I don’t write for artistic purposes, nor do I write for pleasure, or even to be a writer: I write to live.
It’s not that I’d go insane without writing – my life would just fall apart.
I must write to understand myself, my life. The two of which I find more and more entangled as I grow older.
As I’m fond of saying lately, “Your life is a reflection of how you feel about yourself.”
Life is, indeed, one-hundred-percent psychological.
In a sense, I am here to re-program myself. My brain is the hardware and the software, and – amazingly – the one rewrites the other (In the form of new neural synapses or connections [synaptogenesis and synaptoplasticity]).
Neuroplasticity – the ability for our brains to physically change – presents, to me, the strongest argument for free-will; I am only as hard wired as I choose to remain.
The overreaching goal of my life is the actualization or fullfiment of my potential. My younger, more naive goals of happiness and inner peace simply cannot exist without my own growth, fulfillment, and development.
Happiness and inner peace are products: reaching my potential is the process by which those objectives are achieved; however, happiness and inner peace are not goals in themselves, but are, instead, the feelings you experience when you achieve your authentic goals – aka, becoming yourself.
In the words of existential psychologist and humanist Rollo May:
“Joy, rather than happiness, is the goal of life, for joy is the emotion which accompanies our fulfilling our natures as human beings. It is based on the experience of one’s identity as a being of worth and dignity.”
That said, irrespective of motive, goals are not as simple as plan, do, profit. There are a myriad of factors at play from self-esteem and health (physical and mental), to self-handicapping and motivational theories (Not to mention environmental and social factors, i.e., opportunity) – all of which can make our break our potentials.
As any adult short of the current first family knows – nothing comes easy. But, still, we want what we want and we aren’t going to give up, so we have to discover a way.
What excites me right now, as far as my own way, are the discoveries I am making in relation to my own mind. In short, I’m coming to discover that my anxieties are an integral part of my journey, my path. These [anxieties] are what push me to want better for myself; although, I have not always held this viewpoint.
For most all my life, anxiety has been the same crippling, uncomfortable, destructive, and unpleasant force it can be for anyone.
My perspective began to shift, however, when a friend said this to me:
“I don’t believe we would do well if we weren’t hard on ourselves. We need those selfish insecurities to feel like there’s more we could accomplish.”
This clicked for me (Anxiety can be healthy too!) and sent me further down the rabbit hole, arriving at these words from Rollo May:
“Anxiety is an even better teacher than reality, for one can temporarily evade reality by avoiding the distasteful situation; but anxiety is a source of education always present because one carries it within.”
Rollo May’s work deals largely with anxiety, May himself stating that, “The constructive way of dealing with anxiety in this senseconsists of learning to live with it, accepting it as a ‘teacher,’ to borrow Kirkegaard’s phrase, to school us in confronting our human destiny.”
Further, from May, “..conscious anxiety is more painful but it is available also to use in the service of integration of the self.”
“But attempts to evade anxiety are not only doomed to failure. In running from anxiety you lose your most precious opportunities for the emergence of yourself, and for your education as a human being.”
In a sense, May presents anxiety as an invaluable ally rather than the inescapable foe it is for many, if not most.
Pause and read that again.
The paradigm of anxiety as teacher is nothing short of a game changer. That’s why I’m writing this.
I’m all about flipping the script in my head. But it’s not enough to merely understand – as with any valuable paradigm – it must be lived (e.g., optimism); i,e., in order to view anxiety as a teacher, I need to be able to let it guide me.
To do this, I have come up with an intuitive concept for integrating anxiety into my directing consciousness, which is the true purpose of my writing tonight. Allow me to arrive there.
Heretofore, my relationship with anxiety has been a largely unconscious one.
I suspect that, like most people, anxiety has pressed down upon me like a weight, or, rather, it has risen up from my unconscious mind, my conscious mind treating it like an unwelcome guest, an interloper to my happiness, much in the same way I might view fatigue or irritability – an annoyance at best and crippling at worst.
I’ve spent days in bed, countless nights up – entire seasons of my life hiding from myself – the world – all in the name of running from anxiety. Let’s not forget the self-destruction that naturally arises from turning away from life so neurotically.
As Rollo May writes on the consequences of a life without growth, in Man’s Search For Himself (1953):
“The human being cannot live in a condition of emptiness for very long: if he is not growing toward something, he does not merely stagnate; the pent-up potentialities turn into morbidity and despair, and eventually into destructive activities.”
Of course, in order to grow toward something – in order to turn away from the destructive despair of stagnation – we must turn towards the obstacles and face the anxiety naturally present in such growth.
This is the exact awareness I am coming to: the fact that my anxiety is exactly what I need to feel – and that I’ll find the courage to grow in facing it, directly, head on.
My previous theory on anxiety was essentially that the amygdala – the fear center of the brain – was largely responsible for it, and that part of the brain [the amygdala] being so primitive, so archaic, so reptilian, meant that the anxiety was merely an unfortunate feeling I, as a human, was destined to endure; although, I decided that I could – through sheer power of will – avoid the destructive activities, and – I could – with enough healthy sex and top shelf cannabis – counter the anxiety.
Not an entirely unhappy or unlivable life – nor likely a unique strategy among my generation – but by no means an entirely secure, calm, grounded, and growth-oriented way to live, which is precisely what I want at thirty-two.
I want to fall asleep with the softest of pillows, which is a clean conscience – and I want to awake with the same peace, renewed from the past day’s toil and excited about the day ahead, and in order to do that, I need to be free from what has prevented that: anxiety: fear. These are antithetical to the freedom I seek.
Freedom, as May suggests in the following passage, from an essay of the same title, requires objective consciousness of oneself:
Freedom is man’s capacity to take a hand in his own development. It is our capacity to mold ourselves. Freedom is the other side of consciousness of self; if we were not able to be aware of ourselves, we would be pushed along by instinct or the automatic march of history, like bees or mastodons. But by our power to be conscious of ourselves, we can call to mind how we acted yesterday or last month, and by learning from these actions we can influence, even if ever so little, how we act today. And we can picture in imagination some situation tomorrow – say a dinner date, or an appointment for a job, or a Board of Directors meeting – and by turning over in fantasy different alternatives for acting, we can pick the one which will do best for us.
Consciousness of self gives us the power to stand outside the rigid chain of stimulus and response, to pause, and by this pause to throw some weight on either side, to cast some decision about what the response will be.
That consciousness of self and freedom go together is shown in the fact that the less self-awareness a person has, the more he is unfree. That is to say, the more he is controlled by inhibitions, repressions, childhood conditionings which he has consciously “forgotten” but which still drive him unconsciously, the more he is pushed by forces over which he has no control. When persons first come for psychotherapeutic help, for example, they generally complain that they are “driven” in any number of ways; they have sudden anxieties or fears or are blocked in studying or working without any appropriate reason, They are unfree – that is, bound and pushed by unconscious patterns.
As the person gains more consciousness of self, his range of choices and his freedomproportionately increase. Freedom is cumulative; one choice made with an element of freedom makes greater freedom possible for the next choice. Each exercise of freedom enlarges the circumference of the circle of one’s self.
Further, in the same essay:
Freedom does not come automatically; it is achieved. And it is not gained at a single bound; it must be achieved each day. As Goethe forcefully expresses the ultimate lesson learned by Faust:
“Yes! to this thought I hold with firm persistence;
The last result of wisdom stamps it true:
He only earns his freedom and existence
Who daily conquers them anew.”
And it is this daily conquering my freedom and existence that requires me to face my anxieties with courage rather than avoidance.
On courage and freedom, May writes:
“Courage is the capacity to meet the anxiety which arises as one achieves freedom. It is the willingness to differentiate, to move from the protecting realms of parental dependence to new levels of freedom and integration.”
“Many people feel they are powerless to do anything effective with their lives. It takes courage to break out of the settled mold, but most find conformity more comfortable. This is why the opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it’s conformity.”
Of course, I already know what it is to conform – at least, to as great of an extent as I ever will; what I am concerned with today is being my own man, my own person.
In the words of Rollo May:
“One of the few blessings of living in an age of anxiety is that we are forced to become aware of ourselves.”
To become aware of myself – to become myself – I have to meet my anxiety rather than run from it. Acting upon rather than against it; welcoming it rather than dreading it.
I have to bring my anxieties directly to my prefrontal cortex, from the unconscious to the conscious acting part of myself, where I make decisions and where I can choose who I am and what my values are [footnote 1].
To do this, I’m making a list tomorrow of all my anxieties. From this list I’ll be creating goals designed to specially address them.
This is the third revolution of my model for goal planning and prioritiztion. The first was attempting to set goals based on my values, which I began doing at twenty-four. The second model for my goal planning and prioritization was interesting and valuable, but perhaps not entirely well-suited for an artist, who probably experiences more anxiety than anyone (save the neurotic), on acccount of their being so poor suited for any life but their own.
I’ve come to learn recently that anxiety is perhaps the most valuable aspect of our intuitive voice, telling us exactly what we are uncomfortable with and where we need to act. The problem with anxiety is when we let it control us. I’m reminded of the sage quote, the mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master. Perhaps so too is anxiety. The challenge is for us to distinguish the rational anxiety from the irrational. Be rational and logical in your anxiety. Healthy anxiety is rational. But anxiety is a part of life. What I’m attempting to do is to work with mine to my advantage. Heaven knows its crushed me for long enough.
Because in the end, anxiety drives us all regardless – it’s just a matter of whether that force [anxiety] is constructive or destructive: the choice is ours, only, most of us never learn that, but – if we did – if we knew the true value in learning from and facing anxiety, I think many of us would live differently.
The obstacle is the way – I finally understand it: I have to turn toward my anxieties – my fears. And they won’t go away until – and unless – I slay them: these are my dragons.
And Joseph Campbell’s words have never rang truer:
The treasure you seek lies in the cave you fear to enter.
p.s. Having written this – having read this – I am so happy because I know I am going to face life, face fear, in a whole new way. And I’m ready for it. I made it here for this.
p.p.s I finally understand a John Mayer lyric from The Heart of Life, which I have always loved:
“Fear is a friend whose misunderstood.”
p.p.p.s Another thing I really appreciate about Rollo May (Aside from his insights into anxiety and his contributions to existential psychology.) are his humanist views.
From a 1978 interview with Paychology Today, originally published on cassette:
One final question Dr May. Lets prognosticate if we may about the future. As we approach the end of the 20th century, what do you see happening. Will anxiety continue to escalate, will there be greater and greater numbers of people who face anxiety daily or will we learn to deal with our anxiety and manage it more constructively?
Well I think the latter. Certainly I think we’re in for hard times for a while yet, but then I think we must have some kind of new renaissance, some kind of new birth of a society that will have equality for women and a society that will have equality for races of whatever colour. Now the new renaissance will not be based upon the myths and symbols of the renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries but rather it will be based upon new symbols, the symbol of one world, the symbol of planetism, the symbol of interrelationship of the various countries in the world. This has to be understood politically. And I think we are being pushed towards this by the historical developments that are a great problem to us like Oil. We’re all going to be short of energy products in the next 15 or 20 years and we’ll just have to reorganise our world as a greater community a more constructive community that we have in the past. Now I look forward to that, and I look forward to the anxiety being used constructively as it will need to be if we’re to be reborn or even if it was to survive. Otherwise I think I think we are in for an even greater new and general holocaust.
“A person can meet anxiety to the extent that his values are stronger than the threat.” – Rollo May
This is directly from the Rollo May wiki, which I suggest you read.
And two more from there, because, fuck it – they’re great:
“The first thing necessary for a constructive dealing with time is to learn to live in the reality of the present moment. For psychologically speaking, this present moment is all we have.”
“Finding the center of strength within ourselves is in the long run the best contribution we can make to our fellow men. … One person with indigenous inner strength exercises a great calming effect on panic among people around him. This is what our society needs — not new ideas and inventions; important as these are, and not geniuses and supermen, but persons who can be, that is, persons who have a center of strength within themselves.”
Note: many of these quotes do not have sources. That’s because this is my personal blog and I’m a straight up intellectual gangster. For a source, try google… I’m sure you’ve searched for worse things in your life.