Anxiety & The Present Moment
May 04, 2020 • 5 minutes
Growing up, I was taught one of two reactions when things go wrong: either be filled with dread about the outcome, or get angry.
As time has gone on, I realized that I, like maybe almost everyone, am not good at dealing with anxiety in positive ways. I first became aware of this maybe 8 years ago, on my first cross-country drive alone, when nothing went wrong at all, yet I was filled with dread about what might go wrong for almost the entire trip. This is the best way I can explain the kind of anxiety that I seem prone to: always trying to forecast what may or may not happen and pre-empt it. The problem is my pre-empting usually means worrying—and worrying destroys the experience of whatever is actually happening.
Of course, no one can say what may or may not happen. Every moment is a dice roll as to what will turn up. About a month ago I finished reading a book called The Wisdom of Insecurity. That book, by Alan Watts, states that we live in not an age of anxiety but the age of anxiety—and this book was written decades ago, when people may have been less anxious than they are now.
The reason, Watts posits, that we are so anxious is because we are constantly trying to tie the water of life into neat little paper packages. This metaphor resounded with me because of my Body of Water project, and also because of its truthfulness. Water is like life, in the metaphorical sense—
The whole problem of existence
is that we are are like a river, but not
minds always flowing
restless, unable to stop.
Trying to stop, or flow
never gets the same place
to go anywhere else.
Making blockages, breaking
the going still going.
I wrote this poem long before I read Watts’ book. Yet reading his book about insecurity deepened my own understanding of what I was trying to say in that poem. Life flows along in ways no one can control. Yet it seems most of what I have been taught about “how to live” has been about control.
Watts goes on—since life is uncontrollable, the only realistic act is a kind of surrender to or focus on the present moment. The present is the only moment we really have. It’s strange to really realize this—that Past is a memory, and Future is a story. And whether we think about the future or the past, we are doing so in the present.
So how does the present moment relate to anxiety? Thusly: if this moment right now—of sitting at the birchwood breakfast table, typing in the morning light, with the stove heating water in a steel pot, and the cool air flowing in through the window—is all I have, then what I choose to pay attention to, in this moment and the next, becomes my entire life. Life ceases to be about some imagined future or remembered past.
Therefore your reaction to this moment can be called a produced experience, and that reaction/experience can be colored in uncountable ways. It turns out that this produced experience, whether it be of anxiety, happiness, anger, etc is all that we really have. It’s the experience of this very moment. Since that is the case, whether we have an anxious or non-anxious experience seems to be up to us. Yet the weight of habit and conditioning compels us to not be able to control our produced experience (our reaction) to the given experience (the set of circumstances) of this moment. So we may react “badly” or “well”, yet these reactions “never get the same place/to go anywhere else”. We are still firmly stuck in our experience, whether we are approaching it in “good” or “bad” ways.
This is where I get confused, yet the idea of “not controlling” the experience seems important. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of “free will” vs “divine plan” and/or the existence of a “self” (read Watts’ book). So the only thing I can say is that habituating yourself to a different produced experience during the given experience is the only way forward to being different, to getting that same place/person to go somewhere or be someone else. The only way to do this is not to be lost in the past or future, regret or anxiety, and to be aware of the given experience of this moment, and your reaction to it. That’s really the only hope to overcoming past habits.
Seeing things this way has helped me get a hold on my anxiety issues, maybe more than ever before. Anxiety is a type of fear, which meticulous planning and forecasting is supposed to prevent. Fear is one of the most powerful forces in the world. So, to be unafraid is to not be controlled by circumstance, to not be controlled by fear when plans inevitably go awry. This is a very grounded way to live, and really the only clear way as far as I can reason. I hope that with more practice I can become less anxious and more able to live in the present—in the stream of the water of life, rather than trying to control it and getting upset when it collapses the sides of my paper box.