Being anxious is a common contemporary experience, even more marked in recent months. However, an anxious state of mind is not conducive to best thinking, such that projects, job applications, assignments, communications, decisions, and thus life, may be placed at risk.
When it hasn’t even been about the imperative of paying the bills, clients have told me the anxiety is always there as they ‘skim’ the surface of life, doing 3–4 things at once, putting off what really matters to them because … because why?
Pressure to achieve; to get it right; get it done…unspoken, invisible, insidious pressure that has millions suffering burnout. Inherent in the pressure is habitual fear of judgement; of failing; of being wrong. In a state of anxiety, getting it right matters, so one can continue to belong and continue without need to change.
There is a kind of delusion that rushing about stressed, becoming exhausted, more anxious, more depleted is somehow helpful, and even heroic. It seems counter-cultural to relax deeply (unless inebriated), however, to access fresh insights, unwind we must.
The first step is becoming aware; to be curious about the ‘monkey on your back’ enquiring inwardly by what or by whom do I feel pressured? Perhaps this question is an easy one for you, or you might write stream-of-consciousness in your journal, or seek help from a coach or therapist.
A child of two workaholics, this took a long time and much ill health for me to discover and dismantle self-sabotaging beliefs. There are numerous modalities to do this ‘inner work’, but the one that helps me, and in which I’m trained, is The Journey Method.
The depletion of burnout impacts all levels of human experience — physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Creatively expressing our gifts — being in our element — fills the ‘empty tank’ and connects us with our profound essential nature. Here’s the thing: there’s no anxiety when lost in flow.
Therefore, rather than trying to get rid of stress and anxiety, an alternative antidote is to nurture flow. And it helps to believe in a deeper Self.
Hanging out in the chattering mind way too much, believing in the negativity that is generated there, gives rise to anxiety. Creative expression uses the mind far more powerfully, directing its’ brilliance constructively. Of course, creative expression also comes from the heart.
Taking time to be still and hang out in the heart, allowing feelings to simply be felt, gives the clarity that can help you make choices that lead to actions that bring you soul-soothing replenishment. Even flow.
Even 25 years ago, analyst philosopher Julia Kristeva in ‘New Maladies of the Soul’ asked who believes in the soul these days? We still hear the comforting s-word in secular, everyday usage — food for the soul, body and soul, and soul-soothing.
Echoing Jung, Kristeva connects particular ills of our times — insomnia, headaches, stress, discontent, anxiety and depression — with a failure to feel self-expressed, inextricably linking creative expression and well-being.
Old news now, and supported by research, creative expression is the antidote to many ‘maladies of the soul’ and the body too, via powerful biochemistry that shifts from age-inducing stress hormones to the contrary. Well documented are the effects of colouring on reducing stress hormones; the remarkably rapid release of Dopamine and Serotonin with gratitude, and mindfulness and meditation programs increasing telomerase activity, better for health and longevity.
Both creative flow and meditation trigger a drop in activity in the frontal cortex — the part of the brain that thinks incessantly. Consequently, it makes sense to meditate and be creative, and it’s important to upgrade the beliefs that self-sabotage. Do you ever say ‘I’d love to… but I’m just not creative enough’? Or ‘It’s not important.’ And this sneaky one: ‘I have a lot to be grateful for, so why upset the way things are?’
Such ideas and related self-talk are often in direct contrast to what people really want. With the mind’s rules, it can become hard to hear the heart’s voice. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard “You let your heart rule your head!” as an almost criminal accusation. Yet we’re stopped when our heart breaks; when it loves and aches, plus we know very well when we ‘lose heart’ and what ‘heartless’ means.
Did burnout ever happen from listening to the heart? Aside from feeling time-pressured and reacting to the ‘monkey on your back’, there may be another powerful reason for not listening inwardly; for not attending to the yearning of one’s Self or soul or however you like to describe your essential nature.
Renowned Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön speaks of shutting down around our innermost tenderness as a protective mechanism, driving onward instead of feeling. And in the process, possibilities for inspiration and creativity are lost, and so is our rudder; our sense of meaningful direction.
Often it takes something radical to interrupt old patterns of striving, stress and workaholism. Get to mid-life and lots of things have not gone as planned, right? Many of us are faced with big changes, tragic losses and health challenges.
‘I don’t have time’ is the most common excuse I hear for not navigating a different way to live. Instead, busyness or other distractions offer exhaustion or short-term relief. Be reassured, if you want to be free of that lost, anxious feeling — it’s not hard, nor time consuming, given the bigger picture, we just think it is.
All this is context for ‘The One Question.’ Once the question arose, I stopped running around in circles in my head trying to figure things out. Instead, my creative responses were like an easy, inspiring and delightful Q&A.
‘Freaking out’ was replaced by deep peace. I had good ideas, and a stream of joy gently bubbled away while I was, at the time, a cancer patient.
That was nine years ago, and I was very anxious about what was happening to my body. Surgery and radiation, for me, were terrifying processes. And out of the blue, an epiphany happened.
Arriving at a beach café for breakfast, I’d been rambling on about something to Grant (my partner), looking without seeing, and then stopped. He was looking out to sea, smiling. When I looked where he was looking, I was stunned. The sun was sparkling on the water more vibrantly than millions of diamonds for as far as I could see.
Everything became still, silent and expansive. The moment seemed to stretch out. There was a space in my mind for these words to arise:
What do you love? Why are you here?
Wow. Feeling a part of it all, it took days to realise the anxiety had gone.
Like changing channel in my head, brow softened, tension eased from my shoulders. Gratitude arose easily, naturally, after weeks of high anxiety. I smiled.
The more I asked the first question, the more my memory revealed hidden treasures; things I had not thought about for years. I saw vivid pictures in my mind’s eye and reconnected with the curiosity, joy and wonder I often felt as a child.
The more I gave myself over to the being/doing of creative process through drawing, the more profound was the rest from stress and worry.
From a sophisticated doctoral project, my art practice became very simple, contemplative and meditative. Without it, I don’t know if I’d coped with what was to come. On the other side of treatment and the shocking ordeal of Grant’s sudden death, I realised the answer to the second question was embedded in the first.
A couple of years later, I began to ask my clients to ‘Write a list of 50 things you love.’ Every single time, the process helped them reconnect with what really mattered, and self-initiate creative ways of moving forward.
Adding a creative self-expression project — using colour pencils and simple drawing around this question as I’d done during cancer treatment — made it so much easier to become grounded in materials so that worrying stopped and profound self-care took place naturally.
In his book ‘Brain Rules,’ John Medina notes how around half the brain — loves colour and starts firing as soon as we’re engaged with colours. Enriching stimulation for the brain, calming mindfulness practice as well as nurturing inner listening, are all great reasons to continue this line of enquiry. (There’s a link to my free ‘Listen to your Heart — A Creative Project’ at the end of this article).
Contemplating ‘What do you love?’ requires time to let your mind wander and return with the patience and kindness you would offer a dear friend. Opening up to remembering positive experiences, imagining and gratitude usually follow.
The hyper-vigilant primitive brain settles as cortisol drops and disorganised Beta waves shift to Alpha, where there are possibilities for unprecedented connections and access to greater intelligence. Who would have thought that responding to “What do you love?” can actually make you smarter?!
I strongly suspect that responding to ‘What do you love?’ saved my life. Lawrence LeShan would likely agree. In his book ‘Cancer As A Turning Point’ he notes how when asking his patients what was wrong they kept ‘dropping like flies’, but when he asked them what they loved, and helped them experience the joy of that in some form again, many went into remission even after being in advanced stages of illness.
The more I asked, remembered, imagined, drew and coloured, the more gratitude I felt and the more I was able to reconnect with my love for life. Soon after, the foundations for my creativity-nurturing coaching methods were born.
Michael Singer, author of the remarkable book “The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself”, in a podcast conversation with Tami Simons (of Sounds True), describes the inspiration, creativity, elation and total well-being that naturally arises with letting go of the mental chatter in your head that’s associated with old conditioning and stuff we unwittingly hold onto.
Asking ‘What do you love?’ at the start of my courses, retreats and coaching, some people smile and others frown. One person remarked: ‘No-one ever asked me that!’
Almost always, as the old pattern of ‘what’s wrong?’ is interrupted, people can be confused and ask: ‘What do you mean?!’
I reply, ‘Anything! People, places, objects, practical, natural, ordinary, luxurious, utilitarian, edible and otherwise; plants, animals, weather, seasons, celebrations, crafts, minerals, gems, elements; books, films … walking on the beach, a particular piece of music, poetry, art or dance… anything you enjoy!’
What do you love? What really matters to you? What has delighted you, from an exquisite feather to a magnificent waterfall?
Here are some examples:
I love tiny sea-shells, collecting warm eggs, the feeling of walking on fresh straw, oranges and strawberries from the garden, autumn leaves, fragrant olive oil and good bread. I love painting, making ideas real, tiny art stores like caves crowded with art materials, watercolour boxes and cotton-heavy paper. I love certain poems, children’s books, old linen, coral-red doors, high ceilings, sunrooms in Winter and the many kinds of green. I love sharing a rustic meal and seeing people light up as they create like little kids again…
Now, if you’ll give yourself this gift, it’s your turn.
Follow this step-by-step approach to a gentle contemplative experience:
- PREPARE by setting aside an hour, and a space in which to work with some paper, coloured pencils or pens. Attend to your ‘bio needs’ and turn your phone to silent or off. Leave it in another room.
- SETTLE yourself by becoming aware of your feet flat on the floor, bring attention to your spine — sitting up straight — and notice your breathing without needing to change it, and allow each breath to help you relax…and then as you become settled, bring your awareness to the area of your heart. You might even like to place your hand there.
- ASK: Close your eyes and ask ‘What do I love?’ I ask for 50 things, but any number is fine. As each thing comes into your mind’s eye, open your eyes and write. Or draw. Close your eyes again, seeing or sensing again what you love, opening your eyes again and writing. Keep on with this process for as long as you want. There’s no need to be concerned about order and it can of course, be completely private, or done with your children or grandchildren.
Here are some guiding phrases:
- I love the sound of…
- I love the scent of…
- I love the sight of…
- I love the colour of…
- I love the taste of…
- I love the touch of…
- I love being…
- I love seeing…
- I love listening to…
- I love reading…
- I love doing…
- I love making…
- I love playing…
- I love visiting…
- I love collecting…
- I love wearing…
- I love exploring…
- I love enjoying…
…And any other person, thing or experience you hold dear.
- REST: When your list feels complete for now, close your eyes and rest, aware of the goodness of all that you love. Notice how you’re feeling.
- REALISE: From this open-minded place it’s far easier to ask if there’s anything you’d like to make more time for.
- FOR THE FUTURE: Keep your list in your journal or cut it into slips, fold and place in a jar so you can pick one when you feel like a change of channel in your thinking or to lift your mood.
- GET THE FREE CREATIVE PROJECT that follows on from this article. Click on the link at the end and be guided to easily create your own design to remind you, at a glance, of what you love; what matters to you and the preciousness of your life.
I first gave the task of listing ‘50 Things You Love’ to a scientist at an impasse in her doctorate. Self-doubting, despairing and exhausted, she chose a daily ritual from her list — gentle, relaxing and replenishing — which gave her the clarity to make choices supportive of her life. She took time out, travelled and learned a radical form of dance. When she called months later, she was joyful having completed her doctorate and excited about her new creative project.
Contemplating ‘What do I love?’ can be a surprisingly powerful step to overcoming procrastination; becoming free of anxiety-inducing thoughts around not feeling good enough, fear of failing & not having time to do what you love.
Get the free project offered below if you’d like to …
· Feel the relief as anxiety & tension dissolve with easy contemplation and creativity
· Have greater clarity of mind so you can make better choices
· Learn easy & effective art techniques to express what you love
· Gain insights about yourself and your life through guided creative process
· Complete the project with a highly personal design that reconnects you with you at a glance!
 Daniel Goleman & Richard J. Davidson, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes your Mind, Brain & Body. New York: Avery, 2017, p. 177
 Pema Chödrön, From Fear to Fearlessness (CD series published by Sounds True)