The Closet Monster

You are about to embark on a trip to a foreign country. In the weeks ahead of departure, you may be excited in anticipation. Yet the morning of the trip, stress starts creeping in and it quickly builds. Questions pop up in your mind: “What did I forget to pack?” “Will I make it in time to the airport?” “Will the check-in go smoothly?” “Will my plane arrive safely?” And so on and so forth. What is going on? What is the source of this sudden anxiety and stress-generating concerns? Why are all these unfavorable situations being formed in your brain?

The mind is doing what it is designed to do: protect you. The process itself is based on the primal instinct built into all of us: fight or plight. It is designed to ask questions: “Is there danger involved?” “Can I get hurt?” It acts as a chess player, calculating several moves ahead, analyzing options; like an insurance agent, conducting risk assessment.

The problem is that this process tends to run wild. Your imagination paints the worst case scenarios and then starts to believe that these cases will actually happen. The result? Unrealistic and unjustified fear and stress.

What is one to do? The intellectual route, telling the mind there should be no reason for concern, doesn’t often work. Take the child afraid of going to sleep because there is a monster in her bedroom closet. Daddy is called in to explain that there is none. As proof, Dad turns the lights on and opens the closet door. And indeed, no monsters are visible. Yet this does not make the fear go away. What the youngster knows, that the grownup does not, is that whatever is hiding in the closet is very evasive. It knows how to hide itself the moment the door is opened by an adult. But wait until the parent is gone! The child believes the monster is still there only waiting for the right opportunity. Why? Because the closet monster is the fruit of imagination, residing in the mind where no physical or intellectual proof will drive it away.

As adults, we may have stopped believing in the closet monster, but in fact we just replaced that ogre with grownup demons that thrive in the darkest corners of our tireless mind. So the question remains, what is one to do? What happens when you realize that simply telling yourself there is no reason for fear or concern does not work?

Trying to stop your intellectual chatter and mental concern may not easily happen. You might find it impossible to rationally convince yourself that there are no reasons for worry. Attempting to do so may actually make the situation worse, like endeavoring to extinguish fire using gasoline. But what if a different route of action can be taken? A route based on mindfulness.

Try watching and observing these mental tendencies; examine how these behaviors are actually being formed within you. Start noticing how your body physiologically behaves under stress: the pace of your breathing, your heartbeat, knots in your stomach, a sense of tightness over your chest. Then observe your mind and thoughts. Initially this reflection will be difficult. In all likelihood, you will be at quite a high level of anxiety when you begin to recall your task of looking within. Maybe you will think about what to do only after the situation has already passed. This is normal. Allow yourself to shed any expectations that immediate change is going to take place. However, with persistent practice, your mindfulness will grow deeper and these mental activities will give way to a different, more profound and calmer state of being. Like sleep and meditation, watchfulness leading to a calmer mind is something that needs time and repetition to accomplish.

If you find that calm observation is not something attainable in your early stages of practice, an alternative strategy can help: conscious avoidance or — distraction. To explain this strategy lets go back to a child. As discussed, explaining rationally, and even showing physically that there is no closet monster, will not work. But what if, instead of wasting energy on disputing a fearful mind, the parent takes a book, sits by their daughter’s bed and starts reading. The youngster will quickly forget, at least temporarily, about whatever may be frightful and become absorbed in the story. The mind is distracted. Soon, she may fall asleep peacefully.

How does conscious avoidance apply to our concerned traveler? What if, instead of trying to fight the anxieties about “what if,” our voyager imagines himself at his final destination, at a point in time that goes beyond the trip’s immediate challenges? Maybe he is on a beach in Aruba, or looking at art at a museum in Paris, skiing in Aspen, or having a good time at a pub with friends in Ireland? It helps to shift the mind’s focus from the negative to a more positive state. Instead of being in a dark future, one dresses it up in brighter colors. And if refocusing the mind on the positive is difficult to obtain under a specific situation, one may try more simple methods of pure distraction: listening to comforting music, exercising, or even watching TV. This may not make the root causes of stress go away, but it may help reduce the dark grip of the mind to a level where other strategies can be more successfully applied.

As you begin implementing these strategies, you may discover unique approaches that work best. Whatever method you adopt is absolutely fine. Yet keep in mind that a spiritual seeker’s goal is ultimately being here now, experiencing the moment for what it is. Some may feel that a strategy such as conscious avoidance is unfavorable as it allows the mind to dwell in the future, versus in the present. Some may say this technique should only be used as a temporary crutch. A spiritual path is very personal. No one should be judging someone else’s way; as the Chinese proverb goes: “There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same.”

Stress will always surround us: health, money, love, travel, violence, etc. It is a fact of life. Even when one obtains, say, wealth, there will readily be reasons for other concerns. How we deal with the residual anxiety is a different matter altogether. Though seemingly without choice, we do have tools at our disposal to make our life of better quality. The two simple strategies outlined in this article are a beginning. Find ways – triggers – to remind yourself to apply the practice. You will discover that over time, your reaction to tough situations will start to change. You will become aware of unreasonable fears and concerns much earlier and eventually disarm the panic before it begins. With regular practice of mindfulness and meditation, the monster will no longer reside in the closet of the mind.