The Formulaic Approach To Anxiety

There is a huge amount of misinformation and obfuscation about anxiety going around – the self-help section in any bookstore in town is pretty much guaranteed to be full of it. All of our approaches to anxiety suffer from the fault of being far too superficial; they suffer from the fault of being ‘superficial to the point of being entirely useless’ – and this is a rather curious thing. Why do we feel compelled to treat anxiety in this way? Why can’t we just be straight-up about it when this would obviously be ‘the helpful thing to do’? Why are we always so damn trivial when it comes to ‘the psychology of anxiety’? Søren Kierkegaard, writing over a hundred and fifty years ago, was able to take a ‘non-trivial approach’ to anxiety, so why can’t we? What’s wrong with us?

 

The ‘misinformation’ or ‘obfuscation’ that we’re talking about here comes down to the idea that if we are anxious and we do ‘X’ – whatever the hell ‘X’ might be (and it could be anything at all) – then this will help us. We are given the idea (in a very authoritative way) that there is a formula that can be used to free us from anxiety and although the formula in question may vary from authority to authority (as is usually the way) the idea that there is, or should be, a formula is constant. We are always being told that there is a formula, that there is ‘a thing that we can do’ or ‘ a method we can follow’. This is ‘misinformation’ because it’s simply not true – anything we deliberately do in order to ‘free ourselves from the anxiety’ is the anxiety, and if we can’t see this then we can’t see anything!

 

There is a very good reason why – culturally speaking – we seem to be so insistent on spreading this facile ‘formulaic approach’ to anxiety and that reason has to do with what Alan Watts calls ‘the taboo against knowing who you are’. The idea that there is a societal taboo against knowing who we are sounds very strange to us – we all go around after all constantly saying who we are, making confident and definite statements about our identity. Aren’t we just delighted with all the labels that we have accumulated saying ‘who we are’? Isn’t that what life seems to be all about – proudly saying who we are, and what we are all about?

 

All of that takes place in our public life, however – this kind of ‘identity-affirming’ stuff is no good at all when we are thrown back on ourselves and have to relate to what’s really going on with us. Labels and designations aren’t going to provide any satisfaction or validation here, obviously. So straightaway we can see that there are two domains here – there is the domain of public life which is the theatrical world of how we are seen and how we want to be seen and there is the inner world that is not on display for everybody else and which is not a ‘mere societal construct’. The taboo that we are talking about is the taboo about against knowing anything about this inner world therefore. It’s not just the case that this is something that we know we mustn’t bring up in polite conversation, but rather it is a world that we are not supposed to give any credence to at all. It doesn’t take too much in the way of philosophical reflection or introspection to see that we live in a world that is very much all about ‘the outside’ and not at all about ‘the inside’. Who could possibly deny this? One would have to be very foolish indeed to say that this isn’t the case!

 

Our everyday life is therefore dedicated to the ‘outer man’ or the ‘outer woman’ – this is unquestionably what our culture celebrates, to the complete exclusion of any other more profound type of life! We celebrate ‘the generic life’ (which is the life that ‘doesn’t really belong to anyone’) when it comes right down to it. It doesn’t belong to us and so whatever we do or don’t do is of no consequence outside of this theatrical realm. It’s all pure time-wasting, in other words! It’s ‘time-wasting’ because it’s not about what matters to us as the individuals we are, but rather it’s about those concerns and interests that are foisted upon us by the ‘overvalent generic mind’, if we can put it like that. The ‘overvalent generic mind’ puts thoughts into our heads a thousand times a day and we then think that these thoughts are ours, and if this isn’t ‘time wasting’ then what is? We have become ‘the tool of thought’ rather than vice versa. The ‘outer life’ is that so-called life which intrudes upon us from morning to night and which is basically selling us issues to ‘take seriously’, issues ‘to worry about’ that are actually completely and utterly spurious. In our normal state of being we are unable to spot these thoughts for what they are and as a consequence we spend most of our waking hours being preoccupied by them, one way or another.

 

In psychiatry we talk about ‘intrusive thoughts’ – which are distressing thoughts or ideas that burst in on us – and it could be said that all of our everyday thoughts are like this, albeit to a lesser degree. It could be said that our whole culture (the ‘positive’ or ‘defined’ world that we have built up around ourselves) is like this – it is ‘extrinsically originated’, forceful, brash and entirely ‘lacking in soul’. It’s all appearance with no content, action with no poetry, mechanical motivation or impetus with nowhere real to go to. This is the world of the glossy image with nothing behind it, the world of the pretence that has long since left reality far behind! To understand this is to understand something very important about anxiety: anxiety, on an essential level, has to do with defending an image of ourselves, defending a ‘role’ we are playing but which we don’t know ourselves to be playing, rather than defending or securing who we are behind all that. We don’t know who we are behind the role or act – all of our awareness is hooked onto the coat-hanger which is the rational mind’s concrete version of us.

 

When we allow ourselves to be defined – and therefore ‘narrowed down’ – by the profoundly unpoetical rational mind (which is the same thing as allowing ourselves to be defined and ‘narrowed down’ by society, society being an extension of that mind) then we gain in terms of how certain (or ‘solid’) we feel our existence to be, but we lose in terms of how real we feel. Instead of real we feel ‘solid’, and this is the trade-off that we are making. As a result of making the trade-off ‘solid/definite/concrete’ substitutes itself for real, which thus comes to mean the same thing to us, even though it isn’t at all. Solid/definite/concrete is not the same as ‘real’ because none of these terms have any application whatsoever to reality. Reality as it is in itself becomes unknown to us therefore and we trade on ‘concreteness’ instead, trying to squeeze whatever good we can out of it.

 

This is where the problem lies however because – ultimately – we can’t squeeze any good out of the concrete because there is no good in it to be squeezed out! There’s nothing there at all actually, either ‘good’ or otherwise. There’s nothing in an image, nothing in an act, obviously. That’s why an image is called ‘an image’, that’s why an act is called ‘an act’. What we do get out of the concrete surrogate for reality is (of course) ‘a sense of ontological security’. This sense of security substitutes for reality, in other words, even though there is no such thing as ‘security’ in the real world. What we’re doing comes down to a trick therefore – we get intense reassurance from the ‘concrete representation of reality’ and we like that a lot (obviously) but the other side of the coin is the ‘negative reassurance’ that occurs when we find ourselves face-to-face with a concrete representation of reality that we don’t like. It cuts both ways, in other words. It’s impossible to obtain the good feeling that we like from the concrete representation of reality without at the same time putting ourselves directly in line with a corresponding bad feeling that we don’t like which can just as easily be supplied for us by the conceptual mind. ‘Definite’ always comes in two flavours, we could say – either positive or negative, either ‘definitely like’ or ‘definitely don’t like’, and it can’t come as one without also coming the other. This is abundantly clear once we take the trouble to reflect on the matter.

 

So the first thing we can see from all this is that opting for the security of the concrete representation of reality that the thinking mind provides us with sets us up for an endless sequence of up-and-down, pleasure and pain, hope and fear. We go ‘up’ only to be taken ‘down’ again later on and yet we see ‘up’ as being the best thing ever! We see ‘up’ as the best thing ever, but really it’s just ‘down’ in disguise. Another way of expressing this is simply to say that ‘attachment brings suffering’ which is a very familiar formula to any student of Buddhism or Vedanta. If we look deeper into what is going on here we can also gain an important insight into how anxiety arises. We don’t just have the euphoria/dysphoria cycle to contend with in unconscious living, we also have fundamental anxiety! One way to look at anxiety is to say – as we did earlier on – that it comes about as a result of us defending the image or idea of ourselves. Although the image is very definite (and therefore reassuring for us in an ‘ontological-security sense’) it is at the same time entirely hollow, entirely lacking in any actual reality. Although we can’t directly see this (we can’t see it because we are, as we have said, taking ‘definite/concrete’ as an indication of the presence of reality) we nevertheless have an indirect awareness of this disconcerting lack of reality, this disconcerting lack of any genuine basis, and this indirect awareness is what we call ‘ontological insecurity’.

 

In the normal run of things we don’t perceive ontological insecurity as being what it actually is (i.e. we don’t perceive it as a ‘grasping for a type of reassurance that just doesn’t exist in the world’); we don’t perceive this at all but rather we perceive it ourselves to be ‘striving positively after legitimate values in life’. So, is to give a very simplistic example, we could build a seven foot wall all around the house because we feel that there is an actual danger out there rather than because we feel inherently unsafe in ourselves. Being orientated to concrete goals appears to be meaningful stance to us not because of our insecurity or uncertainty about life in general, but because of some supposed ‘positive value’ that exists in the goals themselves. When we displace our insecurity effectively then the anxiety inherent in our situation will not show itself; as long as we can ‘trick ourselves effectively’ via this displacement mechanism we will not feel anxious, in other words. The thing about self-deception however is that when any awareness at all does start to come back into the picture (which it is bound to sooner or later) then we will start to feel ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘unsettled’ in a very particular way, we will start or feel uncomfortable and unsettled in that ‘very particular way’ that we call anxiety.

 

When we are anxious and we try to solve anxiety by carrying out some action (no matter what that action might be) then the essential nature of what we are doing is in no way different from what we do when we engage in everyday unconscious displacement activity – we’re ‘trying to get away from what we are afraid of’ in both cases! The only difference is that in the second case (which is where we try to ‘manage’ our anxiety) then we know that we are anxious but at the saying time we are still legitimizing our activity by saying that we are ‘doing something positive’, so to speak. We are not running away from something that we are afraid of; we are on the contrary striving to fix a problem that needs to be fixed. The thing about this however – as we have just said – is that there is no essential difference in what we doing. We are only imagining that there is a difference! If it was the case that it were possible for is to ‘do something’ (i.e. for us to purposefully enact some specific type of behaviour’) that would reduce our levels of anxiety in a long-term way, then what we are doing would of course be ‘entirely legitimate and above board’. It would be legitimate in this case but the only thing is that there no way that ‘doing something to get rid of the anxiety’ is ever going to bring about the result that we are looking for! Just as ‘running away from the fear is the fear’, so too is ‘trying to overcome the fear’ nothing but that same fear.

 

The only ‘legitimate’ stance we can take with regard to fear is no stance, just as the only legitimate (or ‘helpful’) response we can make to anxiety is not to make a response. If we do make a response then no matter what tour responses is it will be the response of the narrow, fragmented sense of self that we think we are, and since it is this narrow, fragmented (or concrete) sense of self that is at the root of our anxiety, doing this is not going to help us any! To act on behalf of an illusory, suffering-producing ‘concrete image of the self’ is to perpetuate that self, and not only is it perpetuating this self, it is of course also perpetuating the suffering that comes with it. All that is needed for us to grasp this is to understand that we are not at all we think we are, and that it is possible to be absolutely convinced that we are this concrete sense of identity, and yet for this not to be true at all! This very simple insight is all that’s needed for us to be free from anxiety!

 

Of course, this ‘simple little thing’ that we need to grasp just happens to be the most unlikely thing that we are ever going to see. People can understand all sorts of intellectually challenging stuff, but even the smartest professor in town won’t understand this. The man or woman with the highest IQ in the whole country won’t understand this point! Yet even though there is an intellectual element to this awareness (which can be discussed and analyzed by the thinking mind) – what we’re talking about here is a very practical, down-to-earth thing rather than any sort of high-flown ‘attainment’. When we say that someone is ‘kindhearted’ or ‘generous’ or unselfish’ (or whatever word we might want to use) this obviously isn’t something that happens as a result of a particular intellectual understanding that they have developed about themselves or the world. It comes about, on the contrary, as a result of their actual genuine nature showing itself. It’s a natural as a tree putting out leaves. This is what in Buddhism is sometimes called ‘the good mind’ – the good mind being the mind which is naturally concerned with the well-being of others rather than being exclusively concerned with its own advantage.

 

This almost inevitably sounds like an issue of morality, which in turn automatically jinxes it for us. We are so used to being bombarded with messages that tell us to be good and not bad, unselfish rather than selfish, kind not mean, patient not cross, virtuous and not sinful, and so on, that we have become completely numb to it. We switch off when we hear it. The problem arises – as P. D. Ouspensky says somewhere – in the fact that we are never told how we might go about following these lofty moral instructions. Our ‘moral development’, so to speak (and this seems to be particularly true in the Christian world) consists of us being given rules and then being put under pressure to obey them. ‘Successful obeying of the rules’ is what is needed if we are to satisfy the overarching moral code. This is a complete jinxes us however because – as we have already indicated – the narrow or concrete sense of identity cannot become ‘wider’ or ‘more inclusive’ as a result of following rules or procedures. Anything we do on the behalf of the ‘fragmentary-or-isolated self’ perpetuates that self. We cannot ‘redeem ourselves’ as a result of our own willed actions, no matter how hard we push ourselves.

 

Anxiety is in inevitable corollary of living life on the basis of the concrete identity which is ‘the act we put on without knowing that we are’. We’re trying to prove a point that can’t be proved; we’re trying to say that we are what we aren’t! Because of the ‘switchover’ that has taken place when we accepted the rational mind’s dubious offer of ‘ontological security at any price’, ‘certainty’ is seen as being synonymous with reality itself (as we have said) and so we are effectively ‘wedded to certainty’. Being ‘wedded (or addicted) to certainty’ means that we are ‘trapped in the vibration,’ it means that we going to be going up-and-down, up-and-down (with respect to the perceived well-being of the concrete self) forever. It also means that at the very heart of things (at the very heart of ‘he unconscious life’ there is always going to be this terrible anxiety – the anxiety that comes from saying that ‘the unreal is real’ and basing the whole of our lives upon this flagrant inversion of the truth. The concrete sense of self, for all its ‘obviousness’, is a castle built in the clouds, and there’s no way that we can inhabit it in the firm belief that it is built upon solid ground, without incurring anxiety. Anxiety is simply ‘the truth that we are repressing’ coming back at us in a very disturbing way. We absolutely can’t control or rationalise our way out of this predicament, there is no ‘logical exit route’ out of the trap. There’s more to us than mere logic however, and when we tap in to the ‘Wider Reality’, into ‘the reality has not been produced by the conceptual mind’ (which we never have much interest in), then we find something there can help us in an entirely illogical (or ‘irrational’) way!

 

 

Image – free images on pixabay.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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