What’s Really Driving Your Stress and Anxiety
And why meditation only sometimes works.
I started teaching meditation a few years ago, deeply engaging with thousands of students around the world, from all walks of life. CEOs and law firm partners, worried moms and anxious teens — from San Francisco to Oslo, Bogota, Johannesburg, Bangalore and back again.
My students send me gifts, photos, and above all, stories — deeply personal stories — of their lives, their dreams, and their anxieties. The stories are what I cherish most of all. They have deeply affected how I view the world, and how I view the inner depth of every person I pass on the street.
The stories, thousands of them, have also helped me form a kind of anecdotal understanding , a fond observer’s perspective if you will, about what anxiety really is, and why even meditation — as great as it is — doesn’t get at the deepest root of why anxiety really happens.
I’d like to share some of my learnings here, and get your input on them. And perhaps you will be moved to share a story with me too. I’d love to hear it.
Why People Really Meditate
When I ask students why they want to meditate, the number one answer is “to relieve my stress and anxiety”. They have worries about money, their career paths, parenting issues, health issues — all the normal things you’d expect — and they are really, really anxious and stressed about them.
Some are stressed to the point of self-medicating, with alcohol or pills. Others are caught in a punishing loop of self-perfectionism — of body, of family, of career and image.
Whatever the specifics, there is one thing I’ve found to be deeply in common across every single student I’ve ever taught.
I call it the voice.
The inner voice.
That chattering, endlessly worried, constantly circling voice inside of us, which is always hounding us and never lets us go.
This is the voice that spots the worst-case in everything.
That worries about failure.
That what you are doing is nowhere near to being good enough.
This is the voice of self-judgement. And the stronger it is, the more anxiety you will tend to have.
Buddhists call it the “monkey mind”. Psych folks call it “negative self-talk”.
It’s a real thing, it happens normally, and we have all experienced it to one degree or another.
Shutting up the voice
What I’ve observed is that when people seek meditation, what they are actually looking for is a better, more healthy way to “shut up” this voice. To smother it and stop its incessant chattering. To get some relief.
By the time they are resorting to meditation, they have already gone through several other ways of trying to shut up the voice.
Alcohol ranks high, as does various degrees of drug use — prescribed, illicit, or both. But this only numbs, it doesn’t heal. And even the numbing is temporary.
Numbing comes in other forms too. Eating (too much or too little), sex/porn, cutting, shopping and even your phone can be used as powerful ways of numbing.
Working really hard — achievement — also ranks high. Less as a form of numbing, and more as a form of appeasement. To appease and shut up the voice by acquiring ever more status, money and prestige — but this often comes at a very high cost, and doesn’t fulfill the true need.
Appeasement also comes in another form: perfectionism. To shut up the voice by making oneself “perfect in every way” — in body image perfection, in having the perfect family, and even the perfect children — who then may inherit the voice of anxiety from their parents as well.
There is no morality or judgement here. I’m not asking “Is it right or wrong?” I’m only asking, “Does it work to calm anxiety?”
And the challenge with all these approaches is that they don’t actually work — not for long, anyway. Their relief is only temporary — after every numbing session of wine or pills, the voice is still there, unchanged, and simply comes roaring back even stronger. After every milestone of outward prestige and the appearance of perfection, the voice too is still there, still unchanged, and just raises the bar even more.
What About Meditation?
And yes, so what about meditation? It’s effective, healthy, and discreet — isn’t this the perfect way to “shut up the voice” in a sustainable way?
I’ve found that even meditation, when used as a way to shut up the voice, is still just a temporary measure. A healthier one to be sure, with all kinds of other benefits. But as applied to anxiety, still just temporary.
I’ve seen this in my students. They take up meditation, they have great results and take great relief in the practice, but the voice inside them is still unchanged. The bliss of the session wears off, and the punishing voice comes back from its coffee break, and climbs back up behind the wheel.
You’ve gotten better at relaxing, but the root cause of your suffering remains unchanged — the negative inner voice is still there.
The Deeper Root of Anxiety
What I’ve observed in all of this, across thousands of meditation students, is that the root of anxiety is not just that “there is an inner voice”, or even that “the inner voice is always chattering”.
The problem, specifically, is that the inner voice is harshly negative.
Said another way, the root of anxiety arises from a kind of inner conflict — where there is a part of you, this voice, which is viciously critical towards the rest of you.
And which goes on like this, continuously, incessantly, 24–7.
This is why you can’t sleep, this is why you’re never at peace. This is why you work so hard. And this is why you numb.
And it can’t be numbed or shut down permanently, because it is actually a valid part of you — a full “card-carrying member”, if you will.
It also can’t be appeased — because its message is not that “You need to achieve X, and then I will love you”, but rather that “Whatever you achieve, you are inherently not good enough. Period, full stop.” So that slathering it with money, prestige and perfection — which is getting other people to tell you that you are good enough — will, like any other drug, be only a temporary salve.
What Can We Do?
So if you can’t destroy it, numb it, or appease it, then what other options are actually left? What can we do?
What I’ve discovered works best with my students is what at first seems like a unlikely and even frightening path:
Seek out your negative inner voice, run toward it, and spend time with it.
Without numbing, without appeasing, without resisting or suppressing.
But just to sit with it, as an old friend, and listen.
Yes, it will spew venom at you. Yes, it will rant and rail, push all your buttons, and poke at every raw and vulnerable spot you have — and it knows all of them.
Let it. Don’t run.
What I’ve found is that it does all this for a reason, unique to each person.
And the most powerful way of healing its venom is to actually find out this reason. You may hear that it is an inner part of you that is angry, or wounded, or feels wrongly suppressed. Or it’s a closely-held value or belief you once cherished, which you have since been pressured to cut off or betray.
Discovering this reason will be the key to your healing.
Because the only way to stop your inner conflict will be to learn what the voice is really asking for — why it’s angry, how it got wounded — and then to find a way to heal it, and get it back on your side again.
This is the only way to become, quite literally, “whole again”.
Meditation can help, but only as one part of a bigger journey.
This is what I’ve seen so far, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
You can comment here, or email me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In other notes, I’ll describe what this healing journey has looked like for other people— how their inner voice got wounded, the different kinds of wounds, and how the return journey happened. So you can see the path in yourself, and know that you can do it too.
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