The Mystery of Anxiety

What is anxiety? It’s not synonymous with stress! Rather, stress is merely the physical dimension of anxiety. In other words, stress is how anxiety registers in your body. In your shoulders, your head, in your arms.

But anxiety is not just physiological. On the contrary, anxiety involves a perception, or cognition, of some sort. We see something and know something, when we’re anxious. And what we see and what we know, during moments of anxiety, we regard as dreadful. What, then, is the dreadful thing that we know when we’re anxious?

The Scream by Edvard Munch

The Dark Secret

Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that the soul is educated through anxiety. Ultimately, anxiety can be a road to inner-peace, wisdom and self-realization. Keep that in mind as we plunge into the depths…

I don’t know where you’re standing or sitting, at this moment. It may be in your living room, or your office at work, or you’re standing on line, at a coffee shop. But whatever the case, imagine now that you glance down and, instead of seeing the floor, you see that you’re standing over nothing! Yes, you’re standing over an abyss, one that’s infinitely deep. So how do you feel at this moment? You probably have a terribly sickening feeling of vertigo. Maybe the room is spinning. That vertigo is what we experience when we discover that we no have a ground to stand on. And that is the moment of anxiety.

What, then, does it mean to have a ground? And what does it mean that what we take to be our ground turns out not to be a firm foundation? A clue to these questions might be found in yet another question: What is it that you do that gives your life meaning, purpose or direction? Isn’t that your ground?

For example, let’s say that you subscribe to a certain belief system. It could be a religious belief, or even a secular or scientific worldview. Or it could be a political belief. It could even be another person who gives your life meaning, such as a movie star, or a political leader or even someone to whom you are married. You live your life around this person or belief system. He or she or it becomes your center, and provides you with orientation. And so you ask, for example, “What would Elvis do?”

Well, something happens. Perhaps you outgrow your belief system. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child…” Or you find it riddled with insuperable contradictions. As a system, it’s no longer able to organize your experience into a unitary and coherent whole.

Or after being married, you find that the person you loved, or at least you thought you loved, has never ever really reciprocated. It’s all been a charade. Or you discover that the person to whom you devoted your life has clay feet. Yes, the emperor has no clothes.

In all cases, you suffer disillusionment, but it actually feels like the ground has dropped from under you. In one sense, it’s very good to no longer live in illusion. The problem, though, is that now you no longer have a ground. Or, another way of conceiving it is that you no longer have a center.

Actually, the truth is that you never really had a ground. It’s just that at certain dreadful moments you come to look down and then realize it. Yipes! And when you do, you go plunging into the abyss. Without a ground, a person feels unreal. Why is this so? That’s a difficult question, one that we may explore subsequently.

[Dear Reader, This is more or less the transcript of the video, with minor improvements in the wording. Please scroll down to the bottom of the post to find the video. Thank you, Mark]

The Mystery of Anxiety

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