Last updated December, 2018.
note: we link to our free guide to mindfulness and meditation at the bottom of the page (no email required).
"My goal for meditating is to overcome my anxiety. Is this reasonable?"
First, you might examine the language that describes your goal. Instead of "overcoming anxiety," consider changing it to "deal more skillfully with anxiety."
This is important, because if you believe you'll completely overcome something by meditating, you'll be frustrated at the first sign of anxious thoughts, emotions, and sensations. You will most likely judge yourself for not being successful ("I was trying to get rid of my anxiety, and here it is again. I'm a failure!"). And, you will probably lack the motivation to continue your meditation practice.
In short, the view of overcoming or "getting rid of" leads to quick setbacks, which cause you to stop your practice before you have a chance of realizing any benefits.
Second, what does the word "goal" mean to you? Are you rejecting your present circumstances, driving towards a future vision of yourself, and pinning your happiness on whether or not you achieve that vision?
If you continually wish your circumstances are different than they are, it will give rise to more anxiety and make your condition worse. Instead, accept things as they are. As an old teacher was fond of saying,
"It is what it is."
I know, I know - it's easy to dismiss a sentiment like this, especially when you're dealing with anxiety or other struggles. But, fully embracing "it is what it is" can lead to immediate relief if you understand it as more than an empty platitude posted on social media.
The present moment is the product of billions of years of causes and conditions that brought it into being - most of which you have no control over, or any insight in to. No amount of lamentation or mental drama will change it; to the contrary, all of it leads to self-created suffering. The only thing you can do, right here and now, is make mindful decisions and take skillful actions, which become part of causes and conditions that give rise to the next present moment.
Begin by strengthening awareness of what's happening in your mind. See what your anxiety is composed of - is there doubt? Fear? Worry? What are the physical sensations? Rapid breathing? A racing heart? Tension in your neck and back?
Notice what's there, but don't try to fight it - simply let it be as it is. And then, move your attention away from it. This may be uncomfortable at first - we tend to feel we are "giving in" if we aren't fighting. But, that's not the case.
Those thoughts, emotions, and sensations are there whether you fight them or not. If you do fight them, however, you are indulging them: you are giving them fuel to persist. This fuel turns the wheel of your suffering, giving rise to more thoughts, emotions, and sensations. And, before you know it, you're being dragged into a "pit of despair" where your anxiety, fears, depression, and other struggles completely take over.
When you let it be as it is, however, you'll discover things usually aren't the problem your mind makes them out to be. And, your mind does create problems - it takes everything you experience (a sight, sound, smell, taste, sensation, thought), labels it, assigns a feeling of pleasant or unpleasant to it, and weaves it all into stories that constantly play in your head.
This process conditions your behavior, and you habitually react with desire for things that deliver pleasant feelings and aversion towards things that deliver unpleasant feelings. As a result, your life is characterized by a constant state of dissatisfaction that keeps you chasing after "this" and running away from "that." Even worse, all of this happens on autopilot - you, like the rest of us, are usually just dragged along for the ride.
But, awareness shines a light on this process, and helps take you off autopilot. You can see the feelings, the thoughts, the emotions, the stories. They are part of an unfolding process, not an isolated event that looms before you, threatening your well-being. All of this mental activity is contingent on the causes and conditions that gave rise to it. And, all of it is temporary: it comes into being (arises), exists for a time, and ceases (passes)...provided you don't allow your attention to get caught up in it. Provided you don't indulge it, and give it fuel to persist.
How do you do this?
When you meditate, focus your attention on an anchor (usually your breath or a mantra). When those thoughts and emotions arise and you notice your attention is caught up in them, simply return it to your anchor.
Notice and return, over and over and over. You are developing the skill of observing what arises and passes without getting caught up in it. And, as you develop this skill, you can begin transferring it to your "non-meditating" time.
When you aren't meditating (when you are going about your daily activities), focus your attention on the present moment and task at hand. When those thoughts and emotions arise and you notice your attention is caught up in them, simply return it to the present moment and task at hand.
This is how meditation and mindfulness work. You aren't overcoming anything, you're changing your relationship with it. You are training your attention to no longer be held hostage by mental activity. And, you're strengthening awareness of your compulsive mind, and the aforementioned process it goes through - the process that conditions your behavior, and ultimately dictates "who you are" and "what you do."
With practice, and the direct experience that comes from practice, you can begin chipping away at your habitual actions and reactions, and start bringing an end to the problems your mind creates.
Address the root cause.
Your struggles and suffering - whether it's stress, feelings of anxiety or depression, low self-confidence, extreme emotions...or anything else - are caused by the difference between the way things are and the way the mind thinks they should be.
Does it make sense to continue trying to control everything "out there" to conform to the mind's expectations? Or, is a more skillful use of your time and energy changing the way you deal with the thoughts and stories the mind constantly churns out?
If you believe it's the second option, continue reading...