I went to a class called Taming Anxiety to deal with the residual feelings of being threatened, anxious, withdrawn. Fear still resonates at a very high frequency in my body. I am filled with debilitating self-judgments. I am searching for community. I have come to listen to my body and my emotions. I have come to follow my breath.
Some years ago, ordinary nervousness grew into full-blown anxiety attacks: increased heart rate, tense muscles, cold sweat, nausea and the urge to scream gripped me every morning. My body provided clear reasons and visible signs, the type that even the doctor could not dismiss. I no longer wanted to leave the house.
“May I be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.”~The Four Divine Abodes
Sometimes people interpret symptoms of anxiety as a heart attack. I perceived it as insanity. I could not trust my body to stay dry after getting dressed. My perspiration was activated with proximity to school and the classroom. Where once my formerly steel resolve and confidence were paramount, encountering the violence of colleagues unnerved me completely. I was not only falling apart, I was imploding, feasting on my own nervous system. There was no peace to be found in or around me.
I would rather define self as the interiorization of community. And if you make that little move, then you’re going to feel very different about things. If the self were defined as the interiorization of community, then the boundaries between me and another would be much less sure.
Through a Buddhist lens, the loss of balance has overwhelmed me. Using this frame, there is a connection between the mind, experiences and society. In this context, heart and mind are the same.
“May I be filled with loving kindness.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes
My falling apart was not gradual but exponential. Trembling became customary. For a time, I could not drive. My eyes averted from those of passersby. My hair thinned as I looked in the mirror. My beautiful complexion lost its shine, morphing into a waxy and irritated skin. I attempted to hide so that no one would see me dissolving. Isolation was the only safe place. The violence of my professional life eroded my joy.
The more recent manifestation of my anxiety is milder, habitual, unfounded.
Rev. Keiryu Liên Shutt gives us a Koan, a question repeated verbatim to a respondent, who answers each time. Rev. Liên insists that we ask it again and again. The Koan works. It leads me back to myself, to the limitations I have imposed on myself by following my thoughts out of the present moment. The Koan challenges the beliefs that I’ve held for some time, that I am responsible for my expulsion from the academy. I have constructed a narrative that serves to form my diseased state, and results in a burden I carry, alone, in silence.
I think we are indebted to history—and not just familial history, but cultural history, political history and economic history—for our understanding of ourselves.
How does my anxiety limit my happiness?
While I perform zazen, concentrating on my breath, I feel myself moving around inside my skin like a small animal in a burrow. Once in a while I will sniff the air at the opening to see if I am safe.
“May I accept myself just as I am.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes
After a time, the Koan makes me laugh. It is as funny as the absurd games I play on myself. It becomes clear to me: Anxiety has pushed me out from the unsafe world into a space I have cultivated with compassion and care. This new place is good for me though I am slow to adapt. The tools I need for my serenity are provided by my anxiety, a sounding board in my body, leading me to a world where I can breathe without hyperventilating, without erupting in stress-inducing illnesses.
“May I be peaceful and at ease.” ~The Four Divine Abodes
I only have to learn the signs and see the pattern to understand the hot burning is not healthy. My anxiety has liberated me from the bondage of suffering, given me the courage to confront my reality. I would never have willingly walked away from my livelihood. I was too fearful to face the consequences without a strong push.
The tools offered by psychiatry are intended to attack the symptoms of emotional suffering, not to promote emotional flourishing. Other emotions do not destroy equilibrium or the sense of well-being as soon as they arise, but in fact enhance it—so they would be called constructive.
How is my anxiety valuable to me?
It’s so easy to internalize dysfunction, to own and embody a condition that reduces our sense of self to ourselves and within our communities; it limits our ability to navigate in the world. We are less comfortable with looking at the external forces that play a role in our well-being or lack of it.
“May I have inner and outer safety.” ~The Four Divine Abodes
The myth of happiness is woven into the American consciousness. This ideal has not been designed for women and people of color, yet we allow the myth to enter our framework of self-identity and suffer for the shortcomings of that comparison. Until we learn to see ourselves as products of an oppressive society, individuals, who are ill equipped to bear the weight of these burdens, we must carry the imbalances that arise from the pervasive oppression under which we toil.
“May I hold my pain with mercy.” ~The Four Divine Abodes
There is a demand, an artificial one, that insists that we show up in society at 100% at all times. The sense that we cannot fluctuate from that norm is pervasive. With my students, a deep sense of failure was often articulated over an inability to master a technique that is only being tried for the first time. My answer was always that Doing one’s best on any given day is not the same as being perfect, operating at one hundred percent every day of our lives. That impossible goal is overdue for demystification. Aiming at that kind of perfection is not only impossible, it is also detrimental to our health and the health of our communities. It’s a myth that insists we show up as something other than our real selves. It is a myth that perpetuates anxiety, guilt and shame over our true selves rather than fostering a foundation of compassion wherein we can strive and grow into our evolving selves. It is a myth that breeds fear and isolation, components of anxiety.
“May I be undisturbed by the coming and goings of situations.”~ The Four Divine Abodes
The anxiety I feel is useful as a warning system, reminding me to stay in community—to seek it out if necessary. My anxiety pushes me to get help and to find the courage to move beyond the limits of my emotions and to examine the root causes of my dis-ease.
At the height of its grip on me, my anxiety was activated by the unhealthy racial climate at work, which was established over many years, designed to alienate me, and anyone who looks like me, consistently and strategically in overt and covert ways. The absence of friendliness and kindness took their toll on me. After ten years of absorbing toxicity from those in power, my body and my mind worked together to awaken me from my torpor. I could not ignore my anxiety if I meant to survive.
“May I hold my joys and sorrows with equanimity.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes
Ten years is long time to not belong. I had to get over the shame of not succeeding in an environment that never wanted me. Next, I named the climate that actively dehumanized me and treated me as inferior, made me feel out of place in the academy. I abandoned my systematic willingness to enter the war zone, crossing boundaries littered with landmines, peopled with hostile agents, looking for my happiness. I relearned compassion for myself and my oppressors.
“May your happiness increase and never leave you.” ~The Four Divine Abodes
I can see that during the entire episode, my anxiety guided me toward safety. My anxiety acted as a warning system, alerting me to the changes needed to ensure my well-being and happiness. I may not have caused my anxiety, but I am responsible for the state of my life. With this awareness, I’ve set new intentions to listen to my emotions with a heartmind toward Justice, Peace and Healing, and to foster the conditions under which I thrive. I don’t want to dwell in negative emotions, but I do need to investigate them and use them as catalysts to avoid self-harm, because I am fully aware that I am worthy of love and compassion. Three and half years ago, when I had my first anxiety attack, I never imagined I’d be on friendly terms with this emotion. Now I see anxiety as my friend and teacher.