Anxiety is a chronic condition as opposed to fear which tends to be a response to an immediate danger. We can name the fear. We experience a flood of adrenaline when exposed to a danger and normally, as the threat passes so does the adrenaline production. But, if we prolong the fear state by revisiting it mentally and making a story of it, it can turn into an anxiety state. Over time the specific fear stories melt into a generalised attitude with accompanying feelings and adrenaline production, which is one way anxiety can take hold of us. It’s chronic, unfocussed, mentally generated and future orientated. It’s always about what might happen in the future, be that future five minutes or five years away. It extrapolates from past experience to future possibility. It’s about trying to be in control of or prepared for what might happen. The emotional mind keeps itself busy generating possible scenarios and then generating possible solutions to them. It usually adopts a few favourite stories or scenarios.
This mental activity is just one aspect of mind, the aspect that is emotionally charged or as George Gurdjieff said, the aspect of mind that is “contaminated” by emotions. It is ego in action. It is the aspect of mind that has been corralled by the survival programme of the organism, which is always on the lookout for possible threat. It is a self-generating mechanism. It feeds off itself, of its own stories and imaginings. We take it to be what we really are because it is emotionally charged, and this makes us feel alive. The good news is that we can observe this process in ourselves and interfere with it, by putting our attention on something other than the stories. Attention can be on only one thing at a time, so placing your attention, consciously, on something else, such as following the breath, repeating a mantra, scanning the body for sensations, weakens the self feeding mechanism. I refer to this as putting ego-ing on a diet. Ego is a verb, not a noun!
There is another aspect of mind that has the capacity to see clearly, to see facts in their unemotional nakedness. It is usually referred to as the observer or pure intellect. This aspect of mind can observe itself in action, but most people have not discovered this capacity in themselves or have not realised the value of it.
The intellect is the repository of our beliefs, assumptions, motivations, expectations, etc. The intellect was built up by the ideas we were exposed to in childhood by our families, community, the media, our culture and so on. This is also an automatic process, since as children we are not able to judge what we are picking up. The empty, immature intellect is a sponge that absorbs whatever comes its way. Seeds for beliefs, assumptions, motivations, etc are planted in this open intellect. What grows in our intellect is not a consistent, unified set of beliefs and ideas. It’s full of contradictions. This creates inner conflict. Inner conflict creates anxiety. It’s like a wild overgrown garden, with various ideas competing for space and survival.
Learning to take charge of this inner mental garden is what is known as self-inquiry. We need to see the underlying ideas that are creating our inner conflict before we can do anything about them. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher in his book, The Concept of Anxiety, says that the way out of this state is “through the self-conscious exercise of responsibility and choosing”. I agree with him. We can to take responsibility for our own inner state. This is an aspect of what I describe as becoming a mature adult, which is nothing short of throwing off the shackles of the victimhood of childhood programming. Nobody deliberately programmes a child with beliefs, it is an automatic process which in Buddhist teachings is referred to as conditioning. Every human being is conditioned by their environment. This is a function that is necessary for the survival of the organism, but we can revisit our old unconscious ideas, weed out what is no longer of value and replace them with more realistic and relevant ideas. It is not easy to see ones beliefs and assumptions directly. We learn to uncover them by noticing the behaviours and emotions they generate. Every action and every emotion has an associated thought, belief, assumption, motivation or expectation. These are so familiar that we do not notice the underlying thought. We simply act out of them. So, it’s a question of learning to ask yourself, “why am I doing this?” or “why do I feel this way?”
Let me give a couple of examples of what this might look like in daily life, how you might become able to see your own patterns of behaviour and identify the underlying ideas that are driving your actions and reactions. Suppose you notice that you have pattern of fear of authority figures or excessive admiration for certain kinds of people, you can start your investigation by asking yourself such questions as; where did I pick this up? what strategy do I use for dealing with these figures? does this strategy interfere with real communication with others now? who do I cast in the role of authority/admirable figure nowadays? what is the basis of their authority or admiration? Do they have power/influence over me? is it real or imagined? what is the basis for assuming that some people are more important than others? does your “power” lie, in your role in the world or elsewhere? These kinds of questions and observations are an information gathering exercise. Another phenomenon I hear folks talk about is people pleasing. What’s really going on with you when you feel that you are people pleasing? Usually, when someone uses this phrase what they really mean is that they feel obliged to act in some way that they not want to. Herein lies the conflict. The underlying conflict is some version of acting in some way, in order to get or maintain some advantage, or out of fear of losing some advantage but we do not want to have to pay of it. We would rather be doing something else at that time and this leads to resentment and anxiety. The advantage may be some perceived or expected future advantage. Another line of inquiry could be about maintaining your image or any perceived threat to it. Our sense of self, our image, of which we are usually not consciously aware, is always trying to protect itself. This, of course is ego in action. Ego, created in response to the world, is dependent on acknowledgement by the world and so is hyper-vigilant about the feedback it is getting from the world, that is, the people whom we come into contact with in our daily life. Ego wants to be seen, validated, acknowledged, understood, applauded, admired, accepted, trusted, and most of all loved. Any action, or non-action by others can be interpreted as a slight to what ego craves. Maintaining and enhancing our image is a high-anxiety full-time programme.
Ultimately all anxiety arises from the contradictions between what is Real/permanent and what is not real or false or what is often termed relative. As long as we are lost in our relative dimension, where there is no solid ground against which to live our lives, anxiety prevails. The way out of this painful condition is to learn to observe and challenge the specific events, which includes the thoughts and emotions, as they arise. This activity will in itself leads to inner changes, changes in the direction of becoming more real and grounded, less anxious. This in turn creates inner spaciousness, a degree of inner calmness in which we can become aware of the silence behind all the ego created “noise”. Until we have located this inner dimension of peace and calm in ourselves we cannot return to it. This is how we make the journey home to our true selves.