On the other side of anxiety lives serenity. When you walk into the forest and face the fear-vines of your mind – swashbuckling at first then sitting down in the glade and simply watching – you eventually unfold into an open field. You cannot know this until you walk through it. Fear is the test. It’s the revolving door. On one side is anxiety and on the other side is the peace and tranquility of your true nature.
It’s difficult to realize when you’re in the stronghold of anxiety that what lives on the other side is serenity. In fact, until you’ve walked through the revolving door of anxiety and greeted serenity on the other side, you don’t realize that anxiety and serenity are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Just like darkness and light share a sector of psyche and grief and joy share a chamber of the heart, anxiety and serenity are twin experiences, meaning that the more you walk through the challenging twin the more you touch into the calm one.
What does this mean exactly? It means that there are pathways in the mind and heart that are connected. We call this a paradox in our culture: the puzzling experience of holding two conflicting emotions and realizing that in some inexplicable way they are interconnected. It’s the dot of light within the yin and the dot of darkness within the yang. We could say that our entire existence on this plane is rooted in a desire for wholeness, and that this longing for wholeness informs most, if not all, aspects of our existence. The way to wholeness is in embracing the tension of opposites. We hold grief in one hand and joy in the other and open to a spaciousness inside that arises from this holding. We walk through the door of anxiety and open to a field of serenity.
If you’re feeling trapped in the tangle of anxiety you’re probably wondering… yes, but how? How do I untangle myself and walk through that magic door? You fight it and resist it and medicate it and still it plagues you. You ignore it and hate it and judge it and shame it and it grows bigger.
The key is to stop resisting. Stop fighting. Stop running from the places that scare you. It’s like the finger puppet where you put one finger in each side and try to pull them out. The harder you pull, the more stuck your fingers become. Only when you relax can you release the stronghold.
Jeffrey Brantley talks about this principle at length in his book, Calming Your Anxiety Mind: How mindfulness and compassion can free you from anxiety, fear and panic:
“There is a capacity inside each of us to be calm and stable. We are capable of containing even the most intense fear and anxiety. This capacity is not something you can think about and understand. It is a direct experience that is always available. It is not a destination but a way of being.” p. 7
“This is where mindfulness practice is so important. When you practice mindfulness, you make the decision to stay present and examine your own unfolding inner experience. Attention is poured into your interior landscape. You turn toward fear and anxiety, toward thoughts and sensations as object of your kind attention. You don’t expect to fix anything as you pay attention this way. All that is asked is that you bring compassionate attention to what you are experiencing, moment by moment…
“From this perspective of the mind-body interaction, now there is a break in your identification with the experience of anxiety – both the physical and cognitive aspect of it. Mindful attention breaks the cycle of thoughts fueling the fear system. It also gives the balancing activity, the relaxation response, a chance to activate. And by breaking the identification with the fearful thoughts, mindfulness support the natural capacity of the higher cortical centers to contextualize and interpret the situation correctly. They can do their usual job of turning down the fear system by acting on the amygdala.” pp. 53-54
What he’s saying here is that when you develop a mindfulness practice, you grow your mental muscle that allows you to observe rather than get hooked into every thought and feeling that passes through consciousness, and through this observation you develop your capacity to witness. Once you’re in your witness self, you’re no longer fused with the fear and anxiety. This “break in identification” then calms your system and helps restore equilibrium.
The fear that lives in the body cannot be talked through or convinced. It’s bigger than thought. If it originates in the body then it must be addressed in the body. And the more you fight it, the bigger it gets. When fear hits, adrenaline is released – a fear response. The antidote to the flood of fear is learning to activate a calming response, which is what mindfulness teaches. When you bring your loving attention to what is in the moment, the opposite chemical is released. It’s all chemistry, really. And what I’ve noticed is that it’s not only mindfulness but also connection to spirit in any form – music, nature, prayer, poetry – that activates the calming response.
A big part of the work for someone suffering from anxiety, panic and phobias is learning what activates their own calming response. And it’s not about trying to avoid the fear by connecting to spirit; the fear cannot be avoided. One has to walk into the center of the fear with mindfulness and then connect to spirit.
And this is why anxiety is a portal to serenity: you walk through the darkness and arrive at light. And it’s only by going through – not around or above or below – that you can touch into that space of light.
There’s nothing easy about this. When you’re in the throes of an anxiety or panic attack, it feels like you’re going to die or go crazy (the two most common fears that show up in the midst of an attack). It requires great mental discipline not to get hooked into the thoughts, feelings, and sensations but to step back enough to observe and say, “My throat is constricting. My mouth is dry. These are symptoms of fear but they’re not going to kill me. I feel like I can’t breathe. My chest is tight. More signs of fear. I’m scared. My body is in a fear response but if I can notice it then there’s a part of me that’s not it. I’m noticing my thoughts now. My thoughts say that I’m going to die. I can choose to hear that but I don’t need to heed it. I can also focus on the warm blanket around me or the stars outside my window.”
We no longer live in communities where we’re invited to walk through rites of passages that challenge our fears. In lieu of this, I’ve often wondered if our psyches have created our own, self-induced opportunities to learn how to face fear, to initiate us into deeper levels of awareness and courage. In other words, we’re not sent out into the dark forest alone to face the wild animals, but if you’re been taken down by anxiety you’re encountering the wild animals in the dark forest of your own mind. It seems that much of our path in this life is to learn how to manage and master fear, which means walking through it until we arrive on the other side.