A wrestling match with anxiety

“That pain every day wears a little more. Between my head and my heart there is a cold war.”

The Rocket Summer

Most of my life has been draped in a cloak of anxiety. Not by my own choosing, and certainly not by some sick design of fate. No god or divine intervention can snap its fingers and make this cloak disappear. It is a part of me; a cocktail of genetics and circumstance; the result of a tender heart growing up in an ever-tense environment of unpredictability and danger. My body exists in a constant state of guardedness, ready to fight, fly, or freeze at the hint of a threat.

Yet I resist any significant pharmaceutical intervention. Despite the fact that I am exhausted and overstimulated, the idea of taking a pill that changes the chemical flow of my brain feels like a betrayal of my self. Sure, I can buy peace within my body, but at the risk of rewiring the chemical makeup inside my head.

I don’t like that concept. If anyone is shuffling wires in my brain, I want it to be me.

Perhaps that is an ignorant statement. Perhaps I overestimate my own capabilities. I don’t expect someone with a brain tumor to regulate their emotions and control the effects it has on their personality. Likewise, to expect someone to change the way they think, feel, and act when life ingrained deep neurological trenches designed to protect that person from an unstable world seems ludicrous. I didn’t choose to be anxious 24/7. Life experience programmed me to be on edge.

Yet I believe that I have some control over this war between my body and mind. The brain possesses a remarkable plasticity, granting it the capacity to change. To do so takes significant effort and discipline. Right now – and for most of my life – these engrained habits have been stronger than my volition. But, with practice and with discipline, that can change. Already, I have seen that to some extent as I practice the art of mindfulness.

There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” and the first man replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!” This is also our story. We are riding a horse, we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t stop. The horse is our habit energy pulling us along, and we are powerless. We are always running, and it has become a habit. We struggle all the time, even during our sleep. We are at war within ourselves, and we can easily start a war with others.

We have to learn the art of stopping—stopping our thinking, our habit energies, our forgetfulness, the strong emotions that rule us. When an emotion rushes through us like a storm, we have no peace. We turn on the TV and then we turn it off. We pick up a book and then we put it down. How can we stop this state of agitation? How can we stop our fear, despair, anger, and craving? We can stop by practicing mindful breathing, mindful talking, mindful smiling, and deep looking in order to understand. When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy.

But our habit energies are often stronger than our volition. We say and do things we don’t want to and afterward we regret it. We make ourselves and others suffer, and we bring about a lot of damage. We may vow not to do it again, but we do it again. Why? Because our habit energies push us.

We need the energy of mindfulness to recognize and be present with our habit energy in order to stop this course of destruction. With mindfulness, we have the capacity to recognize the habit energy every time it manifests. “Hello, my habit energy, I know you are there!” If we just smile to it, it will lose much of its strength. Mindfulness is the energy that allows us to recognize our habit energy and prevent it from dominating us.

Forgetfulness is the opposite. We drink a cup of tea, but we do not know we are drinking a cup of tea. We sit with the person we love, but we don’t know that she is there. We walk, but we are not really walking. We are someplace else, thinking about the past or the future. The horse of our habit energy is carrying us along, and we are its captive. We need to stop our horse and reclaim our liberty. We need to shine the light of mindfulness on everything we do, so the darkness of forgetfulness will disappear.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

I’m not ready to give up, pop a pill, and let someone else do the work for me. Fear has driven me most of my life, but I’m willing to climb out of the back seat and kick the driver out the window with all the flair of a B-rated action movie. And as I wrestle with the steering wheel, my feet reaching blindly for the brakes, I will endure the pounding heart and aching head clinched within the grip of adrenaline, because I believe that I can get this car under control. I believe that I can slow it down, and put it in park.

And when I do, I plan to get out and walk. No map, no hurry, just two bare feet padding upon the earth as I soak in the here and now. That’s what I desire. That is my goal. To slow down and to human be.

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