Siddhartha is a 1922 novel by Hermann Hesse, and while it is not directly about social anxiety, it is about mindfulness and meditation—the tools that helped me with social anxiety. In the book, Siddhartha, a character from the time of Gautama Buddha, goes on a spiritual journey, eventually coming to self-realizations that helped him overcome his suffering in life, much in the same way I did. Through select quotes from the text, I will explain how Siddhartha’s journey related to my own journey overcoming social anxiety.
“What is meditation? What is leaving one’s body? What is fasting? What is holding one’s breath? It is fleeing from the self, it is a short escape of the agony of being a self, it is a short numbing of the senses against the pain and pointlessness of life.”
Originally, Siddhartha was skeptical of meditation, as was I. Even if you admit meditation works, you might protest that it is an escape from life. However, if you learn to properly meditate and become more mindful, you will discover it can actually bring you closer to life. You will see reality more clearly and experience life more fully.
“The teachings, you’ve heard from me, are no opinion, and their goal is not to explain the world to those who seek knowledge. They have a different goal; their goal is salvation from suffering. This is what Gotama teaches, nothing else.”
When most people think of Buddhism, they think of the religion that formed around it, but few people in the West actually know about the life and teachings of its founder, Gautama Buddha. He was not some supernatural religious figure or prophet. He was simply a man, an ordinary human like anyone else. And he suffered like everyone else, but he learned how to overcome his suffering. His goal in life was not to teach opinions or tell people how to live, but to simply explain his experience—what worked for him in reducing suffering in life. This is what I try to do in my writing about social anxiety. I don’t want to spout opinions or tell anyone what to do. I am simply sharing my experience and the things I’ve done to reduce my suffering. Just like Buddha said, don’t take my word for it—don’t assume anything I say is true. Try it for yourself.
Truly, no thing in this world has kept my thoughts thus busy, as this my very own self, this mystery of me being alive, of me being one and being separated and isolated from all others, of me being Siddhartha!
That is the gift and curse of consciousness. It creates a self in your mind, a self that no one else can ever fully know. That self—consciousness—is where most of my suffering around social anxiety came from. My inability to share my inner self with others, or my desire for my self to be different than it was. But through my journey, I was able to separate from that “self”—the thoughts that constantly popped into my mind, negative thoughts fueling anxiety and depression. Through meditation, I learned how to separate myself from those thoughts. You are not your thoughts. You don’t have to believe every negative thought that comes into your head. Once you achieve that state of mindfulness, you will experience far less mental suffering.
I had to pass through so much stupidity, through so much vices, through so many errors, through so much disgust and disappointment and woe, just to become a child again and to be able to start over.
This is my life in a nutshell. Perhaps it is everybody’s life. I had to go through years of suffering from social anxiety, making all kinds of mistakes, in order to gain the motivation and knowledge of how to overcome it. Mistakes are how we learn.
I sometimes wish I could go back to childhood and start over with the knowledge of everything I learned, especially about social anxiety. I think of the friends I could have made, the experiences I could have had. But time travel is impossible. More importantly, I could never have learned what I know now if I didn’t live through it. Everything in my past has made me the person I am today. And I love the person I am today and wouldn’t want to change my past to make me someone different.
They lacked nothing, there was nothing the knowledgeable one, the thinker, had to put him above them except for one little thing, a single, tiny, small thing: the consciousness, the conscious thought of the oneness of all life.
Consciousness is a gift and curse. All the blessings of being a human, like love, compassion, and creativity are a result of consciousness. But all the negative parts of humanity also stem from consciousness: hate, anxiety, anger, regret, and depression. Meditation is a method to gain more control of your consciousness so you can experience more of the positive states and less of the negative.
Slowly blossomed, slowly ripened in Siddhartha the realisation, the knowledge, what wisdom actually was, what the goal of his long search was. It was nothing but a readiness of the soul, an ability, a secret art, to think every moment, while living his life, the thought of oneness, to be able to feel and inhale the oneness.
This is the goal of meditation. To get to a state of mindfulness, or present moment awareness—fully living in the moment. So much of mental suffering comes from worrying about the past and/or future, neither of which we can control. All we can control is the present moment, but we can’t control the present unless we are fully in the moment. Truly living in the present moment is extremely difficult, but meditation can help. Meditate for ten minutes in the morning, not for the benefits it will bring in those ten minutes, but to carry that mindful state to the rest of your day.
Siddhartha stopped fighting his fate, stopped suffering. On his face flourished the cheerfulness of a knowledge, which is no longer opposed by any will, which knows perfection, which is in agreement with the flow of events, with the current of life, full of sympathy for the pain of others, full of sympathy for the pleasure of others, devoted to the flow, belonging to the oneness.
Along with overcoming your own suffering, you realize that most other people are still stuck in that state without even realizing it, leaving you with more sympathy for them. People who you may have hated before, you now realize are only acting that way because they are suffering themselves on the inside.
“When someone is searching,” said Siddhartha, “then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind, because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. You, O venerable one, are perhaps indeed a searcher, because, striving for your goal, there are many things you don’t see, which are directly in front of your eyes.”
When I first tried to overcome social anxiety, I was definitely searching—searching for a cure, a quick and easy fix to make me more extraverted and sociable like everyone else. But through my journey, I became more of a finder. I realized that being an introvert is not a bad thing, and I genuinely like spending time in solitude so I can read and write. I found that the things I was “searching” for, I didn’t really want.
…wisdom cannot be passed on. Wisdom which a wise man tries to pass on to someone always sounds like foolishness.
This is so true. I’d heard the wisdom about how to overcome social anxiety for years (mindfulness, self-acceptance, meditation, therapy) but I ignored it because it sounded foolishly simple to me. But the reality is, it only sounded foolish because I was a fool. I was not ready to learn those things yet. Knowledge, no matter how wise, cannot be forced on someone if they are not ready to hear it.
I have experienced on my body and on my soul that I needed sin very much, I needed lust, the desire for possessions, vanity, and needed the most shameful despair, in order to learn how to give up all resistance, in order to learn how to love the world, in order to stop comparing it to some world I wished, I imagined, some kind of perfection I had made up, but to leave it as it is and to love it and to enjoy being a part of it.
This is the ultimate key to overcoming social anxiety. To stop thinking that shyness, social awkwardness, or introversion are shameful flaws that need to be extinguished. Stop comparing yourself to others and desiring the hyper-social lives they have, thinking they have a more perfect life. Once you accept who you are, then you will lose your social anxiety because you will be willing to be your shy/awkward self in front of others and realize there’s nothing wrong with that. I still feel social anxiety (I always will to some degree because it’s seeded in my genes), but I’ve learned to stop caring about my social anxiety. Whereas before, I would feel anxiety before the moment, during the moment, and long after the moment, constantly ruminating about what could have been and worrying about what might be. I now feel anxiety in the moment, then simply let it go. If I make a mistake, I don’t dwell on it, worrying what others might think. Or at least I try not to. I sometimes slip into states of anxiety, but I am able to catch myself quicker and stop. A daily practice of meditation helps you to stay mindful of the moment and not revert to your old ways.
But today I think: this stone is a stone, it is also animal, it is also god, it is also Buddha, I do not venerate and love it because it could turn into this or that, but rather because it is already and always everything—and it is this very fact, that it is a stone, that it appears to me now and today as a stone, this is why I love it and see worth and purpose in each of its veins and cavities, in the yellow, in the gray, in the hardness, in the sound it makes when I knock at it, in the dryness or wetness of its surface.
I spent so much of my early life wishing I was different: more confident, more attractive, more athletic, more talkative, etc. I failed to appreciate my own worth: my creativity, my imagination, my deep thinking, my solitude. Those same traits that caused social anxiety and negativity could also be redirected toward positivity: learning, writing, and creating art.
Stop trying to turn a stone into a flower. See the worth and purpose of the stone. Love the stone. You are the stone. Love yourself.