High Anxiety

There is a long Context setting for this post. If you’re glancing over this, I recommend skipping straight to The Juice. There is also an Other Thoughts section further below, which has bits about Power and Anxiety; Anxiety, Linear Time, and Constructions of Self; and Decoupling Anxiety from Objects of Consciousness. Further Questions brings up some areas of inquiry that I would love some insight and reflections on from anyone who feels moved to respond. 

Context

As those of you who may have seen my post yesterday on my blog documenting my year of eating as a Vegan, “A Year of Carrots,” I’ve been working rather fruitfully with a feeling of anxiety for a week or so. 

I think that it started last Monday, after an unusually powerful meditation. My concentration was very strong, and I decided to stay on concentration practice rather than moving on to emptiness practice, as I usually do. As I stayed with my experience of the body, knots of physical and pre-physical (subtle) tension began to resolve, making it much easier for me to stay with strong concentration, and to continue to resolve those knots. After the meditation I went to go downstairs, and only made it to my bedroom, rather (surprisingly) exhausted. I fell on my bed and listened to my wife downstairs talk on the phone, my body strangely peaceful and free, relaxed, and at ease. 

This didn’t last, and as the anxiety (a name I wouldn’t give the feeling until two days ago) came back quietly that night, and then to its normal levels in the morning, it ‘bothered’ me even more than it usually does, set now against the recent bodymind memory of its near complete absence in my waking life. 

I’m also not an exteriorly anxious person, nor am I internally obsessive, etc, though I do have plenty of nervous habits, like knuckle cracking, stretching, biting my nails, and chewing my lips. What I am describing is persistent, but also entirely low-grade in most situations, though in certain situations, namely around food and people, it becomes unbearable. With food it gets high when waiting to eat, when trying not to eat (like trying not to eat all of the bread on the table before dinner gets there, or trying not to eat other people’s share of the appetizers), or when tying to decide whether or not to eat something (like if I’m out during the day and the thought of ice cream pops in my head.) With people, it gets high when unfamiliar with someone, or when in a conversation with someone with no clear exit strategy (like at a party), or when in the company of people I don’t know but would like to. But it’s also clearly there in situations that are surprising–with family, for example, or even with my wife. 

Last night I noticed something I take as rather important while meditating, and that prompts me to write up my findings from the last week (you can skip this technical paragraph if you like, you won’t miss anything essential). Under the direction of my meditation teacher I have been working for the past nine or so months (for those of you who know me, entirely independently of our pregnancy!) on ‘clouds of awareness,’  the very subtle objects or orientations of consciousness that ‘block’ the apperception of Buddha-mind, or awakened consciousness, which is one of the last of the emptiness practices before the instructions for awakening are given in the Mahamudra/Dzogchen tradition in which I meditate. The clouds that I have been working with have been “doing,” “looking for an outcome,” and “looking for a state (of consciousness)” which all cloud awareness by projecting awakeness into the future and qualifying it with experience or an individual activity, and thus subtly rejecting what is present, which is where awakeness is realized. I have also been working with “not being (good) enough,” where one has projected many good things onto awakeness, and negative qualities onto the self, such that the self could never realize awakeness. In the last few weeks, these have all been revealed to be rooted in a fundamental “no,” underlying my experience moment to moment, and as I’ve gotten to the point in meditation where I am allowing these clouds to arise as empty within my experience, I have simply been observing the underlying ‘no,’ and allowing it to arise as already-empty. 

Recently I have been noticing how the ‘no’ underlying my experience of moment to moment consciousness acts as something of a force-field: 

The Juice:

And then, last night in meditation, I ‘got’ experientially that the somatic and emotional component of this ‘no’ was anxiety, and furthermore that this anxiety was the background of my experience of self (I cannot remember being without it in my life) and that what I had been ‘seeking’ for most of my life in one way or the other was the release and relief from this anxiety. Any ‘positive’ objects of consciousness (whether food, orgasm, social acceptance, a movie I want to watch, a T.V. episode, those millions of books that I’ve wanted to write, fame, power, money, etc. etc.) are fueled by–or at the least associated with–the desire to relieve this very subtle anxiety. 

And it’s torturous, my own personal little hell. I often have the image of the princess and the pea: everything around me is right, in fact, I can’t find anything wrong with me, my life, my surroundings, etc., and yet something is offand I can’t find it, or relieve it, and it’s seriously bothering me. Something that, like the pea under 100 mattresses, is so faint as to be not there, except that it is–and it won’t go away. 

I often have a hard time getting at what it is that I ‘really’ want in any given situation–but when pushed (as I have been recently by my wife), it boils down to “I just want to be okay.” This ‘okayness,’ is also the absence of this feeling of anxiety, and when I’ve used the term “liberation,” it often also means freedom from anxiety (which I’m realizing is perhaps a cheapening of the Buddhist sense of the word). 

I said that I can’t remember being without this feeling, but obviously there must be a comparison, some experience of its absence, or I wouldn’t even know that it was there or that I desire it not to be, and I do have two kinds of experiences of its absence. 

First, the experience of freedom from any sort of negative body state is somewhere deep in my experience of being a bodymind. That is, I cannot consciously remember a time before this feeling of anxiety, but my body knows that it’s a possibility, akin perhaps to a sense of having lost Eden, or to the zen koan: ‘show me the face you had before your parents were born.’ I don’t remember it, per se, but I know that it is there both somewhere in the past of my experience of consciousness, and also as a deeply present background to my present consciousness. 

Secondly, I have experienced the dissolution of anxiety briefly. Creative reverie, active involvement in an engrossing activity (sometimes through exertion in sports), also known as a flow state, through drugs and alcohol–(though certain drugs can either create a reprieve or amp anxiety up), in moments of passionate pursuit of objects of anxiety (paradoxically), in certain mediative states of consciousness, in sleep (perhaps a cop-out, but legitimately a kind of experience, akin to the previous paragraph), in awakeness (whether on or off the meditation pillow) and in waking moments where everything is clicking (not associated with any particular activity). 

After meditation last night I continued to bring ‘anxiety’ consciously into my awareness moment-to-moment, rather than leave it as the barely perceived background of it, and after an hour or so, something interesting happened. Like last week, it mostly went away. As I’m writing (the next morning), it is much more quiet than it usually is, both requiring a little more attention to keep in awareness, but also not affecting experience as much. Additionally, the center of the feeling of anxiety seems to have moved from my gut to my chest. 

This, obviously, is a giant topic, especially in regards to how I theorize implicitly and explicitly self-construction, and I can’t capture everything relevant here–but it’s a start. 

Other thoughts/realizations from the past week: 

Power and Anxiety: Earlier this week, in talking to my wife, I kept using the turn of phrase “It (anxiety) makes me do [X, Y, Z],” and I suddenly realized how much of my power I was giving to anxiety. With anxiety arising prior to conscious reflection, I basically do one of two things: something I feel like I ‘must’ do, like work for money, or something that I do to unwind from doing the things I ‘must’ do but am not in alignment with, like veg out on the internet, or drink a beer, etc. etc. With awareness of anxiety, i.e. detachment from anxiety, anxiety can be present while allowing for a more authentic expression of self. The self is no longer split between what it ‘wants’ to do and what it ‘needs’ to, or feels obligated to do. The choice of action is clearer–and the wants may be different. Under the thumb of anxiety, much of the things that I ‘want’ to do are really gigantic abstract meta-games that I feel playing will ‘get’ me some giant prize on which I project the absence of anxiety. What do I want to do? What would I want to do if I were no longer chiefly concerned with ‘feeling okay?’ I feel like this voice of authenticity, the voice of Living Consciousness arising as Andrew Venezia is just learning how to babble, and that’s exciting. I have long had great difficulty finding motivation for things that I ‘wanted’ to do. My interpretation is along the lines of the above: I recoil against my own inauthenticity, but am motivated to do enough of what the outside world is asking me to do to keep me comfortable, and to keep ‘them’ off of my back. Exhausting myself through the exercise of mostly busy-work hassles (to be sure, there are some overlaps of what I want to do and what the world has asked me to do), I numb myself through any number of means (food, alcohol, television), keeping what I “really” want to do as some sort of resentful tally against ‘the system’ or the way things are. As long as I keep myself in this position of victimhood, I never have to actually put myself on the line. 

Anxiety, Linear Time, and Constructions of Self

As the (or at least my) self, my identified psychological self, arises out of anxiety and has its base in anxiety, then anxiety is also my earliest sense of time. Anxiety does not point yet to linear time in the rational/modern/mental sense, but seems to me to be the base from which it starts. Anxiety is aware of a past, and anxious about the future–but again, in a way that only requires these three moments–that does not need the full elaboration/construction of what we call linear time. It is proto-time, and is the experience around which the proto-self develops, in my understanding. This is perhaps an explanation for why I am coming into contact with this now, as I have been for sometime deconstructing first my rational ego (approximately ages 20-26) and have been deconstructing my sense of being a separate self for the last four or five years, in a few discrete stages. As my wife said last night “what you are describing sounds like existential anxiety,” and I believe that the existentialists are acutely aware of and describing the space(s) of psychological development between the modern ego and the transpersonal. First you build a hermetically separate sense of self (the modern ego, what we think of as being “adult,” or Kegan’s 4th Order), then you take it apart and make it empty (transparent, without it ever really disappearing, which would be disastrous.) Then things get really interesting. (I should note that I am not advocating a romantic viewpoint– the romantic and evolutionary models are both essentially correct except where they disagree, which disagreements come from reifying their models. Also, this is fudging quite a bit for the purposes of simplicity. In some senses, I am still working on growing into Kegan’s 4th Order, in some senses I am working beyond that.) 

As in the above, (Power and Anxiety), if I have something within me that makes me do something, or that I feel like I’m fighting, I probably haven’t integrated it into an authentic and healthy (healthy bodymind, centaur, etc.) version of the self. 

One thing I noticed two days ago related to this is that, despite a more than decade long practice of meditation and mindfulness, I was orienting to ‘tasks’ mostly embedded within a sense of linear, 3D time, rather than from “Full Time,” or The Nunc Stans, the eternal moment. In noticing how much I was acting out of anxiety, I was about to return to a practice that I found very helpful over the last couple of years: doing nothing. Not sitting and watching TV, but actually actively sitting on the couch, without meditating, without doing anything, just sitting and paying attention (or not). Yes, I could actually release my attachment to doing anything not essential, and just sit for hours everyday while making sure that I wasn’t acting out of anxiety– setting a trap for my anxiety, having it come up and be paid attention to. While I think this can be helpful, and has been earlier in my life, I realized that I was at the point where I could be relating to anxiety moment to moment. That is, I didn’t have to throw anything out to be able to relate to my anxiety–far from it. It was much more likely to come up in a practical way if I continued to keep my schedule full, and if I kept it as an object of consciousness continually as I worked (and did what I ‘want’ to–an example is writing this post) rather than work on it “on the sidelines.” This way, I am cultivating a much deeper sense of non-attachment: not just allowing any activity to go by the wayside if it isn’t essential, thus sending a message that the most important thing is getting to the root of anxiety, but practicing acting out of presence and awakening no matter what I think my motivation is for a particular activity. In this way, I am always (at least practicing) acting out of the already free, already liberated moment in any activity, by keeping anxiety in my awareness. 

Decoupling Anxiety from Objects of Consciousness

One last interesting little shift of attention that has made a huge difference. While speaking to my wife two nights ago about some of this, I felt an anxious craving for some peanuts that are in our cupboard. Usually, I would be aware of this craving, and note it, and put it aside sort of dismissively, trying to get away from it. Inevitably, though, it would return, and I would give in to it (that is, habitually). I am not so good at resisting cravings. This time though, I noted the story about the feeling (“I want peanuts!”) and allowed the underlying anxiety to stay within my conscious awareness. Soon, the story and the feeling decoupled, and the story disappeared. I remained anxious, but there was no object for the anxiety, and as I stayed with the anxiety it became bearable. This was another “duh” for me after 10 years of serious meditation, as I feel like I’ve heard this advice a thousand times, and it never quite ‘clicked.’ 

Further Questions for Exploration:

I am left with quite a few questions. 

What is anxiety? For me it’s baseline negative, that is, it is pre-verbal, and experienced directly as negativity in the body, as opposed to something that is interpreted as being negative. It seems to me to be at the heart of suffering–the very urge itself to ‘leave’ the present moment. 

Are there other “baseline” constituents of the identified self? Is anxiety the same for everyone, or are there other pre-self bodily expressions of separation? What about people with actual ‘anxiety’ disorders? What’s going on there? (As mentioned, I have never felt the sort of outsized domination of my lives as people with high anxiety describe). 

Is it related to some sort of early-life (or in-womb, as my wife suggested) trauma? 

Are there people who have not untied the knot of separation (who have made the boundary between self and not-self transparent) who are not constantly on some level experiencing anxiety? 

What’s the link between living in modern society and anxiety? If anxiety “goes all the way down” with the ego, what about traditional or earlier societies? Is it there and unconscious? 

Thank you for reading, and for your comments!