How do you deal with a nameless fear? When we are confronted with an ordinary daily problem, we either deal with it there and then, or put it off until it must be dealt with. Then, when we have sorted it out, the pressure eases and the worry goes. Usually.
But what if the grey cloud that hangs over us while we do the job, comes back again afterwards to remind us that we have only begun an even larger task and one that we will never really finish? Then we have a very different problem and one that won’t go away after simply tidying up.
Sometimes, out of worries and minor conflicts and traumas left over from long ago — mostly little bits and pieces—island universes of anxiety are created that follow us all our lives.
Whenever we have a worry — and often when we don’t — and it happens to float by, it adds its grey presence to whatever we are doing at the time, casting a pall over past, present, and future. Worries are like iron filings, patterning themselves to any grey moment and strengthening it with an added magnetism and onerous gravity. As if we didn’t have enough burdens to carry, these self-important worldlings batten on to all our cares with all their added weight and make them almost insupportable.
Worry, care, depression, gloom, all of these are targets of the universal raider. Anxiety is drawn like a spider to the web in which we struggle, and thrives on our resistance. But its strength is drawn from this and only this. The energy released by our struggling and resistance is what attracts it.
But let us look at what we are doing. We are almost invariably struggling to escape from something, or running away from it, without ever looking at who is the stronger, or why we actually need to escape from something weaker than ourselves, that does not even present much of a threat.
But, nevertheless, we take refuge in TV fantasies, in drink, in drugs, in violence, in anything that can ‘take us out of ourselves’. What we do not do is what the ancient Greek philosopher recommended: When evil comes towards you, do not run from it, but turn to face it.
Remember, it is not some terrifying alien in your minds that we are talking about, but lost bits and pieces of your own fantasy, gone absent without leave and decked out to look as alarming as possible. It is attention seeking with a vengeance. When you are able to open your mental cupboard to look at anxiety properly in a good light, you will not find horrors, but merely old garments whose functions you had never really understood until then. And even if you insist that there have always been monsters in there and there always will be, remember the Buddha’s law—that all that arises, ceases. Anxiety is as much subject to this law as anything else. There are always times when anxiety is not there, or has to take a back seat. When you next laugh at a favourite joke, or something that amuses you, remember that. Anxiety has no power there.
Do you know the simile of the snake — the story of the man who was terrified of the snake in his path until he discovered it to be a coil of rope? It was the fear of fear that terrified the man, not the reality.
What is anxiety after all? Can it really harm you? And can the coil of rope bite you?
The first step is to begin to see what anxiety is — to know your adversary. So, as the feeling arises, taste it. Turn your attention towards it and see how it feels. Remember that you weren’t born with this feeling and it won’t outlive you. It is dependent on something. Taste it and feel it like a vintner assessing a wine. Is it a heavy feeling? A light feeling? How does it come and go? And what makes it come and go? Anxiety is a rather private thing and doesn’t much like being stared at. It is quite likely to slip away and wait for a time when your presence of mind is a little less sharp. But don’t be angry, or hate it on any account, it is after all some lost part of your own mental family, and is certainly not going to be improved by a frosty welcome. So give it a prodigal’s reception like the father did in the bible story. Harbouring destructive thoughts about it will only rebound on you. It is you anyway.
So taste it like a strange wine, with benign curiosity; it won’t kill you. Then, when it takes to flight, which it probably will, make a note of the things that evoke it, things with which it is associated.
In my case one of the best talismans for evoking anxiety is a letter from the Inland Revenue or, recently, the bank manager. If anxiety cannot be easily brought to mind, I place several of these relics before me with proper reverence and dwell on the sensations they evoke. With me, at least, this never fails. And I explore my reactions and sensations with benign interest. This way, you open yourself to the anxiety in a relatively controlled fashion, in a way that cannot harm you, and as slowly as you wish.
The energy that drives the anxiety and underlies the negative feelings, is bit by bit drawn back into balance with the psyche in which it dwells. One of the main props of the anxiety state is that it pretends to be an immovable state, despite all the evidence to the contrary. But even mountains are removable — like anxiety they can be worn away till there is nothing left.
Anxiety is inclined to make you feel that you can’t do anything. So make out a list of all the things you are going to do — however simple — and tick them off as soon as you do them. If this causes too much apprehension, write them down as you do them: the shopping, the laundry, etc. The feeling of achievement when you see just how much you can do, can be immense. Anxiety feeds on energy that is frozen underneath it, but this energy is neutral and it is only in the frozen state that it appears threatening. By slowly re-absorbing the anxiety back into the ordinary world, you can free it and yourself. So keep doing things to get your confidence back. And tick them off.
Surround yourself with warm and positive symbols — flowers—things that inspire you, and slowly draw the lost planet of anxiety back into the system which has the sun at its heart. Accept it and realize that like all the other products of the mind — including the picture of the ‘you’ which suffers from anxiety — it has no permanent self. It is a case of mistaken identity that never shadowed our true nature for a single moment.
More articles by John Aske here.
First published in the August 1994 Buddhism Now.