Facing the Tiger: Welcoming Anxiety’s Fierce Wisdom

Tiger by Hsueh Shao-Tang for Anxiety blog post

 

Long before there was a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard classification book of psychological maladies; long before there were psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers; before brain imaging or even the discovery that mental disturbances are not the result of an imbalance of humours originating in our liver, heart and spleen, as Hippocrates proposed; long before science became Science, at the very beginning of civilization, humans experienced anxiety.

Anxiety is not an aberration, an enemy, an alien dark force; it is a part of our human package, and rare is the individual who does not experience it. The Buddha saw that humans have an aversion to suffering but concluded that running from suffering (or, in this case, anxiety) only strengthens it. And yet anyone who has been besieged by anxiety recognizes the instinct to flee from its oppression. “Get me out of here!” we say, trying to distance ourselves from distress and reject or suppress our feelings of vulnerability. But since loss and grief and other difficult emotions are inherent in a human life, we can pretty much count on bouts of anxiety to resurface even if we’ve successfully sought relief through counseling, meditation, medication, or by numbing ourselves through denial, overwork, or addictions. As with other difficult emotional states, lasting changes are the result of working with the difficulty and transforming our relationship to it rather than from fleeing it.

Sujith Rathnayake drawing for Anxiety blog postThe study of evolution has taught us that anxiety is purposeful and necessary to our survival. It’s our warning system that something in the environment is threatening. Acknowledging anxiety’s prevalence and its biological roots can ease the shame, self-blame, and depression that often attend it. A problem arises, however, when anxiety floods us and no real danger is present, blocking our ability to discern threat from no-threat. Research indicates that anxiety distorts our perceptions. Anxiety causes us to see the world through the lens of fear. Feared objects appear closer than they really are. A cascade of physiological responses—shallow breathing, rapid heartbeats, and tightened muscles—create a negative feedback loop and heighten our experience of dread.

When slammed by anxiety, one way to cope is to pause, connect with our breath, breathing deep into the belly, notice our thoughts, reassess the situation and reassure ourselves we are safe. We can ask ourselves: “Is this tiger a real tiger or is it a large cat?” Learning to distinguish what our habitual responses have been to certain triggers helps us confront the problem and strengthens our ability to slip out of anxiety’s grip. We can ask: “What’s really here?”

Why not try a different way of looking at anxiety? What if, instead of trying to shun or control our anxiety, we befriended it? This is neither a glib suggestion nor an easy project. Nor is it “a cure.” Look at it as a creative and generative way to form a new and possibly transformative relationship to deep distress. What if we accepted that we don’t have to live with the anticipatory fear that anxiety will pounce on us at any moment, but could instead consider anxiety as a teacher and constructive ally in navigating our own emotional depths?

Rumi meets his spiritual instructor, for Anxiety blog postHere is thirteenth-century mystic poet Rumi’s famous poem on the subject of our human wholeness and the prospect of inviting all that we are to make itself known and present, both the darkness and the light:

The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

—Jallaludin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious,” wrote C. G. Jung. Here Jung was addressing what he called our shadow aspects, disowned and dissociated parts of our psyches that remain unconscious. For Jung, the process of becoming whole individuated human beings involves acknowledging, accepting, and integrating into our consciousness, to use Buddhist author Pema Chodron’s words, “the places that scare us.” In The Places That Scare Us: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (2007), Chodron writes, “The essence of bravery is being without self-deception. However, it’s not so easy to take a straight look at what we do. Seeing ourselves clearly is initially uncomfortable and embarrassing.” In The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life (1999), Zen teacher John Tarrant echoes this: “Integrity is the inner sense of wholeness and strength that arises out of our honesty with ourselves.”

Oizys, Greek goddess of anxiety for Anxiety blog postA Jungian perspective invites a holistic approach that views symptoms as manifestations of something out of balance in our psyches and as a call to healing. Analyst James Hollis, in his book, Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives (2013), conveys through theory and case histories how unconscious material appears to come to us from the outside, as something fated or as a physical illness. Jung advanced Freud’s idea that a symptom is the psyche’s way of alerting us to a need that has gone unnoticed and unmet. Somatic illnesses themselves might offer symbolic clues to the unmet need, suggesting that our vulnerability to a given disease may relate to our emotional as well as physical well-being.

In ancient Greece, when a healing practitioner assessed an illness, he would ask: “What god has been offended here?” Jung contended that this connection still exists:

“We think we can congratulate ourselves on having already reached such a pinnacle of clarity, imagining that we have left all these phantasmal gods far behind. But what we have left behind are only verbal spectres, not the psychic factors that were responsible for the birth of the gods. We are still as much possessed by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions, and so forth: in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases. Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting rooms, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.”—Jung, Collected Works, V13 (1929)

If the Greek pantheon of gods and goddess represent aspects of Self, we might consider that each of us houses our own “gods and goddesses” who direct our lives in unseen ways. What if our anxiety acts as a disgruntled or offended spirit? If so, we must listen to its story and find out why it’s offended and what it wants.

Anxiety by Edvard Munch for Anxiety blog postOne way to work with anxiety is to approach it as a spirit that is asking for recognition and understanding. Anxiety is both universal and personal. Symptomatically, your and my anxiety may look the same, but their roots are in our personal histories. Asking directly what our anxiety wants and why it is here, and then dialoguing with it in a journal can help clarify your personal anxiety’s intention. Is it a wise teacher? A frightened child? A wild medicine man? Working playfully to paint, draw, sculpt or write about your anxiety need not replace traditional treatment but can open a new and surprising connection with what ails. Be curious! What does your anxiety look like? A monstrous clawed hand or an exploding bomb? Is it all black or does it have fiery red or bright yellow parts? Working creatively with anxiety releases the positive forces of empathy, both for oneself and for the anxiety, which is no less than a part of you.

The renowned writer Rainer Maria Rilke in his book, Letters to A Young Poet (1929), wrote this advice to a young cadet trying to decide between a military or a literary career:

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

Empathy, compassion, understanding, patience, embracing our wholeness—these are the qualities that ease our suffering and allow us to heal.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



How to Find Hope in Turbulent Times

Hope and Despair by Yuumei for Hope blog post

 

“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” puffs the little engine that can and it does pull the train over the mountain in the beloved children’s book The Little Engine That Could. Young and old readers rally to cheer the story of a determined train engine (notably, a self-effacing “she”) in Watty Piper’s picture book rendition of the traditional American values of optimism, hope, and can-doism.

Page from 1954 edition of The Little Engine That Could for Hope blog postThe message of The Little Engine goes straight to the heart of our deepest held cultural beliefs and aspirations: however modest our circumstances, by summoning courage and willpower, we can overcome. Like the sometimes bumbling and naïve heroes of Dickens, or the dim-witted dummlings in fairy tales, Piper’s little blue engine begins in self-doubt and ends in victory.

If only in the real world finding hope were as simple as reciting a positive mantra!

The word itself, hope, comes from the old English hopa and means confidence in the future. Wikipedia aligns hope with “expectation with confidence.” Over centuries the word’s meaning hasn’t much changed: to hope is to have trust in the future, even if the future is fraught with uncertainty and unknowns.

Hope is an essential curative for despair and necessary for survival, but as we face a new year in which struggle and sorrow abound, many of us feel depleted of hope. How can we balance accepting a difficult reality with preserving optimism about the future? Hope, it seems, is not backward-looking, but has its arms stretched out to the future.

The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu for Hope blog postTo feed the seeds of hopefulness, I recently turned to a conversation between sages, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Each man has been marked by arduous travels on the road of suffering but has preserved his humanity and his joy. The two venerable world leaders met in Dharamasala, India to celebrate their birthdays (both men are in their eighties) and to discuss the world situation. The result of their conversation is recorded in The Book of Joy.

Despite the title, there is nothing superficial or Pollyannish about The Book of Joy. Every chapter steers the mind and heart toward hope. Their considered views concur: “No dark fate determines the future. We do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and re-create our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet. This is the power we wield.”

Both men believe in our capacity to do good despite our capacity to also commit atrocities. When faced with video footage of disasters, our compassion “springs up.” We see this often in the flood of generosity from strangers after a national or international disaster. In fact, the desire to do good is our inherent nature, though sometimes conditioning obstructs this instinct. Desmond Tutu and His Holiness advise we can take heart that humankind is slowly evolving toward greater self-awareness. In Buddhist terms, we can count on our genuine warm-heartedness.

Self-Portrait as a Garden by KRIS-13 for Hope blog postWhen I asked renowned Jungian analyst Murray Stein about his perspective on hope, he sent me the following response: “I was thinking about what gives hope to people, and it occurred to me that when dreams of young children come to my patients, they always give a lift because children symbolize a future, and what is hope if not about the future?” He gave the example of a patient’s dream of a pregnancy and birth, images that signified a hopeful prospect for the patient’s new marriage and for a positive perspective on her own life.

“It’s out of dreams like this that hope gets born in people,” says Dr. Stein. In a chapter called “Turbulence in the Individuation of Humankind” in his latest book, Outside Inside and All Around, Dr. Stein draws a conclusion similar to that of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu’s: “Human consciousness is increasing and moving toward the realization that we’re all in this together…You don’t see this movement toward consciousness from day to day or year to year, but looking over decades and centuries, I see improvement in the human condition on the planet and an advance of human consciousness.”

Of course, miscalculated or misguided hope can lead us into greater difficulty. Psychotherapist Jason Holley admits that in his practice, much of his work is in helping clients recognize they have placed their hope in hopeless situations—the husband who won’t stop drinking, the narcissistic mother or abusive boyfriend. We might call this blind faith, a denial to see reality, something quite different from cultivating an “eyes-wide-open” hopefulness.

"God does not play dice" for Hope blog postThe possibility of a more conscious and compassionate humanity lets in a crack of hope in a world seething with difficulties. One doesn’t have to be a spiritual leader or a depth psychologist to find hope in a world seemingly depleted of reasons for hope. Even one of our greatest scientific geniuses, Albert Einstein, having discovered universal laws that govern “things unseen,” speculated that a benevolent force might be at work, a force that coordinates the exquisite workings of the universe. Later in his life, he wrote:

“I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves. For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process. If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning. But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives.”

“God does not play dice with the universe.”

The story of The Little Engine That Could inspires the reader to try harder and invest hope in her capacity for success, but to sustain hope when the odds are against us, and our inner and outer resources have withered, requires that we look beyond the Ego ideals of self-determination and self-improvement. Hope is the domain of soul and what I call “the daily miraculous.” Just as Einstein marveled at the intricate order of the universe, so, too, might we seek the territory of awe and embrace its manifestations. What we feed ourselves matters. What we take in and acknowledge—with our eyes and ears as well as our mouths—determines our health—mind, body and spirit. A steady diet of negativity, defeatism, and cynicism can only perpetuate fear and despair.

Everywhere the daily miraculous sends communiqués to our spirit. As T.S. Eliot writes in The Four Quartets:

. . . Music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts.

Purple-throated Carib hummingbird for Hope blog postConsider these small miracles.

  • A hummingbird’s wings beat 720 to 5400 beats per minute. Its metabolism is a hundred times faster than an elephant’s. Its brain is 4.2 % of its body weight, which is approximately the weight of a penny, but despite its tiny size, hummingbirds hear better and see farther than humans. Hummingbirds fly over five hundred miles across the Gulf of Mexico in twenty hours without stopping. They can remember every flower they have ever visited.
  • Honeybees can differentiate hundreds of different floral odors from miles away. A honeybee will fly 90,000 miles, the equivalent of three orbits around the earth to collect 1 kilogram of honey. A bee’s brain is the size of a sesame seed but has a remarkable ability to learn, remember and calculate.
  • When your skin is cut, you bleed. Unless severe, the cut stops bleeding within minutes. Soon the edges of the wound close. A scab forms and new skin grows over the injury. Millions of complex biological functions that facilitate healing occur without our willing or even noticing them.

French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty postulated that we live in an inter-subjective field with all life and the natural world. For him, the world is not just speaking to us but is also listening to us. We walk through the woods and admire the trees while the trees may be watching and admiring us! More than a mind-trip, a neatly stated slogan, or immutable orthodoxy, hope may originate in a palpably lived experience of awe and wonder at our interconnectedness with everything else on the planet. To be enchanted by the world is to be a participant and not simply a spectator.

If anything I’ve written here has prodded your curiosity, try keeping a journal of things that daily awe, amaze, or enchant you. Inhabiting this quality of reverie may be your path to hope.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Worried About Safety? Join the Club

Triangles for Safety post

 

My father had a gun. I discovered it one day while snooping in his dresser, the shock of its chill black metal, heavy as stone in my hand. That gun made me feel safe. My father has a gun, and he’s going to kill you. Unbeknownst to my father, I bragged about its existence, wielding my threats shamelessly when confronted with neighborhood toughs. (Back then, bravado was enough to give a childhood adversary second thoughts.) My conscious notion of safety was based on access to weaponry, a model I’d picked up from Mr. Khrushchev and our military, who were duking it out over the missiles in Cuba. The strategy was fortified further by mother’s fondness for warning me it was a dog-eat-dog world, and I had to choose to be either predator or prey.

The memory of my dad’s gun came to my mind recently when watching North Korea’s celebratory parade of its newest missiles and seeing the braggadocio smile of that country’s gleefully menacing leader. How blatantly perverse it is that our species feels safest when we’ve stockpiled enough armament to blow up the world.

Auden for Safety postIn a recent issue on climate change (a subject that provokes its own sense of doom), the New York Times Magazine published an article called “Panic Attack.” The first line mentions a Pulitzer Prize-winning poem by the British poet W. H. Auden. “The Age of Anxiety,” a book-length reflection on Auden’s experience as part of the 1945 U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey team gathered to assess the impact of the Allied bombing on Germany and the German people, defines a cultural moment in the mid-nineteen-forties just as Irish poet W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” defined the enormous cultural changes after the First World War. Nitsuh Abebe, author of the Times article, names the present cultural moment, one of diffuse apprehension. “Anxiety is the ambient apprehension that terrible things might happen and the physical response—tension, alarm, fight or flight vigor, snapping awake at 2 a.m. to check the president’s Twitter feed—that accompanies this feeling,” he writes.

The word safety comes from the Latin salvus, meaning uninjured, in good health. The correlation between health, injury and feeling safe is compelling. Any injury to our emotional or physical self can lead to a sense of vulnerability. It is, after all, the lame sheep that gets culled by the coyote from the herd. One of the ways we make ourselves feel safe is by hiding our weaknesses, but those bent on power and destruction possess an uncanny ability to sniff out weaklings, as anyone who bullies or is bullied knows. Hiding or disguising our fragility does not provide a sense of safety and may only reinforce our dread of being discovered or “found out.”

The amniotic sac is our first protected space. As fetuses, we cannot survive outside the maternal womb. At birth, when the umbilicus is cut, we’re severed from our original life source and forced to breathe on our own. This separation, which all of us undergo if we are to live, causes us to wail in rage and bafflement. In an unstable environment, we seek stable and predictable objects outside ourselves. But we are also curious creatures, and thus, the learning curve begins: moment to moment, life presents us with reminders of our tenuous relationship to existence. We search for security in an insecure world. Our survival depends on the development of skills of mind, heart and body that awaken us to our position in the net and network of all life. The challenge is urgent to recognize that if our air is not safe to breathe, we are not safe. If our lakes and rivers are not safe to fish or drink, we are not safe. If the Great Coral Reef is bleaching out and dying, some part of us is deeply at risk.

In the interest of understanding how people think about safety, I decided to investigate what helps others feel safe and unsafe. What follows is not scientific research but compiled from online sources of a mostly personal nature. The lists are not in any particular order.

We feel safe when:

  • Hugged by a loved one
  • Showing dominance
  • Have job security, financial security
  • People smile at us
  • We can hide under a blanket
  • Have a protective and protected private space
  • Know we can escape
  • We are with pets: petting a dog, curling up with a cat
  • We feel loved

Conversely, what makes us feel unsafe are

  • Change
  • Unpredictability
  • Being judged
  • The experience of loss
  • Natural disasters
  • Pain, injury, illness
  • Being humiliated or ostracized
  • Being without physical resources
  • Feeling betrayed and abandoned

Peter Wohlleben for safety postMy brief online exploration persuades me that we best experience safety when we are in the presence of loving others. This aligns with significant studies in animal and human research on bonding and attachment theories. In this we are not much different from other creatures, or indeed, as new research shows, other sentient beings. It also underscores a premise of most Eastern wisdom traditions: we are part of an interconnected universe. New technologies have given scientists the tools to study and document exactly how connected we are to all life. Peter Wohlleben, a professional forester in Germany and the author of the bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees, poses the question, “Are trees social beings?” His answer, that indeed they are, makes fascinating reading. Though trees in a forest compete for food, water and light, they also nourish and sustain each other through their root systems and the fungi that dominate those roots. There is, he writes, “an advantage to working together.”

Let’s cherish our connections. As Auden wrote in his other great poem about World War II, “September 1, 1939,” “we must love one another or die.”

Intelligent Trees from Dorcon Film on Vimeo.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Earth, Sky, Star, Moon: Bringing Nature Inside Yourself

Buddha with stones at foot of the Great Red Pine. For Nature blog post.

 

I’m here in the North Woods of Wisconsin at our cabin on Deer Lake. It’s mid-June. The pine and spruce are as we left them last winter, stalwartly evergreen. The phoebe has returned to her nest under the eaves; the snappers are hatching; at night the thousand stars offer their cool ardent light. Sound good?

“Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, suggesting that we would all benefit if we could align ourselves with nature’s rhythms. Isn’t this something we already know but disregard, our lives entwined and structured by a digital clockwork that takes no notice of the rising and setting of the sun? It’s too early in our embrace of digital technology to diagnose its effects and benefits, but our conversations betray what we already know: stress and anxiety lead the descriptors.

One of our greatest thinkers, researcher and biologist E. O. Wilson, writes, “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” I must have intuitively known this when I moved into our cabin to complete my first novel, The Conditions of Love. Every writer has days of frustration, days of fear and despair, when words won’t come and some unknown interference blocks thought and inspiration.

Deer Lake at sunrise, as seen from the Great Red Pine. For Nature blog post.On those days, I would walk to the Great Red Pine by the lake, place a stone at its base and ask for guidance. The breeze off the water lulled my mind, the pounding of the waves induced a kind of trance that released me from what had been hindering me. I was now able to dip into wiser insights. No one told me to perform these rituals. They occurred spontaneously as though all along I had sensed my need for a more profound attunement to the natural world. To come back to myself, nature was telling me, I first had to disentangle myself from a web of troubling thoughts and open my senses to something larger.

We have these longings—to be soothed, to be at peace, to inhabit our deepest selves. At the same time, we want to feel at home in the world, connected to earth and sky. Mostly we ignore these instinctual needs. Force of habit, the imperatives of productivity overwrite them. At what cost do we forsake them?

On the website for the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing, I find this:

“Research reveals that environments can increase or reduce our stress, which in turn impacts our bodies. What you are seeing, hearing, experiencing at any moment is changing not only your mood, but how your nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are working…Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear and stress and induces pleasant feelings.”

Even if one does not have the good fortune to own a cabin in the woods, the point here is one of values and attitude. This is what Albert Camus might have been alluding to when he wrote, “In the midst of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” To internalize and have at one’s command an inner state of the natural world is just the ticket.

Henri Matisse put it another way, “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”

Deer Lake at sunset. For Nature blog post.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”