My unflappable-guru-spiritually-calm-and-mature friend met me for coffee last week before I left for another week in Saskatoon. He practices mindfulness, centering prayer, yoga, and walks labyrinths. He is nurtured by all things mystical and it is great to chat with him knowing I can dive in deep immediately without silly small talk.
This time, however, he made a sweeping statement that nearly made me snort my drink through my nose:
“You see, Erin, when we are truly mindful and living in the present moment, it is simply impossible to be anxious.”
I’m not sure if the look on his face was one of a perplexed spiritual person or of a wounded friend because I was laughing so hard. Good thing for me he really is an unflappable person by nature, mystical practices notwithstanding, so he took my laughter all in good stride.
After I settled down a bit, I asked him to repeat his statement and to qualify it a bit more. The mystic in me was deeply intrigued, but the pragmatist in me was already mocking his statement six ways to Sunday.
He gave me this image he had recently come across: “Erin, say you’re prepping your small boat to set sail from the marina in order to enjoy a beautiful day on the water. If you allow the thoughts of what MIGHT happen tomorrow with your job or your future or what will happen with your life, you will be your own thief in terms of enjoying the pleasant breeze on your face, the sound of the water against the boat, everything simple placed their to make that present moment powerful and life-giving.”
I took his point.
And then I proceeded to keep mocking him (not a lot, just a little), but then I countered with my perception of things:
“Bryce, all you’ve expressed to me is that you don’t know the difference between anxiety and worry, or that you don’t believe that there’s a difference. What you’ve shared with me is worry — specific, focused thoughts and feelings that are indeed rooted in places other than the present moment. And yes, worry can suck the joy out of the present easily.
But anxiety would be better explained by the unconscious panic that settles into the body and spirit when I can’t grasp how to tie knots properly while on the boat. Suddenly the present moment is a little bit darker because I know how important knot-tying is while out on the water. Anxiety forces my heart to beat faster when I smell a cloying stench on the wind that overwhelms my physical senses and suddenly my ability to take in enough oxygen plummets.”
Like many people, Bryce had lumped worry and anxiety into one giant ball of “it’s all worry, so why worry?” To be fair, Bryce has not really experienced deep anxiety about anything in life to any degree he would say has interrupted his daily living. So this differentiation is difficult for him to grasp. But he’s not alone. Christians jump on the Jesus bandwagon really quickly so we can shout “Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or wear!” through the streets. We toss Paul’s “Don’t worry about anything!” in there for good measure, just in case one of us accidentally starts worrying about something other than food or clothing.
Worry is by and large future-centered. To stay grounded in the moment, we do need to practice ways of letting that worry go. I would qualify this that we need to do so sensitively without destroying our sense of futuricity. By doing so, we can all too easily destroy our need for hope — another future-centered state.
Anxiety on the other hand is often firmly rooted in the present. Our parasympathetic nervous systems sometimes work against us. So even we believe we’re in the moment, our palms become sweaty, our mouths go dry, our heart rates skyrocket, and our vision swims. Sometimes we know what’s triggering the anxiety and sometimes we don’t. It isn’t always clear. What is clear is that it is of course possible to be anxious ‘in the moment’.
We are aware of the beautiful breeze against our skin, we are aware of the sunshine on our faces, we are aware of the sound of the waves lapping against the boat. But…we are also aware that a darkness is looming up in the midst of the air, water, and light. We are aware. This is the present moment for us who have known deep anxiety: being present to all things around us, including the darkness. We are engulfed.
That’s quite the dance.
Is it possible to learn to dance with this anxiety in the moment? Certainly. But it takes long, disciplined, and often painful work. Gurus who preach that we can be rid of anxiety altogether, I believe, are selling a charlatan’s wares. Some people may be able to conquer anxiety to the point where it simple ceases to exist in their lives. But to translate those experiences into a spiritual or religious path to true freedom or enlightenment is a bit deceitful as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps even shameful.
Returning to the boat image, if I’m becoming anxious to the point of being unable to function or enjoy the day because I’m scared my inability to grasp knot-tying will put me at risk, perhaps the wiser choice would be to enjoy the day on the boat practicing my knot-tying without the pressure of sailing. And if knot-tying, as a practice, is something I will always struggle with, then perhaps it’s wise for me not to sail alone. I can then attend to other boating activities that I do know how to do, and find myself relaxing into the moment.
(and all the self-help gurus’ heads are exploding right now because I said the word “scared”. They’ll know just the cure for that!)
Anxiety often plagues us because we are not fearful for the unknown future, but because of trauma both in the past and the present. Our bodies move into fight-or-flight mode because we already know what it’s like to nearly drown at sea or have a loved one drown at sea because of our poor knot-tying skills. We need to be careful of dismissing anxiety as simply worry about what might happen. Many of us have already experienced what has happened, and our systems are only reacting normally to abnormal circumstances.
Anxiety does not know time as we know time. Worry looks to the future. Anxiety pounces in the past, present, and future. Anxiety can cripple us from even functioning in life. Anxiety, for all its dangers and powers, is often dismissed as easy to get over from spiritual gurus and secular science alike.
If I was to offer a clearer relationship, I would say worry is a distinct sub-type of anxiety. We can be anxious without being worried, but it would be hard to be worried without being anxious. Anxiety has all sorts of tendrils that extend inwards to wrap themselves around who we are. Spirituality is too often unaware, or unwilling to be aware, of how our language dismisses our experiences (much to our detriment).
Yes, we can work and dance with our anxiety in the present. Yes, mindfulness is a useful tool. Yes, we need to release worry into the ether. However for people to be able to actually practice thriving in our lives, we need to be aware of what precisely anxiety is and what worry is. They are not the same.
But this is just one reluctant mystic’s perception.
Chew on what you will.