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By Quinn Anderson BA '23
I have a lot of anxiety. I am currently working out how to work through my anxiety to become a more calm and confident person. It takes a lot of careful reflection and mindfulness. Most of the time, it comes down to slowing myself down. I have to look at the ways my anxiety is manifesting, and then learn the skills for dealing with those instances. Sometimes, it’s an attitude and sometimes it’s an overt behavior. Sometimes it’s just the physical sensations. In certain cases, it’s a habitual response to my social person (the way my social identities embody and move through the social sphere), coming from a feeling of being alone. There is sometimes a fear of a loss of control over myself and my feelings. There is a feeling of a loss of control over who I am, in relationship and on my own, and in my projections and imaginings about the persona I think I might be, want to be, want not to be. It’s uncertainty about my standing in the world, uncertainty about my life and embodiment. Uncertainty about who I am.
I’ve noticed that “I” thoughts cause a lot of anxiety. “I have to do this. I have to be such and-such a person. I have to overcome such and-such a feeling.” The idea that I have to find an “independent” person who can conquer my problems terrifies me. What if I let myself not be that way? We all muster our way through relying somewhere, but some reliances lead us to freedom and others to imprisonment. Who and what do I rely on, and how does that liberate me? How do you work through a reliance to get to freedom? Is it possible? Do the free rely elsewhere, and what is a reliance that embodies goodness, and what is a reliance that causes anxiety? What is excess, and what is moderation? Can we really separate a reliance from an existence? Is existence reliance? Is non-reliance non-existence? Existence and non-existence are extremes, are views of self; are reliance and nonreliance also extremes, are they views of self? Is anxiety caused by bifurcation of self and other, by separation? And is non-separation non-self or self? Tumbling around.
Anxiety urges on a seeking, maybe looking for a state of non-separating (driven by views of self). But separation is mental; it only has a basis in self-other distinguishing, and all the ways that distinguishing is wrapped up in anxiety. It can be so difficult to just sit, to say nothing, to assent or defer, to relinquish; the “I” wants so much to be acting out its worries and fears, seeking “connection” (What is connection? A set of conditioned markers in our experience?). Thus, I’m trying to work on those particular antidotes: not doing certain things, and doing other things, which align with those outcomes (stillness). The more I work on anxiety, the more urgency I feel to take advantage of the opportunities to observe it, and the less I fight back against the call to adjust. Each moment of discomfort and pain is a moment to dispel the intensity of energy behind habits. Just don’t do what you’re not supposed to do; do exactly what you need to get free.
Slowing down is hard to do. It takes a lot of letting go. Sometimes, I just have to say to myself, “let go, let go, let go, let go…” until I stop holding so tight to a thought or perception. Always, I have to take care to watch particular habits throughout the day: food, sleep, social situations, working, reading, sitting still. Every little movement of my life needs care towards this goal of overcoming anxiety. In particular, relationships expose my anxieties. But there’s nothing really happening outside of anxiety. I notice this quality of anxiety when I listen more and learn more about my habits, notice them coming on rather than acting in obliviousness. I can watch myself making up drama from habit, even when everything is okay. Those moments are the good ones. The ones where I don’t notice—or worse, notice but don’t want to look— those moments are the ones that are hard. Thus, I can say that noticing and knowing everything is okay is the way to go, when it’s available. But in order to get there, I have to be patient with discomfort and sincere about my feelings. And willing to respond differently, to slow down.
If I’ve accumulated anything from my studies here, it’s that cultivation is more of a stopping than a doing. In the traditions we study, there are philosophies that talk about, or encourage, ways of being that slow down and dissolve habituated modes of being. In all, there are philosophies that lead us to a still, unmoving, unhabituated state. But from that place, a lot of power and energy is accumulated which can suddenly be directed, at will, toward new aspirations. Becoming less habitual and having a more tranquil mind actually provides the energy. Is it because all of our energy stratifies around habit, and once unlocked, can flow in a focused direction? How much energy is used in anxiety? Chronic anxiety leads to chronic fatigue and depression.
How do we destratify those energies? Mettā, loving-kindness, is an energy which destratfies. Like water, it moves into the soil and releases. Movement in the body can either reinvigorate or relax an anxious mental state; sitting meditation can do the same. Mettā may be the gentle presence which causes the anxiety to release. Mettā is support. Thus, what I do or don’t do isn’t the key—it’s the presence of heart. Look closer.
Or, what am I afraid of? Am I afraid to lose? Give! Am I afraid to face myself? Heal! Am I afraid of what someone thinks? Be true! Am I afraid of what will happen? Observe!
Recently, a handful of us from Sudhana Center (the DRBU housing during the Covid lockdowns) went to a lake nearby. A rope swing reaches out over the water, from which swimmers—some quite talented at acrobatics—take turns jumping in. I’m often too afraid to do much of anything, and it’s taken me time to get to where I’m able to go to school and have a social life. For a long time, I rarely left my house. But I went, and stood on that rock slope, urged by friends to get in. It took me a while, but I realized at one point that if I just moved up and down the slope, walking back and forth on a patch of dust, with the rope in my hand, I could start to shift from the incapacitated state of helplessness to the first movements of courage. Ten to fifteen minutes of standing still with fear were quickly replaced with a couple minutes of walking up and down before I counted, “One… two… three…” and let go of the earth beneath me. I still remember that feeling: a confidence and power had formed in my body as I counted down, and I had little hesitation when I pushed off the ground.
That small movement back and forth took place on only a couple feet of ground. Two steps forward, two steps back. Two forward, two back. Just this wiggling makes me think of the mosquitoes in the pond at Sudhana Center, who wiggle gently back and forth till their cocoons rip open and, suddenly, like a flash, they’re in the air, wings fluttering. Right now, I’m trying little things. Be a little quieter, sit a little bit here and there, write a sentence or two in my journal, eat a little less chocolate (occasionally), take a little more time, wait a bit longer to finish that task, think a little more before saying that thing. Slowly, this wiggling in the tight space of my habits is breaking up a little bit of fibrous tension to find some space. I can breathe more easily and stop myself more quickly. I don’t get as overwhelmed when I trip, and I have a better sense for what habits my mind is creating. I’m trying to wiggle out and get my wings in the air. Maybe someday, I will look back and wonder how it was possible to live in such a small space.
we’re all just trying to be loved,
no matter what it is knowing that,
do not fight;