particularly palpable when preparing to give a presentation, such as the walk-out moment mentioned earlier.
Fortunately this mindset is rare now. But I was conscious it could return to some degree while sat on stage, microphone in hand, facing a group of people. Counteracting this possibility, I used the public speaking meditation to humanise each and every member of the audience. To connect, human to human. To cultivate the experience of seeing texture, and transforming them into us.
Back to the final countdown, September 2018, 6:30pm. I’m fortunate to be joined by Sanya, Isabelle, Meryl and Farina, with Vanessa in the wings. The sense of camaraderie and mutual support helps calm the nerves. However, familiar feelings kick in as the panel is being introduced. Oh, shit. This is the moment I’d anticipated, and I knew there was one thing left to do — surrender. I couldn’t control the situation. I had to stop resisting. I had to let go. I had to be vulnerable.
As it’s my turn to talk, I do the one thing I’ve tried so hard to avoid in the past. Each member is asked to introduce ourselves and share how we are feeling, encouraged to answer honestly. Those familiar palpitations thud in my ears. But this is a time for openness, a space to break the silence, a challenge to remove facades. I look up. I see the sea of faces. I’m handed the microphone.
“I’m Ricky. I’m a Life, Spirituality, and Wellness Coach. I’m an expert on depression and anxiety via experience. And… …I feel nervous.”
Initial waves of fear subside. Palpitations cease. Then, something incredible happens. Rather than rushing to get it over and done with, I feel present. I feel a connection with members of the audience, like having 50 one-on-one conversations at once. I see nods of encouragement and attentive expressions. I find flow.
Years ago, I never thought this would be possible. I never thought I’d be able to talk this way in front of a crowd. But thinking is thinking. I’m moving beyond thought, moving beyond fear.
I’ve always loved making people laugh. Accompanied by a smile family photos suggest was equally chubby and charming, from a young age I also knew how to milk a joke for all its worth. Over the years my dad, who is equally fond of making people laugh and milking jokes (sorry dad!), has passed on some of his favourite quips. Imagine my delight upon inheriting this gem:
If you notice this notice, you’ll notice this notice isn’t worth noticing.
I’d revel in the joy of sharing this deceptively empty sentence. Like Bristol’s Primary School Pied Piper, instead of using musical notes to catch rats, I’d use written notes to catch laughter. I’d scribble anywhere I’d expect someone to look: notepads, walls, post-its, school desks, chalkboards. I was having a riot, tricking people into noticing the notice while gazing expectantly for their knee-slapping reaction.
See, it’s only when you notice the notice, that you notice… the notice isn’t worth noticing. But how are you to know the notice isn’t worth noticing until you notice it? The answer is, you don’t. You have to notice the notice to make that realisation.
Fear not. The purpose of this article isn’t to dissect a gag I bored of almost two decades ago, or break the world record for the use of the word notice in various forms in one article (86 times). I resuscitate this gag because it’s a fitting analogy for the paradox of mindful thinking.
Avoid attachment. Don’t judge. Accept. Be present. Don’t identify with thought. Don’t react to emotions. Let go. There are numerous ways to explain desirable traits of a skilled mind; many I use in MindThatEgo articles.
To some extent, the rise of meditation and mindfulness in the West has been underpinned by a complexity. We may enquire whether meditation helps reduce anxiety, increases focus, shift depression, increase the quality of our sleep, helps us switch off. Indeed it can help with all of the above. But the more we analyse and intellectually try to understand, the more we can deceive ourselves into believing meditation is complex, when really, it’s simple.
It’s as simple as noticing.
If You Notice This Thought, You’ll Notice…
“Awareness is the greatest alchemy there is. Just go on becoming more and more aware, and you will find your life changing for the better in every possible dimension. It will bring great fulfillment.” — Osho
Awareness is self-healing. This may not be apparent immediately. But if you take responsibility for your inner-world, the moment you become aware of troubling thoughts, emotions or sensations is the moment change begins. Awareness is noticing. That’s it. Notice thoughts as they arise; the voice of the self-critic, visual fantasies or nightmares, repetitive ruminations, flashbacks.
The more you notice thoughts, the more you piece together the bigger picture. If you’re prone to depression, you may notice the critical voice weaving all sorts of sad stories. You’re stupid. You’re unlovable. You’re annoying. You’re too much. You’re not enough. You may notice these cycles of self-talk spark strong emotions, thoughts and feelings feeding off each other as black clouds obscure the blue sky.
Cultivating The Ability To Notice
Noticing simultaneously allows you to witness the chaotic nature of mind while separating you from said chaos. Without noticing, it’s easy to assume there’s no separation between you and your thoughts. Awareness creates space — the essence of mindfulness. For example, let’s say I’m talking to someone I respect. Mid-way through the conversation, I’m struck by an involuntary, paralysing thought from the self-critic:
Jeeez, Ricky. You’re boring them and you sound stupid. Shut up already.
Long before I’d started meditating, I had a strong association with such thoughts. I saw them as truth, with no separation between what I was thinking inside and external events. The result was an immediate, overwhelming emotion — severe anxiety, often panic. I’d believe the thought to be true and find a way to end the conversation to save the poor soul I was talking to.
With mindfulness, we cultivate the ability to notice. That’s it. In noticing I notice the thought isn’t worth noticing. I see it clearly. It loses its power, the emotional reaction is reduced. Consequently, it’s easier for me to return attention to the conversation instead of zoning out and honing in on the unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
A skilled noticer knows how to dismiss cognitive junk, simultaneously developing the ability to know which thoughts are worth noticing.
Noticing Is The First Step
“Surrender comes when you no longer ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?'” — Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks
Closing our eyes and turning attention to the breath leads to the powerful realisation avoiding distraction by thoughts, emotions or sensations is incredibly difficult. Sit for long enough, and I’m sure each of us develops a newfound respect for noticing. We realise our default setting is not noticing the notice. If you’re beginning meditation, noticing is all that’s necessary to kick start your journey — it truly is a galvanising gift.
I’d like to introduce two qualities beneficial to the noticing process: curiosityand playfulness. Curiosity cultivates fascination with the nature of mind. Playfulness nudges you away from judgement and resistance — these thoughts are bad,I don’t want these thoughts — towards accepting the emotional and cognitive landscape as it is, without needing to control it.
Judging What You Notice
Once you find your flow, you’ll notice noticing without additional inner commentary is extremely difficult. Ha! Often the eagerness to calm down, find inner-peace and silence the mind can lead to a new influx of thought when we are distracted; this happens to the most seasoned meditator.
This is the trap door of judgement. Here are some in-the-moment judgements I’ve had during meditation over the years:
“Why am I shit at meditating?”
“Jesus! Where did that thought come from?”
“I’m weird. I’m definitely weird. Meditation has just helped me realise I’m really weird.”
“Why am I thinking about a 30-second social situation from 2003?”
“If I itch my back does that mean I’ve failed at meditation? Monks don’t itch do they?”… itches back… “You’re a failure Ricky.”
“Why am I not relaxed? Why do I sense tension and stress? This isn’t working. I should be calm now.”
There are many, many different shapes, sizes, and textures to thought. It’s important we maintain a curious and playful approach to all thoughts we are able to notice, including the above judgements. This is important because we can never out-think thinking. Try it — it’ll only create layer upon layer of thought, possibly leading to thoughts such as: I’m a bad person for judging my thoughts!
However, simply noticing detaches us from thinking in its entirety.
When The Notice Is Worth Noticing
Just eight weeks of mindful meditation can shrink the amygdala, the brain’s “fight or flight” centre. In addition to improving wellbeing by reducing anxiety and depression, a skilled noticer lays the foundation for immense personal and spiritual growth. That’s because self-awareness increases as noticing becomes more frequent, even habitual. All of the profound changes I’ve experienced through mindfulness, meditation and self-discovery started with noticing.
Noticing when anger arises. Noticing when I feel threatened. Noticing when I feel vulnerable. Noticing when I’m appropriately vulnerable and trying to hide it. Noticing when I’m seeking approval. Noticing when I’m seeking validation. Noticing when I’m judging others. Noticing when I’m judging others for judging others. Noticing when I’m acting outside of my values to fit in. Noticing when I’m acting outside of my values to stand out.
Noticing Can Break Self-Sabotaging Habits
One of the biggest changes — reducing my need for validation through romantic relationships — was sparked when I noticed this behavioural pattern. I noticed how I’d place my emotional wellbeing in the hands of a lover. I noticed how I was handing responsibility of the ensuing despair, anxiety, stress, fragility, restlessness, value, you-name-it to someone else.
Noticing allowed me to observe this process. This is a notice worth noticing.
Sometimes it can seem we engage in behaviour, even when we notice the behaviour isn’t good for us. But that doesn’t mean this is an example of noticing not working. Generally we’re acknowledging the outcome, not the cause. Noticing occurs in the moment; when we cultivate the skill, we notice the thought patterns and emotions causing self-sabotaging behaviour.
Blazing the shining light of awareness on such inner-dialogue can have a huge impact. Consider the following exercise for the next few days: Try to notice thoughts. Nothing more, nothing less. Celebrate each time you notice a thought, and notice if any judgement or resistance accompanies the thought.
After a few days, consider how noticing without judgement has made a difference. Are you noticing quicker or more frequently? Do you experience more space between you and your thoughts? Let me know your experience in the comments.
Maintain a mindset of curiosity and playfulness, and simply noticing can become your superpower, an unsuspecting gift leading to significant change.
If you notice this notice, you’ll notice this notice is worth noticing.