Anxiety and Silence

I used to long for a vacation from myself. The idea meant different things at different times, but most often it was a reaction to feeling feeling exhausted by an ongoing inner monologue, a constant analysis of myself and my situations, and seeming inability to feel my feelings in the moment. The solution, I thought, was to turn off my mind, disconnect the internal censor, and cease the endless feeling of “shoulds” that caused ongoing stress. This shaped my early sense of what it meant to be liberated.

It took time to recognize this as anxiety. I knew I worried a lot, and ruminated over things for hours at a time, unable to let go. When I feared someone was upset with me, I would not ask directly but analyze the situation to death and ask others what they thought and try to come up with a plan to make it so the person couldn’t be upset with me. You know, if it turned out they were.

Most distressing was my inability to simply enjoy things. I would sit at concerts, or with friends, or go to parties and get frustrated that my anxious commentary wouldn’t let me be immersed in the moments. My attempts to relax seemed to pull me only more deeply into the cycles, adding judgment and arguing to the anxious thought loops. The mind could not escape its own maze. When I became more attuned to my body, I thought dancing, drinking, or sex were paths to that silence. But when I did manage to disconnect, the result was automatic behavior that was equally without pleasure. Eating half the pizza without noticing or savoring. Drinking to excess and then being too drunk to enjoy much of anything, only to spend the next day analyzing everything I said and did to make sure I hadn’t any regrets.

Since beginning regular meditation and devoting myself to my spiritual practice, I’ve found myself plunged more deeply into anxiety. Early in my sitting practice, I had a morning in which I was startled to realize I could actually feel the tension in my leg muscles. The revelation was not only that I could have that degree of bodily awareness, but in doing so, I could allow the muscles to relax. So it was with other aspects of anxiety: I became more connected, more conscientious of cyclical thought loops that had no resolution, stressing about things beyond control, avoiding others because of my fears of their opinion of me. As with the muscular contraction, awareness brought with it the potential to ease and relax these constrictions. It has and continues to take practice, and there times when I have to make peace with the understanding that some part of me will continue to ruminate in spite of my efforts. I embraced self-observation and relaxation practices as means to understand and alleviate my anxiety. I’ve also engaged in psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy at various points.

In the past month, I’ve returned to that early longing to disconnect and now see it as a craving for the silence within, and had the sense that it could be within reach after these years of work. Though not a permanent silence. In fact, I’m no longer wholly sure what I imagine it to be like, to experience such stillness. Turning off my mind is not an ideal solution; it does not lead to greater consciousness, peace, or integrity. Neither does being wholly consumed in my mind. In the Haindl tarot deck, the Wheel of Fortune card shows the wheel spinning all manner of drama around a wounded center, while beneath, in starry bliss, the human face gazes. This is not detachment out of fear, but true nonattachment that comes through being in the world and yet able to observe with equanimity, acceptance.

I’ve increased my meditation practice for a time to help cultivate that inner silence, and still find there are times when I’ve spent twenty minutes thinking of television shows, perceived slights, gossip, or other distractions and forgetting to notice the feeling of air moving in and out of my nose, and sinking into that stillness within. This past weekend, however, I was out socially and kept noticing my anxiety come up about being in social situations, or wanting to worry about school situations I cannot control, and found that I could breathe into the stillness within me and allow those things to be as they are. Not silencing those thoughts and feelings, but meeting them with silence, a silence somehow whole and organic that allows a deeper coherence to emerge, a voice within that was ready to be heard and to speak.

I went out dancing last night and noticed again how my mind felt like a degree of separation from the joy of experience. It occurred to me that this space between my mind and my experience may not be a curse. This could be an opening wherein consciousness can hold space. Meeting my mind and experience with silence and acceptance gave birth to ecstatic dancing and joy.