Anxiety as practice
24 February 2007
I met up with a friend earlier this evening for coffee and was telling him about my recent struggle with the fear and anxiety over the outcome of my PhD. As I started to recount the story to him, about how I became aware I was blaming my supervisor, the examiners and external circumstances for my predicament, I found myself saying, ‘Instead of saying the examiners are wrong or that I disagree with their position, what would happen if I said, actually they are right and I agree with them?’ A curious thing started to happen: as I was speaking, I saw flashes of how the new thesis was going to take shape. It still amazes how powerful a shift in mindset can be.
I then proceeded to narrate this new discovery to my friend, and asked, ‘You know, now the answer seems so evident. How is it it took me this long to get to it? How come I couldn’t see it last week?’, implying that since I’d been practising for several years, how was it I was still so slow on the uptake when it came to self-awareness. My friend said, ‘It was what you needed to arrive at this point.’
So it occurred to me. Anxiety is not separate from practice. Anxiety, like everything else, is part of practice. I need to stop rejecting my anxiety, too.
Initially, I had seen my resistance to my examiners, supervisor and external circumstances as the cause of my anxiety, and decided to ease the anxiety by embracing them. In other words, I’d made the others ‘other’ to my-self, but unknowingly began to identify with the anxiety. As I began to accept the others as part of myself, I ended up distancing my anxiety, making it the new ‘other’, when in fact, it is not an ‘other’ at all. The causes and the effects, the external factors and the internal effects, are part of the same mental process.
Anxiety is me, and I am my anxiety. However, identifying too much with my anxiety becomes neurosis, identifying my anxiety too much as other to myself becomes denial. Somewhere in that spectrum is me, me. Not the external, social me, but the universal me. Or maybe the spectrum itself is me.
It isn’t possible at this stage to pursue this line of thought any further without getting too attached to it, so I am going to stop now.
One figurative way to put it is to say, I feel like I am in the shadow of Eliot’s ‘red rock’:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handfull of dust.
– T.S. Eliot, Part 1 – The Burial of the Dead, The Waste Land (1922)*
*A Real Audio recording of Eliot’s recitation can be found here. It really has a certain rhythmic effect.