Mailbag: How would I teach overcoming social anxiety today?

SS wrote:

Hi,

I like your website and forum. I am 39-year old man who has very bad social anxiety.

I have experimented with nondirective meditation (1 Giant Mind, CMR) and this kind of meditation clearly relaxes me and makes my sleep a lot better. But I dont do this regularly, maybe 3-4 times per week 20-30 minutes before sleeping.

I read a book called The Abundance Course where the method is to release all feelings from the chest/stomach area throughout the day. This method makes me feel lighter but I feel like this “releasing” is stressing me somehow. Every time I “release” my neck muscles seem to tense. I even get headaches.. Maybe I’m not doing this correctly. This method is very similar to your forum post, where you suggest to relax stomach muscle in social situations.. Do you still recommend this approach to combat social anxiety or would it be better to use only nondirective methods? I know they relax me but I still avoid social situations.

I don’t want to put an enormous effort to become social because it seems to be an impossible task. It is not worth the effort. But I still need to be able to manage this social anxiety.. I would love to hear your recommendations if you want to answer.

Thanks a lot for your great website!

The “Relax your stomach muscle” post is rather ancient and I no longer recommend it.

I read a book called The Abundance Course where the method is to release all feelings from the chest/stomach area throughout the day. This method makes me feel lighter but I feel like this “releasing” is stressing me somehow. Every time I “release” my neck muscles seem to tense. I even get headaches.. Maybe I’m not doing this correctly. This method is very similar to your forum post, where you suggest to relax stomach muscle in social situations.. Do you still recommend this approach to combat social anxiety or would it be better to use only nondirective methods? I know they relax me but I still avoid social situations.

The reason for this is as follows. As a beginner, let’s say you have 5% “body knowledge”. This means you know how to squeeze and relax various muscles, like we all do. However, the source of anxiety is mental-emotional. So, relaxing tension in Body Area A will cause it to immediately shift to Body Area B. This is experienced by many people who try such things. You aren’t “releasing” the tension – you’re just moving it around.

Greater body knowledge involves also understanding the mental-emotional processes causing the tension in the first place. This is part of what meditation is – a constant accumulation of self-awareness, of body and mind.

Since I have overcome most of these problems, here is how I would answer your question now. The quickest way to overcome anxiety is to become established in love.

I wrote a summary of my method for this on the forum, in response to the question “Is metta supposed to spiral out of control?“:

Illuminatus wrote:

My method goes something like this:

1) Summon image of someone I already like. Say “love” in my mind and feel the love feeling.

2) Quickly switch object to the love feeling itself (warm feeling in chest plus other subtler things like surging currents which maybe a beginner would not feel so easily). Say “love” in my mind while amplifying that feeling. Repeat this till the feeling becomes stable and existing in its own right (this shows some absorption). If jhana occurs, cool, but it’s not necessary for the meditation to do its work.

3) Test the feeling by summoning images of people I don’t like or those I’m having some problem with lately. In fact, these people tend to appear by themselves. Say “love” and stay with the feeling till it is stable even while thinking of those people.

4) If any body discomfort or negative emotion arises, say “love” and direct it at that discomfort until it too gets “washed out” by the love feeling and disappears.

5) Go out into the world and direct the love feeling at any object appearing in reality (love the trees, love the cars, love the idea of going to work, love the idea of things I don’t usually like, love bad things, love good things, etc.).

By the time #5 is reached, the practice is identical to “loving all” method here: https://albigen.com/uarelove/most_rapid/chapter12.htm

I will mention here that this is the best, most fulfilling, and most useful meditation I have ever practised, and is one of the few that has never “stopped working” or showed any signs of decreasing in effectiveness or my becoming bored by or indifferent to it.

I am happy that all my previous years of trying other methods eventually led me to this one. I would be happy only having this method if I had to make that choice.

Regarding the question in the title of your post, “Is metta supposed to spiral out of control?” – I am not sure what you mean by this exactly but YES. You are supposed to end up loving all aspects of your experience, which would certainly qualify as “out of control” by the ego’s standards. 🙂

I also wrote a longer version of my “heart opening” experience here: Rose-Tinted Metta

Now, if you do the method above every day for a year, I am confident you won’t have much anxiety at all in a year’s time. You would expect to see results far sooner than that, though. It is a cumulative process.

However, there is a problem people face when trying to adopt a love approach: ego.

Most people are stuck thinking about things like anxiety in gross physical terms: muscle tension, neurochemicals, etc. Additionally, their worldview is all about me: “What do I get out of loving people?” This is why attempts to practise love often fail for beginners. I wrote about some of these complaints here: Why Choose Love?

The issue is simply that you believe you are a separate self in a world of enemies and you have to get something from the situation, in order to feel happy. This is the main reason it took me so many years of practising meditation before I came to this very simple realization: The world is more like a dream. Feeling love “in here” makes loving, pleasant, or enjoyable realities appear “out there”. In other words, the outside world is a direct reflection of your internal state.

The rule is simple: If you are feeling love, you aren’t feeling fear. And your outside world will reflect your internal feelings and mindset. My method is therefore about replacing fear with love through practice – a continual rehabituation. You don’t have to “conquer” fear – you can just replace it, progressively.

This is not a new idea. Most spiritual paths teach some version of love. However, the reason for practising in this way is often lost or not well understood within our current atomized, mechanical and materialist worldview. In this sense, going straight for a love-based approach can seem at odds with your inherited societal understanding of “how reality works”. In this case, you would be practising love in the face of that – which is a leap of faith. It seems completely counter-intuitive. It is, however, true.

My reason for ending up on this path is simply that I tried everything else. This is the only one that works, and never stops working. Hopefully I can shave some years off your learning curve by pointing you towards what works so you don’t have to go through innumerable (fear-based) methods which don’t work. Put it like this. If any method mentions fear, and overcoming fear, then it is trying to solve the problem on the level it was created, which never works. Love is the higher level which renders the lower one irrelevant.

The only way to confirm what I am teaching however is to try it yourself. A year is a long time, so why not start off with a 30-day trial? Practise the above method for 15 minutes each morning and see how your external reality changes in response. Our Meditation Logs forum is at your disposal to track your meditations and results each day.

Need help with your meditation? Book a Skype coaching session →

You may also like...

11 Responses

  1. Pug says:

    Hey Illuminatus,

    What do you think of just doing basic metta meditation with simple phrases for a beginner?

    I don’t think I can readily get a grasp around the ‘feeling of love just yet and as sad as it is I don’t have someone in my life that I can picture and bring up those feelings towards . I have tried to do the Loving All method as described in your link but it required constant effort and caused me more frustration.

    I have been doing the standard metta meditation daily for some time now and do believe it is working on a small level and probably could be alot more powerful If I spent more time in it – and I do think it is resisted by the ego as you say.

    Thank you,
    Pug

    • Illuminatus says:

      >What do you think of just doing basic metta meditation with simple phrases for a beginner?

      What phrases do you have in mind?

      >as sad as it is I don’t have someone in my life that I can picture and bring up those feelings towards

      Can you bring up an image and feeling of safety from childhood? Maybe falling asleep in Grandma’s lap. It is the same thing.

      > I have tried to do the Loving All method as described in your link but it required constant effort and caused me more frustration.

      Yes, doing active meditation (walking around, eyes open) is intensive and difficult — especially for a beginner who has not yet developed the concentration required to develop a feeling and keep “retriggering” it. You will be trying to feel “love” but your senses will be telling you something different, and it will require constant effort to “fight” that, which is why it is frustrating/exhausting.

      This step should therefore come later. You must work mainly with your sitting practice (alone, eyes closed) to cultivate the love feeling, to feel it strongly and continuously, before attempting to take it outside. If you develop the feeling in your sitting practice for a few weeks, you should reach a point where, when you get up and leave the meditation, the love feeling leaves a residual trace or “afterglow”. At this point you can begin practising Loving All in everyday life — it should feel MUCH EASIER by this point.

      Keep working at it. Give most focus to sitting practice. Then begin testing Loving All for a few minutes each day while doing everyday activities and see if it has become easier. To inspire you: I can now do Loving All in almost any situation and have things happen like arguments ending peacefully, people’s facial expressions changing to smiles in real time, and a slight rose tint to my vision. This just came through practice. I am sure I could go much further with this, too.

      Life is something like a dream or hallucination with emotions projecting themselves onto reality at all times. In this respect, Loving All is choosing to have a nice dream instead of a scary nightmare.

      > I have been doing the standard metta meditation daily for some time now and do believe it is working on a small level and probably could be alot more powerful If I spent more time in it – and I do think it is resisted by the ego as you say.

      Do you track your results in a journal? If you write meditation times and which meditations you did, then write some notes about how the day went afterwards, patterns should emerge showing the correlation between meditation X and result Y.

      The love meditation has created the clearest pattern for me, with a love meditation still creating obvious waves of outcome even a week later. This is why I am promoting it so heavily.

      • Pug says:

        > What phrases do you have in mind?
        The phrases I use are: i) May I/they be free of suffering, ii) May I/they be free of ill will, iii) May I/they be filled with loving kindness, iv) May I/they be truly happy.

        > Can you bring up an image and feeling of safety from childhood? Maybe falling asleep in Grandma’s lap. It is the same thing.
        I can’t really find an image or feeling like that from my childhood though I am sure I have had it.

        I just recently completed a 15 min session now using the phrases above. I found my inspiration for love, or maybe just compassion, comes from feeling sorry for people who have been kind and helpful to me but who I think are living sad, pathetic lives – or at least not what I think they deserve to be living.

        Once I stay with them for a few minutes, it becomes easy to direct phrases with intention and feeling back to myself and to my family members (with whom I have longstanding issues with but at the same time feel sorry for).

        This is in line with what Arpan has suggested for me below – thank you Arpan as well for you response, I can relate to what you said about not feeling emotional regarding other people.

        > Do you track your results in a journal? If you write meditation times and which meditations you did, then write some notes about how the day went afterwards, patterns should emerge showing the correlation between meditation X and result Y.

        I have committed myself to doing either CMR or NSR twice a day + at least 15 minutes of metta, and have mostly kept with this in the past couple of weeks. I don’t however keep notes of how my daily life has been going. I will aim to do this as well.

        Thank you,
        Pug

    • Arpan says:

      “I don’t think I can readily get a grasp around the ‘feeling of love just yet and as sad as it is I don’t have someone in my life that I can picture and bring up those feelings towards . I have tried to do the Loving All method as described in your link but it required constant effort and caused me more frustration.”

      It’s best to not treat Metta based meditations as a chore. It applies to any kind of meditation, but very particularly for metta. Extend Love to only that much degree and range and frequency as is currently possible. Key is to first learn to accept yourself, before extending love to your environment.

      As for not having anyone to love: I was not particularly emotional about anything/anyone for most of my life, and still I am not very emotional regarding “people”. The way I used to do metta successfully was:
      Look for what I am giving emotional response to. Sadness you express is a good example. You are already feeling some flicker of compassion about this matter. It’s matter of changing the point of view ever so slightly and turn the pity underlying anger/sadness/frustration into pure compassion. Now more you dwell on that compassion, in a relaxed manner, more it will grow. Above all, never be in a hurry or in a controlling mindset regarding love, it is very much its own man, and must be given its time to mature.

      Some structure in one’s practice is often important for a newbie, and Illuminatus has elaborated on that succintly.

    • Saturnus says:

      I feel like “love” has become a corrupted word like “god”. When I hear love the connotation is this intense feeling of passion. This expectation of intensity is a way the ego resists love.

      Because of cultural conditioning, love has become too mixed with either sorrow or desire to be a good word. That’s why I like the term “metta” for this feeling. In reality it is a very gentle sense of liking and delight that is metta, and need not be intense (although it can get intense and jhana like, but that’s not the goal). It is also not possessive and can appreciate things at a distance.

      My method of invoking metta is finding this gentle liking feeling even in the slightest way. Having good concentration helps to cultivate this feeling, but even getting a glimpse of it is often enough to change one’s path.

      Regarding the ego, I think it gets too demonized in the spiritual community which makes it even more scared and fearful. Directing metta towards a fearful or angry ego is a good way to calm it down. You may call this practicing self-love. I’m learning not to attack my ego (and others’ ego) and instead feel love and appreciation for it. After all it is the aspect of my Self in the physical world, and I have no animosity towards it. Negative self-talk, blame etc. is just the ego splitting into two and attacking itself. I’m learning to forgive myself, and accept some pain and failure as necessary in the path of growth.

      Hope this helps you!

      • Illuminatus says:

        @Saturnus: Thanks for your post. I think it’s probably good advice for beginners, but those definition problems of “love” are hurdles that should be leapt over as soon as possible. Practice and direct experience is the way to do this.

        >I feel like “love” has become a corrupted word like “god”. When I hear love the connotation is this intense feeling of passion. This expectation of intensity is a way the ego resists love.

        At least a few times a week I will feel that I am “in love with life” — and it will be at the same intensity or even higher than being in romantic love with somebody. This has even occurred during an argument on one occasion, in the midst of negative thoughts another — which is quite a bizarre experience.

        The problem with romantic love is that intense feelings arise and are pointed towards one person. This creates a strong attachment to that person as the “source” of that love feeling. This is why there is also a deep feeling of longing and heartache concurrent with the good feelings — because, on some level, you realize that this is completely impermanent and tenuous. If they go, so does the good feeling. (This, of course, is the position from where most love songs and power ballads are written.)

        With metta meditation (blossoming into Loving All), this love feeling is progressively pointed towards all aspects of experience. Because the love is not attached to one thing, the sorrow at the prospect of losing that thing does not manifest. So, this “love feeling” eventually is pure and does not come with the baggage of romantic love. This allows it to actually become stronger, more intense, than romantic love.

        I am nowhere near a master of this. I think I am probably only 5% into the journey. However, the results are promising, and the path ahead seems clear to me.

        • Arpan says:

          >> With metta meditation (blossoming into Loving All), this love feeling is progressively pointed towards all aspects of experience. Because the love is not attached to one thing, the sorrow at the prospect of losing that thing does not manifest. So, this “love feeling” eventually is pure and does not come with the baggage of romantic love. This allows it to actually become stronger, more intense, than romantic love.

          That experience is indeed quite right. However, even ego-less/”divine” love can manifest “specially” for one person. One can have a girlfriend or wife and have a special love for her, or a friend, or a favourite disciple or a favourite art-form. Accounts of this is rife in life of men who had “attained”, including love for one’s country(Indian idea of patriotism is somewhat spiritual, and from that lens, most European forms of patriotism are nationalism). The first result of love moving towards perfection of love is “uniform love for all”, much like first results on the path of Awareness are detachment and equal regard for everything, high or low. However, just like awareness develops a rich “multiple-unity” later on, an acceptance not of the garbage bin where everything is levelled out and thrown in together, but that of Nature, with each thing in its own place, Metta too develops that richness. Infact, having 4 brahmviharas, and not just one, is a slight allusion to that perfected-variation. However, that personal love is totally for the sake of the other, and not oneself. One revels in the fact that the other “exists”. I have experienced this to some degree in case of parents and even a girl. But at early stages, it is indeed a tenuous thing.

          The difficulty that a lot of seekers have in living in the world is that they take any deviation out of the first experience of “uinformity” as a “fall”. As I heard once: “Brahman is One, but not a Monotone. It has many powers , potentialities and personalities”.

        • Saturnus says:

          Right on man! I’ve had a few experiences of the intense feeling of unconditional love by serendipity. A notable one was after I released a lot of resentment towards an ex, and realized I do still love her and my ego was getting in the way of this expression. When I made my love towards her unconditional, it started shining on the other parts of my life too, with the after glow lasting for weeks.

          As a beginner doing a practice, it often involves sitting for long periods of time with no apparent progress. Often the mind is looking for its own idea of love rather than the real experience. It is important to be able to recognize those glimpses of metta, hence my de-emphasizing of intensity.

          > Re romantic love
          In Greek mythology there are two aspects to the goddess of love and sexuality, Aphrodite (Venus in Roman mythology). Aphrodite Pandemos (of the people) is the goddess of sensual pleasures, and is related to Eros (desire). Aphrodite Urania (of the heavens) is the goddess of spiritual love, and is related to the concept of Agape.

  2. FirstTimeCommenter says:

    Well, thank you very much for these beautiful instructions, man! I’m going through a lot of emotional shit (all kinds of worries/fears and suicidal thoughts) right now and this meditation is my time out from it all. I started meditating that way 1-2 times a day for 20 min. per session ca. two weeks ago. On the cushion I feel golden; I’m amazed that I can even include (what I consider to be) grade A scoundrels and scumfucks into my metta without the love feeling destabilizing in any way. (I see them and me laughing together and hugging each other etc. before my inner eye.) I already notice people being much more polite, friendly and giving towards me.

    I hope to be able to take the practice into daily life soon. Right now, the feeling is more or less like “Puff! Gone!” once the alarm goes off.

    I have to go on a little business trip later this month and consequently might not mange to do this meditation for 3 or 5 days in a row (shared hotel room + tight schedule), if I’m outta luck. (I might do this in shavasana after I went to bed to not distract my room mate (and not be distracted by him), although this might not be the best solution…)

    So I guess this approach is also suited long-term to tackle depression and all sorts of neurosis by basically falling in love with life, too?

    Anyways: „Dear Illuminatus, keep up the great work!“ – The Universe 🙏

    • Illuminatus says:

      Thanks for your feedback. I’m glad it is having positive results for you.

      >I hope to be able to take the practice into daily life soon. Right now, the feeling is more or less like “Puff! Gone!” once the alarm goes off.

      You might begin by gently bringing awareness to a loving feeling while “idle” in the day (e.g. travelling on a bus, train, plane, or just walking or sitting somewhere you don’t have to “do” anything) and see if you can create it. Perhaps try short durations (~1 minute) at first, exercising it like a muscle. Be kind to yourself if it is not strong at first.

      >So I guess this approach is also suited long-term to tackle depression and all sorts of neurosis by basically falling in love with life, too?

      I would not make claims that this would help or “cure” someone with serious depression because that kind of problem is not my area of speciality (they are better off talking to a professional — though I am somewhat covering my ass, here).

      My view is that, if one has the basics of existence covered (roof over the head, food in the fridge) then the neuroses of life largely come from:

      1. Social relationships
      2. Relationship with existence itself (“crisis of meaning”)

      #1 is what is most helped by the kind of metta practice I am describing. Metta practice is a social lubricant and creates pathways of acceptance, forgiveness and appreciation of others and yourself.

      #2 is a larger philosophical question which religion aims to answer (with varying levels of success depending upon religion and individual inclinations). The framework I arrived at after much reflection over the years is something like, “The meaning of life is to live a human life.” So this heavily implies that good or interesting social interactions provide a large part of that meaning since humans are extremely social creatures.

      In short, metta practice can solve a lot of neuroses, but it depends on the source of those particular neuroses.

      • FirstTimeCommenter says:

        Thanks for your reply! I found it to be very helpful. I started to follow your suggestions. Yeah, being gentle towards oneself is crucial in this matter.

        Your elaborations on neuroses in general and in regard to metta practice seem very plausible to me. My suicidal thoughts actually are directly related to my relationships (or lack thereof). I can’t go into further detail (and I don’t want to bore you and/or use you as my emotional tampon), but since writing my comment two days ago I undertook some measures in regards to one particular relationship and – at least for now – experience quite some relief and a decline in said thoughts as a consequence.

        „I would not make claims that this would help or “cure” someone with serious depression because that kind of problem is not my area of speciality (they are better off talking to a professional — though I am somewhat covering my ass, here).“
        This speaks in your favour. Goes to show you are not some cult leader and scammer. I’m actually in therapy since last year to tackle my depression and OCDs and also consider therapy as basically mandatory for anyone suffering from depression. I myself waited far too long before I sought out professional help. (Having said this, I would not be all too surprised if this mediation turned out to help(!) cure or at least to help(!) mitigate depression, but one should of course always dread careful with strong claims.)

        “The meaning of life is to live a human life.” I wholeheartedly agree. Because of my high neuroticism I have ever since been leading a pretty sterile life devoid of almost any deeper/meaningful relationships. Before I took above mentioned action, it felt like my heart and soul were slowly drying out so to speak. Now they might drown in a torrential steam of pure life (so to speak), but I guess, this is… well… life 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *