Ed Knight Dharma Talk: Anxiety as the Enlightened Path

Anxiety is the Enlightened Path

by Ed Knight


Kierkegaard said that anxiety was his greatest spiritual teacher. I find for me this is true. It was a dharma gate to using zen in mental health recovery. Anxiety mindfully approached teaches the basic truths of the dharma: impermanence; no self or the lack of substance in our experience; craving, grasping or greed; aversion or pushing pain away. And ignorance or belief that the imagined substantiality of our experience will bring security and happiness. All these are on the path of anxiety. And exploring them relieves anxiety, brings recovery. Recovery is regaining the capacity for joy.

Indeed “psychiatric symptoms” which are most frequently numbed are an enlightened path. There is great controversy in the Buddhist and Yoga communities about whether to allow psychiatrically labeled people in their midst. To deny this is to deny the dharma to me. Either everything is liberating or not.

My path of zen dharma recovery includes not only anxiety but”hearing voices” and other hallucinations, mania, depression and addictions. Life has been good to me. God has given me many knots to untie. He has made me brave enough to pursue mindfulness against all the opposition and oppression and now to teach mental health zen dharma recovery to others in many venues. By Abwoon’s grace, this wisdom path has brought mental health recovery to many. The following is a talk I frequently give. I wrote it down for the desperate mother of a young lady labelled with borderline personality disorder. BPD is mostly a labelling of the angry reactions to abuse or some other form of trauma. The mother had seen all medications fail and make her daughter’s condition much worse. (This is not unusual but goes of course unrecorded. People are left to fend on their own.) She asked for help so I wrote out some of the basic teachings I offer in workshops on using zen in mental health recovery. I am the steward of a Zen Peacemaker Circle, The Healing Circle and a senior student of Ken Tetsuji Byalin of the Staten Island Zen Community. I also am a mentor with the Prison Dharma Network of a person in a psychiatric unit of a high security prison. My websites are www.professored.com and www.psychosisdharmacommunity.net Currently I am manualizing a mindfulness-based peer mental health training at UCLA with a team of psychiatrists on an NIMH grant. It will be piloted in the fall of 2011. I am also manualizing a mindfulness-based mental health peer training called Transforming Disempowerment at Nathan Kline Institute in NY state. Here is what I wrote to the mother.

Dharma Talk: Anxiety as The Enlightened Path.

I was overwhelmed with anxiety to the point I could not carry on any meaningful activities at times. With what i saw as constant anxiety I found mental health recovery impossible. It seemed constant. Anxiety is perhaps a limiting word. It is hard to describe the various kinds of emotional pain I felt. It was at times rage. At times disorientation and at times feelings for which words have not been invented. But they often would led to panic or angry verbal outbursts. I was on a third floor ward with large trees out the window. I finally thought if I could pay attention to the underlying terrible anxiety I could begin to free myself. The psychologists and social worker had refused all help for various reasons. I had thought often of suicide and begun to act at times but stopped short. That is another story.

I began to reason that if I could pay attention to the intense feelings of which I was terrified I could figure out what they were about and do something. I knew from testing it out that the anxiety over what I was feeling was almost impossible to pay attention to. It was way too painful. I needed strength of attention to do this. How to develop this? The anxiety was about feeling certain ways in daily life. It was a kind of second level feeling, a feeling about feelings. If I felt attracted to someone that made me anxious. If I was angry at someone that too made me anxious. If I withdrew, again anxiety struck.

A Sufi Murshid or teacher had taught me basic concentration exercises as part of my meditation training. Pay attention to something for 5 minutes that I love with eyes open and then close eyes and draw the object into my mind’s eye to produce an image of it. It is ok if the image shifts, changes is only very vaguely there. It is ok if all you can get is a vague sense of the object. He suggested doing this for 5 minutes a day and then work your way up to 15 minutes eyes open and 15 minutes eyes closed. With this beginning insight mental health recovery seemed more possible. It was a dharma gate to the world of mindfulness although I did not yet know that word.

It seemed possible that meditation especially with anxiety instead of being a problem (as I had been told due to an old unresearched stereotype) could be a source of mental health recovery.

There were trees out the window. I love trees so I had an object to pay attention to. But 5 minutes? No way. I would start with a minute eyes open and an minute eyes closed.

If this were too much i would do less but i would begin and persist. Constant daily effort. Much later in my practices Bernie Glassman recommended 2 minutes to 25 per day. No one can say they can’t do 2 min. Ken Byalin added that it is regularity that is more important than how long you meditate each session.

I also reasoned that the feelings of anxiety had to be in my body not in some abstract place i called mind. I would try to locate the anxiety in my body and thus begin to learn how to recovery my mental health. So this was my beginning understanding of mind body a term Dogen uses often. A unity.

I immediately discovered the feelings of anxiety were slippery. They shifted as I paid attention. I could not pin them down. They seemed like a cloud as the Buddha said.

So I thought perhaps I could paid attention to a broader area like my whole chest or upper body. That gave me some success. It allowed for the constant shifting or the impermance of the feeling I was calling anxiety. Meditation I found was a skill that required practice and honing to apply to feelings of anxiety.

It is important to have an”anchor” practice. In this case my concentration on trees eyes open and eyes closed. One can then use the skill of bare attention thus gained to study one’s mind: thoughts, feelings, images, memories, conduct (moving muscles including speech muscles), intentions, attention and patterns fo suffering mind that are labelled symptoms.

A psychiatrist who was fired shortly after I came, for being too friendly to us, had mentioned I might flood with uncontrollable emotion just talking about the painful events in my life. So I figured I could flood and flip out if I paid attention. Psychologists call this abreaction and fear that we will get psychotic. This kind of professional distrust has kept many people from recovering. But some of us (labelled treatment resistent) pursue recovery and gain it often inspite of prejudgement.

To meditate thus involved the fear of losing control of my mind and body. This is a very basic primitive fear. But living my life with so much pain was worse. So how could i deal with flooding? Meditation needs to be I found carefully applied to mental health dharma recovery. Practitioners who use it to overcome mental “symptoms” need to be empowered to teach. I am not the only one who has pursued this path.

A book, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom by Joseph Goldstein, later helped me with using Insight meditation in mental health dharma recovery. It helped me to further the process of mastering anxiety and symptoms. I moved from the Sufi concentration practice to Insight meditation.

If I was using concentration to learn about my terrifying feelings of anxiety and panic, I thought I could also use the skill to stop paying attention and pay attention to something else. I was concentrating on the tree eyes open and eyes closed. When I sensed flooding coming on or just too much emotion to handle, I could pay attention to the tree out the window. Or a pattern on the wall or anything. Feelings do not arise all at once. There are precursors. Feelings develop over time to intense levels. If you feel you are being blind sided by surges of “uncontrolable” feelings, investigate carefully and you will find subtle precursors. So I began. It took months of work. Slowly learning to concentrate to build my mind muscle. Slowly paying attention to different parts of my anxious body. Beginning to flood. Paying attention to the tree.

Slowly I learned the nature of my anxiety and other weird or painful feelings. I learned in what social context they arose. I learned skills to deal with like social contexts. I took steps to deal in my conduct with what came up. Like learning to hold peaceful short conversations about something other than myself and my problems or intellectual subjects. I figured people would like me better if I could converse about impersonal topics and about everyday events. I learned many other skills. All on my own.

The most important thing i learned was the nature of feelings especially anxiety. They are simply impermanent shifting body sensations which we like or don’t like and label pain or pleasure. They are constantly changing sensations linked with ideas or images mostly from the past or an imagined future. They are sets of conditioned responses to what we perceive to be similar situations to one’s we have been in before. I have learned to let go of ideas and images, to pay attention to my breath or a tree or flower and just let go of thoughts and images. I learned to ride through painful sensations which are indeed painful but when letting go of thoughts and ideas the sensations themselves are more tolerable.

I learned that the label “pain” or”anxiety” was at times bringing on or intensifying the suffering.I learned that some ideas are sticky. They are hard to let go of. Why? Because I am gaining something from them somehow. Like fear of losing a job. Part of me wants too. I hate parts of my job. Or my anxiety can gain me sympathy from some people. But it screws up my life to live this way. The gain is not worth the cost. Being mindful of the hidden benefit by itself helped untie the knot of these ideas/image/sensation complexes. Slowly over a long period of time I became comfortable in my body.

Now I am mostly ok. I like life and how I feel and if I don’t I can ride it out and learn skills. I have done it often. I know that I can learn new things now to deal with what arises. If I don’t have the skill, I do trust I have the capacity. That kind of confidence is more important than hope. It is a kind of hope. Perhaps “applied” hope. It is not in the future. It is “right now” confidence. This kind of confidence is called self-efficacy by methodological behaviorists, a kind of psychologist.

Finally I learned that when I pay attention to feelings by trying to push them away I give them strength. If I, in other words, fear fear it gets worse. This is the cyclic nature of feelings first discovered to my knowledge by Abraham Low MD in the 1930’s. He called them vicious cycles. Now we call them “strange loops”. Or if I cling to what changes, I get burned by constant disappointment. So meditation became a skill that I honed and was one foundation of my mental health zen dharma recovery. Dealing with anxiety is a principle way I recover.