Has anxiety always been so pervasive a problem as it is today in modern cultures? Are we just naming a problem which has in fact always crippled mankind? Or, is it in fact a byproduct of the fast changing, technology driven times in which we find ourselves? While in the past, the farmer, the warrior or the hunter may have been just as consumed by anxiety as many people are now, it doesn’t change the fact that we now recognize it as one of the most pressing problems affecting both young people and adults today. How does the brain/mind adapt to this rapidly changing world? How does this pressure to stay up-to-speed, au courant, hip, creative, technologically savvy, leading-edge, cutting-edge, etc. affect us in a deeply emotional, psychological sense?

Only a few of us seem to really excel in this new environment; to a greater or lesser extent, most of us deal with anxiety. The underlying commonality of most of the people I have talked to who suffer from crippling anxiety is the feeling that they are not in control. When we live in small, safe worlds we can at least harbour the illusion that we are mostly or somewhat in control. As we grow into new worlds and begin to have a greater sense of the global village in which we actually exist, thanks in large part to technology, we start to realize how thin that veneer of control is. It becomes an existential problem – how do you get comfortable with the fact that you are not in control? Anxiety is the face of this problem and strangely we are all in this together.

Learning to get okay with this fundamental reality requires a lot of us…..a profound spiritual awareness, a playfulness, a creativity, an appreciation of some of the more profound perennial truths that run through the great religions of the world, a great trusting of your life and purpose and who you most deeply are, a sense of humour, an ability to breath slowly and diaphragmatically when faced with a perceived crisis, the ability to cultivate the stillpoint when all around is teeming with chaos. I find it interesting to work on this edge with my clients, helping them to reposition or reframe the crisis they have been agonizing over.

On the other hand, when our lives are spent in worlds that are very slow moving and in which the change we most note is the change of the seasons, our biorhythms slow down to a measured pace that matches the environments we live in. While this sounds like the ideal of living in harmony with nature (and it could be) it is interesting to note that if there seems to be a problem in this environment, it is might feel like it is caused by a lack of stimulus, and a sense that life is passing us by. Depression often seems to be connected, at least in some measure, to a perceived emptiness and a relentlessly unchanging reality. In this world, hope for the new, the vibrant, the fresh is gone. There can be a danger when this emptiness seems to hollow out one’s inner world, creating a void that translates into the black hole of depression.

In considering the two mental states of anxiety and depression, I have found it helpful to reflect on the teachings of Patanjali, a great seer and teacher of yoga philosophy. Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali by Samkhya-yogacharya Swami Hariharananda Aranya, is a wonderful reference book that dives into these teachings with profound wisdom.

In Book II, On Practice, the three fundamental principles/causes (called Gunas) that determine our world are discussed: Sattva (that which is sentient or capable of being known), Rajas (which is changing, the mutative principle) and Tamas (which is the principle of inertia or latency). These three gunas are present in everything:

“Thus we see that the internal and external worlds are, in the final analysis, made up of only three fundamental Gunas manifested as sentient, the mobile, and the inert. That whose nature is only sentient is called Sattva. The word Sattva means a thing, i.e. what is spoken of as ‘it is’ or ‘it exists’ while being known. When it is illuminated or understood, it is spoken of as existing; that is the reason for calling any manifestation, Sattva. The quality of being active is called Rajas. Rajas means dust; as dust tarnishes things so does Rajas tarnish Sattva and that is why it is so called. As action produces change of state, Sattva or steady existence becomes like non-existent or changes into a fluctuating state of appearance and disappearance. This is why action or Rajas is said to upset Sattva. Inertia is Tamas which literally means darkness. Like darkness it is thoroughly homogenous and so goes unobserved like a covered object. Hence it is called Tamas.

To the Seer the whole world of objects appears in two ways, i.e. all knowable objects (Drsyas) serve two objectives, experience of pleasure and pain and liberation. Experience means the cognition of an object (Drsya) as desirable or as undesirable. Perception of an object implies non-awareness of the discrimination between the Knower and the knowable. Liberation implies realization of the true nature of the Seer, i.e., the discriminative awareness, that the real “I” or Knower is not an object or knowable, i.e., the Seer is different from the object seen. On attainment of this knowledge, there remains no further objective to be served and so it is called Apavarga or liberation or the attainment of the final goal. “

And so returning to our discussion of anxiety and depression, it is perhaps helpful to realize that anxiety has a rajasic dominance and depression a tamasic dominance. When we can learn to step back from the overwhelming quality of that particular experience and realize it is just another facet of experience and we don’t have to identify with it, but merely observe from the point of view of the Witness or the Seer, we have the opportunity, if even for only a moment, to sense that liberation is but a breath away.

To enter into the Witness state of the Seer or Knower, even if only briefly, is to realize that you are not that which you are witnessing –that you don’t need to get lost in it. Identify with the part of you that is the Seer. This is the part of you that is eternal and aware, the part of you that sees and knows. If you can glimpse it for even a moment, then you can choose to cultivate this state through meditative practice.

grief and loss

    photo by Peter Buchanan

Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace mirrors this thinking from a western philosophical perspective which is steeped in Christian mysticism. She tells us that the value of affliction is that it can bring us face to face with the void, killing the local “I”. It is the lowest place that gravity can bring us (gravity in the sense of the most base and densest of human experience). It is here, emptied of the desire for temporal objects (detachment) that Grace can rush in to fill the void. And yet we cannot approach the void with a desire for Grace either. Grace cannot be summoned. We have to offer up ourselves and our experiences in the spirit of “Thy Will Be Done.” The killing of the local “I” is a death, but one that can open us into something much greater. As she points out, our desire for certain objects or particular experiences evaporates once we have them. When we can strip down to the roots of our desire, detached from the actual object, the only experience there is pure energy.

From the chapter on Decreation in Gravity and Grace:

“Creation is an act of love and it is perpetual. At each moment our existence is God’s love for us. But God can only love himself. His love for us is love for himself through us. Thus, he who gives us our being loves in us the acceptance of non-being….

Our existence is made up only of his waiting for our acceptance not to exist. He is perpetually begging from us that existence which he gives. He gives it to us in order to beg it from us……

Everything which is grasped by our natural faculties is hypothetical. It is only supernatural love that establishes anything. Thus we are co-creators. We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves…..

Catholic communion. God did not make himself flesh for us once, every day he makes himself matter in order to give himself to man and to be consumed by him. Reciprocally, by fatigue, affliction and death, man is made matter and is consumed by God. How can we refuse this reciprocity?

Except the seed die….it has to die in order to liberate a tied up energy, in order to possess an energy which is free and capable of understanding the true relationship of things. “

This is the pure energy of the selfless Seer, and in this lies the possibility of liberation.

I cannot do justice to the extraordinary thought and philosophy of Simone Weil here, but for a more detailed discussion of her life and work, please listen to this BBC radio production: