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17 April 2024

Social Anxiety

Thomas Tozer

Overcoming social Anxiety Through Love

I first encountered Kadampa Buddhism when I was 16 years old. A ripe, fresh-faced teenager; I was full of hope and ambition. But by then, I was also midway through a new and crippling challenge that had gradually crept up on me and begun to steadily ruin my life: social anxiety.

A vicious circle

I had developed a painful habit of blushing for no reason when meeting people, speaking to people, or even just being smiled at. It began when I was about 12, and when it would arise, the feelings of self-consciousness and embarrassment were intensely painful - the kind of ‘please, ground, open up and swallow me now,’ multiple times a day, kind of painful. But behind it all, there was a bigger cycle at play. The anxiety anticipating a blush would itself induce a blush, leading to a vicious self-fulfilling circle of anxiety and blushing. Before I knew it, the anxiety - which was both the main cause and the worst symptom of the whole affair - had become life-consuming. I would wake up with it. Go through the day with it. Go to bed with it. And then wake up with it again, a helpless victim to the whole thing. The more I worried about it, and thought about how much I wanted it to stop, the worse it would get. How, I asked myself, could I fulfil any of my dreams, find a girlfriend, or even enjoy my life in a basic way if I was anxious and blushing all the time? It was a sad and painful question to think about.

I tried a few methods to solve the problem. Some of them were interesting, some very expensive, and some made it worse - Google especially. But none of them worked. Before I knew it, I strongly identified myself as a person suffering with this anxiety and its results. And that strong identification, I later learned from Buddhism, only made it all worse.


The light bulb moment!

Then, aged 16, I met Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (Geshe-la). My twin brother and I attended Geshe-la’s final Spring Festival in 2009, and Geshe-la was teaching on the mind of love. The mind of cherishing love, Geshe-la explained, is the opposite of what Buddha called ‘self-cherishing’. First, with self-cherishing, we grasp strongly at a real, independent self - this is called ‘self-grasping’. Then we cherish this self and its feelings as supremely precious and important, while neglecting others and their feelings - that is ‘self-cherishing’. But through training, Geshe-la continued, it is possible to reduce and finally overcome this mind completely, and to replace it, gradually, with a selfless, blissful love for others.

Self-cherishing, and self-grasping - ‘Wow, that’s what I’ve got!’ I thought, utterly stunned that the problem I’d been suffering with for years, and had totally failed to reach any proper understanding of, or solution to, was suddenly being explained - perfectly, succinctly, and with complete clarity. ‘And that’s where this whole painful suffering is coming from!’

I realised that my anxiety, and the whole cycle of this anxiety and blushing, was based on a strong concern for myself: what others think of ME, how I (not others) feel, and the effect all this was having on MY life. Pure self-cherishing - every aspect of my anxiety was focused on ME and MY feelings, while neglecting others and their feelings. And when I did blush, my sense of an independent self could fill a room - textbook self-grasping! If I were to stop grasping at myself, and if I were to focus on others and their feelings rather than me and mine, there would be no basis for anxiety at all. There would also be no basis for blushing; and even if I did blush, why would it matter? If I was focused only on others and their feelings, it would not bother me at all. And so, for the first time, I could see light at the end of the tunnel - and I understood how to get there.


Breaking the Cycle

The sense of hope and relief I got from understanding, for the first time, what was actually causing my suffering, and how I could overcome it, was extraordinary. I could see a way through! I was so happy. And I felt so deeply appreciative of Venerable Geshe-la for his incredible and illuminating teachings, which were revealing this liberating path to me.

From then on, I became very interested in Buddha’s instructions on overcoming self-grasping, and especially on controlling self-cherishing and learning to cherish others. I began studying The New Eight Steps to Happiness by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso on Foundation Programme at my local meditation centre, and learned techniques for controlling self-cherishing in daily life. My suffering became a source of deep and persistent inspiration. I could see so clearly that self-cherishing and self-grasping were the source of terrible suffering, because I had such a regular, vivid experience of this - it was clear that the whole cycle of suffering I had been going through was a result of these two negative minds. And, seeing this, I became determined to overcome them and to learn to cherish others. Even cycling to school in the morning, I would be thinking about how I could develop the mind of cherishing others. And when blushing or social anxiety arose, I would make an effort to practise Buddha’s special methods for stopping strong self-cherishing from developing. At the same time I would try, instead of thinking about myself and my feelings, to focus on others and how they were feeling - recognising that I was just one person, and that the temporary unpleasant feelings of just one person are really not so important. The effect was magical.


Gaining confidence

The grosser aspects of my blushing and anxiety problem reduced and disappeared within a matter of months. Within two years, I was a very different person - I was so much happier and more peaceful. At a less gross level, I still became anxious and would sometimes blush, but the problem was becoming steadily smaller and less overwhelming. And the more familiar I became with Buddha’s teachings, the more comfortable my life became. I began developing a power to dispel strong self-cherishing, and, when it was arising, to shift my mind to others and their feelings. Through this practice, I literally got my life back. The difference was incredible.

And yet that was just the beginning. Self-cherishing and self-grasping are deep mental habits, and although I’ve overcome some of their grosser manifestations, they continue - of course - to arise and disturb my mind in various guises, every day. But through practising Venerable Geshe-la’s instructions on training the mind, I am able to keep improving, every day - to love others more, to keep reducing my self-concern and self-grasping, and to increase my power to make others happy. Venerable Geshe-la’s teachings are so precious, and I am inexpressibly grateful to him for revealing them to me. Through his guidance, I overcame the worst suffering I have experienced in this life, entered the spiritual path, and am able to strive every day to keep growing and to benefit others, continually. I am so lucky.

Thomas Tozer attends KMC London

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