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What are your favorite suttas that discuss anxiety and its mitigation?

I know this is a tall order, but what suttas have you found most helpful when it comes to understanding or managing anxiety? In many ways, the entire Buddhist canon is about stress/anxiety and how it can be alleviated so that one can find happiness. The core concepts of anatta, anicca and dhukkha are part of that understanding. My specific question, though, is whether there is a specific sutta or two (or three, but not three thousand, please) that you find especially insightful? I’m preparing a talk for 2/11/2021 on the topic of Buddhist approaches for managing anxiety and I’d like to ground it in the suttas as much as possible (I’ll try to post my powerpoint slides here once it is ready). Thank you in advance!

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My go to for this topic is MN 20 with a heavy emphasis on MN 2 to contextualize meditation among other remedies. Hope that helps!

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Also a fan of MN20 - actionable approaches!

My other frequent go to is MN146.

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Thank you both for sharing these suggestions. MN20 is quite helpful, and I realized, as I was looking at it, that MN19 is also very useful (two kinds of thoughts). This is especially instructive when dealing with anxious thoughts because the first step is to recognize that it is an anxious thought (as described in MN19):

This leads to my own affliction, to others’ affliction, and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties

This approach can also be referred to as “labeling”; there is an interesting Wikipedia post about the psychotherapy practice of “affect labeling” here: Affect labeling - Wikipedia

I find the Buddhist approach to labeling quite helpful because of its simplicity–is the thought skillful or unskillful? A more complex approach to labeling, in which one tries to apply any one of a hundred possible labels, carries the risk that the practitioner gets caught up in semantic minutiae which distracts from the intent.

After this initial determination re: skillful/unskillful, one can apply the techniques in MN20 to turn away from the anxious thought. This could be especially helpful in the case of obsessive-compulsive thoughts, but is also applicable for many other anxiety disorders. It is also interesting to reflect on the fact that anxious thoughts often have physical manifestations, such as palpitations/sweating and neurohormonal flooding (adrenaline, etc.). The meditation steps in MN 118 (Anapanasati Sutta), especially beginning by experiencing/calming the body by focusing on the breath, can help address this element.

Anxious thoughts can also lead to negative self-esteem, and I think a metta practice is central to addressing this.

Thank you for helping me to think through this pathway and link it back to specific suttas.

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MN 19 is one of the most relevant suttas for laypeople because it describes the pre-enlightenment situation which they are in. In the first place the Buddha-to-be describes two types of thinking, one of which still includes harmful thoughts, and the necessity of making (labelling) a division between them, which is essentially discriminating between conventional and ultimate reality. Many western practitioners are fearful of creating such a duality in the mind because they associate it with the western-created idea of schitzophrenia. From a Buddhist perspective western life includes some attitudes which generate suffering as normal views, one of which is anxiety. So a determined practice must be prepared to abandon those attitudes which conduce to suffering, and replace them with a Buddhist perspective. This stepping-stone strategy will not be successful unless the mind has a new set of attitudes and experience to feed on and derive security from. The Buddha-to-be says “I discerned,” meaning known through observation and direct experience of the results of thoughts:

"And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with renunciation arose in me. I discerned that 'Thinking imbued with renunciation has arisen in me; and that leads neither to my own affliction, nor to the affliction of others, nor to the affliction of both. It fosters discernment, promotes lack of vexation, & leads to Unbinding.”—-MN 19

But a certain amount of anxiety is necessary even on the Buddhist path, when a practitioner wonders when they will achieve desirable mind-states, and in Satipatthana terms this is known as a painful feeling not of the flesh, so anxiety is admissable provided it is properly directed.

“there is the case where a monk considers, ‘O when will I enter & remain in the dimension that those who are noble now enter & remain in?’ And as he thus nurses this yearning for the unexcelled liberations, there arises within him sorrow based on that yearning.”—-MN 44

And according to the sutta that profitable anxiety in itself abolishes resistance, which would include the resistance to abandoning conventional thought and embracing the Buddhist reality through the learner creating a duality, and would be a form of ill-will.

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I’ve created a figure that includes some of the helpful feedback/suggestions provided on this thread. Please feel free to comment or offer advice on the figure also.

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The current draft of the presentation is here:
https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1bCFJZPIyCwRaszSsaTw-SWO2-PpNKcqEzrpgB2TnknM/edit?usp=sharing

Please feel free to offer comments on this thread

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:thinking: This isn’t how I understand the four satipaṭṭhāna. “Dhammas” are the thoughts: e.g. hindrances vs awakening factors. “Mind” is the overall quality of the awareness: dull, bright, focused, expansive, etc…

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I’ve updated the table based on Bhikkhu Khemarato’s helpful advice–I’ve replaced “Dhammas” with “Mental Objects” and also corrected “Mind” to refer to state of mind (contracted, expanded, etc.).

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@moderators Question for the moderators: I’ve received helpful advice from the community about this upcoming talk. Am I allowed to post the Eventbrite information for this free talk on Discourse? Thank you for considering this request. In case you would like to see how it appears so you can decide, it is here: Practical Buddhism: Strategies for Managing Anxiety Tickets, Thu, Feb 4, 2021 at 8:00 PM | Eventbrite
Please feel free to remove this post if I am not allowed to publicize and event via Discourse. I’ll be giving the talk with a psychologist and meditator, Dr. Rosen.

Hi ngoonera
Yes, that’s fine.This can go to the ‘events’ category you can post it there.
Ficus on behalf of moderators

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Thank you for explaining this. I’ve been trying to understand the concept of citta more after reading your comment. One of the challenges is that there is an extensive Abhidhamma commentary on this, so it can be hard to identify discussions of citta that focus on EBT. I came across this website: Investigation of citta in the early discourses (Sutta) | Journal: My Beliefs and Writings

One of the things I’m struggling with is where Buddhism classifies specific thoughts, such as “I’d like to watch a movie”. If citta is the “state” of the mind (contracted, expanded), would the term mana refer more to specific thoughts (such as “I’d like a cookie”)? Is there an EBT-focused resource that you could recommend?

This has practice ramifications because while contemplating the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in the Anapanasati sutta, we turn our attention to citta in the third tetrad, as you know. Since citta refers to states of mind (contracted, expanded, etc.), where in the APS would we turn our attention to specific thoughts? Is that in the Dhamma tetrad? Thank you in advance for any suggestions.

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I’ll offer the consideration of one more sutta that addresses a completely different component of anxiety. MN1 addresses the root of all suffering:

MN1:171.4: Because he has understood that relishing is the root of suffering,

So much of anxiety is driven by a fear of loss. Sensitive people who are entranced by the gentle delights of the world experience distress at the impermanence of such delights. A substantial drop in anxiety accompanies the relinquishing of the pursuit/relishing of delights. There is no lasting happiness to be found in the grasping of … the beautiful sight, the mellifluous sound, the exquisite taste, the softest touch, the fragrant smell, or the brilliant thought. It is the grasping itself which fuels anxiety.

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The term for specific thoughts is usually vitakka. This term is in the titles of two of the suttas in your table above, MN 19 and MN 20.

In satipaṭṭhāna practice, thoughts are employed through each of the four establishments in the form of contemplations. The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta describes this and also describes practicing each of the four without thought as well, through bare awareness. The fourth satipaṭṭhāna is where specific thoughts are assessed, through the lens of whether they lead to dukkha (the five hindrances) or to awakening (the seven awakening factors), how they arise, and how they grow.

In ānāpānasati practice, thoughts would be addressed in steps 7 and 8, experiencing mental activity and calming mental activity.

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Thank you for explaining this. I had not considered using the term vitakka, but that makes sense. You also mentioned that:

“The fourth satipaṭṭhāna is where specific thoughts are assessed, through the lens of whether they lead to dukkha (the five hindrances) or to awakening (the seven awakening factors), how they arise, and how they grow”

If I recall correctly, the fourth satipatthana is “dhammas”, which has many definitions, but one of which is " 1. mental constructs, concepts, ideas, what is to be cognized by the mind, that which is the object of mental activity." SuttaCentral

In regards to the Anapanasati sutta, you suggested that:

“In ānāpānasati practice, thoughts would be addressed in steps 7 and 8, experiencing mental activity and calming mental activity.”

However, I think steps 7 and 8 are in the vedana, or feeling tetrad, which typically refers (from my limited understanding) to feeling tone, such as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. On the other hand, steps 13-16 of the Anapanasati sutta are in the dhamma tetrad, so perhaps specific thoughts should be addressed there? Further supporting this is that steps 13-16 of the Anapanasati sutta seem to correspond to the fourth satipatthana. Thank you in advance for any reply.

Yes. I’m not sure if you’re quoting this definition because you see it as agreeing with my statement or contradicting it. :slightly_smiling_face:

I don’t mean to imply that “dhammas” means “thoughts” in the context of satipaṭṭhāna. In the context of satipaṭṭhāna, dhammas seems to refer to doctrinal categories through which experience can be analyzed. Central to the fourth satipaṭṭhāna are the hindrances and awakening factors, mental states/qualities that lead respectively away from awakening and toward it.

Especially in regard to the hindrances, unskillful thoughts are often a more obvious manifestation of the underlying mental hindrance, which is the point I was trying to make. Often it’s in the context of contemplating the hindrances where a meditator will be dealing with specific thoughts.

That’s true that they are in the vedanā tetrad. The term in question in steps 7 and 8 is cittasaṅkhāra. Ven. Sujato translates this as “emotions”, and in his translation of MN 118 it seems to refer back to the pīti and sukha from steps 5 and 6.

Ven. Anālayo, in his book Mindfulness of Breathing (p. 64), has this to say about the term:

The reference to “mental activity” in the third step of the present tetrad on contemplation of feeling tone corresponds to the Pāli term cittasaṅkhāra. The term saṅkhāra can have a range of meanings. In its most general sense, it stands for anything that is conditioned. Alternatively it can carry a more specific meaning, standing in particular for intention or volition.

In the context of a discussion leading up to the topic of the cessation of perception and feeling tone, the Cūḷavedalla-sutta defines the term cittasaṅkhāra as comprising feeling tones and perceptions (MN 44; see also Paṭis I 188). On this reading, the manifestations of mental activity that need to be experienced (and then calmed with the next step) are feeling tones (vedanā) and perceptions (saññā). However, the parallels to the Cūḷavedalla-sutta differ in their definition. From their perspective, mental activity rather stands for perceptions and intentions (cetanā).

Combining the definitions of mental activity found in the Cūḷavedalla-sutta and its parallels respectively, the task could be considered as requiring us to keep an eye out for those feeling tones, perceptions, and intentions that stand a chance of triggering an increase of mental activity. Such feeling tones, perceptions, and intentions run counter to the general thrust towards gradually deepening mental tranquillity that is characteristic of the present tetrad on contemplation of feeling tone. For this reason they need to be noticed (and then allowed to become calm).

I wonder if this clears things up any more or just muddies things further?

Again, here, I understand dhammas to refer to aspects of the teaching – in this case, themes related to developing insight that culminates in awakening. I think that at an initial level, one could use directed thought to help contemplate these themes of impermanence, dispassion, cessation, and letting go. But the full effect of the trainings in this tetrad emerges when the mind has already been settled and unified in the previous tetrad (with thoughts stilled) and one can then direct it to the perceptions of impermanence, dispassion, and cessation, blossoming into a profound letting go.

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Thanks for taking the time to clarify. I read Bhikkhu Analayo’s book also and found it helpful. I can see the perspective that the 7th and 8th steps are intended to “keep an eye out for feeling tones…that stand a chance of triggering an increase in mental activity” and that themes of impermanence and dispassion could be contemplated in the fourth tetrad.

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You might also look at: sankharas (formations or basically everything in the conditioned world).

I may be repeating what others have said but don’t want to misquote… Basically, my sense of the Ānāpānassati Sutta and Satipatthana sutta from reading Anālayo’s books and practicing is that they do not directly work with mental formations (sankharas) the way that you may be accustomed to working with them from a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy perspective. Because the focus is on breath and explicitly not on the “content” of the mind but does examine the quality and state of the container (the citta, mind itself). The calming and tranquilizing effect of the practice itself lead to the slowing or ceasing of mental activity.

For working with the content I’ve found the most benefit from learning about the 5 hindrances… The one here being the most relevant is anxiety and restlessness. Even then, the prescription isn’t to mentally negotiate with the anxiety, but to bring in its antidotes…the brahmaviharas and tranquility.

I also agree with MN20 for understanding what’s skillful and unskillful and how to overcome… but mindfulness itself is often sufficient to overcome anxiety. Just takes lots of practice, not a quick fix.

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This is very helpful–thank you. It is useful to think of citta as a container (a simple mnemonic is that both begin with the letter c). I’m also glad that you mentioned CBT–so much of modern psychotherapy focuses on specific thought processes (sankharas), and it less frequently addresses the “container” of thoughts. In this way, I think that Buddhist mental practices add depth to our ability to help address behavioral health issues by opening up additional lines of treatment. As you mention, it takes more time, and patient adherence is always a challenge. Certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, that may be tied to specific brain abnormalities, may not be as amenable to this type of intervention, but others, especially the personality disorders, may respond to a broader practice (broader than what is usually done in psychotherapy), with this broader practice addressing mind states (citta) as well as the specific intrusive thoughts (sankharas) (the latter, not the former, generally being the primary purview of psychotherapy). In CBT, for example, we often focus on the cognitions that underlie a problem, such as generalized anxiety disorder, but again, that is limited to the sankharas. I’m sure there are psychotherapy practices that do address “mind states” in a broader sense, of course, and it is important to emphasize that I am not trying to disregard the entire field of psychotherapy. I’m just pointing out that behavioral health approaches that look beyond specific mental cognitions could be helpful for more complex cases.

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@ngoonera Nalaka, you hit the nail on the head with this observation. For me, too many charts and technical sequences make me anxious! :slight_smile: Part of the call of your question was addressed to managing anxiety. I do like the idea of being mindful, anchoring the body and establishing mindfulness of the breath. And then (either using one of Bhante Sujato’s Metta meditations on youtube, or any other good Metta guide) cultivating Metta for oneself and then radiating that out. So much of anxiety is the tendency for runaway mind and runaway negative thoughts. Using the breath and Metta as a modality seems to highjack the lizard brain a bit, and seems to be helpful with anxiety management.

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