Calming the Worry Monsters

August 27th, 2013

mountain monasteryThere is an old monastery in Europe perched high on a cliff several hundred feet in the air. The only way to reach the monastery is to be suspended in a basket which is pulled to the top by several monks who pull and tug with all their strength.

Obviously the ride up the steep cliff in the basket is terrifying. One tourist got really nervous about half-way up as he noticed that the rope was old and frayed. With a trembling voice he asked the monk who was riding with him in the basket how often they changed the rope. The monk thought for a moment and answered cheekily, “Whenever it breaks.”

Life is full of moments like this. Our hold on life is old and frayed, we never know when or how things will snap, and we’re often dependent on other people. The best, most careful driver can die in a car accident at the hands of another driver being careless. You can send your kids to school in the safest neighborhood and find them the victims of a deranged gunman (just ask the people of Newtown Connecticut)

Every day is full of situations we can’t fully control. What if? What if I don’t get the job?  What if my car breaks down in the middle of nowhere?  What if I can’t get into my preferred graduate school?  What if I never find the right person to marry?  What if I move, and still don’t find what I’m looking for? What if I get pregnant and the baby has a rare disorder?  What if???????????????Worry is a challenge for all of us at times. I wrote about the way we confuse concern with worry here. Often worry is just a projection of our own fears and expectations.

Worry is not all bad, but it’s not all it thinks it is. Worry about the future sometimes serves a purpose. It helps you to trouble shoot potential pitfalls. You can play them out in your mind, almost like rehearsing the future. Then you can either dismiss the worry because you’ve seen how irrational it is, or you can plan for it, or you can just accept it if it’s something you can’t control.

It’s all about mastery; letting worries work for you, not being run by worry. With awareness of what’s playing out in your mind, you can steer worry in helpful directions. If you let worry run your life, it will do so with glee.

Mastering worry has a lot to do with timing. Decide to address issues IF and when they arise, but not a moment sooner. As Atticus Finch often told his kids in To Kill a Mockingbird, “It’s not time to worry yet.”

It’s a great phrase to bring yourself back to the present.

Ask yourself some questions to focus your mind.

Is everything ok in this moment? Is the world still spinning on its axis, and oxygen still flowing?

Do you need to figure out tomorrow’s problems right now? Is it enough to just start thinking about them?

Do you need to answer ALL the questions right now? Is there a chance, time will change the questions?

Live like the seasons. Winter doesn’t rush to become summer, no matter how much we wish it would. It just “does” winter well. Summer will be here soon enough. Its probably not time to worry yet.

Also, keep in mind what Dale Carnegie said, “Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.”

So when your mind is obsessing about the past or the future, and the voice of the worrier is trying to drag you into its drama, tell it “I’m ok. Let me be here now, where everything is exactly as it is and exactly as it needs to be. For now!”
As Corrie Ten Boom said,

Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.

Here’s a visual to stop worrying about things beyond your control.  Imagine you have a bag full of worry stones.  Your bag has 100 stones inside of it.  Every time you worry about something, you have to spend one of those stones, and you only get 100, no more.  Every time worry rears its head, ask the question, “Is this something I’m willing to spend one of my stones on? To paraphrase the famous Elaine line from Seinfeld, “Is this person/ situation/ thought stone-worthy?” Is this thought worry-worthy?

Some things will be, like a child in surgery or a kid who’s texting while driving. But more often than not, you will choose to save your stones for more immediate and likely issues. What if? Well I will deal with it then.

Spend your worry stones on things that are actually happening, not things that may happen one day.

The next time something is getting to you, ask yourself if it’s stone-worthy.  You’ll be amazed at how many things simply aren’t worth worrying about.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Hey Ian, Good thoughts, and helpful imagery. Thanks for sharing them. [BTW, the photo is of Tiger's Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan.  Officially it is called Taktsang Palphug  but known as Paro Taktsang locally.  Not really in Europe.] Paul Reitemeier

  2. ian says:

    thanks Paul. Hope all is well

  3. Kim says:

    I love the concept of having a limited bag full of worry stones- especially since I am a rock collector (of actual rocks- not worries:))  I think I would suggest that instead of having 100 worry stones to start, we should start with an empty bag as worry stones can get very heavy at times.I’m a rock collector. I collect rocks from every trip I go on and remember where each one was from. The problem is that they get awfully heavy. Looong ago, -in 4th grade, not saying what year- I traveled up to Atwood (the adorable) near Petoskey and collected over 125 petoskey stones while walking about 2 and 1/2 miles down a very desserted beach, which meant I had to carry my treasure back that same 2 -1/2 miles. To note, I only had a handmade corduroy bag with a drawstring, and not the wonderful backpacks we have today. I realized as my shoulder was in pain that I would have to lighten the load.  So I sadly dumped out the stones and sorted them according to size and uniqueness and chose the best 80 or so.Ian,  as I read your post, I imagined that maroon corduroy bag weighing heavily on my shoulder and how precious each one of those stones had been to me and how difficult it was to let each one go. I imagine many indivuduals feel the same way about their burdens. They may “fear” that if they stop worrying- then they no longer care. There are many people I know who are defined by their burdens- martyred-so to speak. If they were to do something about it, then they wouldn’t have anything to talk about. Personally I like the symbolism. So I would encourage these people to sort through their own accumulated piles of worry stones, choose only the ones that are unique and precious, yet light enough not to hurt their shoulders. The rest should be scattered for someone else to find.

  4. brian says:

    Well done.  TY for sharing!

  5. BOB KENT says:

    HI,  ARE YOU BY ANY CHANCE SYD LAWTONS SON, KIND REGARDS

  6. ian says:

    No, different Lawton tribe

  7. Art says:

    Good post, indeed majority of the time, if not all of the time, worry is not needed, we giving power to fear, i say a miracle is in a breath… and if your breathing all is possible… so let faith guide you to knowing.. Good thoughts!!

  8. Debbie says:

    Love this post! I actually thought along the same lines as Kim, who suggested visualizing an empty bag and then adding worry stones. Both are super ideas to consider. I am just beginning to explore Buddhism, so seeing this post is timely for me. Thank you for sharing it.