I’ve struggled with worry and anxiety my entire life. Tried a little counseling. A mild anti-anxiety drug for a while. Lots of reading on the subject. And, in recent years, meditation. I suspect a professional would put me on the low end of the anxiety spectrum, if there is such a thing. At this point in my life, I don’t expect to ever be completely worry-free. I’ve learned to live with it.
The subject comes up in just about every book and article I’ve read on Taoism and Buddhism. The term most often used is good old “fear.” And it seems we fear the one thing that is inevitable: change. And, of course, we fear that biggest change of all, death.
I think most adults know that fearing what might happen at some future time is pointless. And, yes, we know that most of the things we fear never happen. There’s a part of me that will always believe that worry/anxiety/fear is either hardwired into our brains and/or learned behavior at a very early age. These days I’ve been dealing with worry (anxiety sounds too clinical and fear a bit extreme) from a Buddhist/Taoist perspective. Here’s how it plays out in my head.
Anxious thoughts pop into our mental stream with some regularity. We don’t choose our thoughts. At least, that’s my understanding. Thoughts bubble up from somewhere in our subconscious and quickly (usually) get pushed out by the next thought. If you’re really busy and involved with something, most thoughts don’t stick around long.
Now Buddhists and Taoist are quick to point out that we don’t really have permanent self. The “me/I” that we all feel is inside somewhere, watching things and calling the shots, isn’t really there. I know, I know. But it’s damned easy to imagine there’s a me, myself and I. And that’s who reaches out and grabs that fear thought when it floats into consciousness.
“Whoa! What’s this on my leg? Is that a stage four melanoma?” The passing thought doesn’t pass. It goes into what I’ve been calling the Fear Basket. The Fear Basket is what the self lugs around to hold all the thoughts I’m worried about. Think of them as stones of varying size. There’s no limit to how many stones your basket will hold so it can get damned heavy. Occasionally, we can toss one of theses stones. The lab report said benign pigmentation. Nothing to worry about. Yeah, okay, if that was the only stone in your Fear Basket. You get the idea.
But if our Buddhist/Taoist friends are right and there really is no self… who’s holding the basket? I’ll admit the “no self” thing is a tough one. I’ve been wrestling it for years. But here’s something of which we can be certain: those rocks might be heavy but they’re not real. Not yet. So when I feel that basket getting heavy, I’m going to focus on a rock and see if I can make it fade like Jim Kirk getting beamed up by the Enterprise transporter.
I tell you what else might work but I’m not there. Yet. A real basket you carry with you everywhere you go. Worried about the stock market? Find a rock of the appropriate size and put it in your basket. Concerned that bald spot is getting bigger? Look for a fist sized stone and put it in the basket. When someone asks you why you’re carrying around a basket of rocks, explain that each rock represents something you’re worried about. After telling that story half a dozen times you might decide to just put the damned thing down. Or at least dump the rocks.
UPDATE: The Fear Basket can only contain rocks when someone is holding or carrying it. The longer they hold/carry the basket, the heavier the rocks become. And, paradoxically, the more difficult to set the basket down.