One morning, during my recent holiday in New York, my mum and I got on the ferry to take a Hop-On, Hop-Off tour of the Hudson River. Whilst I had felt fine beforehand, within a few minutes of being on the boat, I began to feel a bit nauseous. I have never particularly suffered from seasickness, but the weather was rough, the motion strong and I began to struggle with the feelings of sickness. I tried to breathe through it and focus on one thing, all of the usual strategies, but the feeling was intensifying and, by the time we were stuck for several minutes, rocking up and down on the water, stationary, waiting for the Staten Island ferry to pass, I was ready to bolt.
Of course, the seasickness (which I later surmised was probably compounded by a lack of food and tiredness), the feeling of being stuck and about to throw up, caused subconscious anxiety, which manifested as tingling in my arms and hands, a strange sort of pain in my chest/shoulder and an intense prickling on the outside of my ears, which I had never experienced before. Whilst I knew it was anxiety, it was highly unpleasant and unlike other anxiety ‘attacks’ I have experienced before. Usually I am able to breathe through them and calm myself, but this was absolute fight or flight.
I walked off the boat as quickly as possible and, though I felt a bit better immediately, I felt weak, drained and still somewhat filled with anxiety as we walked through Wall Street, towards Broadway. We found a bagel shop and sat for a small lunch which, afterward, made me feel much better. We ended up getting a taxi back to our hotel (the only time we did not walk during our six days in New York!) because the heavens had opened and Manhattan was experiencing a torrential downpour.
Fast forward several days, and we were in Long Wharf, Boston, about to get the 90-minute fast ferry to Provincetown, Cape Cod. I felt good and had consciously tried not to equate the two experiences so as not to cause anxiety, knowing that several elements in New York probably added to my unpleasant experience on the river boat. As we know, though, the subconscious is a powerful, sensitive beast and capable of provoking anxiety, even when we are alone in a safe, warm bed. Of course, it was natural for some anxiety to arise as we ate lunch by the pier, waiting for our ferry to dock, so I did my best to maintain a calm system of breathing (I tend to use 5 counts in, 7 counts out–but as long as the exhale lasts longer than the inhale, it’s all good), but I felt the familiar swimming feeling in my head and knew that it could worsen very easily.
So, in conjunction with the regulated breathing, I made it my only and immediate purpose to narrow my focus to the details of the present moment. We hear that so often–“just be in the moment”–but it can be an abstract concept until we are faced with a situation in which we have no choice. This often occurs in emergency situations, when one has no time to think, but we can also, with a fine balance of effort and surrender, achieve that same, present moment focus wherever we are and whatever we are doing. I made it my mission, in that moment, to concentrate on exactly what was in front of me–no past, no future, no thought, just the immediate, sensory details of that moment. I was eating tortilla chips and salsa. Something so ordinary and unglamorous that one might think the act incapable of generating any reverence or peace! But it is through those simple, everyday activities that we can achieve presence.
I focused on every detail of the act. The effort of my hand moving towards the bowl. The reddish colour of the bowl. The flecks of grain in the chips. The act of lifting the chip from the bowl, slowly and deliberately. The smell of the salt and the salsa. The chunks of jalapenos and tomato and the way the chip sunk into them, scooping just enough for me to eat. The crunch of the chip. The spicy, tangy, cool taste on my tongue. The sip of ice-cold water I took through a straw afterward. Every movement I made, I did slowly and carefully. I began to realise that I was feeling calmer and more able to have a genuine, easier conversation with my mum, feeling the breeze on my shoulders from the harbour behind me. It both narrowed and opened my world in that moment and, although I had another mild wave of anxiety when I first sat on the deck of the boat, I was able to gently push it away with present-moment focus and regulated breathing.
Expelling anxiety is not easy, nor is there a quick fix. But I believe firmly that, the more we practice present-moment awareness in our own daily activities–making a cup of tea, cleaning the kitchen, showering, washing the dishes–the calmer and more conscious we will be in general, and the better prepared we will be when those surprising and unpleasant moments of anxiety strike.
Whatever you are doing, right now, however tedious or dull it seems (the duller the better!) make it your first and only focus. Do it slowly and deliberately. Feel the textures and temperatures of the objects you are handling. Listen to the sounds around you. Become intensely aware of the sensations in your body, without any mental story behind them. Concentrate on every element of the task at hand.
Literally–making my world, in that moment in Boston, about the crunch and the grain and the tang of the tortilla chips and salsa, prevented me from worsening my anxiety and allowed me to take control of my body and mind as I stepped onto that boat for a calm, enjoyable 90-minute ride. It sounds so simple, but how many of us are on autopilot all day, every day, never truly feeling and sensing the things around us? When we do, occasionally, receive those glimpses of pure, present-moment clarity, they stay in our minds because they are so rare. The moment does not have to be extraordinary and you do not have to be laying on a deserted beach or sipping wine on a breezy, starry evening to feel the intense beauty and aliveness of the present moment.
Use your tiny, daily rituals as practice for embracing and truly living the present moment. I promise you that you will benefit from it, day-to-day, and that, if or when the time comes for anxiety to bubble up out of nowhere, you will be much better equipped to deal with it.