The root cause of anxiety is that we treat something as a task, when really it isn’t a task at all. This way of understanding anxiety may not make sense at first but it will hopefully become clear shortly. Anxiety can show itself in a wide range of distressing or uncomfortable symptoms, but the root cause of anxiety is always the same. That root cause is our perception that there is a task (or ‘problem’) that needs sorting out, when actually there isn’t. To put this another way, anxiety is a clear and unmistakable indication that we are trying to change or control a situation when we would be a lot better off accepting that we have to deal with it as it is.
It is a fact that life is full of problems that it is our responsibility to deal with – we can ignore or avoid them if we want but it is ‘unhealthy’ to have a policy of avoiding problems because taking on problems is how we grow. It does not matter so much whether we succeed or not just as long as we take the risk of trying. It often seems as if it is problems in general that cause our anxiety and so we might try to cure anxiety by avoiding them. This is the automatic way that we have of dealing with anxiety – by avoiding the situations that cause us anxiety. It is however quite impossible to cure anxiety by simply avoiding all problems since this just aggravates the situation. This automatic policy actually turns into a disaster because ‘avoiding problems’ becomes a very big task or problem itself. What is more, ‘avoiding all problems’ is actually an impossible task to undertake – we can never ever succeed at this task because problems will inevitably appear no matter what. Even if I retreat under the duvet and never come out I will still run into problems sooner or later, and when I do I am always faced with the same question – where do I run to now?
The idea that we are looking at here is the idea that when we make a task out of avoiding all problems, this creates a ‘super problem’ because avoiding all problems is utterly and completely impossible. This is interesting because what this actually means is that ‘avoiding all problems’ is not a legitimate task at all – it is not a legitimate task because it is not possible to succeed at it. When there is something that I cannot change, a situation that I cannot realistically do anything about, then this is not a task. It is something to accept, not something to exert control over; if I treat it as a task, then the result of this will be to create anxiety.
BEING AFRAID OF PROBLEMS
To summarize what we have been saying so far: it isn’t tasks (or problems) that make me anxious, but me making a task out of something that isn’t actually a task at all. This is different to the way we normally have of understanding anxiety because we usually think that anxiety is due to the problems that are facing us, and so we put a big effort into ‘fixing’ these problems by either solving them or by avoiding them. This is where the anxiety comes in because what we are doing here is trying to get rid of difficulty as soon as it comes along. We either get rid of the difficult situation by solving the problem, or by avoiding it. Trying to solve a problem doesn’t ordinarily cause anxiety, but when I am trying to solve a problem on the unconscious basis that I don’t ever want to have any problems this is a different story. The difference is that in the first case I am trying to solve the problem because I need to for practical reasons but I am not afraid of problems as such, whereas in the second case I am NOT trying to solve the problem for practical reasons, but because I am afraid of problems in general.
ANXIETY IS NOT THE SAME AS FEAR
The situation where we are afraid of problems in general is pretty much universal. Our problem – as author Steven Hagen has said – is that we don’t want to have any problems, and since this is impossibility the result of our attitude is unending anxiety. If I start having a problem about the fact that I have a problem, then this is a slippery slope to an escalating panic reaction because the next step is that I will have a problem about the fact that I have a problem with the original problem. To put this another way, being scared is ok, but if I start having a problem about being scared, and as a result become scared of my own fear, then this, as Alan Watts says, is the gateway to the bottomless abyss of anxiety. Anxiety is not fear but ‘fear of fear’, and the reason ‘fear of fear’ is different from fear is because it inevitably escalates, which is to say, if I get afraid of the fact that I am afraid then the next thing is that I will get afraid of the fact that I am afraid of being afraid, and so on. I cannot help reacting to my own fear with more fear, and so the fear takes over everything. Because I cannot face the fact of my own fear (i.e. because I have a problem with it) the fear starts chasing me, and I start running from it, which very quickly leads on to what is called a ‘panic attack’.
Anxiety is always the result of ‘fear of fear’. If I am dealing with some difficulty but I don’t have a problem with the fact that the difficulty is there then I can work with the difficulty effectively and there will be no panic setting in, even if it turns out that I cannot do anything about the difficulty in question. If on the other hand I have a big problem about the fact that there is a difficulty there then this alters everything. In this case the basis for me trying to solve the problem is fear – the motivation for what I am trying to do is fear, which comes down to a complete lack of freedom with regard to outcome. If my basic motivation is fear, what this means is that when I try to solve a problem on this basis then I am afraid of the possibility that I may not be able to solve it. Solving the problems, or successfully escaping from them, does not help me at all when my basic motivation is fear because all I am doing is proving to myself that I do have to solve them, or that I do have to escape from them, and all this does is feed the underlying fear.
WHEN EVERYTHING BECOMES A PROBLEM
If I could see that there are problems facing me but realize that this isn’t actually a problem in itself, then this would not be creating any anxiety. My problems would not be making me feel anxious. Saying something like this doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense however – if I have a problem and having that problem isn’t a problem to me, then surely that means that the original problem can’t be that much of a problem? But on the other hand, if I have a problem, and I also have a problem about having this problem, then isn’t this the very same ‘slippery slope’ that we talked about a minute ago? If I have a problem about having a problem, then this situation will automatically escalate and escalate (because I am also going to have a problem about having a problem about having a problem, and so on). This means that I am going to be locked into a solid attitude of ‘reality refusal’ (i.e. panic) about everything; it’s going to problems, problems, problems all the way and as a result I just won’t be able to face anything. Most significantly of all, I won’t be able to face the fact that I can’t face anything.
In order for complete panic not to set in, there obviously has to be something that is not a problem, i.e. there has to be some inner core of peace that is not touched by the problem. When there is nothing that is not a problem, then of course this means that everything must be a problem, but how on earth can ‘everything’ be a problem? And if everything was the problem, what chance would we have? Needless to say when we are suffering from anxiety it often feels that ‘the problem is everything’ because anxiety gradually eats away at me, bit by bit, until I feel that the whole of my life is problematic. When this happens even stuff that shouldn’t be a problem becomes a problem and what this means that I am perceiving life itself as a task, as something that I have to ‘do something about’. The process whereby I end up seeing things as problems when they never used to be is insidious (which is to say the process gradually takes over without me properly noticing what is happening). I end up worrying about everything which is of course absurd. It is absurd in a thoroughly unpleasant way because what has actually happened is that I have made life itself into a problem that I need to fix. This is a terrible situation because life is everything – life is everywhere I go and I just can’t get away from it, so what sort of a position does this put me in? I myself am part of life, and so I too must be a problem needing fixing, which makes the trap all the more vicious. I basically haven’t got a leg to stand on! This is an impossible situation to find myself in – it is impossibly difficult – but at the same time it is also true that the situation that we are talking about is absurd, i.e. it doesn’t make sense! After all, when I reflect on the matter I realize that life actually isn’t a problem to be fixed, or a puzzle to be solved – life is fine just as it is, obviously enough. But if life isn’t a problem, if it is already perfect the way it is (i.e. it doesn’t need me to step in and ‘fix’ it) then how come I am worrying about it? Clearly, the reason is that I have somehow ended up making life into a ‘task’ when it isn’t, but if this is the case, then what is the way out of this predicament?
WORRYING IN PEACE
A good way to approach this question is to say that there are two possible states in life – ACTION and REST. Action is a busy state, it is when I am trying to accomplish something, and rest is when I am ‘at peace’ and am not trying to accomplish something. There is a principle in ancient Chinese philosophy which says that only action which arises from stillness is effective. In other words, if I am not at rest in myself to start off with, then anything I do will be to no avail. Applying this to anxiety we can say that anxiety is action that does not arise out of stillness, since there is obviously no inner peace behind anxiety. The principle as applied to anxiety means that if all my time is spent being busy (and this includes being mentally busy, i.e. worrying) then nothing I do is going to do me the slightest bit of good at because I was not at peace before I started doing it. As we said earlier, I am treating the whole of life as a problem, so that there is no area of my life which is not a problem, and so I have no place to start from.
It is essential to understand this point otherwise we just end up going around in circles. The circle that we are talking about is the circle of ‘creating anxiety by our attempt to solve anxiety’. When we are anxious our automatic reaction is to fix the anxiety, and so straightaway we start looking for a way to do this since looking for a way to ‘fix’ the anxiety makes perfect sense to us at the time. But if my anxiety is caused by the fact that I have (without realizing it) made everything into a problem that needs fixing then how is making my anxiety into yet another problem possibly going to help me? All I am doing is the same old thing that I always do, and that ‘same old thing that I always do’ is the very root of my anxiety. If I make my anxiety into a task which needs solving then this is actually creating anxiety because anxiety is caused by making something into a task when it isn’t a task. Anxiety is not a task, or a ‘problem to be fixed’, for the simple reason that it is impossible to deliberately make it go away. The reason it is impossible to deliberately make anxiety go away is because it is the ‘fixing mentality’ (and the unquestionable need or fear that lies behind it) that creates anxiety in the first place. As long as I have a ‘need’ for the anxiety to go away I am anxious; even if the anxiety did temporarily go away as a result of my attempts to make it go away I would still be anxious because the need that I have to be ‘not anxious’ would still be there! So although it is sometimes possible to find temporary relief from anxiety by deliberate action, this is no escape at all really because my attempts to temporarily escape from anxiety (whether successful or not) only mean that I am storing up anxiety for the future.
If I think that I need to fix my anxiety then this is another way of saying that I am seriously uneasy about it. But if I am uneasy about my anxiety then what this means is that I am acting on the basis of ‘unease’. I am acting on the basis of a lack of peace and out of this ‘absence of peace’ I am trying to create peace. Out of my unease I am trying to arrive at a state of ease. This is completely and utterly impossible because even if I do arrive at some state of mind which looks peaceful and easeful and comfortable, the foundations of this state of mind will be ‘lack of peace’. Just as a building is only as strong as its foundations, so too is a state of mind only as strong as its foundations, and if the foundation of my state of mind is fear, then any sense of strength or security that I might temporarily have will be pure illusion.
When I am driven by the absolute need to get rid of my anxiety this means that I have turned my anxiety into a deadly serious ‘task’. Because this task is impossible this creates anxiety. Anxiety is therefore when I know on one level that I am bound to fail at what I am trying to do (because it is an impossibility, a ‘non-task’), but when I deliberately fail to pay attention to this awareness, and put all my efforts into believing that it is possible for me to succeed. In anxiety I am fighting against my own awareness, and fighting against the truth. Anxiety always points to some basic ‘impossible thing’ that I am trying to achieve, and it always involves a struggle against knowing this. When I am fighting against my own awareness there is nowhere to turn, at least there is nowhere real to turn, and this is why I end up in an ‘impossibly difficult situation’. The reason the situation is so impossibly difficult is that there is absolutely no way that I can do what I am determined to do. I cannot escape from the difficulties that I so desperately want to escape from. Once I realize this then the root cause of anxiety is removed because I stop trying to do an impossible thing, i.e. I stop trying to change reality.
When I am driven by the need to make the anxiety go away I am driven by my ‘need’ for things to be different from the way that they actually are. But what good can a need like this do me? What could can the unreflective or compulsive non-acceptance of a difficult (but unavoidable) reality do me? All that happens is that I go around in circles. I am driven by the need that I have for the anxiety to go away, and the fact that it is impossible for me to ‘make the anxiety go away because I am afraid of it’ means that I start to get anxious about my anxiety. If I am anxious about my anxiety, this inevitably means that I am also going to be anxious about being anxious about my anxiety, and so on and so forth. This is what ‘anxiety’ is all about – it is a chain reaction of panic, a progressive loss of trust, the annihilation of any inner core of peace (or ‘acceptance’). It is like a virus that multiplies endlessly and contaminates everything, until there is nothing left that is unaffected. When the basis of my action is the fear of having to face difficulties, then everything I do is simply an attempt to ‘pass the difficulty on’ to somewhere else. But ultimately there is nowhere else to pass the difficulty on to, and so I am stuck desperately trying to do an impossible thing, which is ‘ridding myself of a difficulty that is legitimately mine’. The underlying cause of anxiety is simply that I do not want to face whatever difficulty it is that is legitimately ‘mine’. It is the fact that I am in denial of a difficulty that is legitimately mine that creates the anxiety, and once I go down this road to start off with I am bound to take the anxiety with me wherever I go. Its no good me asking myself what the ‘right thing’ to do is because no matter what I do I will unfailingly bring the anxiety along with me. What this means is that purposeful action (of any kind) is no help at all when dealing with anxiety because it always arises out of a need to placate fear. Action is not the key.
PART 2 – BEING MINDFUL
Trying to extricate myself from my anxious situation makes things worse, but trying to deliberately accept the anxiety also makes things worse because I am making a task for myself when there isn’t a task. I am setting myself the task of ‘not trying to extricate myself’ (which is the task of ‘accepting the anxiety’) and because this is not a task at all I am creating anxiety. Any time I do something that has a particular aim in mind then this is a task and this means that ‘accepting anxiety’ is a task since the aim is ‘to accept’ rather than ‘fight’. But accepting and fighting are both exactly the same when it comes down to it since both are ‘things that I am trying to do’ – both are outcomes that I am struggling to attain, and that I am totally averse to ‘not attaining’.
Struggling to attain an outcome that suits what I have in mind is counterproductive in anxiety and ‘struggling not to struggle’ is no exception to this. What does help is for me to notice what I am doing, which also includes noticing what my motivation is for trying to do it. This doesn’t involve trying to change anything, it just means being aware of what is actually happening (in other words, ‘noticing’ isn’t a task because it doesn’t have any particular outcome in mind). In anxiety a very good ‘pointer’ to watch out for is the conceptualization of a particular goal or aim. As soon as I notice myself formulating some sort of goal then straightway this means that I am being aware of myself turning my situation into a task. This is helpful in a practical way because it means that I am practising ‘mindfulness’ and mindfulness is the only thing that genuinely helps with anxiety. This makes sense because if not paying attention to something that I don’t want to know about is the root cause of anxiety, then paying attention will naturally have the effect of freeing me from that anxiety. Another key pointer is to notice myself wondering what the right thing to do is – I know when I am treating my situation as a problem to be overcome (or a task to be correctly dealt with) when I find myself constantly thinking in terms of the ‘RIGHT WAY’ versus the ‘WRONG WAY’.
This is a dead give-away – if I am always trying to work out what the RIGHT WAY to do it is, and getting stressed out by the possibility that I mightn’t find the RIGHT WAY (that I might ‘get it WRONG’) then I am treating my situation as a task. I am assuming that it is my responsibility to ‘make things be the right way’ and this assumption is plunging me straightaway into a horribly impossible position. This assumption is putting me in an impossible position because the responsibility for ‘how I am’ (or ‘what might happen in the future’) does not lie on my shoulders. How can it – I am after all not God! If I am constantly feeling pressurized to get things to work out the right way then I am treating life as a task. Alternatively, we can say that I am treating life as a game that has to be ‘won’. But this is getting at all backwards; after all, life is freely given to us – it is a gift, not something we have to have to ‘win’ through some special cleverness on my part. If I treat life as a game then instead of seeing it as the gift that it is, I have twisted everything around so that it is me who obtaining life as a result of my worthiness. This is of course a completely reversed emphasis. As Alan Watts says, this inability to trust that everything will work out well without my own personal intervention (without some special cleverness or manipulation on my part) is basically a manifestation of ‘spiritual pride’. I can’t accept that ‘it isn’t me that does it’ – unconsciously, I assume that I have the key role in maintaining the process of reality and that unless I ‘get it right’ everything will collapse around me. Somehow I think that I am running the whole show – or that I ought to be running the whole show – and as a result of unconsciously assuming this immense responsibility my life grinds to a halt. It becomes impossible to live.
And when I have been brought to a halt by taking on responsibility for stuff that I am not actually responsible for I start taking on the responsibility of working out ‘what the right way is’ to defeat the anxiety. So as if it wasn’t enough taking personal responsibility for making sure that the world runs according to plan I also assume the responsibility for coming up with some strategy to defeat the anxiety that comes about as a result of me taking on responsibility for stuff that I don’t need to take responsibility for. I think that I have to get myself out of the mess that I perceive myself to be in all by my own cleverness, and so if it happens to be the case that I can’t do this (which actually is the case) then I really am stuck. By insisting on ‘winning out’ I am insisting on taking on all the responsibility myself and this guarantees that I will screw up. Trying to be a winner and not a loser sounds like the smart thing to do, but it assumes an awful lot – it assumes that I need to ‘do something’ about the way things are and this just plain isn’t true.
THE TWO ROADS
So if life isn’t about frantically struggling to ‘win’ all the time then what is it about? What do I need to do in order to benefit from the good things (or the help) that it has to offer? One answer to this question is to say that life will benefit me, or help me, when I pay attention to it, as it actually is. When I ceaselessly struggle to force it to be the way that I want it to be (or the way that I think it ought to be) then it does not help me and I deny myself any chance of an escape from the trap that I have created for myself. But what do we mean by the word ‘help’? It sounds rather strange to say that help will come when we do nothing, since usually we think that if we don’t ‘do the right thing’, then everything will be a disaster. This is what anxiety is all about – anxiety is all about the conviction that unless I do something quick, and get it right, then something terribly disastrous will happen. The pressure is on me – in a big way – to come with the right course of action.
The belief that ‘it is all down to me to make sure that I do the right thing to save myself’ leads us headlong down what the hermetic philosophers called the via erratum, the ‘way of error’. The via erratum is the road I plunge down when I assume total responsibility for everything, i.e. when I think that if am to be helped, then I must do the helping myself. In common-sense terms, this assumption is perfect correct since if I accidentally take hold of something that is very hot, it is up to me to release it as soon as I possibly can otherwise I will get badly burned. No one else is going to do this for me! But from a psychological standpoint the situation is completely different – if I am afraid or feeling uncomfortable or distressed in any way, then it is not up to me to ‘fix’ the situation so I feel better. If I am afraid and I try to fix the situation so that I am not afraid, then I create anxiety. Similarly, if I am feeling sad and I try to fix the situation so that I am not sad then I end up in the state of emotional denial – I repress my own feelings by pretending they are not there, which can only result in depression. From a psychological standpoint, my responsibility is not to control my own feelings and emotions so that I no longer feel bad – my responsibility is to pay attention to how I actually do feel. I cannot correct myself so that I am not afraid or so that I am not in emotional pain and more than I can lift myself up of the ground by pulling my own shoe-laces. I cannot manufacture my own sanity – sanity has to be something that comes from outside of me, rather than something that is ‘made up’ by me because I am afraid.
I cannot (as Alan Watts says) lift myself up into the air by tugging at my own shoe-laces, but what I can do is to honestly face the situation that I am in, and honestly facing up to the situation that I am in also means facing up to the fact that I cannot deliberately ‘help’ myself anymore than I can carry myself. This doesn’t mean that I can’t be helped, it simply means that it isn’t up to me – I have to ‘hand it over’ and see what happens as a result, which is of course the ultimate risk. Consciously handing over responsibility by accepting that ‘if I am to be helped then the help must come from outside me’ is what the ancient hermetic philosophers called the via veritas, the ‘way of truth’. The via veritas basically means letting go and allowing myself to be helped (if I am to be helped) by life, rather than panicking and insisting on doing the helping myself, even though my so-called ‘helping’ is making everything a thousand times worse.
BEYOND RIGHT AND WRONG
What we are basically saying in all this is that peace of mind (or freedom from anxiety) is not obtained through force, or by cleverness, or by ‘grim determination’, or by being greedy for ‘good results’ – it only comes about as a result of accepting life on life’s terms. This does not mean that the best thing to do is to be lazy because accepting life on life’s terms is not easy. Taking a risk is not easy and living life on life’s terms always means taking a risk. When I find myself desperately looking for the RIGHT WAY to do things then I am most definitely not willing to take a risk. That is why I am so keen, so obsessively keen, on finding the RIGHT WAY – because I do not want for there is be any risk at all. I want to know for sure that if I do X, Y or Z then everything will be okay…
What this means in terms of mindfulness is that when I find myself being constantly preoccupied with trying to find the RIGHT WAY and avoid the WRONG WAY then I know that I am desperately trying to avoid taking any risk. I am insisting that the ‘help’, if it is to come from anywhere, is to come from me. I am insisting on saving myself because I cannot take the risk, because I cannot trust the process of life. Once I notice myself trying to avoid taking a risk then this is mindfulness – mindfulness as we said earlier means paying attention to life as it actually is and the good thing about this is that when I pay attention to life as it actually is, then life itself will help me.