One reason why we find it so hard to shift anxiety (or any other form of neurotic distress, for that matter) is our fundamental lack of curiosity about what is going on. This is perfectly natural – if I am having an awful time, I am not curious about this awful time that I am having – I just want to be rid of it! I don’t want to know about what is going on for me, I just want to learn how to get it to stop! This attitude is perfectly natural, but it is not helpful, and for this reason we need to learn to not do what comes naturally for us. We need to learn to do something that goes against the grain, i.e. we need to learn how to not react.
When we are anxious we desire to be not anxious. This seems reasonable enough. If someone could give us the therapeutic equivalent of a super hi-tech star-wars laser gun to blast the anxiety clean out of existence then that would be just what we would want. This is the attitude of ‘wanting to Zapp the negativity’. We generally put a lot of effort into this, and if we do not succeed, then we assume that this is because we have not been using powerful enough weapons. We assume that we just need to intensify our efforts and ‘hit it harder’! This however is not a good attitude to take with anxiety – ‘zapping’ is not the answer because all the energy we put into the zapping gets reflected right back at us in the form of intensified anxiety! This is how anxiety works – the more we try to control it (or eradicate it) the more we feed into it. This is the peculiar thing about anxiety that we just don’t understand – the thing that nobody seems to understand. Most people will tell us to fight anxiety, but fighting anxiety equals anxiety! Fighting anxiety is what we do the whole time when we are anxious and it doesn’t do any good at all – telling somebody to fight against their anxiety (or in any way try to control it) is the same as telling them to carry on being anxious!
Anxiety is not like a person who I can turn away at the door because I don’t want to see him. Anxiety isn’t a separate, external thing to me that has an existence of its own, but rather it is a secondary effect that occurs as a result of my resistance to some situation that I don’t want to know about. Anxiety is the energy of that resistance, the energy of that ‘attempted controlling’, coming right back at me. It is a ‘back-lash’ that we don’t see to be a back-lash. We resist (or fight) to be rid of something, but because of our absolute rejection of that ‘something’, because of our absolute insistence on ‘not having it’, we are actually saddled with it full time. Therapist Douglas Flemons (1991) explains this unfamiliar principle by saying “desired separation forges a connection”. The more we try to push it away the more it comes back at us; the more we want to be separate to it the more it is stuck to us…
Anxiety is of course all about ‘desired separation’ – it is all about me wanting to put as much distance between me and the situation I am afraid of as possible! Either I want to get away from it or I want to fight it and both of these two reactions come down to exactly the same thing. The first reaction (running away from it) is resistance, and the second reaction (fighting it) is also resistance. This is obvious when we consider that both YES and NO refer to the same issue: if I say YES then that YES must be referring to something, it is specifically pointing to something, in fact. And if I say NO then that NO must also be referring to something – the very fact that I am saying NO draws attention to whatever it is that I am saying NO to. Therefore, both the YES and the NO reaction establish an unbreakable connection to whatever I am reacting to. Both YES and NO are ‘attachments’, in other words. Another way to explain this is to say that avoidance always draws attention to (or emphasizes) what is being avoided. In this way, positive and negative avoidance both reinforce the situation that we fear – both types of reaction make the fear more real, more potent, more believable, more of an issue.
Positive and negative avoidance (which also go by the names of ‘desire’ and ‘fear’) are the two faces of ‘closed motivation’: if I desire an outcome, then I am afraid of not having it. If I want to be rid of something, then I am experiencing desire for the situation where I don’t have it. Attraction and aversion (YES and NO) are the same thing – they are both attachment. We can say that desire and fear are ‘closed’ reactions because when I am in the state of desire or fear then I am not interested in anything apart from either obtaining the outcome that I want or avoiding the outcome that I don’t want. Both desire and fear mean that I lose all curiosity about the world therefore – they drive out all trace of curiosity, and it is this fact that gives the trap of anxiety its teeth because just so long as I am not curious about the anxiety that I’m suffering from then I can’t escape it…
Without curiosity, we don’t actually look at our problems, we just automatically react to them. I only have the two options available to me, either I try to grab hold of a particular outcome or I try to avoid a particular outcome and (as we have said) both of these two reactions reinforce and solidify my attachment. I am in this way locked into the trap of attachment because my reaction to the anxiety is only making the anxiety worse. It is my almost total lack of curiosity that is trapping me in this counterproductive pattern of behaviour, and what makes matters worse is the fact that through the escalating feeling of pressure due to the counterproductive effects of my actions I am actually becoming less and less curious all the time! The more pressurized I get, the less curious I get, and the less curious I get, the more I am driven into automatic reacting, and the more I am driven into automatic reacting, the more pressurized I get. This is the escalating spiral of the panic attack, which is fear blindly reacting to itself. Very clearly, once we get caught up in this spiral nothing we do (or think) is going help us because everything we do and think is just reacting to fear.
We could say that the loss of the ‘open-ended’ motivation of curiosity means being restricted to the opposing responses of YES and NO, both of which take for granted the absolute (or ‘unquestionable’) validity of the map of reality which we are using. YES and NO both enact the map (or ‘the rule’); they directly relate to it, which means that I can never go beyond the map (or rule) by reacting either positively or negatively. And these are the only types of reaction that I have! Because my ability to question has gone, I am the helpless slave of whatever assumptions I have jumped to – I am therefore trapped in my ‘picture’ of the world, no matter how narrow or distorted that picture might be. We could also (and equivalently) say that by automatically reacting with either a YES or a NO I have lost all perspective. When I lose perspective I inevitably become a mere ‘reaction machine’ – all I can do is react and react and react, endlessly repeating the same futile pattern of counterproductive avoidance.
If anxiety is fuelled by the closed motivation of attraction and aversion, and the profound lack of curiosity that this entails, then the ‘cure’ for the situation is obviously for me to start getting curious about my anxiety! Curiosity means carefully questioning why I feel so driven to react, to avoid. What exactly is it that I am afraid of? Would it really be so terrible if the feared outcome were to take place? Is the feared outcome worth me putting myself through all this suffering and anguish? Have I ever really looked at why I feel it is so important to prevent the unwanted outcome from taking place? Or is it just that I have got caught up in the current of ‘avoiding’, the current of ‘fighting and struggling’ – so caught up in fact that I no longer question why I am doing it? Is it possible for me to simply see that I have got caught up in a current of avoidance that I am unable to question?
If I take the time to examine my assumptions, I inevitably discover that the reason the fear has got me on the run is because at some crucial point I turned my back on it. At some point or other I stopped being interested in what was going on, I stopped ‘questioning’ and instead put all my energy into blind reacting, put all my energy into ‘running away’ or ‘struggling to control’. This – as we have already indicated – is a classic ‘slippery slope’ because once I start feeding the fear then it grows and grows and grows and so my reacting escalates. The more I react the more I feed the fear! This being the case – as it very clearly is – how am I ever going escape from this cycle? If I am helplessly stuck in reacting (with the annihilation of my natural curiosity which this entails) then how am I going to manage to find it in myself – when in the thick of it all – to ‘get curious’? This sounds like a total impossibility!
Curiosity might sound fine as an idea when we are talking about it now, but experience shows that the concept is guaranteed to fly out the window in next to no time when anxiety strikes. Ideas are no good to me when I’m in the thick of it – they will run away in a flash. Or even if they don’t – the gap between ‘knowing what I should do’ and ‘what I can do’ becomes completely insurmountable. It is a gulf I just cannot jump across – the more I intellectually ‘know’ what to do, it seems, the less able I am to do it. This a wall I cannot jump over because when the pressure is on my curiosity about the world (and myself) deserts. All that is left is pure brute mechanical reacting – which is ‘me obeying the fear’ – and I am powerless to do anything other than go along with it.
The situation might seem impossible, but it isn’t. The obstacle arises because I think that I have to ‘do something different’ – I might think for example that I have to change the way that I am so that I become more curious, so that my curiosity might (as we have been saying) free me from the locked-down situation that I’m in. This won’t work however because – very clearly – my motivation to change myself (or do things differently) is really just my fear in disguise. The only reason I want to change is after all because I believe that doing so might be the solution to my problem. If I am trying to be more curious, then the only reason I am doing this is because I believe that this might free me. The glitch here (which I can’t see at the time, when I am ‘in the thick of it’) is that if my motivation for wanting to be more open, more curious about my situation is fear, then I am actually trying to ‘open up’ (or become curious) as a result of obeying fear, and fear is the very antithesis of curiosity.
This glitch only comes about because I am trying to change myself, or ‘do things differently’. That’s not curiosity at all – that’s running away from where I am! Curiosity isn’t a form of aggression (which is where we try to change things to be the way that we want them to be), but rather it is an ‘opening up’ to the way things actually are. They already are that way – I don’t need to do anything! I’m already in the right place to be curious and so I don’t need to try contrive anything. Insight into the fact that I am glitching myself by trying to change the way that I am is all that I need because as soon as I see this I naturally stop putting all my energy, all my intention, in this direction, and I will be freed up to some extent to ‘take a look around me’ – so to speak – and see what my situation actually is.
So if I am caught up in blind, panic-struck, incurious reacting, then I stay in the present moment, I stay in the ‘here & now’ of that reacting and see that I am reacting in a blind and incurious fashion. My job – as we have said – is not to change the way I am, but simply to see the reality of the way I am. My job is to be there as a witness. I am an unprejudiced, impartial observer, not an enforcer with an axe to grind. I am not there with an agenda, I am just there. When I see myself trapped in a state of mind in which there is virtually no curiosity left to me, I don’t try to change this and force myself to be curious, what I do is see is the lack of curiosity. It’s there, all I have to do is see it! When I see the lack of curiosity, then I realize that this is in itself a very curious situation – I start to get ‘curious about my own lack of curiosity’, in other words. I wouldn’t normally be aware of my own lack of curiosity and so as soon as I start to see it, then this is me ‘opening up’, this is me ‘being curious’.
Seeing is synonymous with curiosity: once I see reality, I am naturally curious about it. No matter how mechanically I am thinking and reacting, I can always see that mechanicalness. No matter how driven and compulsive my situation, I am always free to see that lack of freedom. Openness – we could say – is always bigger than closed-ness, since open can include closed, but closed cannot include open. In other words, I cannot compel myself to be free, but I am free to see how I am being compelled! It works one way around, but not the other. At each and every moment I am free to ‘turn my back on’ what is happening in my desperate rush to distance myself from it, which perpetuates the ‘ignore-ance’ that fuels my anxiety, but I am also free to notice what is happening, and thereby break the cycle of unconsciousness.
When we are afflicted with anxiety, we naturally long to go back to a time in our lives when there was no anxiety. We might say that we want to learn about anxiety, but the reason we want to learn about anxiety is generally because we want to learn how to get rid of it. The motivation to ‘get things back as they were’, which is almost always happens when we are going through protracted mental pain, is a closed motivation, and closed motivation doesn’t cure anxiety. Closed motivation is simply when we ‘don’t want to know’ and ‘don’t want to know that we don’t want to know’. It’s when we ‘don’t want to know’ and will do anything we can to maintain this state of ‘not knowing’. We are not curious about what’s going on, we just want to ditch this unpleasant part of our life, and return as quickly as we can to ‘normality’. Yet if we don’t find it within ourselves to be curious about anxiety (or any other neurotic state of mind) then we’re going to be stuck in our neurotic avoidance on a full-time basis. Neurotic avoiding will be the only thing we know. This means that anxiety (like all neurotic states of mind) is actually a teacher – it can teach us how to return to a state of consciousness in which we are genuinely curious about life, and not merely acting from force of habit, not merely repeating a ‘mechanical pattern’.
The narrow view of anxiety is to say that it is an aberration, an ‘invader’ of our well-being that needs to be ‘cured’ by medication and therapy so that we can ‘get back on track’ with our lives the way we were before it all happened. Before it all went ‘off track’. This isn’t curing however – this is just ‘covering over’. The wider view of anxiety is to see that it is a messenger from our ‘greater well-being’, an opportunity to become more than we were. In the end, difficult and painful experiences such as anxiety demand that we get curious about what is going on, because remaining incurious (which is how our mechanical society teaches us to be) means that we just keep on accruing more and more suffering. Remaining incurious just condemns us to ‘the more of the same’.
The only real ‘cure’ for neurotic distress is to learn to be fully present in ourselves, i.e. to be genuinely curious about our situation rather than just automatically reacting to triggers. This is the only thing that will do it – short-cuts and tricks just won’t work. And if we can learn this then we have learned the only thing that really matters in life!