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My ruminating anxiety put me in a state of not really living. But I’m learning to wake up

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Early 2013, and I'm anxious. I'm biting what's left of my nails, while thinking tirelessly about what I'm going to have for dinner. Chicken? Salmon? Salmon sounds good. How will I cook the salmon? When will I buy it?

Yes, I'm worrying deeply about this, and for reasons that escape me. I obsessively visualize in my mind how I'll season and sear the fish, carefully rehearsing each motion. I do this for more than 30 minutes, all while I'm out with a friend. For breakfast. My body is there, with his, but my mind is not.

It should be, though, shouldn't it? I begin to feel embarrassed about my wandering mind. Self-criticism quickly follows.

Early 2013 and I'm anxious. I learn that millions of my fellow humans are, too. For me, anxiety manifests itself in ruminating and compulsive thoughts that, despite how unimportant they may be, stick in my brain.

As I've come to learn, my mind is a manual car with a broken gearshift. I worry about details. I am addicted to them. I overprepare and overthink and, eventually, I begin thinking about my thoughts, judging and getting angry at them. It's not the substance of the thoughts that frustrates me, but rather their mere arrival in my head.

I begin to feel anxious about feeling anxious; sad about feeling sad. I'm nervous that I'm so damn nervous. My heart beats a bit faster, and back go the fingernails between my teeth.

Spring 2013 and I'm days from graduating university. I'm a millennial, and I'm about to begin my career in business. It's a frantic and hyperconnected world out there. I'm surrounded by technology, by distractions and by people who are distracted by their technology. I am worried about the most insignificant of details, and yet, I wonder if there's a way to stop these ruminating thoughts from returning. I continue to hold out hope.

Spring 2013 and my friend asks me a question: Do you remember if you locked your door this morning? Why is he asking me this? Is he trying to annoy me? Did he let himself into my apartment? While I assume I locked my door, I can't actually remember inserting the key and turning it. Would you remember? After all, locking my door when I leave the house is like brushing my teeth or having a glass of water. I do it on autopilot. I do it mindlessly.

Kara Pyle for The Globe and Mail

Little do I know that this question – this silly, rudimentary question – is about to change my life. Because my answer to this question reveals something profound about how I am living my life. I am not living my life mindfully. I am not mindful. I am not really living.

Summer 2013, and I am still transfixed by my friend’s question. I ask him more questions, and as a result I begin learning about Buddhism. I read a few books, and then a few more. I learn about presence, ego and letting go. I learn about mindfulness, breathing and the transformative power of meditation. I believe some of it. I doubt a lot of it. But I continue reading because I find myself a tad less anxious and a wee bit happier.

Many months come and go, as do many more thoughts, fights, firsts, lasts, laughs, tears and moments. And as each day passes, as each month passes, I begin to learn first-hand the one principle that is emphatically shared in each and every book I have read or talk I have listened to: everything passes. Like clouds in the sky, like leaves on a tree, like an itch that rises and falls, everything in life – every good moment, every bad moment, every single moment – will come and go. Everything passes.

This is scary, as I want to hold on to what I have. But it’s liberating, as it reminds me that pain too will pass, making way for the new, the better, the undiscovered.

Summer 2015, and I begin to take mindfulness a bit more seriously. I start meditating 15 minutes a day. Each minute is about so much more than just “turning off” or “calming down.” It’s about waking up.

I go for a walk and I notice things. That’s an ugly building. The air feels crisp right now. What a nice sunset. Things I once never noticed. I begin to gravitate naturally toward this idea of “living mindfully” – living moment to moment without judgment. It doesn’t mean I can do it all that well, but I understand it and that feels good.

Summer 2015 and I feel anxiety brewing in my body. This time I deal with it differently. I label it, acknowledge it and, as best as I can, accept it. It feels uncomfortable, but that’s okay. I know it will pass. When it does, I’m reminded of how primary suffering – the discomfort we experience in, say, a long line or a nasty argument – is normal. It passes. It’s the secondary suffering – the frustration about being frustrated – that can really bring us down. Compulsive thoughts still arise in me, but then they dissolve.

Winter 2016 and I remind myself to savour the good. Be present for the good. And, just as important, I try to observe and be as kind as possible to the bad because it will leave soon. For everything else in between, I am here to experience it. Whatever it is.

Mindfulness is not a cure. It’s not a way out. It’s just a different way through. And, soon enough, with enough meditation, I’ll figure out what I want for dinner tonight.

Jeffrey Fenton lives in Toronto.

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