From the moment you wake you’re in its grip. The days play out swinging from mild hell to utter despair. Anxiety is a devil of a disorder, which, chances are, you or someone you know will suffer from.
In fact, 13 per cent of 16-19 year olds and 16 per cent of 20-24 year olds have suffered from anxiety (neurotic episode) and 1 in 6 young people will experience an anxiety condition at some point in their lives.
Call millennials what you will – narcissistic, job-hoppers, health-obsessed, liquid food lovers – we are a nervous bunch. And what have we inadvertently turned to for help: a 2,500-year-old religion by the name of Buddhism.
In particular a key part of Buddhism called Sati, roughly translated as ‘mindfulness’ or ‘awareness’ and made popular by Eckhart Tolle’s hugely successful 1997 book The Power of Now.
Mindfulness is a meditative practice that involves maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.
In recent months a wedge of online articles have appeared on the effectiveness of mindfulness in treating anxiety disorders. But why is it so popular among the youth of today?
AnxietyUK CEO Nicky Lidbett believes the fast pace of modernity relentlessly bombarding young minds with information is keeping them constantly switched on and wired.
Lidbett says mindfulness is particularly helpful because:
It’s a simple and sensible approach that’s about managing racing thoughts and keeping people in the here and now. It’s common sense stuff but in order to deal with modern society it’s about going back to basics.
In Buddhism, ‘life is suffering’ is one of its central teachings – with anxiety considered a major form of misery. Aside from the physical pain it imparts on an individual – increased heart rate, sweaty palms, headaches – there are serious mental upsets too.
President of The Buddhist Society Dr. Desmond Biddulph explains:
One of the reasons many young people suffer from anxiety is because in the Buddhist worldview, humans are ruled by lots of different forces.Those are mainly the instincts, desires and passions. These all give rise to suffering because they get hold of you and make you do things you don’t want to do necessarily or regret.
Think of that moment a car cut you up on a roundabout and it hurt you to your core. But once you’re calm, you realise you’ve been at the mercy of a whole range of irrational emotions from anger to embarrassment.
For young people, the appeal of mindfulness lies in the way Buddhism tackles the millennial trait of me, me, me.
“People are always talking about how bad they feel or how they have low self-esteem. But in Buddhism the idea of ‘me’ and ‘my identity’ is one of the main sources of suffering,” says Biddulph.
On top of this, he also believes youngsters are always worrying about defining themselves in society.
He gives identity politics, sexuality and race as examples. That’s true also when you think about the categories on a social media profile: ‘religious views’, ‘political views’, ‘relationship status’, ‘gender’, ‘interested in’ etc.
“Once you get rid of ‘me’ ‘my’ and ‘mine’, and my identity and how people see me what actually remains is a sense of confidence and calm.”
In the Buddhist world, the ‘self’ is like a river of personality and individuality. Our thoughts and feelings are constantly changing and only for a split second are we the same self.
If that sounds confusing, this Bob Dylan quote may provide some clarity:
I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.
Where mindfulness comes into all this is being totally aware of our changing impulses and passions and taming them.
Biddulph provides the example of a cat sitting by a mouse hole. The cat may feel hungry and impatient but he’s relaxed, calm and composed. It looks tranquil until the mouse appears and then it sweeps into action. Mindfulness is about being fully present in the here and now without succumbing to our impulses.
The training itself is very difficult. It takes time and perseverance and a good deal of trust that something will happen. In the process of it people often get depressed or feel absolutely miserable.Mindfulness can take you into the depths but it can also lift you into the heights. It’s about being able to see what’s going on in yourself and others from a calm resting state. It tells you everything you need to know about life.
However, Biddulph is keen to stress that mindfulness should be practised alongside Buddhism to be truly effective. It’s understandable that plucking a technique from an ancient and highly complex religion won’t do it justice.
Basically, sitting in a quiet room listening to bamboo flute music and sipping a Pukka Three Camomile Tea for ten minutes is not mindfulness.
Twenty-nine-year-old Samantha Jones recently went through an 18-month period of anxiety and depression triggered by the stress of a close friend moving abroad.
Samantha states that she was introduced to the practise while on a yoga retreat. She said it allowed her to see the earth as a giant palimpsest.
It made me aware that we’re not the first thing on this earth and we won’t be the last, but our very presence does have a direct impact on those who come after us. That we don’t exist in isolation.
Samantha also likens our individual lives to a ‘pressed flower’ within the layers of human history.
“It’s a lot to take on and it’s overwhelming but when you become mindful that you’re not the only person on this earth, and never have been, you become aware of both how insignificant and powerful you are.”
Like many who undergo prolonged sessions of mindfulness, she says she felt a deep sense of connectedness with those around her.
Above all else, she learnt that when feelings of anxiety did arise, she should ask for help as ‘people would hate to think I’m suffering in silence’.
Which is something all of us should bear in mind.