I am on a hike with my husband and four-year-old son.
We are doing a loop, and we’ve got about a quarter mile left, which is all uphill. We stop for some water and snacks to fuel up for the last stretch.
My son sits happily eating a Lara bar. “Look at this ant Momma!” he says. I respond, but it’s halfhearted if I’m honest, as my attention has been pulled elsewhere. The sky is getting dark and the clouds are moving swiftly.
The sun seems to have vanished.
“It’s going to rain,” I think to myself. Then my mind is off and running. “We’re going to get soaked!” “He’s going to be miserable.” “It will take forever to get back to the car.” I can feel my anxiety rising, starting in my belly and bubbling up into my throat. I want to say, “Who cares about that ant! Hurry up and eat that Lara bar! Let’s get going! It’s going to rain!”
“Look at this huge ant Momma!”
He calls me back, pointing enthusiastically.
In that moment of staying with my anxiety, I realize I don’t want to rush him. I don’t want to create a bunch of stress.
I don’t want to hurry. I fall back on a meditation technique taught to me by my meditation instructor Acharya Dale Asrael, and taught to her by Charlotte Joko Beck, for how to label thoughts. The technique is simply to notice the thought, and say, “Having a believed thought that…” Fill in the blank.
So for me, it’s “Having a believed thought that it’s going to rain. Having a believed thought that we are all going to get soaked. Having a believed thought that my son is going to be miserable.”
I pause to notice the impact of labeling my thoughts, and I feel myself relax, at least a little. It’s just a believed thought. It doesn’t mean it’s real. I can’t really know how the future is going to play out, so what’s the use in pretending I do? I can see how I am creating unnecessary suffering for myself, and how I was so close to creating it for my son too.
“Cool ant!” I reply, watching it carry a Lara bar crumb.
My son is in no hurry to move. A saying from my Grandfather pops into my head, “Slower than molasses in January.” I have to laugh as I label that one, “Having a believed thought that he is slower than molasses in January.”
My anxiety comes and goes in waves as we sit there. I observe it. I feel it. I don’t act out of it.
I make the choice to simply see what happens.
Finally we are all ready to resume our hike. I notice that in a weird way I am secretly hoping the rain will start. What?!
I label it: “Having a believed thought that I hope it rains.”
When I inquire deeper, I realize that if it rains, then I can be “right” and tell myself how I knew all along that this was going to happen, how we should have not lingered so long watching the ant and eating. Then I will be able to rest in the fact that I really do know what is best and what should be done, rather than this groundless place of not knowing.
If I am “right,” my anxiety will not have been for nothing—it will be justified. The idea that I could be creating anxiety for myself for no reason whatsoever is a bit unsettling.
We finish the last part of the hike and arrive at our car back at the trailhead. The sun has reappeared.
Not even a drop of rain.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Hartwig HKD/Flickr Creative Commons