The Diet of Experience: The ongoing choosing of what we need
Posted Aug 24 2008 4:02pm
Sandy was flailing in the whirlpool of her anxiety. She could spot what her mind was saying--"We have to do something to stop this anxiety, but we don't have the power. But we have to do something! But..."--but couldn't find enough ground to pull herself out. In a familiar desperation, she saw herself reaching out for anything to hang onto, wanting to lose herself in television or food. "Miserable," she thought, "Absolutely miserable."
This "no exit" quality of anxiety is so part and parcel of what keeps it in place: our danger warnings go off because of some internal or external experience, our thoughts add to the anxiety, we can't find an immediate cure, which makes us feel even more endangered, our bodies signal more danger, our minds react, and...so on. This is the stuckness, the circular quality of this particular wild mood.
One way of coping is what Sandy found herself lunging for, the strategies she had learned help "muffle" the experience of anxiety. Overeating suppresses the physical sensations, like putting your finger on a vibrating string, and creates a thin sense of control ("Well, at least I can control what I'm eating"). Disappearing into TV does a similar thing with the mind, supplanting distracting thoughts and images for the anxious ones, and allowing you to push the buttons on the remote control to shift your thoughts. To some degree anyway, and that's certainly an important degree because both TV and food point to your ability to actually choose different physical and mental states. And when you are really upset, having these ways of calming or distracting can be very helpful.
The unhelpful part comes from those times when we reach after these coping devices from a place of desperation, not from a place of choice.
For instance, Sandy used a lot of coffee to manage her anxiety, without fully realizing what its purpose was. When we explored what it might be like to diminish her intake, she noticed a lot of fear arising. She was afraid that she would fall apart in her day-to-day life if she changed how much coffee she drank. But, in realizing the purpose of coffee, she was able to start experimenting with dosage and when during the day she drank it, even abstaining at times. Ultimately, she was able use coffee strategically for those days when the anxiety was too strong to manage with her other skills, or when she needed to get worldly stuff accomplished and couldn't dedicate the time to meditating or investigating the details of the anxiety.
Anxiety has much to do, at the level of thought, with feeling out of control, and Sandy's learning was that she could both get the suppressant effects of coffee as needed, but also could feel more in control of the process, of when she chose, rather than letting the choice be habitual and maybe even a misreading of what she really needs.
Because within anxiety is a message about something lacking, either as a "psychic nutrient" or as a desire. Often within her anxiety was a feeling of wanting to feel more competent (not just, notice, feeling incompetent, but having an active desire), and when she stumbled on an activity that made her feel that, her anxiety reduced or dissipated.
So our work focused for a time on making a practice of asking herself, "What do I need in this moment?" and then really listening ( here is a recent article on one way to do this). Often the first response would be a knee-jerk, "Doesn't matter because I don't have the power to change anything!" But we worked to recognize this voice of disempowerment, and to listen past it to the intuitive place in her that could give her a real answer. Her's was often, "It would help if I felt more effective," which the TV and overeating actually never satisfied, often making her feel more incompetent.
We are always faced with a choice when our moods become wild, but without being able to contact the wise place within us, we don't act self-destructively so much as on poor information. So she had to learn to tolerate that space between "We can't!" and the wisdom that would eventually arise, and then to act on that wisdom to help herself get what her system was lacking.
I say "system" intentionally, because what was so important was to shift from the sense of personal endangerment that fueled the anxiety, to a more neutral stance of examining her need and then, as if designing her own diet, added the missing nutrients and noticing the results. The control that is arrived at is an authentic one based in awareness or listening, and direct response, not in an image of control (like frantically pushing buttons on the remote control) that we can feel is unstable and not really that all effective.
What Sandy learned was that even within the storm of anxiety, there was a place of calm from which she could assess her need, and that over time, in practicing responding to her own wisdom about her needs, she could actually shift her mood. In learning not to struggle against anxiety, but to move with it like boating through rapids, she could actually diminish the mood and build up a grounded faith in her ability to get out of the whirlpool of anxiety. The voice of helplessness and powerlessness came to sound a bit tinny when it arrived, because she remembered more and more often past times of finding what she genuinely needed.
And finally, at a deeper level, she began to trust that she actually could provide what she, in moments, lacked, and that life apparently was not a desert, but rather a buffet table on which she could find the experiences that she actually needed.