Anxiety is a state of mind in which we are very much at odds with the world, and generally with ourselves into the bargain. It is a state of mind in which we are constantly struggling, constantly striving, constantly fighting to get things to be a certain way.
But it is not just the case that anxiety is a state of mind in which we are constantly struggling to get things to be a certain way, a way which they obviously aren’t, but also it is the case that we feel very much as if we are fighting a losing battle. If we didn’t have this feeling that we are fighting a losing battle then what we are experiencing wouldn’t be anxiety – it would be something else.
Our automatic impulse is to overcoming this ‘sinking feeling’ – this feeling of ‘impending doom’ – by struggling even harder but this knee-jerk reflex simply doesn’t work. Again, if it did work then what we are experiencing wouldn’t be anxiety at all – the whole thing about anxiety is that struggling as hard as we can doesn’t work. Our struggling just aggravates the situation!
The more we fight to get things to happen the right way (instead of the wrong way, which is the way things seem to be heading) the more there seems to be a back-lash – the back-lash of ‘negative thinking’, the back-lash of ‘suspecting that it just isn’t going to work out for us’…
This therefore is a trap. Anxiety is a trap – we feel that we have to struggle to control things as best but this actually makes us feel less rather than more in control. The more we try to make ourselves believe that things will be OK, the more we can’t help feeling that they won’t! Our desperate effort to get things to happen the ‘right way’ simply emphasizes the fact that they aren’t. Or we could say that our desperate attempt to ‘be in control’ makes it all the more frighteningly obvious that we aren’t really in control at all…
Anyone who has ever suffered from anxiety will understand this straightaway. It is very familiar territory to all anxiety-sufferers: if anxiety wasn’t a trap, in the way that we have just described it as being, then it wouldn’t be anxiety! If anxiety wasn’t a trap, then we would just be able to step out of it. We would be able to straightforwardly manoeuvre ourselves out of the anxiety and very obviously we can’t…
There never was a person suffering from anxiety who by struggling very hard to be in control (so as to make sure the right thing happens rather than the wrong thing) freed themselves from anxiety. This never ever happened, not even once in the whole history of the human race!
The reason it can’t happen (and didn’t ever happen) is because struggling very hard to make sure the right thing happens and not the wrong thing is anxiety!! What else is anxiety if not this?
If being desperate for the desired outcome to happen (and at the same time frightened of the undesired outcome happening) is anxiety – which it plainly is – then how can it ever lead to us being free from anxiety? How can being anxious possibly free us from anxiety? This would be like an alcoholic trying to free himself from his addiction by drinking an awful lot, or like a gambler trying to free himself from his addiction by gambling even more recklessly than he was before.
Once we clearly see the nature of the trap that is anxiety then this is the most important step towards becoming free from it. As long as we hang onto the idea that by struggling (by striving mightily to regain control of things) we can manage to get free from anxiety then we don’t have a chance. We don’t have a chance because everything we do feeds right back into the anxiety and makes it stronger than ever. We are nourishing the demon, not starving it – we are making things worse for ourselves, not better! Insight into anxiety is crucial therefore – not any sort of purposeful activity, not any sort of method or tactic or strategy or anything like that…
So what’s the answer? If struggling or fighting or resisting is how we feed anxiety, then very clearly the way to starve it is by not struggling, by not fighting, by not resisting…
This is unquestionably true. If I am not trying as hard as I can to get things to be a certain way, then how could I possibly be anxious? As we have said, anxiety can only come about when there are two ingredients –
 When I am struggling as hard as I can to get things to be a certain way
 When I have the frightening or worrying feeling that I am just not going to be able to get them to be that certain way
These two ingredients are what make anxiety be anxiety. If I am not struggling to get things to work out ‘the right way rather than the wrong way’ then I won’t have the sinking feeling that thing aren’t going to happen the right way. And if I don’t get this sinking feeling that ‘things aren’t going to happen the way I want them to’ then there is no anxiety…
This is unquestionably true, but at the same time we have to acknowledge that being able to stop struggling, stop striving, stop fighting is a hugely difficult thing. It is not as straightforward as it might on the face of it sound. Not struggling, not striving, not ‘fighting’ one way or another is simply not an option because struggling is the only way I know. It is an ingrained reflex – it’s a reflex that kicks in every time.
If for example I say to myself that I want to stop struggling then straightaway I find myself ‘struggling not to struggle’. If I say that I want to stop straining for some outcome or other then straightaway I am ‘straining not to strain’. The outcome I am trying to obtain for myself is now the outcome of ‘not struggling to achieve an outcome’.
The way out from this is to realize that I don’t need to try to change anything. Psychologically speaking, trying to change things is known as resistance, and resistance essentially means that I am tensing up mentally in some way. I am tensing up mentally because I want for things to be different, because I want to change things. Wanting to change the way things are is resistance and resistance is at the very root of anxiety.
The key to dissolving (or melting) resistance is to see it. All I have to do is notice the tensing up that is happening in my mind (or body) as a result of wanting things to be different. Noticing is a gentle thing because it isn’t demanding change. Noticing is what happens first when our awareness meets something – it is only afterwards when the evaluating mind cuts in that noticing turns into controlling, or resistance.
The only problem is of course that the evaluating, controlling mind generally cuts in very fast! No sooner have I become aware of something than I evaluate it one way or another – either I like it and I want to keep it, or I dislike it and want to get rid of it. Either it is the one way or it is the other…
The way to work with this is simply to be gently aware of the controlling mind cutting in. Normally I just go right along with this mind – I put my weight behind it, I join in with it, I want what it wants… When I identify with the controlling mind in this automatic way I don’t notice it at all – I don’t see it, and because I don’t see it I am feeding it, I am making it stronger.
Whenever something happens automatically, by reflex, and I don’t see it that automatic reflex gets stronger. If I aware of it happening however – and this doesn’t mean fighting against it, or resisting it – then I am not feeding the automatic reflex. Gentle awareness gradually takes the power out of the evaluating, controlling mind so that as I keep on practicing that awareness the viciousness of the reactive mind gradually decreases.
This process by which the power of the reactive (or automatic) mind is gradually weakened is not immediately noticed, it is an imperceptible process and so the tendency is to forget about it and try something else. But the only other thing I know is struggling (or ‘reacting’) and this is only going to make the automatic tendency stronger! So even if I can’t see any immediate improvement in my situation – because the change is too gradual for me to notice – there is absolutely no way at all that going back to struggling and fighting is going to help things. After all, I have already been down this road!
In fact not only is it the case that I have already been down this road, it is the only road I have ever been down! That is the only way I know. I have been trying resistance for just about the whole of my life and if so resistance was going to help me it would have done by now.
So even if dropping my resistance and practicing – as best I can – the art of gently being aware, in a non-judgmental way, of my reactive mind doesn’t seem to be working (and my reactive mind is busy telling me that it isn’t going to work, that I need something else instead!) at least I know it isn’t making things worse. At least I know that I am not feeding the automatic tendency to react. And if I am not feeding this tendency, there is no way that it cannot start to lose its strength, its deadly hold over me…
The only reason I would forget about the practice of being gently aware of my automatic reactions and start looking for something else instead is because my reactive mind has told me that this is what I need to do. My reactive mind has frightened me into thinking that I need to try something else. But if it is my reactive mind that is the problem in the first place then how can listening to it do any good?
If I do what the reactive mind wants me to do then I am making that mind stronger – it is as simple as that. Either my reactive mind gets stronger or it gets weaker. Either it is one way or the other. If it gets stronger then the pain it causes me increases, and if it gets weaker then the pain and suffering I am experiencing will decrease.
The tendency to fight and struggle and not be able to stop fighting and struggling never helped me! There is no way such a thing could ever be any help to anyone. How could a freaked-out, rudder-less automatic mind ever help anyone? What does help is the ability not to listen to this mind, and not to fall for its tricks. ‘Not listening’ does not mean that I try to distract myself, or try to make myself oblivious to it – it just means that I have the capacity to hear what the reactive mind is telling me, but not fall for it. It means that I have the capacity to bear witness to this mind, but not automatically do what it wants me to do. After all, if I automatically do what the reactive mind wants me to do then I become the reactive mind.
This ability to listen without getting sucked up into reacting is the ability to ‘not resist’. Resistance is an automatic thing – it happens when there is no awareness. It is an unconscious thing – it happens in the absence of consciousness. When we are ‘conscious’ then it naturally happens that we do not react. Consciousness is not an automatic reflex – it is us being there. When I am busy reacting (or busy resisting) then I am not there, I am not ‘present in myself’. I am actually absent and that is why the automatic tendencies have the power to take over, to dominate. When I am present, then these automatic (or ‘mechanical’) tendencies no longer have any power over me.
Art: Anxiety by JuanOG
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.