Anxiety can be defined as an unsuccessful search for some sort of safety, or ‘security’ – it happens when I am trying to obtain a sense of security which just isn’t possible for me to obtain. This isn’t a complete definition however because if I could see that I am ‘unsuccessfully’ searching for safety (i.e. if I could see that I am searching for something that just isn’t there) then I would at this point give up and do something else. The complete definition of anxiety would therefore be something like this:
Anxiety is when I am constantly searching for a sense of security that is impossible to attain, whilst refusing the whole time to actually see that it is impossible to attain.
When we look at anxiety in this way we can see straightaway that anxiety is a specific type of neurosis, since neurosis can be defined in exactly the same sort of way as anxiety. That is to say, we can define neurosis by saying the following:
Neurosis is when we insist on having things the way we want them to be, whilst refusing the whole time to see that this is totally and utterly impossible.
An alternative way of explaining neurosis is to say that it is caused by our refusal to accept ‘legitimate pain’ – which means pain that arises out of the reality of our situation. These two ways of explaining neurosis are closely linked because ‘having things our own way’ inevitably means not having to deal with any pain! In neurosis not only are we refusing the original legitimate pain, we are also refusing to accept the pain of seeing that we can’t actually escape this legitimate pain. In other words, we are avoiding seeing that we can’t avoid the pain. The consequence of this ‘double-refusal’ (or double-avoiding) is very easy to explain – basically, it is the fact that we are refusing to see that we can’t get our own way that causes us to get stuck in the neurosis.
ANXIETY = UNSUCCESSFUL FEAR AVOIDANCE
We can apply this definition to anxiety by saying something like this:
It is our refusal to accept the pain of seeing that we can never obtain the sort of security we want that keeps us stuck in anxiety.
The pain that we get when we are faced with the impossibility of finding a safe place to hide in has a particular name – it is called fear. Anxiety is therefore when we refuse to accept the reality of our own fear and attempt (unsuccessfully!) to avoid it. This provides us with the clue that we need in order to understand what the ‘answer’ to anxiety is, but before we can come to this we first have to clarify the difference between anxiety and fear.
Normally we confuse anxiety and fear (understandably enough) and we use the two terms more or less interchangeably. There is an important difference however, and we can explain this difference as follows:
Fear is an uncomfortable (or difficult) mental feeling that we find very hard to bear, whilst anxiety is the unsuccessful attempt to escape from this feeling.
The reason why we say that it is ‘unsuccessful’ is again very straightforward: if I were able to successfully escape from my fear (which is to say, if I were able to hide from it) then I simply would not be aware of any mental distress. I simply would not believe that I had any sort of problem. When we are anxious however we know that we have a problem – we cannot avoid knowing that we have a problem and it is precisely this highly uncomfortable awareness that something is going wrong that constitutes anxiety.
ANXIETY IS AN UNCONSCIOUS REACTION
It is crucial to understand that anxiety is an ‘unconscious’ sort of a process. The following definition makes this clear:
Anxiety is when we know that something is going wrong, but our inclination is simply to distance ourselves from whatever it is, rather than directly dealing with it. When our ability to successfully distance ourselves from whatever it is starts to fail us, then this is where anxiety comes in.
To put this in a slightly different way, we don’t really want to know what it is that is going wrong, we just want it NOT to be going wrong. This attitude invariably ends up showing itself in the form of an overwhelming willingness ‘to not know about it’ (whatever ‘it’ is), and this is why we are saying that anxiety is basically an unconscious sort of a process. Our main interest is simply to find a way of escaping from the uncomfortable feelings that we are having. In other words, our one and only goal is ‘to find a safe place’.
Whether this security is ‘genuine’ (or ‘real’) doesn’t concern us – if it looks like a safe place then we won’t look any further. We put our trust in appearances and so as long as what we are buying into has the appearance of being what we want, then that is all we care about. We won’t ask any questions, or look deeply into what we are buying, because we don’t want to burst the bubble of the illusion that we are depending on. We can show how this works by thinking about flattery – if you are flattering me I get a good feeling, but I will only get to feel good if I make sure not to look beyond the surface! If I look too deep then I see the truth about what is going on and so the ‘comfort bubble’ bursts. I am no longer able to believe in it. The same is true for the ‘comfort zones’ that we search for in anxiety, in reality they are only ‘false comfort’ because they don’t actually solve the problem, but in our hurry to find somewhere safe we don’t care. We don’t want to look too deep.
STORING UP TROUBLE
The point about this characteristic ‘reflex reaction’ type of motivation (which is the motivation that takes us over when we are anxious) is that it is totally short-sighted. All I care about is the immediate feeling of relief that I get when I successfully avoid a difficult situation – I have absolutely no interest in anything else at all! This ‘lack of interest in anything else’ creates huge problems for me however because it means that I cannot learn a very important lesson, a lesson that is the key to everything. The lesson has to do with ‘the backlash’ – basically, every time I successfully avoid a difficult situation I create a painful backlash that will hit me a bit later on. Not only is this backlash painful, it invariably ends up being worse than the difficulty that I had originally been avoiding because when I start avoiding difficulties I don’t just avoid some situations, I avoid all of them. What this means is that I am constantly storing up trouble for myself in the future – the whole time I am avoiding difficulties I am accumulating trouble, I am building up a debt that sooner or later I am going to have to pay. When we put it like this, it can be seen that I am not really being a friend to myself but in fact I am my own enemy.
There is another disastrous consequence of always ‘looking for the easy way out’ and that is that my motivation is no longer ‘honest’. I am travelling down a bad road; without knowing it, I have crossed over into the shadowy world of self-deception, and this is a world that is very easy to enter but hard to leave. It is easy to enter because it is easy to ignore something that is making us uncomfortable, and it is also easy to ignore the fact that this is what we are doing (to put it another way, it is easy to avoid, and it is also easy to avoid seeing that we are avoiding). On the other hand, the realm of self-deception is very hard to leave because once we have successfully tricked ourselves that everything is okay when it isn’t, then from this point onwards we never know what is real and what is not real. We no longer know which is an honest concern and which is a red herring, and this ‘lack of insight’ is very much the case in anxiety. Anxiety is all about being afraid, but not really knowing what we are afraid of (or why).
UNSUCCESSFUL EMOTIONAL REPRESSION
We can make this point clearer with a concrete example. Suppose that I am experiencing some sort of painful emotional upheaval and I decide that I don’t want to deal with it, at least not at this point in my life. I throw myself into various projects and busy myself doing this and that, and in this way I am able to distance myself from the terrible vulnerability that I was feeling. I am now able to kid myself that my life is sorted out, that everything is fine. So far so good – I have successfully repressed my emotions, and as far as I (or anyone else) knows, everything is hunky-dory. “Problem – what problem?” I ask.
Let us also suppose, just to make the example more interesting, that my ‘ability to repress’ starts to wear thin: strange and unwelcome feelings start to appear out of the blue. Now as soon as this starts to happen I react by intensifying my self-distracting behaviour – I throw myself even more into what I am doing, I renew my efforts. I am not acknowledging what is going on at all, I am merely reacting automatically as a way of defending myself from becoming aware of the significance of what I am experiencing. But because my ability to successfully self-distract is shot through, I start to experience anxiety. Something is going wrong, but I don’t want to allow myself to know what that ‘something’ is.
INSIGHT INTO THE GAME
My anxiety is apparently all about the success or failure of the goals that I am trying to attain in the course of my self-distraction type behaviour. I am anxious about my game of self-distraction not working out for me (even though I do not of course know that it is merely a ‘game’.) This shows us straightaway why anxiety always goes hand-in-hand with lack of insight – I am worried about the failure of my plans, and so I fixate my attention totally on this projected failure, even though this isn’t really the problem at all. These plans, after all, are only there to distract me from whatever it is that I don’t want to know about; they don’t actually matter that much in themselves. The worse the anxiety gets, the harder I will try to solve it by concentrating on attaining my goals, but this attempt is doomed from the start because it isn’t getting to the root of the anxiety. What I am really anxious about is the failure of my ability to carry on deceiving myself, only I can’t allow myself to see this fact or else I would not be deceiving myself any more!
Clearly, insight into the game is the only thing that can truly help me. The only genuine way to get to the bottom of it all is to drop the self-distraction business and deal with the emotions that I had originally repressed. The other way of doing it just backfires in my face because the more I try to fix what I think the problem is, the more anxious I will get.
Now we are not saying here that anxiety is due to repressed emotional material. This may be the case sometimes, but we only gave that example in order to illustrate the idea of ‘failure in our ability to repress stuff’. The repression in question could be about anything. In general, the best way to define anxiety is to say that it has to do with a failure in our ability to repress fear, as we suggested earlier. What this means is that the ‘safe place’ which we are unsuccessfully seeking is a place where we are safe from reality (or from the truth) and once we put it like this it becomes very easy to see why there can be no such place. The refrain in the song by Norman Jay and Gilles Peterson goes “You can’t hide from the truth cause the truth is all there is” and this about sums it up. Repression is a game that is bound to fail in the end because repression is all about lying to ourselves, and lying only ever provides a short-term benefit. What is worse, it provides a short-term benefit at the price of a long-term disaster, as we have been saying. Or to put this another way, all my so-called escapes are bought at a very high price, which means that they are actually not escapes at all.
NO SAFE PLACE
Another good way to understand anxiety is to say that it comes about because of our unacknowledged need for the security of certainty. ‘Certainty’ here just means ‘knowing something for sure’ and it doesn’t actually matter what I know for sure, because as long as I can ‘know it for sure’ that gives me a sense of mental (or psychological) security. It gives me something solid to hold onto and hold onto it I do, come what may! As before, to make this into a more complete definition we would have to say something like this:
Anxiety is when we have an unacknowledged need for a sort of psychological security which simply doesn’t exist.
The word ‘unacknowledged’ reminds us that anxiety arises out of our tendency to seek psychological security by self-deception. I don’t let on to myself what I am doing, and so when ‘what I am doing’ starts to fall apart at the seams I am at a terrible disadvantage because I don’t know what the problem is. In a sense, I am being ‘hoisted by my own petard’. If I try to solve the problem by ‘doing’ I just make it worse because all my doing is based on my false understanding of what the problem is. Clearly, the only way to be free from anxiety is to allow myself to see through the habitual game of avoidance that I am playing. Insight is the key, not action.
‘Doing’ just involves me in paradox (or contradiction) as insight will show me. If I deliberately try not to avoid, then this too is the same mental reflex of avoidance turned against itself. The motivation is purely ‘short-term gain’ – I am trying to get out of a nasty situation by doing something clever. I have got the idea that if I don’t avoid then I will be free from anxiety, and so my ‘not-avoiding’ is just another form of avoiding. I am trying to avoid the anxiety by ‘not avoiding’ it! The simple fact of the matter is that there is no clever way to wangle it so I don’t have to be in the place that I don’t want to be in. There is no clever way to beat the problem of fear, there is no short-cut out of it.
Actually, as Krishnamurti says, fear is not really a problem at all – it is not something to be ‘solved’, but rather it is a reality to be acknowledged. Fear is not something that we can ‘do’ anything about because all our ‘doing’ is merely an attempt to get away from it. Even the attempt to face fear is an attempt to run away from it because all we are really trying to do is ‘beat the problem’. The knee-jerk reaction of looking for a way out just causes me to go around in futile circles, trying to get away from a reality that I cannot get away from. As we said earlier, all my so-called ‘escapes’ come at a terrible price and so they are not escapes at all. If I allow myself to see this truth then the motivation of looking for an easy way out will be cut off at the source, and instead of this ‘reflex’ (i.e. ‘unconscious’) motivation I will be left with another, different type of motivation, conscious motivation.
Conscious motivation is simply taking an interest in something else apart from my short-sighted goal of escaping pain or fear. Naturally, the first thing that I will take an interest in is my own complete lack of interest in anything outside my narrow goal of escaping. This is a curious fact that is waiting to be noticed – the first of many…