In her wonderful book It’s Easier Than You Think Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein calls herself “a recovering worrier.” She admits to being one of those people who is continually making up negative stories about what might happen, but she tries not to believe them. We can identify with that. We, too, quickly forget Mark Twain’s sage comment that most of the things we worry about will never happen.
We suspect the worry machine is chugging along in a lot of other people’s lives as well. We are nervous about being on time, looking good, making a positive impression, or being a success. Going on vacation, we wonder whether the weather will be perfect, whether we will get sick, and whether the place will match our expectations and be worth all the money we have spent. Going back to school, we worry about whether we will like our roommate, be able to handle our course work, and make new friends. Looking at the world crises, from global warfare, to ethnic strife, terrorism, and wars, we worry about the very survival of the planet.
Why do we spend so much energy worrying? Spiritual teachers have suggested some reasons: We do not trust enough in God. We are reluctant to admit that we can’t control everything and make what we want happen. We have trouble accepting the idea that things do go wrong. And, compounding the problem, we have been brainwashed by our culture to believe that nothing good can come out of failure, setbacks, tragedy, or messes. Of course, many spiritual traditions teach that worrisome events are points for the love and grace of God to enter our lives.
In The Path of Prayer, Christian author Sophy Burnham writes that worrying is like praying for your worst fears to happen. Put more succinctly, worry is a prayer for disaster. It scatters our attention, leads to moodiness or depression, saps our physical strength, and depletes our emotional will. “Do not worry,” Jesus says in Matthew 6:25, and he then goes on to talk about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. It’s not a short speech. Clearly, Jesus’ listeners had as much trouble with worry as we do today.
The spiritual traditions not only diagnose our tendencies to worry, they give us some helpful practices that show us how not to worry. We’ve been collecting these and starting on January 26, we’ll be leading a 21-day program (it takes three weeks to break a habit) on “Working with Worry.”
In daily emails we’ll present short readings from the writings of spiritual teachers of different traditions. Then we’ll add suggestions for reflection, discussion, and practice designed to encourage you to apply this wisdom in your life. Participants will be able to share their responses and experiences in an online “Practice Circle,” a private forum open 24/7.
We invite you to join us as we use spiritual practices to work with worry. Here’s a preview.
• Befriend your tendency to worry. Sylvia Boorstein has a good approach: “I treat it as if it were an unpleasant neighbor who lives in an apartment next door to me and plays loud music in the middle of the night.” Instead of hating this part of yourself, be compassionate and forgiving of it. Everybody worries sometimes.
• Try not to jump to conclusions and assume the worst. Most of the time, you did turn off the stove, your vacation will be good even if it rains, and God loves you so much that you don’t have to worry about how you look, what people are saying about you, or whether you are a success. Don’t let worry shape your days.
• Turn your worries into positive actions. Bradford Keeney is a scholar of cultural studies and author of many books. In Shamanic Christianity, he offers some out-of-the-box ways to practice the faith. Here’s one for worry:
“Make your own piggy bank out of a jar or box. Attach cardboard wings to its sides and call it the angel’s bank. Place it on top of your television.
“Every time you find yourself worrying for longer than a minute, place a quarter into that bank. You must be honest and feed the bank whenever you worry too much.
“When the bank is full, donate money to a worthy spiritual organization that works with children. Tell yourself that you can now stop worrying because you have put that worrying to work. Your worrying now helps others, even when you’re unable to help yourself. Continue this practice for as long as you feel it is providing a teaching.”