To start with, a story by Pema Chödrön, from her book, Taking the Leap. She writes:
A few years ago, I was overwhelmed by deep anxiety, a fundamental, intense anxiety with no storyline attached. I felt very vulnerable, very afraid and raw. While I sat and breathed with it, relaxed into it, stayed with it, the terror did not abate. It was unrelenting after many days, and I didn’t know what to do.
I went to see my teacher Dzigar Kongtrül, and he said, “Oh, I know that place.” That was reassuring. He told me about times in his life when he had been caught in the same way. He said it had been an important part of his journey and had been a great teacher for him. Then he did something that shifted how I practice. He asked me to describe what I was experiencing. He asked me where I felt it. He asked me if it hurt physically and if it was hot or cold. He asked me to describe the quality of the sensation, as precisely as I could. This detailed exploration continued for a while, and then he brightened up and said “Ani Pema, that’s the Dakini’s Bliss. That’s a high-level of spiritual bliss.” I almost fell out of my chair. I thought, “Wow, this is great!” And I couldn’t wait to feel that intensity again. And do you know what happened? When I eagerly sat down to practice, of course, since the resistance was gone, so was the anxiety.
I now know that at a nonverbal level the aversion to my experience had been very strong. I had been making the sensation bad. Basically, I just wanted it to go away. But when my teacher said “Dakini’s bliss,” it completely changed the way I looked at it. So that’s what I learned: take an interest in your pain and your fear. Move closer, lean in, get curious; even for a moment, experience the feelings without labels, beyond being good or bad. Welcome them. Invite them. Do anything that helps melt the resistance.
(For the final paragraph of the excerpt, click here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/pema-chodron/dakinis-bliss/386161346427/)
Re-reading this excerpt today I found myself rethinking anxiety— in fact, it didn’t feel like so much a “rethinking” as a sort of busting out of the constraints of old thinking by a by way of the question that occurred to me: What would it mean to think that it is not the “energy of anxiety” I am experiencing when I am in its throes, I wondered, but the “anxiety of energy“?
What if, that is, the feeling of “anxiety” is none other than the body’s natural discomfort with that dimension of our life-force that is in fact too big for the body to contain? And isn’t that in turn part of the condition of being fully alive: to have to grapple with not
only the amount of life-force (prana, qi) sufficient for the basic functions of our own, individual bodies’ lives, but also to somehow manage all of the additional life-force needed to participate in life-giving activity (which might be defined as all that is generative, nurturing, protective, reparative, attentive, and more): with that abundance, that excess of life-force that cannot in fact be contained, because it’s not meant to be, not being meant for our individual lives’ basic functioning alone.
And the moment that thought-question arrived, I literally felt the truth of it; it was as though my anxiety itself had been yearning to be heard, instead of pathologized (newsflash: we mental health practitioners get away with a boatload of judgements, disguised as “diagnoses”). And I felt the anxiety pause in a kind of relief-of-recognition—the energy itself felt no less intense, but it was as though all the zippy, chaotic motion of its electrons had shifted from a kind of screechy dissonance into a kind of busy hum.
Which hum, I recognized, is exactly the feeling I have when that energy is actually plugged into something: when I am hiking, or painting, or writing (in fact I feel that hum now, as I write this piece, and it was not the same feeling before I started it), or singing*, or listening with deep attention to another heart.
And speaking of running: the concept of the “anxiety of energy” in turn changes the way I think about what it means to engage in activities that help with discharging the excess. Because while there’s all kinds of encouragement to “conserve” and to “refresh” our energy so we can keep it and even have more, somehow the “discharge of the excess” kinds of activities tend to get pathologized, I think because that’s where “anxiety” gets into the mix. Take my friend S., for instance. S., also a psychotherapist, is someone I think of as having been gifted/burdened with a tremendous amount of life-force, and who depends on a lot of daily running not only to discharge the excess but to smooth out her energy, as well as to work out whatever mental and emotion content it might be engaging at the moment. Which in fact makes it possible to actually bring that particular quality of calm, intense presence she has to fully being with others, without the restless “static” created by her own energetic excess. And I love the way she patiently and persistently resists the pathologizing she is regularly subjected to (which I guess comes with the territory of being a psychotherapist and having lots of psychotherapist friends!). One of her protests involves pointing out that the build-up itself simply exists as a given, that it could be discharged in a lot less productive ways, and that in fact things do get worked out and through in the process, which would not happen if the energy were forced to stay trapped in the body’s static container. In S’s case, it seems to me that her dependence on running becomes a non-problem when it is understood to be the “anxiety of energy” (in the sense of the “restlessness of the excess”) that is being managed, and not the other way around. (side note: Susannah writes a wonderful, if very sporadic, blog— not about running but aptly-otherwise titled Run It Down )
About a year ago, an extended period of turmoil left me with a little hand tremor. The tremor having persisted long after other stress-related symptoms had abated, I asked my doctor about it recently, since while it’s not that noticeable or bothersome, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a symptom of some problem. She asked me several questions, including “Does is stop when your hand grasps or engages something?” I had noticed, in fact, that it does exactly that (for instance, there is no tremor at all as type these words). She told me that I had what is called “Essential Tremor,” sometimes brought on by stress, sometimes by genetics, and that while it wasn’t likely to disappear, it was not a problem to solve if it was not a problem to me, especially since the treatments can cause way worse problems than the condition itself.
And so his morning, in light of the reconsideration of anxiety that I’ve described, and in gratitude for that dimension of our life-force that is, by its nature, too much to simply contain, I found myself feeling a new kind of appreciative affection for my tremor. It’s just the tremor of my essence, I thought, as I reached for my cup of tea.
*A note on the “Abecedarius” in the title of this post: an abecedarius is a poem in which the lines or stanzas begin with the letters of the alphabet in regular order.
The poem, Ars Poetica? (not itself an abecedarius) by Czeslaw Milosz begins, I have always aspired to a more spacious form / that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose / and would let us understand each other without exposing / the author or reader to sublime agonies.
Me too, in this blog and in general. So, as a way of creating a sort of organizing principle for a blog which is intentionally spacious in its form, this post begins a series which, abecedarius-like, will follow the alphabet with respect to titles an topics.
Next: “‘B’ is for ‘Books & Blogs’ (favorites of 2019)”