Anxiety is built into a lot of us. Me, for one. It pushes us, it makes us alert to the world like a wolf on the prowl. It makes us hilarious. It makes us join holy orders, sit on meditation cushions, walk tightropes, pound the keys, do all the things that require intense concentration because we just must do something to keep from flying apart.
It is a gorgeous fall day.
The weather’s been so warm, trees turning slowly for this part of the country. I have always felt most restless on days like this, when it’s so pretty I feel I can’t capture it. I feel its passing, I feel the sap slowing in my limbs, my leaves turning colors, me turning gray.
The definition of anxiety is a generalized fear, or dread. A feeling that has no particular focus. I lie awake. It’s my son I worry about, my daughter, my sister(s), Jerry, me, the poem I’d started. My longing reaches out with its tentacles and sucks in anything it can reach. I could win a Pulitzer, I could win the lottery, or be elected Pope, and I’d still be hugging my anxiety to my chest.
I stay with my breathing as I lie there. Deep in, slight hesitation before it releases and begins its trip back out. There’s a meditation called Tonglen that goes like this: breathe in the “bad” stuff, breathe out love, peace, whatever generic words we use for what we think we want. How many years have I meditated regularly? Almost 30. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, maybe I need to check into a monastery for several months. Maybe I’m a failure.
Balderdash. Anxiety is my inheritance, and that won’t change. What then, does meditation do? It lets me see my anxiety in day-glo colors, to watch its shifting on my mind’s screen. It’s actually quite fascinating.
There I am in the sailboat with my father. A slight gust. “My god, the mast may break!” he cries. The mast has been about to break all of my life. It’s made of wood, after all. It’s not made to handle strong wind. Maybe this wind is too strong.
We’re in the car, on our way from Arkansas to Michigan. It’s high summer. Hot. The tires are retreads, of course, because they’re cheaper. You could do that, then. What’s that sound? It may be the retread coming off. There may be a problem with the carburetor. Oh lord, what will we do?
Not to mention my brain damaged brother who could have a seizure at any moment.
Fast forward: not to mention my cancer, “my” cancer, that could return at any time. That has become my quiet, pale companion. It says nothing. It is so quiet, maybe it’s not there at all. I am listening.
Anxiety, reaching out its tentacles, looking for reasons. The blood, the DNA, the internal workings touch the mysterious mind in their synaptic way, and the mind translates. It’s because of this, because of that. If only. If I had only. Balderdash.
Balderdash. Late 16th century, origin unknown. First meant a frothy liquid; later, an unappetizing mixture of drinks. Now used to mean hogwash. Most used in the 1940s, has declined somewhat since then.
Hogwash. Mid-15th century. Kitchen refuse given to pigs. In the 18th century, used to describe cheap liquor and also inferior writing. Its use is at its peak today, for a polite way to say bullshit.
Anxiety at work, checking out the territory, looking up definitions. What stands for what, how much deeper can the mind dig? Hunt, peck, scavenge. No time for sentences, only phrases. Keep moving. Anxiety, it might be comforting to think, is something we created, in our century, with our very own computers. Tap, tap.
As if we could cure it by taking a long walk in the woods. Doing deep breathing. Great to do, of course. Both of them. We lock ourselves into the harness of self-improvement and pull as hard as we can. Oh well.
I think of Jesus who said we’re okay as we are. We’re loved as we are. Made in the image of God. I think of the Buddha who said the same thing in a different tongue. Translation: I think it’s okay to be anxious. I think that we’re exactly perfect in some cosmic way, with our brown eyes, or blue, our anxiety or our imperterbably calm nature.
“I am a lover of what is, not because I’m a spiritual person, but because it hurts when I argue with reality.” –Byron Katie.