We 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.