Anxiety: A Doorway to the Underworld

IMG_4002We live in a culture that chases the light. We worship the happy face and plaster on smiles when we venture into the world. Smiley babies statistically receive more praise than fussy babies, and bubbly teens garner the attention. In a culture that upholds the extrovert ideal as the pinnacle of personality types, we absorb the message early in life that if we’re prone to more of a melancholic temperament there must be something wrong. Keep it light, we learn. Keep it peppy, we hear. Sweep away the messy, unraveled, chaotic, loud, dirty parts of life and of ourselves. Sweep them into the dark.

We sweep it away and try to move on with life as planned, but our unconscious desire for wholeness has other plans. Just when we think we have everything together, we find ourselves bolting awake at the 3 or 4am witching hour – that time when the veil between the worlds is thinnest – with the physical manifestations of anxiety making our hearts dance the two-step in double time. Anxiety takes our breath away and commands that we listen. We can medicate away the symptoms, of course, but that does nothing to chip away at the outer layers until we arrive at the gemstone of wisdom that lives inside.

This gem will be different for everyone, as there is no one-size-fits-all formula for healing from anxiety. But the work begins with a willingness to becoming curious about the anxiety instead of numbing it away. And by becoming curious I don’t mean that you take it at face value; anxiety rarely arrives with a clear message but rather speaks in symbols and metaphors, the language of the unconscious. Thus, the initial thought – whether “What if I don’t love my partner?” or “What if I hurt my baby?” or “What if I’m gay?” – is the attention getter; it’s your inner self sounding the alarm bell. It’s all of the parts of you that you swept into the basement of your psyche – the messy, dark parts that struggle with uncertainty – clamoring for your attention. It’s become overcrowded down there and it’s time they come out. If you take the thought at face value, you’re missing the opportunity completely. 

This is why anxiety is a gift: It opens the doorway to parts of ourselves that we’ve sequestered to the basement, the parts that we’ve deemed unworthy, messy, unacceptable, dark. When you turn to face those parts of you with courage, compassion, and curiosity without giving them all the power, you’ve taken great strides in establishing your loving self – as opposed to your fear-based ego – in the helm of your mind. Then the real work of unraveling your defenses and arriving at the center of your vulnerable heart begins.

Along these lines, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone shared the following in her Yom Kippur sermon this year:

Let me tell you a story from the Baal Shem Tov’s youth: Long before he was recognized as Magus and spiritual healer, he was hired as a simple melamed, a teacher for the children of a small village. The Jewish lease-holder welcomed him to town and explained to him that he had only one cottage for him. One that was inhabited by impure spirits. The Besht said: No worries. And as soon as he was alone in the house, he proceeded to assign the demons to the attic. When they started to laugh at him, he stood his ground and scolded them. They got very quiet and went to their assigned place.

Why this story? Because it exemplifies what our lineage teaches about the unavoidable demons we encounter along the path.
Let me say this clearly: Any one who truly gives themselves over to the path of transformation will encounter demons… By demons I mean: those internal mind-states that scoff and laugh at us, that demean and belittle us, that compare us to others and shame us, that cloud us in despair, pollute us with guilt at our failings, and, oh, did I forget to mention that scare the pants off of us?

If any of the above “demons” feel in the slightest bit familiar to you, you may be interested to know what our lineage teaches about how to approach them. Notice that the holy Baal Shem does not vanquish, harm, or even banish the demons in his house. He simply assigns them their proper place, a place where they will cause no harm.

Why is the Besht so tolerant? He speaks to them like children yet these dark forces– often put under the general heading of yetzer hara–are serious internal entities that can unhinge lives, as many therapists (and clients) in the room can attest.

Our natural tendency –one that is strongly reinforced by prior Jewish tradition–is to conquer these forces, to overcome them through opposition. Doesn’t the Talmud teach: Aizehu gibor? HaKovesh et yitzro, Who is the hero? The one who conquers his dark nature! (Pirkei Avot 4:1) We Jews have a long history of self-mortification; surmounting our nature through struggle. But the Besht and the lineage that followed him taught a different philosophy altogether.

That word kovesh, normally translated as conquer, also means: To pickle. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook taught that you don’t vanquish your demons, you pickle them. You work with them, you preserve them, you put them in vinegar long enough for their true flavors to emerge.

The Baal Shem Tov agreed. He said: You don’t oppose, you embrace. You don’t resist, that only gives a thing energy; you transform it with your attention. And if that doesn’t work, you get out of the way.

In other words: Let go of opposition. Feel compassion and care. This is the great paradox that Carl Jung and Carl Rogers and many others spoke of: “When we accept ourselves just as we are, then change begins.”

One of the central principles in Lurianic kabbalah, quoted often in Hassidut says: Eyn nimtakin dinim ela b’shorasham. You can’t fix or sweeten a problem unless you get to the root of it. It won’t work to bi-pass, freeze, mash, blast, or medicate it away. Ultimately, we must see it, and meet it and face it with acceptance and awareness and in doing so, their darkness becomes illuminated, their bitterness is sweetened.

This is not unlike Jesus’ teaching: Resist not evil. And also similar to the Buddha’s teaching: With a boundless heart hold yourself and all beings. Like the Baal Shem’s, these philosophies give us a road map for the path. Don’t veer away when things get uncomfortable or scare you. Take the road leading toward the fear. When you feel “something is wrong with me,” soothe it, don’t run from it.

“Don’t veer away when things get uncomfortable or scare you.” That’s at the heart of my work with anxiety, and at the heart of many spiritual traditions that are being celebrated today. It’s the hardest work you’ll ever do, but if you’re going to heal from anxiety and liberate the self that’s hidden in the eaves, you must follow the anxiety down the basement stairs or up into the attic and get to know what you find there. As we descend into the darkest part of the year here in the Northern hemisphere, I encourage you to ride on the energy stream of December and turn toward the darkness that lives inside of you. Welcome it, as best you can, and ask what wisdom it wishes to teach you.

36 comments to Anxiety: A Doorway to the Underworld

  • Amber

    Sheryl,

    This couldn’t have been posted at a better time as I am finding myself struggling around this busy time of year and a major life transition (moving in together). It’s so refreshing to read your thoughts when I feel myself slipping and losing faith through the working through the roots of my anxiety. Thanks for all that you do- you make a difference in so many of the hopeless!

  • Clara

    Stunning, Sheryl! I was so entranced by Rabbi Firestone’s powerful, wise words. So wonderful to experience the threads of rich similarity across the traditions. Thank you, and God bless.

    • She’s an extraordinary woman, Clara. You, in particular, would probably love reading more of her work – especially her two books. Blessings to you, too :).

  • talespinner

    Hi Sheryl,

    You are always right on time :)thank you so much.

    I had an interesting conversation today about pure awareness. It was theorized that if you relate say: how the sensation you get when you sit against a couch, we don’t judge, we don’t question, we don’t attach, we just know that, that is what it is we are just on the couch. So, if we look at emotions as just a sensation that we sit with, taking the time to just being aware that they are there as opposed to judging, attaching, or questioning….is it possible that they will dissipate on their own?

    Learning to just accept the feeling instead of trying to change it is incredibly hard. The tendency to feed into the “story” that is our past is a hard thing to let go of once it becomes a protective place to dwell.
    If we choose to not judge and just sit with the awareness, the open vastness can be a scary place, or a very open gorgeous field to grow and flourish in. 🙂

    Happy holidays!!!

    • What a poignant, beautiful analogy, talespinner. YES. It’s so, so challenging to just watch, notice, observe without attaching meaning and story, and then to sit in the empty space of “no story.” It’s the heart of meditation, I think, and also at the heart of learning to be more comfortable with uncertainty. It’s our need for certainty and our belief that there’s one answer or one way that trips us up and, paradoxically, creates more uncertainty.

      • Laura_m_B

        Just on this – I am really struggling with the watching/noticing/observing of my thoughts and emotions. The compulsiveness and negativity that I am noticing and the strength of the momentum is frightening, I feel so out of control. The pull into ‘thinking’ is like a gravitational pull its so strong. Sitting with horrible feelings – anxiety, hopelessness, depression – feels like too much. I know I have to do this work because I’ve been suffering for a long time and it needs to stop and I’ve tried many times before to observe without judgement, but I always give up because I feel like I do now – trapped in an out of control mind. I also feel confused about the aparent contradiction of observing thoughts and emotions without judgement/attaching meaning, but at the same time, finding out what is hidden there and what it has to teach you. Isn’t that another way of attaching meaning/of ‘working it out’? I’ve got myself completely stuck ruminating and trying to work it out for years. I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to soothe myself in a way that isn’t just more ‘thinking’ either. I just end up talking to myself in a soothing way but that is just more thinking? I’m so confused. Sheryl do you have any strategies? Does it get easier in time? I wonder if it just seems so bad because I’m shining a light on it right now. I hope it gets easier.

        • hey laura – i dunno if it’s any help, but i was in a similar situation to you – my mind was just too ill to address its own issues. It wasn’t until I received the right medication that I was able to have enough clarity of thought to examine my fears and anxieties and depression. It was very hard for me to accept that I needed medication, but for me it made all the difference to moving forward. The hard work still has to be done but now I have a tool (a well brain) that is in working order.

        • The addiction to thoughts is one of the most powerful addictions there is – and in many ways more difficult than substance addictions because you can’t just stop having a brain, and as long as you have a brain you’ll have thoughts. The work as I see it is not to attach on to the presenting thought – i.e. the intrusive “what if” thought – but to learn to identity that initial thought as the alarm bell alerting you to something inside that needs your attention. So you don’t want to give any energy to the presenting thought – that just fuels the fire and grows that particular thought – but instead ask, “What’s needed right now? What part of me needs attention?” And then scan through your four realms – physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual – to see if you can determine what is needed. Sometimes intrusive thoughts arise because you didn’t get enough sleep, or your hormones are out of balance, or you’re experiencing a sugar hangover, and in those cases what’s needed is attention in the physical realm. Sometimes they arise because there a grief or hurt inside that needs attention: it could be an anniversary date that your unconscious body remembers but that your conscious mind hasn’t identified yet – and in those cases what’s needed is attention to your emotional realm. And sometimes the thought is protecting you from the vulnerability of being human and trying to convince you that if you can just answer this one question you’ll have some certainty – so in those cases the work is more spiritual. None of this is easy work, but yes, it definitely gets easier with time. And a meditation or mindfulness practice helps enormously as it helps you strengthen the mind muscle that can reflect and discern what’s needed inside. I hope that helps.

          • I second to Sheryl (from experience).

            I am a lot happier when I have my mindful meditation session everyday and I’ve realized it’s reduced my unwanted thoughts.

            Also, It helps me to stop my thoughts (or emotions) in their tracks and think back to something I just saw or heard, How much sleep I got, What’s coming up, if my special “monthly Friend” is visiting soon, etc…

            I can be fine during a movie then all the sudden feel anxiety and I think back to what happened or what was said and how it could affect my anxiety (this usually makes it go away because I’ve already addressed it).

          • Laura_m_B

            Thanks Sheryl 🙂 And thanks freefalling and Chrissy for your comments too. I’ve already had a period of time on medication but I know I need to heal without them – just me, learning to let the past go, knowing that today is OK as it is, accepting who I am and learning to love myself, and trusting I’ll be able to cope with whatever comes my way in the future. So onwards I go.. Good luck everyone 🙂

  • onedayatatime

    Always love your beautiful posts Sheryl. I was hit with a typical intrusive thought on my drive home from my new job tonight (so experiencing quite a bit of anxiety). I had the radio really low but then all of a sudden I could hear what song was playing and turned it up. It was a song that played at my Grandma’s funeral and I realized today was the anniversary of my Grandpa’s passing many years ago (her husband). I balled the rest of the way home and it is hard but I can feel the grief soften the heart and the intensity of the rumination and hook into the intrusive thought lessen. The thought is there but it’s almost as if it is only there if I choose to pay attention to it and not the grief and sadness and longing. I signed right onto your blog when I got home and saw this article. There is so much wisdom in your words and work and again, thank you so much!

    • YES to this:

      “The thought is there but it’s almost as if it is only there if I choose to pay attention to it and not the grief and sadness and longing.”

      That’s how you work with intrusive thoughts. The thought itself is the alarm bell. Once you hear the alarm, you ask, “What’s needed right now? What is the longing or feeling or physical need that’s bubbling up?” And then, as you’re doing so beautifully, you let yourself soften into the soft place of the heart instead of getting tangled up in the web of thoughts – thoughts that never lead to where the mind tries to convince us they will lead. Great work 😉

      • onedayatatime

        Thank you Sheryl I think that song was a blessing. I haven’t accessed those tears in a little bit.

  • sarah

    This isn’t really relevant to this post necessarily, but more so to what you wrote in the email that brought this post to me. When you talked about the busyness this time of year embodies, it hit me that there is also a lot of forced stillness that I think goes undetected by most. Think of the long line in the store or in traffic – there’s no where to go, nothing to do (which is probably why most people are mad and cranky in these situations) but sit and wait. Out come the cell phones and distractions, but it never ceases to amaze me the ways in which Mother Nature or The Universe will make happen what needs to happen. Despite it all we’re still forced to stop. I can feel the quiet chuckle of my inner crone…

  • Charlie

    Thank ‘you’ again Sheryl. I’m living in the Sourhern hemisphere and I find this relevant to even the warmer summer season when sometimes there are shadows cast and I’m standing in the shade of life watching people picnicing, hiking and lying on the beach embracing the sun’s warmth. Your post/article still reminds me that the sun is illuminating everything for me so I can see with more clarity and I can still also feel it’s warmth but I’m sitting under a tree for a while keeping cool in its shade reflecting, the quiet observer. When I’m ready, I’ll go back out and join everyone feeling nourished and replenished. Thank you for the gentle reminder and for the permission.

    With loving kindness always ☺️

  • Reading this, just took my breath away! The night before last, I awoke from a nightmare around 4am. I cried out so loudly I woke my husband. In my dream I was in a house where spirits were known to reside, some bad some not so bad. I was with a friend and we knew to move aside as they would float through. But one caught me off guard. It was a woman in a dark Victorian dress with a hooded cape and as she floated toward me, I could see no face only darkness in the hood. As she got closer I became aware that she was there because something terrible had happened to her children in that house and that she had found them. She came straight for me and passed through me. And at that moment I knew and saw what she had seen and I screamed as she did. I also cried out to wake up and leave the vision. I was afraid to go back to sleep. I don’t watch horror movies because I am too sensitive to violent scenes. So there had been nothing in my previous day to inform the visuals of that dream. I really don’t know what it all means. But also I am often referred to as “melancholic” in nature. Just everything in this article really seemed to speak to me and make me want to investigate it further. thank you.

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl, on the Monday 16 th December here in Sydney, Australia in the heart of our beautiful city there was a gunman on a siege with 15 people.. After a long 17 hour wait.. The police entered the Lindt cafe when the gunman fired a shot. I had such a very bad episode of anxiety.. I was feeling so scared for the hostages., watching it on TV all day made it that much worse.. Such a stressful and horrible day.. Whether that was a trigger due to this awful incident or it was my normal anxiety episodes I think it was both.. I felt so irritable, shocked and frightened about the state I was in.

    • Oh, Angela, that’s so terrifying, and would certainly trigger an anxiety response for most people. Remember to let yourself spiral down into the core feelings – helplessness, fear, vulnerability, grief. When you can attend there and it won’t morph off into the unmanageable state of anxiety. Sending you lots of love.

  • Rita

    What a beautiful post. Thank you so much! I loved “The Diamond in Anxiety.” It was the first time I had seen that post. I can’t thank you enough Sheryl. Finding your work was an answer to my prayers. I had been searching for so long for answers-and you wouldn’t believe (you probably would) how many “professionals” could only ever offer, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t be in this relationship. It isn’t fair to him to stay if you don’t really love him.” After finding your work and taking the 30 days to more love and attraction course I realize how little the anxiety has to do with my partner. Now when the anxiety comes up it ask, “where am I disconnected to myself?” My eyes are clearer than ever (although I’m certain there is much more work). Thank you Sheryl. Thank you for shining the light of truth on anxiety-I’m certain you’ve saved so many relationships that are truly better together.
    Rita

  • Stella

    Dear Sheryl,
    I’ve been in my first relationship for 14 months now and the last 5 have been very difficult. Im extremely anxious since the first panick attack in june and cant look past the bad images of my boyfriend i see most of time. In my mind he’s in a constant negative shadow respresenting everything i dread. Im so scared and dont know what to do anymore. I am scared and dont understand what happend and why i have these horrible anxious feeling when i think of him or when im with him. Im only 21 but dont wanna give up on us, he made me the happiest girl in the world before all this. I remember telling my mom i had never been happier a week before it started. Now i cant even remember how it was when everything was good. I want to do something about this and have been journaling but cant get to the cote of the problem. Im scared to buy you’re course as it’s so focused on marriage and even The thought of marriage makes me anxious. Do you think it would still help me? Im a student so it would be a big investment and want to be sure it’ll help me before i make things worse. I dont know what to do anymore and after 5 months i feel like i cant take it anymore and am afraid im gonna break up with him. I dont know if i want to marry him in the future but i would at least love to have more years like last year together, as long as it lasts. Also, he’s out of the country for two weeks and whenever he’s not there my anxiety get’s worse. Love, Stella

  • Amanda

    Hi Sheryl,

    I’ve been having a lot of difficulty with anxiety in my relationship – we’ve only been together for a handful of months and she’s wonderful, smart, funny, and extremely caring – from the beginning. Prior to starting our relationship I had been single. I’ve taken a course of yours which helped to understand what love really is and to not buy into a lot of the dominant narratives around love in our culture, but I’m still having difficulty easing into the anxiety to understand what the deeper issue is. I want to grow. I want to learn what the underlying root cause is, but I always seem to get stuck with the anxiety and fear. I end up ruminating with the fear, wondering if I should just end the relationship even though I know a week or so ago I didn’t feel that way. The anxiety keeps coming in waves every few weeks and I simply want to be able to understand it, sit with it, and learn from it – not let it destroy me. Do you have any advice?

  • Angela

    Dear Sheryl, After the 17 hour exhausting hold up, 3 innocent people died., 2 customers and the manager of Lindt cafe died. This was a huge shock to the Sydneysiders.. As this was the first time something so awful happened here in Australia. The gunman was an extremist Muslim who had a violent history. What so many people can’t comprehend is why was this evil man on bail. We all want answers.
    The day after this tragedy I felt much better. A good sleep always subsides my anxiety, I always look forward to sleeping when I’m in the bluff transition.
    Thank you so much for your comforting words. I definitely take your advice.
    Happy Christmas & a Happy & safe New year. With love angela Xx

  • Kris

    Hi Sheryl,

    You have no idea the impact your articles have on my life–and how much I look forward to checking my inbox on a Sunday night/Monday morning to see your newest post.

    I have been struggling with relationship anxiety for months now and intrusive thoughts with the kid who contacted me that I used to have a thing for and I immediately sunk into a dark hole convinced he was trying to interfere and/or i had unconscious feeling still. Reading your articles especially Fear Eyes vs Clear Eyes (which I probably have memorized by now-haha) has given me the reassurance that I will not let fear stay in the drivers seat.

    I just want to share this with the other people on this blog. Last weekend, I went to see a medium to try and connect with my father who passed away when I was 16 (I’m 27 now)…he came through and the medium said to me “hunny, your father wants to know where is the love? you have the love of your life in front of you. Why are you pushing him away? Your father doesn’t see it. This boy is the love of your life. Your listening to the “itty bitty shitty committee” in your head aren’t you?” And she mentioned everything you discuss in all your blogs (the ego fear based self vs intuition) and that when I find myself confused, to put my hand over my heart and I will know. She said let him rescue you – you love him and you knew it when you first met him.

    I read an article that your mother Margaret posted about how when fear gets triggered you fall out of love and that triggered me a little bit. I know I’m in love but petrified that I will never feel the way I did before BECAUSE of fear. I’m done walking through the “fun house that isn’t fun” because your right, its not fun its torture…and every fiber in my body does want me to run. (yes I’m going verbatum off your past article haha)

    I’m highly considering your Open Your Heart Course in the Spring – as I have every intention to learn at this point and not let fear drive me away from the thing I love the most. Unless you recommend the Conscious Weddings E Course (even though I’m currently not engaged). haha Any advice would be great! Thanks Sheryl!

    • Hi Kris: I would recommend the Conscious Weddings E-Course. Despite the title of the course, it’s really for anyone struggling with relationship anxiety who wants to learn how to kick fear out of the driver’s seat. As it sounds like that’s the case for you, the course will give you all of the tools, information, and support that you need to welcome good and healthy love into your life.

  • Julia

    Thank you so much for being the ONLY person in my life, albeit digitally, to say this- to say turn in, allow it, make room. Thank God for you. I hope you never stop writing. Your words have helped me for so many years.

    Wishing you a boundless heart for a happy holiday.

  • Shawn

    Hi Sheryl,

    I have found so much relief in your writing, I can’t thank you enough. Just reading your blog has helped me get through some of my own relationship anxiety regarding my Fiancee. (whom I am so excited to marry). I’ve noticed you always refer back to “What if I don’t love my partner?”, but I feel like my own personal defense mechanism I have built up in my head is “What if my partner doesn’t love me enough?” I feel like this stems from my past where I wasn’t put first and didn’t always feel prioritized, maybe slightly taken for granted. I feel like this is a silly fear that constantly tries to rear its ugly head at me with my current loving partner, trying to convince me that the same thing will happen again. Do you ever run into this as a defense mechanism/projection?

  • Nicole

    Hi…I found your site by accident acually and I’m glad I did! I’ve been reading different posts for about an hour and I have to say it was like you spoke directly to me. I’ve had anxiety/depression for years and I got in little fights with my fiancé because I think I dont want to be with him..its almost like I’m trying to push him away? He’s great and I trust him with everything. He’s got the purest heart of anyone I have met and still I get so MAD and frustrated with him to the point that I end up crying that a crazy person and sometimes screaming at the top of my lungs at him. I always go back to..this is not how we were when we met. When we met I said and knew that “he was the one” now that we live together and he sees all the not so pretty stuff I guess I want him to not bother me? I want him to not see how bad I can be and the biggest thing I always say to myself is that if I TRULY loved him, I wouldn’t treat him this way. .I wouldn’t say the things I do. I’m at a loss… Sorry if this wasn’t part of this blog but I was just hoping to get some answers or insight.

  • jaybee

    I read this a couple weeks ago, amidst the December madness, and had to come back to it today – January 2 – because all of a sudden I feel empty. I’m sitting on the couch staring at the Christmas tree that will come down this weekend (this always fills me with sadness), and I started crying. Also looking at FB is utterly depressing as everyone is displaying their New Years joy with photos and I didn’t have that. I had a quiet evening with my fiance for New Years but it wasn’t enough. Now, reading your blog with tears in my eyes trying to figure out WHY it wasn’t enough. I DO believe its the low after the high, but this doesn’t make it much easier. I know I haven’t taken care of my inner self the way I should be (the right food, proper exercise, etc.) over the holiday and I guess its caught up with me.

    If you read this thank you, and THANK YOU for this blog. I found it 9 months ago when I got engaged and needing something to quiet my head. I haven’t yet been able to spring the money for the e-course but I hope to.

    Blessings to you.

    • You’re most welcome ;), and you’re far from alone with feeling a slump after the holidays. We live in excess and then we have to chart the difficult course of coming back to more balanced way.