Making Peace With Anxiety

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond The Paradox Of Purposefulness

Anyone who is seriously trying to come to grips with what is called ‘therapy’ is always going to come up against the same intractable problem. It’s only a matter of time – everyone is going to find themselves – sooner or later – in the same impossible position. There is actually no way around this! Therapy isn’t as simple or straightforward as we think – it isn’t just a matter of ‘following the therapeutic protocols’ or ‘following the prescribed method’. If we think that it is then we’re never going to get anywhere. If we think that it is then we’re being super-naïve…

 

What we come up against is a paradox, and the essential form of this paradox is that we find ourselves trying to ‘let go on purpose’. We know that letting go (or surrendering) is the answer, but the problem is ‘how do we go about doing it?’ There is no way to deliberately ‘let go’ because everything we do deliberately is always ‘done for a reason’ and the whole point of letting go is that we aren’t doing something for a reason. The whole point is that that we aren’t acting in order to obtain some kind of desired outcome. How can we be ‘letting go’ and yet ‘trying to obtain some kind of desired outcome’? ‘Letting go’ is letting go – there are no ‘desired outcomes’ – if they were then it would be controlling that we are looking at here, not ‘getting go’.

 

Instead of talking in terms of ‘letting go’ we could equally well talk about accepting – it’s the same thing. When we ‘accept’ we let go of any idea that we might have of how we would like things to be different. We let go of any idea that we might have of things being different to the way that they actually are. That’s what ‘accepting’ means. Very often we hear of the notion of acceptance in therapy and that’s fine as far as it goes, but the problem comes when there is some sort of implication that we ought to be able to do this on purpose. First we have the idea, and then we put it into practice. ‘Letting go’ or ‘accepting’ is the right thing to do, the smart thing to do, we are given to understand, so we just have to hurry up and accept. That’s what we’re ‘supposed’ to do…

 

This is a joke however because no one in the entire course of human history has ever accepted because it was ‘the right thing to do,’ because we have gone ahead and made the informed decision to do so’. We can’t accept on purpose any more than we can let go on purpose. When we ‘accept’ we always do so because we are trying to obtain something as a result and if we are ‘trying to get something as a result’ then we are in a ‘fundamentally non-accepting’ frame of mind. We’re not accepting the possibility that we won’t get what we’re secretly trying to get as a result of our so-called ‘accepting’.

 

We assume that acceptance is a kind of choice that the thinking mind can make – “I choose to accept”, I say. Choice means preference (or bias) however – one thing we want, the other thing we don’t want. One possibility is good, the other bad. When we talk about acceptance in the psychological (or spiritual) sense of the world what we mean however is going beyond preference, going beyond ‘like and dislike’. How then can choice, which is the same thing as preference, take us beyond itself? How do we imagine that this is ever going to work? How can I ‘choose not to choose,’ because that’s what I’m really trying to do here? I can’t use attachment to free myself from attachment, or use the thinking mind to free me from the thinking mind.

 

Our problem is that we can’t see that there is a big fat paradox there. Most of us – even if we are in therapy, or have been in therapy, for a long time – don’t ever see this. Most therapists won’t ever see this – they will skip blandly over the paradox as if it didn’t exist. How often do we hear in therapy anyone talking about the insurmountable paradox that is inevitably to be found waiting for us when we try to accept on purpose, accept because it’s the right thing to do, or ‘because it’s part of the prescribed therapeutic protocol’? Therapists very rarely talk about paradoxicality. The very existence of the paradox we are talking about makes a complete nonsense of including the notion of acceptance in any psychotherapeutic protocol. ‘Methods’ and ‘paradoxes’ don’t mix! What’s the point of having acceptance as part of ‘what’s supposed to happen’ if there is absolutely no way in which we can go ahead and do it on purpose? And if trying to ‘go ahead and do it on purpose’ has the opposite effect to what we want? What kind of a joke is that?

 

The reason the paradox remains invisible to us is because is simply because we’re too identified with the thinking mind. The one thing the thinking mind can never see is the paradoxicality that is adherent in its very nature and so when we are 100% identified with the instrument of thought (as we almost always are) then any talk of the logical paradox inherent in the structure of thought itself will remain a profound mystery to us, and it’s not a mystery that we’re in the least bit interested in either! When we’re not consciously aware of the paradox inherent in thought then we are doomed to go on ‘unconsciously enacting the paradox’ in just about everything we do. We are bound to keep going around and around in circles forever, in other words.

 

In order to be aware of the paradoxicality inherent in thought (or in purposefulness) we have to be – to some degree – separate from the thinking mind. It can’t be our total or exclusive viewpoint; there has to be some possibility of seeing things in a way that is not conditioned by thought. How do we get to separate our consciousness from the rational mind however? Clearly this is just the same paradox all over again because anything we deliberately do in order to (supposedly) separate us from the thinking mind actually ties us to that mind all the more. If we do anything on purpose, as part of some kind of ‘rational design’, then this reinforces the thinking mind. To use the thinking mind is always to strengthen it, after all! We can’t free ourselves from the instrument of thought (and the suffering that it causes) by using that very same instrument, which is nevertheless what we always try to do.

 

This doesn’t mean that our situation is ‘hopeless’ though – it’s just hopeless if we keep on trying to help ourselves by using the thinking mind! There is – no matter what might think – a process going on the whole time that is acting to separate us from the instrument of thought, and demonstrating to us that we are not this instrument, and this is the process of ‘disillusionment’ (or the process of ‘becoming aware’). Curiously therefore, it’s the suffering-producing activity of the thinking mind which facilitates this process. We might not be directly aware of how using thought to (supposedly) solve of all our problems infallibly results in us being caught up in the jaws of logically paradoxicality, but we get chewed up by these crunching jaws all the same, whether we know what’s going on or not. Paradoxicality with regard to our purposefulness comes down to counterproductivity – we act so as to improve our situation but we improve it instead. We try to escape from discomfort or pain and find comfort or pleasure instead, but things just don’t work out like this. The more we try to be in control of our situation so as to make our lives happier or more peaceful or more secure the more miserably neurotic we become. Cleverness and control never lead us to happiness, and yet we never seem to learn this. It’s as if we are constitutionally unable to learn not to trust the thinking mind in the blind way that we always do trust it – we keep on believing that rational thought can do what it can’t, that it can lead us to freedom and happiness when it never will.

 

Inasmuch as we are 100% orientated towards believing the thinking mind to be ‘an infallible guide in all things’ then we are constitutionally incapable of learning, but as we have said, there is another force at work apart from our blinkered ‘conditioned will’, and that is the force which acts, persistently and patiently, against our will and in the direction of freedom instead, which is the direction the conditioned mind can never take us. We don’t of course feel favourably disposed towards a process that is bigger than us and stronger than us and which takes us in a direction that we very much don’t want to go in. We don’t like it at all, but when we develop enough wisdom and insight to see this process for what it is then this changes our attitude in a crucial way; we will still fight against the ‘helpful’ process of disillusionment on one level, on a ‘reflexive-level’, but at the same time – on a much more profound level of awareness – we will assent to it, we will be ‘at peace’ with it. We are no longer worshipping our conditioned will (or ‘the conditioned mind’) as if it were the most important thing in the world, as if it were the Divine Source of All Wisdom, and it is precisely this ‘demoting of the autocratic thinking mind’ to a subsidiary position that takes us ‘beyond the paradox of purposefulness’.

 

 

Art: St. George and the Dragon by Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1526, Italy)