“Don’t worry – Be happy”?

I Worried

by Mary Oliver

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.


Do you worry??

“Don’t worry, be happy!” Remember these upbeat lyrics by Bobby McFerrin? They have brought some people comfort, no doubt – and probably exasperated others! While the advice may hold some wisdom, the shift is easier said than done, yes?

What is worry? From Merriam Webster: “to feel or experience concern or anxiety; fret.” In psychological circles, difficult-to-control, excessive worry is a symptom of “generalized anxiety.” Some of us are very familiar with this experience – we can’t imagine living without it, so it is like a close companion. Others may find it to be an intermittent visitor, mostly cropping up in particular situations.

I love this poem, because it comes right out and displays a full-on, unabashed version of worry!



Some years ago I was privileged to be at a conference where I heard a comforting confession from Sharon Salzberg, a well-respected American Buddhist teacher. She shared a personal story from her past. As she waited in a parking lot for the school  bus to appear, bringing her son back from a skiing trip, she found herself imagining all the possible things that could go wrong and why was the bus late and where were they anyway… Busy Mind. She gradually became aware that other parents seemed to be casually chatting with each other, unperturbed by the non-appearance of their offspring… Finally she was able to recognize and name her “worry mind” – with some self-compassion! It’s important to acknowledge that sometimes the worry proves warranted, “bad” things do happen – which is, of course, the realization that justifies continuing to worry…

Why was this story comforting, you might wonder? Because it was so human, coming from a well-respected spiritual teacher. And because she was (eventually) able to witness the worry-mind. No small thing when we become aware of our mental business… it doesn’t necessarily stop the process, but it can offer us a little space.

It’s also important to note that in this story, the bus finally arrived: no need to worry after all. On the other hand, sometimes the worry seems to prove warranted. “Bad” things do happen – which is, of course, the recognition that justifies continuing to worry: worry can lead to useful action. Are there other options? For now, let’s just note the possibility that an appropriate and effective response may be more likely to emerge from clear, calm presence…


How worry works

Can we agree that much of the time, the worry is not helpful? Somehow Mary Oliver came to this realization (at least as shared in the poem!): “Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.” What an opening! This may be an uncommon event for many of us. Even when we are able to recognize the worry-mind, that doesn’t seem to make any difference: nothing changes. We still find ourselves worrying about our health, our safety, our loved ones, our performance and how others see us, the state of the world…. We feel trapped in the pattern of fretting and anxiety.

This activity happens in the mind. In the form of words, sometimes images. If we are able to widen our attention, we can become aware that all of this is associated with tension somewhere in the body, and often distraction from other tasks and events (driving? cooking? reading? trying to listen to someone?). We may sigh, reproach ourselves – “there I go again…”  Feeling helpless to fix the worrisome situations, or to stop obsessing, creates more suffering,  Others may try to help us: “don’t worry so much,” “it’s going to be ok.” (Clearly, at times the glib “don’t worry, be happy” advice can be irritating and decidedly unhelpful!)


Witnessing worry

What could lead us to that magical moment in the poem, “And gave it up”? This may feel like a total mystery. First comes the recognition of what is happening. But it makes a difference whether that comes with self-judgment and self-reproach, or with simple awareness. Let’s face it: self-reproach often leads us down another twisted path. I maintain that, with practice, it is actually possible to “simply notice.” I can register the fact that the mind (note: I am framing this trouble-maker as “the mind,” not as the whole of “me”) has been off on a worry-spree. To elaborate for a moment: the key is to practice framing the “culprit” as a natural part of ourselves, not as “bad me” – and also to practice softening the self-judgment. This wandering is just what the mind tends to do, even when it is supposed to be focused on something else…

Whether this awareness is present sooner or later in the process, we can then bring our attention to something immediately, physically present – the breath, for instance. Focusing on a sensory experience is helpful: perhaps a sound, a color before my eyes, or a smell/fragrance…


Moving towards freedom

Dropping attention into the body tends to interrupt the mental train ride. And yes, even in a temporary opening, we can choose to let the worrisome thought go, to shift our focus, place, activity. We (empowered by the observer or witness) can then offer the mind an invitation, a moment of choice, perhaps even moving the body to a soothing place or engaging in some kind of “freeing” activity.  In the poem, the invitation that came was to go out into the morning – and sing!

This movement towards freedom takes practice, but it is possible. We may not immediately find ourselves feeling happy, but when we are less bound by the obsessions of the mind, we may indeed find ourselves more present, more available for insights and inspirations, more open to creativity, beauty, peace…