There is no such thing as a ‘technical fix for anxiety’. There can be on the short term, to be sure, but only at the price of ‘aggravating the original problem and causing it to rebound onus even more painfully in the future’. The so-called ‘technical fix’ isn’t any kind of ‘fix’ at all therefore, it’s only a postponement.
The only thing that can really help with anxiety is gaining perspective, and a gain in perspective doesn’t come about as a result of any technical procedure or methodology that we might engage in! Technical procedures only ever reduce our perspective; the ‘problem-solving approach’ only ever reduces our perspective. The reason for this is nothing if not obvious – by going all-out to ‘fix’ a problem we automatically reaffirm the importance, the centrality, the validity of that problem! We ‘narrow things down’…
Anxiety – we might say – is where problems or issues get ‘blown up out of all proportion’. This might seem like a rather childishly simplistic or ‘non-technical’ way of talking about anxiety (i.e. it may not sound fancy enough for us) but it is all the same an excellent, down-to-earth definition of what it means to be anxious. Things bother us that really oughtn’t to bother us, and not only did they ‘bother’ us and completely disturb our peace of mind, they put us through the ringer. This is no small inconvenience we’re talking about here – if anything that comes into our head is liable to get blown up out of all proportion (and as a result cause us maximum distress) then life very quickly becomes all but impossible. We run into a brick wall.
Saying that things get ‘blown up out of all proportion when we are anxious’ is of course just another way of saying that anxiety comes out of our ‘lack of perspective’. Who could possibly argue with this? And what this means – as we have said – is that they cannot be any such thing as a ‘technical fix’. This ought to be obvious to us but somehow it isn’t – in this excessively rational world of ours we fondly imagine that ‘technical fixes’ are the answer to everything. We fondly imagine that control is the answer to everything, so that if only we can get good enough at controlling (and have the right strategies at hand) then all our problems will be at an end.
When we try to solve something then as we have said this automatically reaffirms whatever problem it is that we are trying to solve as being important, as having the status of ‘needing to be solved’. The issue in question undergoes a shift and becomes ‘absolutely important’ rather than instead of just ‘relatively important’, which is its true status. Fixing immediately narrows our focus, narrows our sense of perspective, and so the anxiety around the issue in question gets aggravated rather than lessened and there is no way that this cannot be the case! This is always, always, always what happens when we try to control.
When we try to fix (or solve) anxiety then we doing the most unhelpful thing we could ever possibly do! Straightaway we are losing perspective – straightaway anxiety is becoming a bigger and bigger issue, straightaway everything is becoming very ‘black-and-white’, which is another way of saying that they are only two possibilities for us – either we ‘fix’ the anxiety (which is that ‘good outcome’) so we fail to fix it (which is the ‘bad outcome’). Black and white thinking lies at the very heart of anxiety, at the very heart of neurosis. Black-and-white thinking actually IS anxiety!
The only thing that helps to ‘loosen the knot of anxiety’ is perspective, and there’s no technical fix for this, as we keep saying. They can’t be a technical fix for the increasing of perspective for the reasons that we have just gone into. The very idea that there could a technical way of increasing perspective is utterly absurd, utterly ridiculous. Perspective is what we get when we aren’t trying to control. We’d have to be suffering from a chronic lack of perspective not to see this! What this term ‘perspective’ means is that we’re not being hemmed in by any biases or prejudices; it means that we have lots of possible different ways of seeing or relating to the world, and as soon as we start thinking in terms of ‘defined outcomes’ and ‘specified ways of obtaining these outcomes’ (i.e. strategies’) then we end up with only the one way of seeing things. We end up with only the one way of seeing the world and this is the ‘black-and-white way’, the polar viewpoint which says there is either ‘winning’ or ‘losing’, ‘getting it right’ or ‘getting it wrong’.
This view of things (which equals ‘the fixing view’ or ‘the controlling view’) is the very epitome of an unfree state of mind, even though we can’t generally see it as such. We don’t see this black-and-white state of mind as being ‘unfree’ (and therefore ‘suffering-producing’) because we are so hypnotised by the prospect of the so-called ‘positive outcome’. We think that if we obtain the positive outcome then everything will be OK. We think that if we can just ‘tick this box’ then we will finally be free, then we will finally be at peace. This is completely and utterly untrue however – this belief is actually what is stopping us from being free, stopping us from being peace. What’s stopping us from being free is our black and white way of seeing the world, and straining after a defined outcome (or goal’) is not going to take us out of our black-and-white thinking! Straining to obtain the goal is only going to aggravate the problem yet further, as we keep saying.
When we try to ‘solve anxiety’ what we really trying to do, unbeknownst to ourselves, is ‘solve life’ and the reason we say this is because ‘life’ (or ‘reality’) is a state of unconditional open-endedness, which is to say, it is ‘the unbounded state in which there are an infinite number of possibilities, none of which have been decided upon yet’. Trying to ‘solve life’ isn’t a good road that to go down, obviously enough – it isn’t a good idea to treat life as ‘a problem that needs to be solved’! ‘Solving life’ means ‘narrowing it down to manageable proportions’; it means restricting it so that there aren’t so many different possibilities in it any more. ‘Solving’ life means closing it down, in other words, and this is what we are constantly trying to do with all our black-and-white thinking, with all our busy-busy goal-orientated activity.
When we reduce life down to ‘only the one possibility’ what we’re actually doing is turning it into something that isn’t life. This is our solution to life’s existential challenge – to hide away in our beliefs, our routines, our narrow way of interacting with the world. This solution – as any psychotherapist will tell you – is no solution at all when it comes down to it; it is no solution at all because instead of actually helping ourselves we are creating extra problems! By ‘running away from openness’ we are actually creating problems that aren’t really there; we are ‘reducing our perspective as a means of making things better for us’ and yet this lack of perspective – as we have said – is the root cause of all our neurosis, the root cause of all our anxiety and existential dread. Closing down life (i.e. ignoring it, or ‘living it only on our terms’!) creates all our problems rather than solving them.
This discussion is all very well, but what we really want to know is how to go about regaining the perspective that we have lost. What can we do to help ourselves when ‘straining for outcomes’ isn’t the answer? The very first thing that we need to know – and understand very clearly – is that ‘methods’ and ‘strategies’ and ‘procedures’ aren’t going to be of any help at all. This is a tremendous thing to understand – we are all so very convinced that controlling is the answer to everything that it takes an awful lot to shake this monumental belief! When we do see this then it naturally happens that we stop investing so very much in control, and this eases our anxiety straightaway. A precious bit of perspective comes back into the picture, like a ray of sunshine falling in a dark cave. We’ve come back to ourselves a bit.
It is the unexamined belief in the power of controlling to fix all our problems that fuels our anxiety – trying to control is ‘adding petrol to the fire in the misguided attempt to put it out’. When our absolute unquestioned allegiance to (or investment in) control as ‘the way to go’ has had a dent put in it then our ‘mechanical reacting’ no longer has the vicious force in it that it used to have. There’s still plenty of force there, there’s still plenty of momentum, but is not the same – the ‘dark spell’ that kept us trapped in this business of ‘blind mechanical reacting’ is now been broken and as a result things can only get better. What helps anxiety is not to compulsively try to fix it (or fix the particular problems that we are worried about) but to ‘practice staying in the present moment’ and this is not a strategy.
There is a ‘simple rule of thumb’ that we can apply here. There are (we might say) only two things that can be going on with us at any point in time – either there is ‘trying to control’ or there is ‘staying in the present moment’. When we ‘try to control’ then we are reaching out for defined goals, defined outcomes, and this is reducing our perspective on things and creating black-and-white (i.e. compulsive) thinking. Our attempts to control engenders anxiety in other words and this is the ‘basic equation’ that we need to remember – “the attempt to control equals anxiety”. There is no controlling involved in staying in the present moment – the present moment has already been obtained, after all! It’s already there! All we need to do is ‘notice what’s happening, no matter what is happening’ and there is no controlling in this. This is called ‘being in the world’ and this no controlling involved in ‘being in the world’! This is the very thing that we keep forgetting. We forget that we don’t need to do anything in order just to ‘be’ and as a result we get caught in the trap of trying to control our own reality.
Anxiety – we might say – arises out of unconsciousness. By ‘unconsciousness’ we mean ‘investing everything in controlling, and thereby turning our backs on the present moment’. Controlling may take us into the future, or it may take us back into the past, but it will never bring it into the present moment! Being conscious, on the other hand, means that we aren’t forever trying to stay in control. ‘Control’ and ‘consciousness’ exist in inverse proportion, therefore, and this is just another way of saying that consciousness is the same thing as perspective. This doesn’t mean that we can’t ever control, or that it somehow ‘wrong’ to seek to control, it just means that we don’t try to control what doesn’t need to be controlled. It means that we don’t try to solve life itself. We are controlling out of awareness, in other words, rather than out of blind reflexive compulsion. We control when it is helpful to do so and we ‘let go’ when it isn’t helpful and we are able to do this because we have a bit of perspective on things. Without perspective the inevitable result is that we try to control all the time; we try to control all the time because we have forgotten that we don’t actually need to! We are ‘slaves to the need to control’ and the need isn’t a real one – it comes out of lack of perspective, lack of awareness. We live in a world where everything is controlling in other words, and this is because we have lost sight of any other world.
It might seem rather ‘over-simplistic’ or ‘inadequate’ to talk about the answer to anxiety being something as nebulous as ‘staying in the present moment’. When we are suffering from anxiety it definitely doesn’t sound concrete enough (or technical enough) to be of any use! No one is telling us things that we need to do, steps that we ought to take. We have not been handed any method or strategy which we can place our trust in. But if someone did give us some concrete method or strategy then they wouldn’t be helping us, they would merely be adding to our suffering, as if there wasn’t enough of it there already.
Our usual approach is to narrow down the field of possibilities until only two possible outcomes exist; we ‘narrow things down’ until it seems to us that only the two possible outcomes exist – ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’, ‘win’ or ‘lose’. All that’s left for us then is to hope that we get the right rather than wrong! Neither of these outcomes are ‘real things’ however – they are simply ‘ideas’, they are ‘over-simplified mental projections of an imaginary future’. Out of our complete lack of perspective we have personalised life into only two things – ‘fixing the problem’ and ‘not fixing it’, ‘getting it right’ and ‘getting it wrong’. If we had our precious perspective back again however we would immediately see that life has got nothing whatsoever to do with fixing problems, we would see that it has nothing to do with ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
The only real thing there ever could be is the ‘wide-open field of undecided possibilities’ that is the present moment. There’s nothing over-simplistic or inadequate about this therefore – what IS over-simplistic is our regular approach to life, which is to try to reduce it into a set of abstract polarities, such as yes and no, win or lose, right and wrong. Staying in the present moment means disengaging from our thinking therefore and this isn’t a strategy because if it were then we would be engaging with our thinking rather than disengaging! When we disengage from our thinking we come back into the world where there is no right and no wrong, no need to control, no need to ‘automatically fix’, and this is a world which isn’t ruled by anxiety. This is the world that exists outside of our thinking.