I have only recently come to accept that I’ve spent my entire life as a worrywart.
This is hard to admit, because I worry what people will think of me if they know that I’ve lived a life of constant concern about what can go wrong. Knowing I dwell unduly on difficulty or troubles, will family, friends, and colleagues think less of me?
A quote attributed to Mark Twain (and recently repeated during a lecture I heard by a Zen Buddhist monk at Tenryu-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan) gets at the heart of the issue:
“I have been through some terrible things in my life, some which actually happened.”
Until recently, I attributed my willingness to dwell on the worst case scenario to good planning. Having an advanced degree in planning led me to rationalize that I was simply trying to make sure things went well by gaming out all the things that could go wrong. But it was pointed out recently that perhaps I’ve taken that to extremes. I could tell I was driving others crazy with this approach to life, and I had to admit that I was driving myself crazy as well. After tossing and turning one night while every bad scenario possible raced through my head, I awoke (literally and figuratively) to the realization that most of those terrible things that have come up in my head through the years have never actually happened.
In considering mindfulness and living in the moment, I was fortunate to hear this presentation in Kyoto at Tenryu-ji Temple—a remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site. Perhaps it resonated because Thomas, the monk, was an American who could speak from my cultural context. Thomas was an exchange student from the 1960s who came to Japan and never went back. When describing mindfulness and meditation, he said that several of his Trappist friends spoke about the “sacrament of the present moment.” A sacrament is something that gets you closer to what you define as the creator. He suggested that all thoughts in our head are either about the past or the future, yet we can only really connect with who and what we are in the present.
This fit very well with a cartoon a friend sent to me about worrying. A young lady is in her kitchen cooking and enjoying her favorite music, both things she really loves. Then she begins worrying: will the kids enjoy the meal, was the recipe a little sketchy, weren’t those vegetables starting to go bad? Three or four frames later she’s worked herself into a lather, and only then realizes that she hasn’t thought about cooking or the music—the things she really enjoys—for several moments.
Taking your mind off what you are doing in the present leads to worry and frustration. In his lecture Thomas suggested that if you find yourself in a line and are annoyed with the lack of movement forward (a common occurrence on a trip with 100 fellow travelers), step back and consider your thought process. I’ve tried that out multiple times and it has been helpful in moving back into the present.
As a lifetime worrywart, I’m not going to change overnight or on one trip. But being outside my normal routine is a good time to use different places and experiences to start. Perhaps those terrible things that aren’t going to happen to me in any event will begin to fade away.
Have a good week.
More to come…
Installment #3 in The Gap Year Chronicles