What I’ve Learned About Anxiety – A Winter Meditation

I’m taking a break from my series on ‘Objectification’.

As I write this, a powerful snow storm is pummeling the Northeast. A “Bomb Cyclone” by the name of Grayson, more fitting a pretentious British aristocrat than a winter hurricane.

In its wake, ‘Lord Grayson’ brings what looks like fast-falling white rain with wind gusts blowing snow from the eave of the porch in curling dust sheets and sheer clouds of sifted flour, covering with fresh powder all the tracks left on the back lawn by the residents of the surrounding wilderness – deer, rabbit, raccoon. If only it were that easy to erase man’s careless footprints…our mistakes.

This time, for once, I am hoping the Weatherman gets it right: that we do lose power and that the roads become unnavigable. I get a thrill when Mother Nature pinches our ears, reminding us who’s in charge and setting us right. She did it with record fury last year, and, I suspect, has greater calamities in store for us under her apron. Fed-up of being abused, she is turning on a dime from ‘Great Nurturer’ to ‘Great Devourer’.

Larger flakes fall. Stepping out feels like walking into a giant snowglobe. I carry a heavy load of firewood into the house just in case; a roaring fire already crackling inside the fireplace; my third cup of coffee by my laptop. I’m settling in, or hunkering down, to write this to you.

The world, for a day, might stop. No cars, emails, phone calls, blaring screens…no noise. If the snowfall tapers before dusk, I will enter the forest and nurture myself from its sepulchral stillness, suckle from its dreamlike quietude. Another thing to add to the endangered list: Silence, now mostly found only inside cathedrals or wood paneled libraries, in the ocean deep, or far in the fathomless universe…a blessed hush, capable of soothing our anxieties like a steaming bowl of your grandmother’s special soup.

Anxiety…I suffer from it, but it doesn’t assail me with a sudden, frantic, hyperventilating force. It’s more like an ever-present, throbbing toothache. What causes it? I wonder, as I read Theo’s introduction to Chapter 8 that begins right after he turned-down his last opportunity for employment:

“I feel like Wile E. Coyote, unwittingly having ran past the edge of a precipice while chasing the elusive Road Runner, and suddenly realizing that there is no solid ground under my free-floating feet. I no longer stand on the edge of the abyss, but have jumped, and must now quickly flap my wings to prevent a free-fall and crash. But I have no wings to flap, and even if I did, I wonder if it’s the flapping that must stop; the compulsive urge to propel oneself; the need to feel one is getting somewhere despite not knowing exactly where that is. Why not surrender to the wind, as novelist Toni Morrison suggests, and just ride it? More than fear, it is anxiety’s implacable hands which have me in their grip, squeezing my entrails almost to the point of suffocation. Yet, despite the uneasiness and uncertainty, I don’t remember having felt this alive.

Theo’s renewed sense of aliveness tells me that there is a good kind of anxiety, one described by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as “the dizzying effect of freedom”. Theo is leaving the familiar world to enter one of endless possibilities; a kind of existential paradox of choice. Hence the anxiety.

“Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self, as well as creating in all the innumerable daily activities — one has anxiety,” wrote Rollo May in ‘The Meaning of Anxiety’, adding that “creating, actualizing one’s possibilities, always involves negative as well as positive aspects. It always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself, progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on, and creating new and original forms and ways of living.”

Theo wrote about this in his first letter to his crew.

But then, there is a different type of anxiety: an obsession with an uncertain future. A “wakeful anguish”, as poet John Keats called it.

I am prone to making dire predictions, with a worse track record than 16th Century French apothecary Nostradamus. Countless ones can be found within the 1500 pages of my journal that never came to pass, except for “I’m getting old”, which is not much of a prediction, is it? I couldn’t get a job palm reading at a country fair, much less be accepted into the world of gypsies.

What’s going to happen?, or more accurately, What’s going to happen to me? is anxiety’s quiet whisper, wrote Lisa Miller in her article ‘Listening to Xanax’.

Prescriptions for benzodiazepines, or ‘Benzos’, like Xanax, have more than tripled in the last 20 years to 94 million. They are the “greatest things since Post Toasties” said Stephen Stahl, chairman of the Neuroscience Education Institute in Carlsbad, California.

We have entered the Age of Anxiety.

‘Benzos’ suppress the output of neurotransmitters that interpret fear – an evolutionary adaptation. If our hunter-gatherer forebears would’ve taken Xanax before heading to work, we wouldn’t be here. Just imagine this scenario: “Hey! Let’s pet that cute Saber-Toothed Tiger.” “Yeah, cool, let’s do it!” Get the drift?

But we no longer face just simple-fanged threats, ones over which we have a clear choice to fight or flight. Today, we are besieged by situational anxiety from multiple threats that are everywhere and nowhere at once; many global in scale and seemingly abstract, e.g., the growing intensity and destructiveness of weather events, mass-extinctions, coral bleaching, icebergs calving, trucks ramming pedestrians on sidewalks, or cyberwarfare. While another form of denial, I cannot help but feel paralyzed and often guilty of choosing to no longer read the dire reports.

What to do, besides popping a chill-pill; a “I don’t give a damn pill”; a “Special Kiss from Mommy” as Miller called Xanax?

Ironically, anxiety researchers are beginning to circle back to a practice that is 2500 years old: “Mindfulness”; now a $1.1 Billion industry in the U.S. (Buddha should have patented that one). In a nutshell, mindfulness is the process of bringing one’s attention to what’s occurring in the present moment.

In his 1950’s book, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, philosopher Alan Watts, perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eastern disciplines for the contemporary West, said the future is an abstraction, a rational inference from experience which exists only in the brain.

“The primary consciousness, the basic mind, which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future.” – Watts.

It’s unlikely that the primary brains of the shivering animals outside are looking ahead at, and planning for tomorrow’s predicted sunshine.

Think about it. The future is just another story we humans tell ourselves, one that emerged, I guess, when we became conscious of the passage of time and our mortality; when we realized that things change.

“The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating, and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two.” – Watts

But there is a contradiction, Watts warned, in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. “If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet, it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. Running away from fear is fear. Wanting to get out of the pain is the pain.

The only way out, it seems, is not out at all, but in, much like the practice of judo: you master a force by giving into it.

It is still snowing after more than five hours, and as I look out the window, I can feel the strain of the rigid branches of the pines from the weight of the accumulating drifts. If it gets any colder, and the wind intensifies, they might snap. In contrast, I imagine the supple willow by the nearby river; it’s springy boughs gently yielding, giving in to the force, dropping the snow, and bouncing back again. Like a dance.

How to become a Willow?

To understand joy or fear, Watts suggests, you must be wholly and undividedly aware of it (mindfulness). So long as you are calling it names and saying: “I am happy,” or “I am afraid,” you are not being aware of it. Understanding them requires a single and undivided mind.

“If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” Matthew 6:22

The second thing to do is stop living in the abstraction we call the future. I know it’s hard, but I’ve discovered it helps thinking about it this way:

We don’t only read the last chapter of a book. We don’t attend a concert just to hear the finale. We don’t eat (although I sometimes do) with our mind focused on dessert. And we better not be making love only to achieve orgasm or while comparing it with previous sexual encounters.

“There are two ways of understanding and experience: compare it with memories of other experiences and so to name it and define it, or, be aware of it as it is, as when, in the intensity of joy, we forget past and future.” – Watts

When each moment becomes an expectation, life is deprived of fulfillment. Expectations are reckless enemies of serenity, wrote contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton.

But what about those larger dangers; those existential threats that have humankind in their crosshairs? Is there an alternative to being frozen by fear or numbed by helplessness?

Most of you, I’m sure, know the story of the old man by the shore that watches a young boy saving starfish by hurling them, one by one, back into the ocean. With cynical and apathetic detachment, the old man approaches the boy who is preparing to launch another starfish, and scoffs at his futile endeavor, pointing at the thousands that still lie on the sand.

“I’ve done this walk every day for ten years, and it’s always the same,” the old man says. “There must be millions of stranded starfish! I hate to say it, but you’ll never make a difference.”

The boy replies: “Well, I just made a difference for that one”, and continues with his work.

While we may not be able to solve all the problems that afflict humankind or our planet, we can – and must – resist detachment, lending our words, our voice, our hands and hearts, to a cause that resonates deeply within us: our chosen Starfish.

The town’s Weatherman joins me in the hall of the world’s most inept prognosticators. Grayson’s hissy fit is almost over. We did not lose power, and the snowplows kept the roads open. Yet, I am serene. I began writing this piece early this morning and have not felt the passing of the last seven hours. Not once, did I think of the future, but remained immersed in the present, telling you this story.

A fluffy white cushion, twelve inches deep, lies on the ground. I am not free to live in any moment but this one, so I am heading outside, to fall into its soft embrace.


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One thought on “What I’ve Learned About Anxiety – A Winter Meditation”

  1. Personally, anxiety is not a problem for me, or in other words, it affects me but I can sink into it and rationalize that what afflicts me is nothing extraordinary. Many times I spend two or three hours at night awake trying to solve an issue that worries me and when I wake up in the morning I think, how foolish, the solution is simple and was there all along.

    Maybe it’s this need to feel in control of things. I used to think that you had to plan your life, setting goals and objectives and seeking to achieve them and that in this way you would advance in it and achieve control. Suddenly life gives you a slap and makes you reflect that the ‘stages’ in it are not under your control. Even though this is a rude awakening it helped me to understand that I do not need to be in control of everything to be able to advance in peace. Are we in control or it is only our perception?

    It helped me a lot to read The use of knowledge in society http://home.uchicago.edu/~vlima/courses/econ200/spring01/hayek.pdf and let´s not forget what they say that Yogi Berra said:’It is tough to make predictions, especially about the future. ‘

    While you were writing this essay I saw a very good movie ‘A Quiet Passion’. It is the sad story of Emily Dickinson, a U. S. poet. All of her work and her spiritual religious conceptualization was influenced by a struggle against anxiety and depression as well. The work that she produced is magnificent and sure would not have been so good if she had suffered from these evils. Nowadays there is much more help to face this.

    Well … this is a bit what I can comment on this. As Forrest Gump said:’That’s about all I got to say bout that.’

    The photo that appears in this essay inspires peace as you have no idea.

    Like

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