Anxiety, like a “check engine” light on a car's dash, is the body and mind's way of saying “fix me!”
But what is broken? Is it the mind? The body? Something in the spirit?
Anxiety may not be an illness in and of itself, but a symptom of another disease: a steep cultural division between self and other and the related contradiction of expectations we have for society and which society has for us.
This is a spiritual illness for which anxiety is not the only warning sign. Depression, anger, addiction, and boredom may all be symptoms of the same existential conflict.
And in the same way that one does not fix the light on the dashboard, but the engine, one must not focus on the anxiety, but on the underlining disunity of spirit.
Anxiety, then, is not only a physical or a psychological phenomenon. Meaning it cannot be treated only by a trained psychologist with drugs or behavioral therapies. It is a symptom of a deeper problem that must also be dealt with on a spiritual level.
In this view anxiety is a consequence of an individual being out of sync with his or her culture. American culture specifically (and Western culture in general) contradicts the human experience in many important ways. Americans have largely failed to evolve with technology, and the struggle between human need and technological consequences has created a chaos of the heart.
(An example of this is the automobile, which has destroyed the small, structured community by allowing for convenient long-distance travel. Instead of buying groceries at the corner market, we are now able to drive into other communities and shop with people we will never see again, communicating with no one as we would with familiar, local faces. Or in the way instant text messaging and emails have revolutionized communication. A quick and potentially ill-conceived response is always a text away, and “sleeping on it” is little more than a quaint, out-of-date phrase. Both technologies offer incredible advantages to people, but few are able to take advantage of them.)
Anxiety, be it phobias, generalized uneasiness, or panic attacks, may be a direct symptom of individual attempts and failures to thrive in a culture not built for humans to thrive as individuals.
Society is set up to thrive economically and materialistically, not spiritually and individually. Society serves to protect us, and to do so society must limit us as individuals, limiting the decisions we can make by adding rules (don't walk on the grass), largely to stop us from hurting ourselves or each other, but also from affecting society with random or erratic human behavior. We hear “be yourself, be original” but in no way does society allow for originality and self. Nurturing people has never been society's role.
There is a clear split between the needs of one man or woman and the needs of the 7,000,000,000 people on planet Earth. It is difficult to live in this duality, trying to please both our individual needs and those of the society in which we were born and raised, and the sacrifices we make to do so may be too much to live with for some people, as it causes a subtle but severe malfunction in the human brain.
It is like riding the break and accelerator of an automobile at the same time. The car may not go anywhere, or if it does, travels slowly, and soon breaks down altogether. The engine wants to go forward and the tires want to stop. The human soul wants to experience something unique, and the collective demands everything be the same, because it's difficult for something so large and unwieldy to handle even small changes. And so the marching orders are “Do what others are doing at any cost.”
How does one be “human” in such an inhuman world?
Anxiety is inevitable in such a world.
And so now we have advanced classifications to define fear. We can name dozens of specific phobias and disorders. But these are not new to the human psyche. Men and women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were swamped with uncertainty. Even in ancient times the sages of exotic lands dealt with the problem of human anxiety.
What worked for the ancient Chinese and Indians still works today.
A clear understanding of who we are as human beings makes way for the mind to function without clinging or being trapped by the concepts of society. To know what the self is is to know that external forces cannot influence it.
In the words of Lao Tzu: “The value of yourself lies within and is not affected by what happens externally.”
It is oft-repeated advice. In modern self-help books, in ancient spiritual texts. Ancient Taoists said we had no need to worry over loss or gain, good luck or bad. Jesus said that God would take care of us just as He took care of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Modern behavioral psychologists with Ph.D.'s tell us to believe in ourselves.
In other words, to not worry about what others think, to not focus on uncomfortable projections of how the world ought to be, to not care about what we might do, but to instead do what we want and to do it well. To live in the moment and connect fully with who we are right now.
To do this it is necessary to accept a simple fact. What society wants is merely an illusion. It's not real and cannot address every person's individual needs. Ignore the illusion and find the real stuff which makes life. The self operates by the heart, by instinct and intuition. Society operates on assumptions. Trust that individually we know better than the “whole” knows. That a united One is always more powerful and capable than a divided Two.
We must judge ourselves by a constant, not by the concept of self given to us by the ever-changing labels of our society, or our own self-identification.
What we are does not depend on what happens to us or what we do in life, on our attachments or who we think we are relative to others. When we stop identifying with outside forces, or with what we expect of ourselves, and we come to reside in our true self—that which exists when every label and expectation has been stripped away—there's nothing left to fear. There's nothing left to lose. Worry ceases because there's no longer anything for it to dwell on. The mind is free by the virtue of being empty, of being nothing.
Then we begin to realize that all along we were afraid of outside things changing parts of us that were not really ourselves, but just more projections of outside things. We were using the unsteady yardstick of imagination to measure who we were, relative to yet more things that could not hold a form and remain steady. When we focused on these things they inevitably vanished, disintegrating like mirages.
Embracing a spiritual path (any spiritual path) that will take us to the real, true self, is a certain way of troubleshooting anxiety in all its forms, because once we understand what that real self is, and can reside inside of it, or allow it to manifest itself in our thoughts and actions, we can accept society for what it is and no longer fight against it.
By understanding who we are, we no longer have to treat society's power over the individual as a threat, because in no way can society ever destroy or damage our true self. We can then work with society instead of fear it. We can bridge the duality, the gap between self and other, and gain a new perspective on reality.
Until then we must live with the dread of an infinite tomorrow.
Tao of Anxiety: Series
Tao of Anxiety: Series