On Mystics and Anxiety: looking for cures only makes it worse

What, really, is anxiety and were does it come from? What makes it vanish in a moment, only to come back, seemingly out of the blue, with the force of a tidal wave?

There are many answers to this question depending on who you ask. Kierkegaard says that it is unfocused fear. Modern psychology says it is an “exaggerated expectation of negative outcomes in an unknown situation, accompanied by physical symptoms.”

You know the feeling, and it sucks.

In a recent writing class, I asked students to write about what anxiety means to them and it’s clear that the condition of it is permeable, like a consciousness:

  • Anxiety means being so far into the future in my head that I am predicting things but without any particular skills of divination.
  • It’s being driven crazy with dread. What if this happens, what if that happens.
  • Our cultural way of organizing time is anxiety incarnate. There’s never enough of it.
  • It’s not being in control, and not having any hope that I will ever be in control.
  • It’s not being able to connect the dots that make what is looming in the future known.
  • Heart palpitations, racing thoughts, sweaty palms: a feeling that the human body just can’t contain all the mental and physical pressure.
  • A literal brick wall plopped on the highway; a barbed wire fence strung across a garden, killing any meaningful arrangements.

Given that anxiety is a permanent human state, why do we spend so much time and effort trying to get rid of it, as if that is even possible? After all, it’s not as if the condition of uncertainty that most of us are dealing with in our daily lives is suddenly going to be magically fixed. We might be able to take a pill that will temporarily alleviate the horrible biochemistry that anxiety triggers, but there is very little peace and calm in the larger culture.

Not enough money, not enough time; feelings of lost potential, lost control; health problems and painful symptoms; the list goes on and on. And political candidates make ridiculous promises that they can fix all of these problems. But these problems become exaggerated when the standard we are comparing ourselves to is based on outdated concepts such as “security” and “perfect health.”

At this point, insecurity is the status quo and illness is a political critique. Neither one are mere complaints that can be “fixed” with a catch-all cure. In this this extremely confrontational and anxiety-ridden political climate, exaggerated expectations of negative outcomes are the cultural norm.

“Without cultural support, healing doesn’t last,” Dr. Mario Martinez observes, while cautioning us to be wary of attempting to heal ourselves within a culture that is itself so broken, and so sick.

The cure for anxiety? Stop looking for one within the dominant culture that is pretending that there is some “America” that we can “return” to where everything can be fixed. There is no El Dorado and looking for it will only produce more anxiety. In other words, anxiety is exaggerated by thinking that there is a singular concept/solution to world problems.

So what should we do? My personal solution is to implement what philosophers like Jonathan Lear suggest: collectively, let’s address the anxiety of living in the midst of these very fast paced and changing times by actually getting together and creating meaningful experiences. One thing the culture does provide are amazing and creative people who are actively building community within local places–from book clubs to yoga studies, public rituals to public art. There are many ways to find connection.

And as you do that, you can imagine that you are dissipating your anxiety into the larger collective sense of it. It’s not “your” anxiety — it’s everyones and you can release into the certainty that everyone is trying to balance on ground that is constantly shifting. This the way that tribal cultures, grounded on ideas of a collective consciousness, understood the function of dreaming.

“The path of the mystic is the path of chaos,” Martinez continues. In order to heal and survive,  we need to take out the part of the equation that points towards there even being such a thing as the concept of solid ground.

So go ahead. Call yourself a mystic and join the community—after all, if you’re feeling anxious, you’re already one anyway.

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While you’re focusing on the bigger picture, here are a few things you can do now to begin rethinking your relationship to anxiety:

Anxiety relief now: Duck Soup!

 

 

A Burning Is Not A Letting Go

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Installation by Suzanne Levine

Part of my passion for studying the unconscious mind in all of its various manifestations has involved many ponderous nights thinking and reading about memory.

I’ve finally put some of these musings into a collaboration with photographer Suzanne Levine, which is on display as part of the Drawing On Language show currently on display (through June 23) at the Municipal Building Gallery in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY (curated by the Hastings Art Commission.)

I wrote an essay about our collaboration, published in the wonderful magazine of art & politics, Guernica. (Click photo for the link to the essay.)

Thanks for checking it out!

Warmly,

Kristin

 

 

Thoughts: Confusion, Difficulty, and Poetry

This is an excerpt from my book Trance Poetics: A Writing Mind. I am posting it now in honor of Ann Lauterbach whose work has inspired “The Difficulty With Poetry: Opacity and Implication in the New and Old,” a conference being held this weekend at Bard College, as part of The Institute for Writing and Thinking.

Confusion creates new neurons

OwenPhillips Shakespeare's Brain

“The arc beyond the already known, a radiance that enters so you know you are porous, possibly even contaminated as the skin, touched, knows itself as that which is touched.”                   –Ann Lauterbach, The Night Sky (153)

I’ve always believed that art, music, and poetry have the magic ability to “take us out of our minds.” Meaning, to defy our expectations and allow us to “see” with a renewed sense of vision; or hear with a renewed sense of listening.

This “renewed sense” doesn’t have to mean “pleasant.” Often it’s in the  move into and through the anxiety of uncertainty – I’m hearing something in a new way, and I don’t like it!” where real learning happens.

Milton Erikson, the father of therapeutic hypnosis, believed that when a person is “stuck” in a problem she is very likely thinking about the problem way too much. All this thinking results in the knotted bramble of neural clusters, all firing to make the problem even bigger.

He believed that if a person allowed even a fraction of a second to knock out these kinds of habitual thoughts with a radically different frame of  reference – something that surprised or shocked them so much that their previous patterns of association (the problem) had to leave their body and mind completely – that this moment of “pure awareness” and fascination could result in something new: an opportunity for an altered mode of attention.

Neurologically, this is the phenomenological correlate of a critical change in the molecular structure of proteins in the parts of the brain that are associated with learning; the creation of new cell assemblies. Or, to put it simply, the creation of new neural pathways that just might – in the same way that a campfire grows larger with kindling – represent an entirely new way of being, in spite of the problem.

“Psychological problems develop when people do not permit the naturally changing circumstances of life to interrupt their old and no longer useful patterns of association and experience so that new solutions and attitudes may emerge.”
– Milton Erikson (20)

And this movement of mind (and its subsequent re-kindling) involves experiencing change in a way that involves the reconfiguration of a person’s most deeply held beliefs about self and world.

Which is probably why you might say that certain books, or pieces of music, “changed your life.”

Shakespeare — who in spite of his reputation for being difficult has been changing lives since 1568 — is interesting to consider in this regard. In an article called The Shakespeared Brain, a team of cross-curricular researchers from the University of Liverpool found that reading Shakespeare has a dramatic effect on the human brain. {ref: This is your brain on Shakespeare}

One of Shakespeare’s stylistic feats is his ability to create sentences in which parts of speech are scrambled or used in ways that defy the rules of grammar. For example, “he childed as I fathered” – a line from King Lear in which nouns “child, father” act like verbs.

What the researchers realized is that when people read, nouns and verbs are processed in different parts of their brain. So when a person reads sentences that are stylistically difficult, the brain has to fire extra neurons to measure and process the confusion.

Those extra neurons result in what they call a “P600 surge”—meaning that when our brains encounter difficulty or confusion it has to work a little harder to fit what is difficult into what we already know. Think of this like a jazz quartet – you’ve got the bass player keeping the background beat going, while the pianist pushes the melody towards ever more complex vibrations and syncopations.

Even just for a moment. To hear the music of the language instead of the incessant chatter—so often negative — that reverberates our thoughts. So that the knee-jerk reaction, “I don’t understand this therefore I hate it,” is suspended.

Of course, expecting a work of art or language to provoke an eureka response that escalates into a profound, transcendent, meditative state every single time (and being upset when it doesn’t manifest) is the creation of another kind of expectation. But that’s ok – the brain functions on expectations. It’s being open to creating new ones that becomes a really useful trick for managing moods and getting unstuck from emotional or physical suffering.

And, writing in brand new ways that may surprise you.

Looping//Interludes

There is a scene I just can’t get out of my head.

There are images, and this is what I remember (fade to black.)

I’ll always remember (fade to black) the scene.

I’ll never forget what happened.

(Fade to black) it’s ingrained in my mind.

Whenever I close my eyes I see these scenes repeating.

There are images (fade to black) and I can see them so clearly it’s as if they were real.

Because what happened was internal, beyond words.

Surfacing as images with no frames.

As if these impressions (fade to black) are all that survived:

On the slope side of a pasture, wild horses.

Under a tree, a cow.

A woman darts across the burning room to avoid the beams collapsing all around her.

Into the pasture, where the horses quickly disperse.

A bomber flies low over a cornfield.

Running through, she has on a dress that matches the flowers.

Picks up a feather and is blown away.

Crushed.

Shattered.

Plummeted.

Flatlined.

She is in smithereens, reduced to shards, smaller than a crumb.

That is what happened.

Scenes, and then (fade to black).

Before, and after, in a sequence.

In the clearing, a man and a woman are suddenly present.

After the fade to black, another sequence.

“Nothing,” is closure.

Simultaneously, the houses are crumbling.

It’s hard to say what happens after that.

Garden of Forking Paths

Bourgeois
Topiary by Louise Bourgeois

This Spring, the Met will show an exibit of intentionally unfinished artworks: http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2016/unfinished

The show is a wonderful hommage to artworks that were left unresolved and open-ended, leaving viewers to fill in the meaning and the ending to the story. {click here for Peter Schjeldahl’s upbeat review}

There are many amazing examples of this in literature and music as well.

Bach’s “The Art of Fugue” is a musical piece that lasts for over an hour and ends on mid-note, leaving listeners to hang in the space of the vibrations that the music has created.

And although it does have an ending, Borges’ short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths” begins in the middle of a sentence and ends with the unsettling notion that there could have been many possible endings.

I’m always up for a good story, but I do love art that leaves me perplexed and open to the possibility that there are many interpretations. But the thought does cross my mind that although art and music often leave interpretation up to the viewer, the pleasure of uncertainty somehow doesn’t work as well when it comes to life.

On unstable economic ground? Anxiety!
Not sure about a relationship or job that is in trouble? Insomnia!
Feeling hopeless about a behavior or symptom? Inertia!

Not to mention the hours of despair spent imagining what other people might be thinking about you based on something you said…

The thing is, if you are suffering from emotional blocks, symptoms, or behaviors that are bringing you down…including feelings of inadequacy or purposelessness, chronic pain, or anxiety around almost everything…

…one thing that really helps is to to take the long view by hunkering down into the present. As Borges writes, “century follows century, but things happen only in the present.” And if there is any truth in that, then it’s in the present that you can free yourself from unhappy endings before they actually happen.

A good way to practice this is to look at art not for it’s ability to complete you, but rather for it’s ability to leave you breathing into bewilderment, surrendering into uncertainty, and “thinking out-loud about what you encounter.”

Sound like a weird therapy? Well, I think about myself as a coach for the long view and I help people who are struggling to find direction and a way through their forking paths.

If you’re interested in learning more about me and how I will work with you, click here:

I believe that there are many possible futures. Basically, I’m here to help guide you into the one that will allow you to survive and thrive.

Evening of Trance Writing Winter Recording

To thank you for being a peruser of my blog, I’d like to invite you to sit back, relax, and listen to my recent recording. It’s my end of year gift to you.

Winter Evening of Trance Writing

This recording was made during an evening of trance writing that I led on December 6, 2015. It’s not the best quality recording, but I think you’ll like it — it has a kind of sepia tone, old-film reel vibe. And the background music is a soundscape synthesized by composer Ambrose Bye, layered with sounds collected from the center of the Aurora Borealis by Pete Malvasi.

In honor of winter, the imagery of this visualization is centered around integrations of dark and light. After listening to the visualization (or as you’re listening, if you prefer), set a timer (10-20 minutes) and write or doodle freely, whatever comes to mind — your impressions, thoughts, imagery, memories, emotions, imagery etc.

It is important to scribble without self-consciousness — in other words, write without caring whether what you are writing is “right” or wrong. Just enjoy the feeling of language moving from your mind and into your body, feeling free to write nonsense or draw with  no attention to representation.

When the recording is finished, notice how you are feeling and consider that whatever you are feeling is the message you need to receive at this moment. If you’re not in the mood for writing, feel free to just sit back, relax, and listen…and let your mind wander wherever it needs to go to bring you comfort and relaxation.

And Happy New Year!

Winter Evening of Trance Writing 

Writing Flurries

For me, December is always a month of flurries. Sometimes flurries take the form of snow, but I’m talking about the flurries of finishing things up before the new year, connecting with family and friends, and circulating energy around gift-giving.

Spending time at the beginning of the flurry season by centering into my creative practice always feels important to surviving December.

That’s why I am offering a winter writing retreat, with the option to join me in person, or virtually. My workshops are designed to let you write whatever you need to write. Instead of prompts,I provide guided language and sound visualizations that will enable you to enter into your own
unique writing mind.

Whether you’re working through a stressful situation in your life, finishing a manuscript, or looking to rejuvenate your creativity by generating new work, this workshop will provide you with that space.

Click here for more information, or feel free to email me:
kristin@mindbodystudies.com

And through the month of December please feel free to listen to my motivate track – for free!  It includes a soundscape by the amazingly versatile musician Paula Carino.  Listen now. (Scroll down when you land on the page).

Centered wishes!

Kristin

 

Ritual for the Autumn Equinox

If the summer solstice is about noticing and integrating the sun, its warmth and its bounty, into the darkest parts of our lives (keywords: passion, creativity, creation, rebirth, renewal, action and clarity)….

…then the autumn equinox is about embracing abstractions. The bounty is disappearing, the seeds are beginning to cower underground, the vegetables are being harvested, and the leaves are falling from the trees. Death hasn’t happened yet; it’s in-between waking and sleeping. A kind of “hypnagogic state,” (the moment just before sleep).

To celebrate this equinox, spend a few minutes with Stan Brakhage’s 1963 film Mothlight: a “found foliage” film composed of insects, leaves, and other detritus sandwiched between two strips of perforated tape.”

Take notice: what is dying is alive in this moment.

Gratitude, generosity, giving gifts, letting go…

…embracing negative capability (the ability to exist among doubts and uncertainties with terrific conviction.)

“Death is the mother of beauty” is the oft-cited line of poetry for the Autumn Equinox – but reading Wallace Steven’s entire poem “Sunday Morning” will align you with the sun’s rays, which, at 4:22am this morning (NY time), shone directly over the equator:

And, in the isolation of the sky,

At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make

Ambiguous undulations as they sink,

Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Be well with it!

Warmly,

Kristin