Anxiety is never about what it appears to be about – this is fairly obvious since what we are anxious about doesn’t generally warrant the worry that it is evoking in us. If the situation that we are anxious about did warrant the degree of concern that we are feeling then this wouldn’t be anxiety – it would an appropriate, healthy response to a difficult situation.
So the whole point about anxiety is that it is a disproportionate reaction to what is going on; we all know this – as anxiety sufferers we know this only too well – but the thing is that it just doesn’t help us to know this! It actually makes us feel worse not better, obviously enough…
This shows us that the anxiety isn’t really what the anxiety itself tells us it is about. There is a displacement going on, which means that we are seeing something ‘in the wrong place’. The anxiety really belongs somewhere else and what this means is that we’re wasting our time when we allow our attention to be ‘diverted’ in the way that it is. We’re simply chasing red-herrings and that’s not going to get us anywhere!
If I’ve lost something in one place there’s no point in looking for it somewhere else, after all! That’s definitely a bad road to go down. The helpful thing is to use the anxiety as a cue to draw our attention to the fact that there is a displacement going on here – when we feel anxious about something then straightaway we realize that there is this displacement occurring, therefore. To be aware of this is helpful because we are now in a better position to feel the feeling where it belongs instead of where it doesn’t belong. When we know we looking for what we’ve lost in the wrong place then this is very useful information – it’s useful information because it frees us up from the thankless (and pointless task of ‘looking for what we’ve lost in the wrong place’…
This isn’t a method for working with anxiety because it’s not setting out guidelines as to what we should ‘do’. What it is however is a way of using anxiety as a cue to remind ourselves that we are getting our attention tied up with red herrings so when we receive this cue or reminder we can stop ‘going down the wrong road’. The cue does nothing more than ‘bring about awareness’, and it is awareness that we need because anxiety works by hoovering up our awareness! The awareness that we are being ‘misdirected’ is itself all that it takes to bring us back to ourselves so there is no question of having to follow any kind of a method, or utilize any kind of a strategy, which are mechanical responses that can only bring about more anxiety.
When we receive the cue that reminds us that we are having our attention misdirected then we have our attention back again, so to speak, and so all we need to do is to ‘come back to ourselves’ (or ‘check in with ourselves’) to see what is really going on with us. The anxious mind always points our attention away from us (like a person throwing a stick for a dog to run after and bring back) we are usually more than happy to oblige by chasing after the stick as fast as we can! As the Tibetan sage Milarepa says –
When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick: every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.
When Milarepa advises us to be like a lion rather than a dog running after sticks the whole time what he is suggesting is that we ‘come back to ourselves’ rather than looking outside of ourselves. It is important to realize that ‘coming back to ourselves’ isn’t a method – there is no method to come back to ourselves, there is no way this can be achieved via some sort of tactic or strategy. Methods can be used to distract ourselves, it is true (and as a culture we have developed a huge arsenal of them) but there’s no method for un-distracting ourselves! All that’s needed for un-distracting ourselves is awareness – when we are aware that we are distracted then we are straightaway un-distracted. No ‘doing’ is needed – or as the Buddhist teachings say “There is no need for expedient means”.
This is of course the very same principle we come across in meditation; when we are practicing meditation we don’t force ourselves to ‘come back to the present moment’ – if we did that then we wouldn’t be meditating! Instead, we notice that we have drifted away from the present moment and as soon as we notice this we are straightaway back in the present. It’s the awareness that does it, not forcing or effort or will-power. As soon as we notice that we’re ‘away’ we’re back ‘home’ again! The moment we see that we thinking then we’re not thinking – we’re observing that we’re thinking and that is awareness.
When we are using anxiety as a cue we’re not coming back to our breathing however (which is a specific focus), we’re coming back to noticing ‘how we are in ourselves’, which is an open-ended sort of a thing. Another way of putting this is to say that we’re noticing how we are feeling – we’re tuning in to the deeper emotional core of ourselves, even if only momentarily. We started off by saying that when we anxious our attention is being distracted away from where the issue really is. The anxiety is a dodge, in other words. It’s an automatic avoidance mechanism. The question is therefore, “What are we dodging?”
The simplest way to answer this is probably just to say that are dodging ourselves. Anxiety – we might say – is the thinking mind’s ‘last-ditch attempt’ to distract our attention from the place that we don’t want it to go! Instead of being ‘with ourselves’ thought is sending us off on endless wild goose chases, and who can deny that this is what anxiety comes down to? Even if we do solve the problem that is troubling us a dozen other problems will pop up more or less immediately and if we don’t solve it (as is very likely) then we are going to be worrying over it endlessly in the forlorn attempt to solve it. Perhaps if you go over it a thousand times it will somehow come right, thought says. What else can it say after all – it has no other tricks up its sleeve, only thinking, thinking, and more thinking. It’s only got the one product and so it will keep on trying to sell it to us…
In essence anxiety is the attempt to solve an insoluble problem and that is why we can never get to the end of it, that’s why we can never cure anxiety with thinking – anxiety just feeds on itself then. We could say therefore that all the worries that crop up for us are ‘surrogates for something else’ and so the real question is ‘what is it a surrogate for?’ An existential philosopher would say that we are running from the pure irreducible uncertainty of life; this is an ‘insoluble problem’ – obviously enough – because there is nothing that we can do about the irreducible uncertainty of life. It’s irreducible, after all – that’s the whole point!
The fact that life is irreducibly uncertain isn’t actually a problem, however, – being uncertain is what makes life life! Saying that ‘life is uncertain’ is just another way of saying that it is always unfolding in an unpredictable way – ‘unfolding in an unpredictable way’ is what makes life life. What other type of unfolding is there, anyway! The new unfolds, day by day and moment by moment, and this is what life (or reality) is all about – obviously enough! Why would we be so afraid of the ‘unfolding of the new’ when the unfolding of the new is the very essence of life itself though? What – we may ask – is the big problem here?
‘The unfolding of the new’ doesn’t sound so dreadfully bad after all – it actually sounds rather marvellous. The ‘old’, on the other hand, rapidly becomes very tiresome if not to say oppressive, as we all know very well. Who doesn’t know this? It’s one of those basic things that we learn that we learn in life. Even if it’s not something we can always put in practice we all nevertheless know that it isn’t healthy to be forever holding onto the old, or holding onto the past. We are – generally speaking – perfectly aware of that…
One way to explain why we so very easily become ‘afraid of the new’ (or ‘afraid of what we can’t control’, which is the same thing) is to say that we become so used to our ‘defensive position’ that it become the whole world to us. It’s all we know and we trust it because has always protected us in the past (or so it seems). We trust it because we know nothing else. This isn’t to say that our protective posture (or ‘protective mechanism’) hasn’t protected us in the past – quite possibly it has done. The thing is thought that when the protective posture ‘becomes the whole world to us’ then we always end up in the situation where what we are defending ourselves against is life itself and this – of course – is a terrible dead-end.
We’re trapped in a terribly difficult situation when what we’re defending ourselves against is life itself. It’s not just a ‘difficult’ situation, it’s an impossible one. It’s an impossible situation because life is all there is and if life is all there is then how can we defend ourselves against it? When we identify totally with our defensive position then this is the very same thing as ‘being institutionalized’ – we’re utterly dependent on the structure that imprisons us and so we will defend it to the end. To lose it seems like the worst thing in the world, even though of course it isn’t. It’s not doing us any good any more so how can it be such a terrible thing to lose it?
The insight that it is a healthy thing to relinquish our defensive position doesn’t mean that we can just go right ahead and ‘let go’ (just because this is the helpful thing to do). We could go right ahead and let go if we were free to do so but the whole point is that we aren’t. We’re caught up in the logic of a long established defensive reflex, after all. This defensive reflex has become our only way of seeing the world, our only way of understanding the world. We’re going against the grain; we’re going against what seems to be our own better judgement. We’re rebelling against ‘who we are’, so it seems. The point is however that it isn’t who we really are and this insight is the key to everything. We’re not really this tense and frightened ‘defensive posture’ – we’re always more than a posture, no matter what type of posture that might be. Obviously, we’re more than just ‘a posture’!
To talk about ‘letting go’ in connection with anxiety is facile in the extreme – there is no way that we can let go as an act of will. We can only let go when we let go of all ideas of letting go (which means that it isn’t ‘us’ letting go at all). We can’t intend to let go because ‘intending’ is holding on to a goal; we can’t let go on purpose because a purpose is a goal and – as we have just said – goals are only goals because we are hang onto them. What we can do however is use the anxiety as a reminder to check in with ourselves. We’re not checking in with ourselves as a way of getting rid of the anxiety (much as we’d like to get rid of it); that would be an act of aggression and aggression feeds anxiety rather than getting rid of it. When we turn our backs on the reality of our situation and fixate our attention on ‘surrogate problems’ and try to fix them then this is aggression. The aggression is born of the pure desperation that comes from trying to do an impossible thing. Our aggression is the inevitable ‘waste-product’ of our attempt to safeguard the shaky belief that we have in our illusory ‘fixing’. So instead of being aggressive towards our anxiety or being fearful of it (which results in ‘the aggression of running away’), we appreciate its role in reminding us to come back to ourselves. We appreciate it (in a natural or genuine way!) because the truth is that we wouldn’t remember to come back to ourselves otherwise. The pain of anxiety reminds us. We are now seeing anxiety as a ‘help rather than a hindrance’ therefore and this means that we’re not being aggressive. We’re just noticing ‘how we are’, that’s all, and that is a peaceful act rather than a violent one! Learning not to be aggressive may not sound like very much but it’s the most useful thing we could ever learn – learning not to be aggressive is actually the key to everything…