How to understand anxiety

Apr 11, 2024


Anxiety is so utterly normal, isn’t it? It’s a combination of things, but the key one to understand, which always sounds so simplistic initially because it’s not the way we talk in the modern psychological model: the problem is attachment.


Buddha’s saying this state of mind called attachment is effectively the source of the suffering of all sentient beings. This sounds pretty shocking; for a start, we use the word attachment very differently, you know? 


Attachment is multifaceted. The primordial energy of attachment is a constant feeling of dissatisfaction; everybody has it unless you’re highly advanced spiritually.


Dissatisfaction means that, second by second, no matter what you’ve got, no matter what you see, no matter what you hear, no matter what you taste, no matter what you do, there’s an immediate assumption that somehow it’s not good enough; somehow it’s not enough. We all feel this in one way or another, and for some of us this can be much stronger than others. 


And then, when it’s really strong, it goes from you feeling that you don’t have enough to feeling that you are not enough.


Then one major function of attachment is this next level where because you feel you don’t have enough you then hanker after something. You think, “Well, what’s missing?” This hankering then leads to all this anxiety to try and find the object of the senses or whatever it might be such that when you get it, it’ll stop the dissatisfaction. This is really working in all of us to one degree or another all the time.


Then, just naturally, this leads to trying to control, to manipulate in order to get what we feel we must get in order to make the dissatisfaction go away. We’re all control freaks! 


Then there’s the constant worry – this is anxiety! – about whether or not these things we’re trying to control will happen: “What if I don’t get it?” Or worrying about the bad things that could happen. What if this happens? What if that happens? 

It’s like I want an ice cream, but then I think, “Oh my God, maybe the shop is closed. Maybe the traffic will run me over. Maybe it’s going to be too dark. Maybe I’ll get raped on the way.” Or you worry about driving on the freeway: “What if I have an accident?”


And then you add to this all your other worries – your family, the world, the war zone here, the rapists there, the terrorists here – and our minds are overwhelmed by all the things that could happen, might happen, will happen. It’s amazing to me we’re not all completely crazy. 


So what’s the solution to this? How do you deal with it? How do you work with it? How do you argue with those assumptions? 


They’re all thoughts but because they’re so habitual we just can’t hear the thoughts; we just feel the feelings, which is when it all hits our body.


So one of the key things is to hear the thoughts; this takes time to get to. We know there are masses of thoughts flooding into our mind: we have no control over them – some can be completely ridiculous; some can be quite reasonable. 


We have to learn to not ignore the thoughts, but also not to give them more power than they need. We need to learn to step back and observe them and then try and get some sense of whether there’s any reality to them. Because the trouble is every thought that arises we tend to believe it’s true; this is huge actually. We tend to believe whatever thought pops up. 


Sometimes I think of them all as my roommates – these crazy roommates saying all these crazy things: “What if I freak out while I’m driving? What if I get into an accident? What if I cause an accident? What if I get lost?” Just let them rave on! Don’t give them power, don’t believe them. You just have to learn to listen to them sometimes.


At other times you need to argue with them. You see, you’ve also got other roommates as well. You’ve got kindness; you’ve got intelligence; you’ve got clarity; you’ve got wisdom. You’ve got lots of good roommates, but they’re hiding away in there and we have to consciously bring them up, say them. “Give yourself a break, girl. You know perfectly well you’ll be okay. You’ll do a good job.” 


It’s like if a friend comes to you and is saying these very words that your mind is saying, you’d argue with them, wouldn’t you? “Don’t be ridiculous! You’re not as bad as you think. It’s really okay, honey. Have some confidence. You’ll be okay.” You’d calm your friend down, give them confidence. That’s what you must do to yourself. That’s what Lama Yeshe means by “be your own therapist.”


Other times, just let the thoughts be there and don’t give them too much power. Other times, consciously say positive thoughts and give them the power because they are who you really are. There are many approaches. 


When you think about needing to drive tomorrow, you can think of your kindness in driving somebody somewhere; how kind you are. Pat yourself on the back, you know? You’ll do beautifully, and then you think, “Well, even if I lose the way, so what? I’ll stop. I’ll look at my Google map. It’s okay.” 


It’s okay to fail. We want to be a good girl all the time. That’s another major one for all of us: the attachment to being a good girl. That’s a big one. So we can also just be brave enough to know we’re human beings, and we might fail, and that’s just cool. So give yourself a break.

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