There are two ways of approaching anxiety – one way is to approach it with a whole bunch of tools and methods and ‘skills’ (which is of course the aggressive way) whilst the other way is with gentleness and tolerance, and no attempted ‘forcing’. The first way involves learning some method that we have to put into action when our anxiety levels rise; the first way involves the tool which we call the rational-purposeful mind, in other words. The second way does not occur via the thinking mind at all, it involves us just being ourselves amidst it all (which is admittedly a lot harder than it sounds). We don’t have to bring in any tools, any gimmicks, any foreign artifacts.
We are not therefore trying to learn some new trick that we didn’t know about – which would be daunting and put us under a strain – but rather we’re learning to bring a part of ourselves into play that we really don’t value very much, or don’t respect particularly. In fairy-tales this corresponds to the motif of the youngest brother who is generally regarded as a bit silly or soft and not really up to much; all the smart money is on the oldest brother who is single-minded and quite ruthless in pursuit of his goals. In the stories it is however the ‘silly’ or ‘soft-hearted’ younger brother who succeeds in the question rather than his hard-headed eldest brother who invariably falls flat on his face. [See for example the Celtic story of The Five Sons of King Eochaid.]
The part of ourselves we value and automatically rely on in a crisis is the ‘older brother’ of the rational-purposeful mind – it’s rather as if we’re walking around with an angle-grinder or a Black & Decker drill the whole time and if any challenging situation arises then this heavy-duty tool is what we use. But when it is anxiety that is challenging us then this heavy-handedness is only making things worse. ‘Using tools’ to further our will is only making things worse. All that aggression (all that ‘fixing-type’ energy) simply gets bounced back at us and feeds right back into the anxiety-cycle. Trying to fix anxiety is not a good thing to get into! What we’re looking at here is a positive-feedback process therefore; anxiety is quintessentially a ‘positive-feedback’ process where we are constantly reacting to our own projections, our own evaluations, our own calculations and expectations.
The whole time that we are alive in this world however we also developing the other side of our nature, whether we realize this or not. We develop this side of our nature just by growing as people, not by learning anything. More often than not, it happens that we develop the gentle, non-judgemental and ‘non-fixing’ aspect of ourselves via our relationships with other people, or perhaps with animals, and so we always have this non-aggressive side of ourselves to call upon. We just need to value this core part of ourselves, and trust it, which is something that society as a whole does not teach us to do. Society teaches us to rely on our ability to manipulate or control situations skilfully and ‘push on ahead regardless’, so to speak. Society teaches us to be competitive, self-assertive and goal-driven, etc, which a way of being in the world that inevitably backfires on us.
The difficulty comes about because when we are challenged we automatically put the rational-purposeful mind in charge which – as we have said – just makes matters worse. This is just like voting a right-wing government into power because we are frightened by some crisis that is going on and some charismatic (or at least half-way charismatic) politician tells us that he knows what to do in order to. He never does of course – that’s just a ruse to get into power. Far-right politicians never make things better – as history shows! Since when did putting a far-right politician in power ever improve the situation? When anxiety comes along there is no quick fix and so the self-assured dictator which is the purposeful mind – with all of its recipes for ‘fixing’ the situation – isn’t the right man for the job. We’ll ‘buy into it’ for sure because that’s what we always do, but it won’t get us anywhere. We buy into it because we’re afraid, and nothing good ever came of that…
The way to change our aggressive attitude to anxiety is to see that the pain and distress we are experiencing is trying to tell us something and that it is not just an ‘error signal’ informing us that something is ‘wrong’ with our brain. If we can take this idea on (even a bit) that is very helpful in itself because our attitude changes by 180 degrees – what works is befriending the anxiety, not turning it into the enemy (even though it very much feels like an enemy). Physical pain serves a function and so does the mental variety – if we just move to ‘squash it’ then we’re not going to learn anything, and if we don’t learn something then we’re not going to change, obviously enough. We’re going to carry on the same. ‘Stopping the pain’ is not good therapy, even though it is of course what we all want.
What ‘befriending anxiety’ comes down to is establishing some sort of relationship with ourselves as we actually ARE (i.e. the ‘anxious us’) and having a relationship is essentially a two-way thing, as we know from interpersonal relationships. If I have a genuine relationship with you then this means that I’m not just ‘telling you what to do’ the whole time, which is what we do with ourselves when we are anxious or depressed. When we are anxious or depressed we tell ourselves do (or think) things in a different way and then when that doesn’t happen (and it doesn’t) then we blame and condemn ourselves (which is still not a relationship). This is very much how we get on with ourselves when are anxious – we don’t have a relationship with ourselves but rather we are pathologically alienated from ourselves. Needless to say, this doesn’t go anywhere – it’s a dead end if ever there was one!
Once we see things like this then it becomes apparent that the key thing is establishing a relationship with ourselves. It’s not just the ‘key thing’, it’s the only thing. The question then becomes, how do I establish a relationship with myself?’ The best way to think about this is – as we have just said – to think about how we form relationships with other people, so we can ask ourselves how we go about doing this. This, of course, turns out to be a very interesting question – what we learn fairly quickly (most of us, anyway) is that there is no ‘magic formula’. We might like for there to be, but there isn’t. People might of course try to sell us a magical formula with regard to forming relationships (for example, ‘How to make friends and influence people’) but that’s only because they’re trying to make money out of us. That’s only because they have spotted a niche and they are moving in to exploit it, not because they have any useful to pass on or genuinely want to help anyone.
What we learn – some of us perhaps quicker than others perhaps – is that there are no shortcuts, that there are no fast ways to get where we want to be. If we try to push for the ‘relationship’ to happen faster (or if we try various tricks and gimmicks to get the desired results) then the other person is probably going to smell a rat very quickly and steer well clear of us. We’ve obviously got some kind of agenda going in this case. And even if our manipulation is successful, which it sometimes is, that just makes us into a ‘successful manipulator’, not ‘someone who is successful in their relationships’! Actually, of course, it doesn’t make sense to talk of someone who is ‘successful in their relationships’. It’s impossible to success to be ‘successful’ in a relationship because we are not trying to achieve anything – if we are not trying to achieve anything how can we be successful? If we were trying to ‘achieve’ or ‘get something out of the relationship’ then there would be no genuine relationship; it would just be a case of us ‘seeking the advantage’ as always. It would be nothing more than a game in other words. A true relationship can only come about when neither party is trying to obtain anything as a result of it.
We can apply exactly this same principle to the business of ‘us trying to cultivate a relationship with ourselves’ – if we are trying to get anything out of this relationship then it’s just not going to happen! Doing it on purpose doesn’t work. Relating honestly (or sincerely) with ourselves is thus both an easy thing and a hard thing at the same time – it’s easy because it’s the most natural thing in the world and, as a result, it ‘happens all by itself’, and it’s hard because there is absolutely nothing we can do to push for it to happen, just because we want it to. There are no methods or instructions for ‘how to establish a relationship with ourselves’; there is no theory or model to tell us how to do this. We can’t do it purposefully; we can’t do it via the agency of the rational-purposeful mind. We can’t do it via the agency of the rational-purposeful mind for the simple reason that this mind never did anything without a reason. If the rational mind does something then there always has to be some sort of goal, some kind of ‘advantage’ that is to be achieved. Thought can never do anything in a non-calculating way because it is – by its very nature – ‘a calculation’!
There’s no getting away from the fact that ‘not being aggressive’ presents a major difficulty for us, for the reasons that we have all ready gone into. When we are under pressure, when we being challenged in a significant way, then we automatically turn to the thinking mind for help; not turning to the ‘reflex mind‘ for help goes very much against the grain with regard to how we have been coping with difficulty all of our life. It doesn’t come naturally to us. This is a very different type of difficulty from the difficulty of having to learn some ‘artificial method’ and put it into practice however. [And all methods are ‘artificial’ when it comes to mental health – if we have to go around using methods to feel okay the whole time then this can’t be very mentally healthy, after all!] It’s not something foreign to us we have to learn after all – we are simply relearning to be ‘the whole of ourselves’, after having forgotten what this feels like, or rather, after forgetting that there even is such a thing as the whole of ourselves. So although it might seem like an impossible task to come back to the whole of ourselves once we have been trapped in the narrow realm of thought, it is at the same time a perfectly natural process. There is no process that is more natural than this.
Perfectly natural processes don’t have to be forced as artificial ones do; in fact the whole difficulty lies in getting out of the habit of forcing everything to be the way that we think it ought to be. There is a place for ‘forcing things to be the way that we think they ought to be’ – that’s just another way of talking about purposeful action, after all – but it most certainly does not apply to mental health. Mental health means – if it means anything – that we are ‘whole and not fragmented’ and there is no way that the part or fragment which is the rational mind can get us to be whole via its purposeful or calculated behaviour! It doesn’t want to anyway – what the thinking mind wants to do is to extend its rule as far as possible in all directions. What the thinking mind always wants to do is be ‘the boss of everything’ – it’s all ‘in a good cause’ of course but, but this is what it wants. It doesn’t trust in anything else; it neither trusts nor believes in anything else. The trouble is that the very great tendency of the TM to run things its own way, no matter how narrow that way might be, isn’t ‘in a good cause at all’ – it’s only ‘in its own cause’. It’s only in the cause of what it – quite honestly but also quite deludedly – ‘understands to be a good cause’. The TM always thinks it knows best, in other words.
It is easier to explain things this way than merely talking about ‘observing yourself’ or ‘not judging yourself’ because that can sound rather clinical if it is not put across carefully. It also sounds like something we can do on purpose, which is very far from being the case. We all instinctively realize the helpfulness and healthiness of having a two-way relationship and having a relationship with ourselves is the very opposite of trying to control or fix ourselves. We are actually being interested in ourselves in this case, we’re interested in being ourselves, even though the way we are is painful and doesn’t feel at all right to us. But if we can respect (in some small way) the overall healthiness of the process (i.e. if we make peace to some degree with the unwanted pain and distress of the neurotic symptomology) that straightaway changes our attitude so that we do become interested.
Even if we are only a little bit open to seeing the process as being ‘healthy’ (i.e. not seeing ourselves as ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ or ‘broken’) that means that we’re not fighting against ourselves in the total way that we were before. We will still fight against ourselves because that’s our reflex, but we won’t be buying into what we’re doing so much and it is this ‘disidentification’ with thought that changes – by ‘non-violent’ means – the balance of power between us and the tyrant of thought. Thought then becomes something useful, in this case. This might be said to be the ‘esoteric’ meaning of Exodus 4:3:
And the LORD asked him, “What is that in your hand?” “A staff,” he replied. “Throw it on the ground,” said the Lord. So Moses threw it on the ground, and it became a snake, and he ran from it. “Stretch out your hand and grab it by the tail,” the LORD said to Moses, who reached out his hand and caught the snake, and it turned back into a staff in his hand.…
A snake or a dragon is a very familiar way of referring to the thinking mind or ‘lower self’ (see ‘Rumi’s dragon’) – when it rules the roost then it is a terrible monster indeed and no one can stand against it – it will devour everything in sight. When it is in its proper place however then it is immediately transformed back into the staff of righteousness…