Working with anxiety comes down to ‘getting out of your head’. We could equally well say that ‘anxiety management’ comes down to ‘getting out of your head’ but the problem with saying something like this is that any sort of ‘management’ always involves coming back into your head, not getting out of it, and so the term ‘anxiety management’ tends to be misleading right from the start. After all, the manager of a department is generally the head of the department too, and so it is pretty obvious that ‘management’ is not really the right word to use here.
Anxiety, we could say, is the result of being in our heads too much. Whatever happens we have to think about it – we think about everything all the time, even if it hasn’t happened yet and might never happen, we still have to think about it. The idea of ‘anxiety management’ is clearly not helpful here because if we are to manage something then we have to think about it and thinking about anxiety doesn’t make the anxiety go away any more than getting frustrated or angry about the fact that I am angry all the time is going to make me any the less angry.
What does help with anxiety is learning to relate to ourselves and the world in a way that is not based on thinking and analyzing and calculating and strategizing and controlling and all of that ‘head-type’ stuff. For most of us, this sounds quite strange. Whatever other way could there be of relating to things? How can we ‘not think’ about stuff? Does this involve making myself blank? Does this involve some ultra-advanced, super-sophisticated form of strategizing? Do I have to control myself to stop controlling?
The answer however is far simpler than we generally realize. Every time we hear a bird singing we are relating to the world without thinking. That is why it is such a wonderfully peaceful experience to hear a bird sing – because we are not thinking. We are not straining to achieve anything and we are not straining to analyze anything. The activity of thought is completely absent in the experience of attending to the sound of a bird singing and this absence is precisely where the peacefulness in question comes in.
Another example is where we notice unimportant or inconsequential details – stuff that is ‘not important’. Anything that the rational mind focuses on is by definition important – the rational-purposeful mind only ever concerns itself with details that it sees as important. This is after all how the instrument of rationality functions – it functions by ‘excluding the irrelevant’. The rational mind can’t notice something that is irrelevant no matter how hard it tries because as soon as it makes a goal of seeing some detail or other it has made that particular detail relevant to its scheme of things! This is a trap it can never escape, not even if it tries for a billion, billion years.
On the other hand, purely by accident, despite the best efforts of the rational-purposeful mind, we do notice stuff that is irrelevant and inconsequential. For example we might notice children playing in the street, we might notice the odd-looking shadow that a fence makes as the sun sets, we might notice how many spots a ladybird has when it alights on our hand. All these details are quite irrelevant to whatever rational goal-orientated business might have been going on in our heads, but that actually makes them more interesting, not less. It is in the inconsequential details that life is to be found, not in the serious stuff that the rational mind likes to concern itself with. If we were only ever to take notice of what the rational mind wants us to take notice of then we would miss out on life entirely! This – needless to say – is something that happens far too often. Our thinking causes us to ‘miss’ life.
That fact that when we aren’t too caught up in the thinking mind we do notice (and often delight in) the inconsequential details of life shows that we can escape perfectly easily from the narrow remit of rationality, which is as we have said the game of ‘excluding the irrelevant’. Noticing the irrelevant details of life is something that happens quite naturally, with the greatest ease. It doesn’t need to be planned or strategized. I don’t need to be told how to do it, or learn it on a course. I can’t get a certificate for it. And yet when we are anxious it seems that this is the one thing we cannot do because when we are anxious we are almost entirely ‘trapped in the rational mind’.
The rational-purposeful mind is a very effective prison because everything we do – at least everything we do on purpose – leads us right back into it. For example, suppose you tell me to try to escape the restrictiveness of my rational mind by noticing ‘inconsequential’ or ‘random’ details like a bird singing outside my window, or small children playing in the street. Or suppose you tell me to notice my breath as it goes gently in and out. Straightaway I make a task of this – I say to myself that it is very important for me to notice the bird or the children or my breath going in and out of my body. And then because I have said that it is ‘important’, this means that I have to force myself to reach the goal – this means that I have to strain to ‘get it right’.
But all this business of forcing and straining and focusing hard to reach the goal (i.e., this business of ‘trying to do it correctly’) is the rational purposeful mind in a nutshell, and so I haven’t escaped at all but only made matters worse. I am more trapped in my goal-orientated mind than ever! I am more pressurized and more preoccupied and more driven than ever and so the exercise has been entirely counterproductive.
The point is not that there is anything wrong with the rational-purposeful mind, only that when it is the only option that we know then life itself gets turned into a long and very wearisome task. The mind is in essence a tool or instrument and it can be very, very useful, but like all tools we need to be able to ‘lay it down’ when we no longer need it. We need to be able to put it back in the cupboard when the job is done and it is no longer needed. If we can’t do this then this is like bringing a petrol lawn-mower back into the house with the motor running when we have finished mowing the lawn instead of turning it off and leaving it back in the shed. It is like getting into bed with the mower, with the engine still running, and then trying to get some sleep!
In the same way, if we are trapped in the purposeful mind and can’t lay it down or ‘let go of it’ in-between jobs then we are – in effect – turning the whole of life into a job, a puzzle to be solved, or a problem to be solved.
This is what happens when we are suffering from anxiety – we automatically respond to life as a puzzle to be solved or a problem to be fixed. We might think that it is ‘this little thing’ or ‘that little thing’ that we are trying to fix but actually we are tying to fix life itself. We are treating our existence as a task, as something that needs to be ‘successfully controlled’. But life isn’t a task that needs to be correctly managed, it just ‘is’. Appreciating stuff that just ‘is’ is the one thing the rational-purposeful mind can’t do – it has to treat everything as a problem because it is an instrument for fixing problems! When this mind gets applied to the Whole of Everything (i.e. when it can’t be turned off) then we get anxious as a result because the Whole of Everything is just too big to be fixed…
When this happens and I do start treating everything as a task that I have to be in control of – instead of just ‘letting it happen’ – then instead of enjoying life I am run ragged by it. I am oppressed by it. Instead of being able to find peace in life, all I find is never-ending torment. My mind keeps tricking me – it keeps giving me tasks, it keeps giving me things to do and then promising me that when I complete the task, finish the job, then I will be able to rest, then I will be able to find peace. But this never happens because as soon as I finish one job it comes up with another for me to do, and another, and another… No matter how many tasks I attend to I never come to an end because there is always another one waiting in the queue. I never get any reward for my efforts – I never get a feeling of satisfaction or accomplishment. I never get the peace of mind that I am craving. All I get is yet more problems to solve.
This ought to come as no surprise because the one thing the purposeful mind can never provide me with is peace. It can only ever supply me with more goals, more purposes. Peace only happens when the thinking mind is put to one side, when it is no longer there, sucking up all my energy and all my attention. Peace is when the over-valued rational mind is no longer centre-stage, when my attention is allowed to fall gently and freely upon details that have not been designated by the mind as ‘important’.
One way in which we can get ‘out of our heads’ and escape the thankless tyranny of the rational mind is to give ourselves some gentle task such as watching the breath go in and out, and then taking care not to try too hard at it. Every time I notice myself making a serious task out of it (and perhaps getting annoyed with myself for ‘not getting it right’) I just spot myself doing this, I ‘catch myself out’. Every time that I notice that I am getting serious and straining to follow my breath I remember that this is not what the task is about. It’s not about achieving anything – it’s just about ‘noticing gently’, or ‘noticing for the sake of noticing’.
I’m not trying to get anywhere because ‘getting somewhere’ is the game of the purposeful mind. I am there already. So as soon as I notice that I am trying to get somewhere I ease up, I stop ‘leaning down so heavily’ on the task and lighten up. And in this ‘lightening up’ I am getting out of my head; in this ‘lightening-up’ I am finding freedom from the unrelenting tyranny of the ever-present, ever-monitoring, ever-demanding, rational mind.
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.