The simplest way of explaining anxiety is to say that it occurs because we have an agenda which is highly important to us, but which for some reason we suspect that we cannot meet. When we find ourselves in this situation it is the easiest thing in the world simply to immerse ourselves in the struggle. The assumption here is that if I try hard enough or long enough then things will somehow come out okay. We will call this sort of behaviour assertion because I am positively and forcefully asserting that I can solve the problem, that I will solve the problem. I am trying to force a problem to go away. Even if deep down I don’t actually believe that I can solve the problem, I will still assert myself as best I can to make it go away. I will still try my very best to go down the path of assertion.
It is generally thought that this is the helpful way to react to anxiety, precisely because it is so positive and so ‘confident’, but the truth of the matter is that asserting that I can and will meet my agenda is a recipe for making the anxiety worse not better. The reason for this is of course that insisting I can solve the problem when I secretly suspect that I can’t is no more than psychological denial – in other words, I am lying to myself because I am afraid to face the truth (i.e. I am afraid of what might happen if I don’t meet my agenda). Put this way, we can easily see that so-called ‘positive thinking’ is in fact a complete fraud, which is to say, it only appears to be a helpful sort of thing to do when we don’t think too deeply about what it is we are actually doing. It looks courageous, but it is in fact the exact opposite – it is a manifestation of fear.
The alternative road to go down, other than positive assertion, is reflection. Reflection means that I take a minute out to consider the question “Why exactly is this agenda so very important to me?” This isn’t a positive assertion because I am not saying (or asserting) why the agenda is so important, I am simply asking the question. If the answer comes to me, all well and good, but I am not insisting that there has to be an answer – I am just leaving it open since if the answer comes, it has to come by itself. If I try to force the answer to come, then this is the same thing as ‘trying to force the problem to go away’.
Of course, I may not even know what my agenda is, never mind why it should be so very important, but as long as I am willing to take time out to reflect on these questions, then I am leaving the matter open – I am leaving a gap in which the truth can emerge, in its own good time. This is in total contrast to assertion, which is all about not leaving a gap. When I am in assertion mode I am in ‘non risk-taking’ mode, which means that I am not going to allow doubt any chance to arise, at least not as long as I can help it! The point is, then, that I don’t have to come up with any answers; to obtain an answer isn’t my agenda, because reflection – as we keep saying – isn’t about having an agenda.
The secret reason for hanging on to our agendas is of course because we are afraid of letting go control. If I have an agenda, then I am in control of what is happening – I am in charge. If I drop my agenda, then it goes without saying that I am no longer in charge. No one is in charge. Anything could happen, and this is scary!
It is easy to let go when there doesn’t seem to be any threat, but when we run into difficulties, we experience the urge to seize control, and make sure that nothing bad happens. Again (as in the example of positive thinking) this seems like a good thing, but in practice we can see that it is not a good thing at all. In practice, what ‘maintaining control at any cost’ comes down to is pure panic. When I panic, what I do is that I just grab hold of any old ‘solution’ that comes up, and if there is one thing that is totally guaranteed it is that these so-called solutions are never, ever going to work – not in a million years are they going to work! However, the truth of the matter is that in my short-sighted, panicking frame of mind I would rather grasp at any solution (even screaming and shouting and having hysterics) rather than have no solution, because at least going into a panic gives me something to do. Or we could also say that – in essence – panicking or being anxious is our way of distracting ourselves from what we are panicking about, what we are being anxious about…
What we are saying, then, is that the insistence on being in control, even when there is nothing that I can (realistically) do, means that I end up grasping at dysfunctional coping strategies, ways of coping whose only use is that they allow me to distract myself from what is going on. We can plainly see, therefore, that going down the road of ‘maintaining control’ is not a helpful thing to do, and that it is in fact my need to be in control that is the real root of the problem.
THE AGENDA BEHIND THE AGENDAS
Another way of putting this is to say that the real problem in anxiety is my refusal to trust life itself. I only really trust myself, and my own coping strategies, dysfunctional or otherwise. When I reflect on it I can see that this is a pretty strange thing. After all, I know that I am not capable of ‘putting the world to rights’; I know that there are lots of things that are beyond my capacity to understand, and beyond my ability to control, so why do I insist on running the whole show myself? One way to answer this question is to say that the reason I don’t want to ‘trust the process’ is that I am afraid of uncertainty. In other words, I am afraid of stuff happening that I don’t know about.
We have already said that anxiety is caused by the ‘inability to let go of an agenda which cannot realistically be met’. The agenda in question could be anything at all – I might have an agenda to look as if I am coping when in fact I am not, or I might have an agenda to get to work on time when the fact is that I won’t. In both cases the result of not being able to drop the agenda is anxiety. But we could go deeper than this and ask what the most basic, fundamental agenda in anxiety might be. If we go on what we have just said in the previous paragraph, then the answer would be that the basic, fundamental agenda behind anxiety is to not allow uncertainty into the picture.
Actually, the agenda ‘not to allow uncertainty’ is more like a super-agenda than an agenda – it is the hidden agenda behind all agendas. The reason I have agendas is because I want to know what is happening before it actually happens; that is to say, I want to be in control, I want to make sure nothing ‘unpredictable’ (or new) happens. The reason this super-agenda is guaranteed to cause trouble for us is because uncertainty is a fact of life, it is a feature of the universe that we cannot do anything about. Just as long as we don’t fight uncertainty then everything is fine, but if we suddenly focus on it and say (in effect) “I don’t like this” and “I don’t want this”, then the harmonious, trouble-free process of life grinds to a shuddering halt and in its place we find the nightmarish world of anxiety and neurotic conflict.
The curious thing about all this is that we don’t actually see what it is we are fighting against – we fight but we don’t know what we are fighting. “How?” has driven out “Why?” In other words, we are so caught up in the attempt to succeed in our battle that we no longer have the time to wonder why we are struggling, why it is so very important to us. The actual original motivation is unconscious; it is hidden from sight so that the true nature of the battle has been obscured. We do not see that we are fighting the intrinsic uncertainty of the universe in which we live (intrinsic uncertainty can be thought of as a type of unstoppable movement in the direction of the unknown). All we know is that there is some ‘bad thing’ about to happen to us, some nameless catastrophe.
Actually, that ‘nameless catastrophe’ is the unstoppable process of change, which is nothing other than life itself. We are fighting to stay still in a universe in which everything is movement – we are fighting to stay the same in a universe where change (or ‘flow’) is that all there is. Anxiety is therefore when we try to ‘freeze’ life, it is when we – out of fear – try to oppose the way actually things are. Instead of going along with way things essentially are, we fight tooth and nail to get them to be the way we think they should be!
This is a shocking thing to realize. Change is the ultimate challenge. And yet, realizing that we are fighting the process of ongoing change that is life itself takes the steam out the fight, it puts a fatal dent in it. Being aware of what we are trying to do shows us the impossibility of what we’re trying to do – and this puts a stop to the game we were playing, without knowing that we were playing it. This is because the ‘secret purpose’ of our fighting is to prevent ourselves from seeing the thing that we are fighting against; once we see it, then the fighting or struggling (which is the anxiety) becomes suddenly ‘beside the point’. We will still struggle because there is a lot of ‘habit energy’ tied up in it but the process will have changed its character as a result of awareness being brought into the picture.
Once the ‘agenda behind the agenda’ is spotted it starts from this point onwards to slowly lose its power over us because the only way the secret agenda can work is when it is hidden from view. In other words, once we see that we are fighting our awareness of intrinsic uncertainty then we are straightaway aware of intrinsic uncertainty, and so the real reason for our struggling is at an end. Because everything is now ‘out in the open’ there is no need for us to fight against some sort of awareness that we do not want to have. Neurotic conflict – of whatever type – is always about repressing awareness and so the infallible cure for neurosis (which is where we are fighting a doomed battle against reality) is to cultivate awareness of what we’re doing, rather than fighting against it. Awareness changes everything, in other words!
THE AGENDA TO AVOID THE ‘BIG PICTURE’
We can therefore explain anxiety (in a very helpful way) by thinking in terms of the ‘Big Picture’ versus the ‘little picture’. The Big Picture is the world seen in its totality – this is sometimes called ‘oceanic consciousness’ and it is at the same time both beautiful and scary. It is beautiful because it is so vast and so deep and it is scary because it swallows up the ‘little picture’ without a trace. The little picture is the comfort zone of our normal everyday mind – it is what we know and are familiar with. Our everyday, matter-of-fact mind is like a bubble of ‘unreal security’ which we obtain (or ‘create’) by focussing on specific details; by tuning into the little picture we block out any awareness of the unpredictable and deeply mysterious universe which exists all around us. This is exactly like what happens when we momentarily forget about our troubles by immersing ourselves in an article in a glossy magazine, or by watching a soap on TV. We stay in our bubble, and there is security in this, albeit security of a very superficial and very precarious nature.
The Big Picture isn’t really a problem, it isn’t really something terrible that we have to avoid, it is just that we tend to get sucked into the little picture of the everyday mind, and then everything that threatens to disturb the security of this little world gets perceived as something awful. We don’t consciously see that we are worried about losing the little picture which we are so attached to; on the contrary, we feel gripped with dread without really knowing what that dread is about. We aren’t curious about it either – we just want to ‘make the problem go away’. The agenda of the little picture is always to ‘make the problem go away’.
The dread (or anxiety) is due to the fact that we have an agenda to hang on the little picture (and avoid seeing the ‘Big Picture’) but we haven’t acknowledged to ourselves that there is such an agenda. The fact is that we cannot acknowledge it because when we are immersed in the ‘little picture’ we simply have no way of knowing that there is anything else outside of it. That is after all what the little picture is all about – blocking out awareness of anything else. What this means is that we feel worried, but we don’t know what it is that we’re actually worried about. From the ‘perspective’ (in inverted commas!) of the bubble, the wider reality is a problem – but from a bigger perspective, it’s actually something helpful, it’s actually the source of all sanity, compassion, wisdom, humour and peace of mind…
What we are basically saying therefore is that anxiety is the result of our ‘secret agenda’ to hang on to the comfort zone of our everyday mind. This everyday mind is an artificial state of affairs and it needs constant maintenance – it needs to be propped up the whole time, although we can’t allow ourselves to see this without giving the game away. Of course, ‘giving the game away’ is actually the only way to truly solve the problem of anxiety, because once we see for ourselves what the anxiety is all about (i.e. protecting the false comfort zone of the little picture) then we realize at the same time that this comfort zone was never real in the first place.
We can say that the little picture is not ‘real’ because the little picture is ‘one way’ of seeing the world which imagines itself to be ‘the only way’. As ‘only one possible viewpoint amongst many’ it exists, but then this is not a comfort zone because if we know that it is only a partial picture then we are automatically reminded by this that there is much more out there. We are automatically reminded that there is a vastly bigger and stranger world out there than the world of my protective mental bubble. The comfort zone is therefore when we imagine the ‘partial picture’ to be the ‘only picture’, and so what this means is that anxiety occurs when ‘the part’ tries unsuccessfully to hide from itself the awareness that it is only a part of the whole, and not an end in itself.
NOT AVOIDING OUR AVOIDING
From this argument it is clear that the answer to anxiety is to see that we are trying to protect the comfort zone of our everyday mind against the awareness that there is a deeper reality outside of it. Once we see what we are doing, then we are straightaway aware of this ‘deeper reality’ (which is the Big Picture), and so the game is well and truly up. The principle here is simple: when I become of my avoidance, then at the same time I become aware of what I am avoiding, and when I am aware of what I am avoiding, then I am no longer avoiding it…
It is at this point that the everyday mind starts to ‘relinquish its hold’ – it begins to gracefully give way to the truth.There is a curious paradox at work here that can be explained as follows:
When the little picture sees that it is only ‘the little picture’ then we are no longer trapped in the little picture. When this awareness dawns then the little picture is of course seen as being part of the ‘Big Picture’ – and if the little picture is part of the Big Picture then actually it is the Big Picture! It was always part of the Big Picture but we just didn’t want to see it. And once we do see this truth then – as we have said – there is no need for us to ‘hang onto our agenda’ any more, which means that the neurotic conflict is at an end…