The spirit seeps into my body unannounced. Conscious mind hardly recognizing it. There’s no overwhelming smell of pitch or sulphur, no nefarious cackle betraying its evil intention. Only after the energy, call it anxiety or agitation, has a firm hold do I see the shift has transpired.
From here the rest comes predictably, the way a tension headache comes on–just as you knew it would–hours after those first signs of cramped shoulders and swollen neck manifest before moving on to the muscles around the ears and eyes and deep into the head like a slowly turning cement screw.
Suddenly I’m discouraged, irritable, and distracted.
The progression to darker planes isn’t inevitable. Things could slow down here if I’m able to alert myself, “This is anxiety.” If I can identify and name the intruder. Changing my mind directly by sitting and meditating, or indirectly by changing my behavior by taking a quick walk or playing with the dogs, can interrupt it, knock it off the tracks. But too frequently I don’t catch it here. It marches on.
My normally gentle words develop a sharp edge and kindness evaporates. I retreat to another room, the other side of the house, where a self-punishing story starts looping in my imagination. One of this season’s most popular takes cheap shots by mining the reality of existing financial stresses and my improbable choice to jump ship on a career of more than 15 years to follow the economically questionable prompting of my heart.
So caught up, snared by anxiety and lured deeper into depression, I cast myself into the future to view my inevitable failures and zoom in on my present self to pick at the embarrassment that I am. The specifics may change but the fundamentals stay the same.
“It’s just a story,” my lover often reminds me. Here again is another opportunity to name and change the game.
Understanding rumination is important. So is learning to recognize the various stories you tell yourself when you’re sick.
“Whether difficulties of pleasures, the naming of our experience is the first step in bringing them into a wakeful conscious attention,” Jack Kornfield writes in the mindfulness classic, “A Path With Heart.”
Knowing intellectually that the loop that we are broadcasting is “just a story” helps, but knowing which story it is helps even more.
Naming starts with knowing what you are feeling at any moment in time. It’s not always obvious, as moods and energies pass through us constantly and, untrained, we may not be aware of them at all until they’re locked in.
For me, depression and anxiety come in various flavors. In scientific taxonomy, bears, for example, all belong to the family Ursidae. But what type of bear is it pawing its way across our nerve bundles and snuffling about our hippocampus? Which species? That’s where we can start drilling down among the differences.
Among the variety of unhelpful ruminations that appear within the unfolding of my anxious and/or depressed experience live a few standouts. The one mentioned here (failure projected into the future) I have decided to call “Grand Dreams.”
Naming it reminds me that the rumination is more than a bland manifestation of anxiety, which is valueless. It tells me the manifestation represents a specific tactic (connoting intention) with a harmful agenda (betraying its malevolence ). Seems appropriate now to name it a “demon.” The recognition puts me on my toes.
The specific name I’ve chosen (Grand Dreams) is meant to remind me that life is not about grand accomplishments but living deeply the everyday moments that make up that life. Improving the moments by living more kindly with ourselves and those around us inevitably makes for a richer experience–wherever work pursuits lead us.
What would you name your demons?