“A loss of the ability to worry” is a serious symptom of inner peace, according to one writer’s reflections on inner peace I found stuffed away in a poetry folder. I smiled as I read this because I believe we all might agree that worry and inner peace do not co-exist in our bodies or minds.
Have you noticed how you are conscious of the present moment when you feel a sense of peace? Worry, on the other hand, takes you out of the present. The mind becomes occupied with what might happen in the future or the ramifications of something from the past.
My parents were great worriers, and so I grew up with worry as an unconscious habit. Focusing on the worst case scenario of a choice, behavior, or event, I would make decisions as a way of “protecting” myself from the disastrous outcomes that I imagined. The great irony of this is that I was not protecting myself, as I really did not have control over the outcome of things worrying me; rather I was creating a negative and unhealthy environment for my body, mind, and emotions.
Worry is about fear. We fear something bad will happen. Often what we dread is a loss. It might be a loss of a person, pet, reputation, success, power, possessions, health, or life. Fear engages the stress response, our body’s natural physiological response to a threat or danger. When this response is activated a flood of chemicals in our system raises blood pressure, increases respiration and heartbeat, and creates tension in our muscles, all preparing us to respond to the threat of danger we believe is immanent.
Worry, and especially chronic worry, has negative health effects, and it does not even protect us from the bad things we fear will happen. Worry keeps us from living the only life we have – this present moment.
In yogic terms, worry is avidya or lack of awareness or knowledge. We are caught in illusions that we have power over events when we don’t, or that things must never change when it is their nature to change, or that we have knowledge of what will happen in the future when we cannot know what will happen. Avidya inevitably leads to duhkha or suffering. When we worry, we suffer.
Yoga can help us with avidya and worry through practice (abhyasa) and discrimination (viveka). Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra gives us the eight limbs of yoga – ethical practices, behaviors toward ourselves, postures, breathing practices, and the inner limbs of yoga, all leading to purification of the body, mind and heart. Through diligent practice of the limbs of yoga, purification leads to greater clarity. We begin to see our ourselves and our behaviors; we see what we what we can change and what we must let go of. We have strategies in our practice to take the mind to a more peaceful place when habits of worry return. As the mind becomes clearer, we develop discrimination, the ability to see what is helpful and what is harmful and to base our decisions on that knowledge.
While banishing worry from our minds forever may not be attainable for most of us, discrimination that comes out of a consistent and sincere yoga practice can help “weaken” our tendency to worry. And, as worry diminishes, inner peace can take root and grow.