October 13, 2014

The Roots of our Anxiety. ~ Frank Berliner

Frank Berliner

We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis


Chapter 13.

The Roots of Our Anxiety

All materialism begins with the fundamental instinct to survive. This instinct, and the possibility that you will not survive, is always present in life. There is no way to get rid of this.

Nor can you grow out of the fear that comes with this awareness. It’s not like you are now an adult who can look back upon your childish fears with understanding and humor. It’s not even something you can dispel with comforting words and objects, as you offer to comfort your children when their fears threaten to overwhelm them.

This anxiety about existence itself remains. As the poet W.H. Auden wrote when Nazi aggression threatened all of Europe in 1939, in some sense we human beings are always “children afraid of the night, who have never been happy or good.”

Sources of Anxiety in Western Psychological Theory

An underlying theme in the Western psychological tradition that began with Freud, is a passionate curiosity about the sources of our anxiety. Freud’s willingness to explore anxiety deeply by means of a scientific investigation rather than as a purely literary intuition, was a revolutionary moment in Western intellectual history. For the first time, psychology became a scientific pursuit. Freud legitimized it.

For Freud, anxiety had different sources depending on which of three kinds of anxiety you were experiencing: “normal,” “neurotic,” or “moral.”

* Normal anxiety originated in the struggle of the ego—the conscious, managerial function of the mind—to cope with the ongoing challenges of life.

* Neurotic anxiety originated as a conflict between the wishes of the unconscious—mainly focused either on sexuality or aggression—and the attempts of the ego to control those wishes.

*Moral anxiety originated as a conflict between the ego (that poor, besieged ego!) with the super-ego—the aspect of our psyche that is hemmed in by social hang-ups, taboos and norms, and “shoulds” of all kinds.

Many psychological thinkers who followed Freud challenged his conclusions, as happens in the evolution of any scientific theory. One of these challenges is of particular interest when considering meditation and the teachings of the Buddha.

The existential psychologists—influenced directly by the earlier European existential philosophers, especially Nietzsche—did not flatly deny the sources of anxiety identified by Freud, but asserted that anxiety had deeper roots. To give a sense of the uncompromising depth these philosophers brought to their view of anxiety, here is a quote from the theologian Paul Tillich. In it, he draws a distinction between the neurotic anxiety that Freud had named, and a deeper kind:

“(Unlike neurotic anxiety,) ontological anxiety is nothing other than your awareness that you are finite. You become aware of it at certain moments. Though you are not always anxious, anxiety is always there, just as non-being and finitude are always there. It is exceedingly important that you affirm and not deny this anxiety. Nothing is more dangerous, even politically dangerous, than to believe you can avoid it by turning away from it.”

Four Ultimate Concerns

Based on influences such as this, the American psychologists Rollo May and Irvin Yalom pointed to what they called “ultimate concerns” that all human beings must deal with in the course of life. These ultimate concerns, according to their view, are the real roots of our anxiety. These concerns are:

*the certainty of death,

*the truth of aloneness and the possibility that we may never discover the love that can make this aloneness bearable, and

*the need to create meaning in our lives and the possibility that we will fail to do so in a way that leads to despair.

They identify a fourth concern, perhaps slightly less immediate than the first three, but to which the Buddha would certainly have nodded his agreement. They call this “the burden of freedom,” the radical and open-ended freedom to make of our lives what we will, and the courage required to navigate this open-endedness.

Non-Theism: West and East

The existentialists argue that this freedom emerges as an ultimate concern for human beings when they stop believing in God or if they have never believed in God. Without this belief, and the security and comfort of a Divine Plan, we experience that we are truly alone in the universe, left to make of life whatever meaning we can.

In the West, this sense that “God is dead” (to draw from Nietzsche) has had huge ramifications. But for the Buddha, this realization is part of a very old story. He himself lived through it twenty-five hundred years ago, when he abandoned the Indian theistic cultural and spiritual assumptions he was born within to discover his own path, embracing the existential burden of freedom fearlessly.

This path led him to the conclusion that the existence of a Divine Being is finally unknowable, and that human beings must resolve their condition of anxiety and suffering for themselves. My own teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, often referred to the truth of suffering as “existential anxiety,” bringing the ancient Asian teaching and the modern Western teaching together with one provocative and comprehensive phrase. It is the “noble tension” I referred to in Chapter 2, which is at the root of our human condition.

“Survival” in this sense, points to your ongoing anxiety about continuing to exist. No matter how secure and comfortable your life may seem, there is a raw, underlying question: “Am I going to survive, or not?” This question resides in your being just below the level of your conscious awareness. It is like an iceberg that has a hidden mass many times larger than the part you can actually see above the surface of the water.

The Experience of Primordial Panic

You might wake up in the morning with a little head cold that you didn’t have the night before. You might get a phone call telling you that some stranger has been using your credit card for the past few months. You might suddenly realize that you forgot all about a job interview you scheduled for that day. More dramatically, you might get an unexpected letter from your lover telling you that it’s over, or come home to an answering machine message that a dear friend your own age has had a massive stroke.

If you look closely at these experiences and are honest about what you find, your first sensation is undoubtedly panic. In the next moment, your human tendency is to quickly regroup, and take whatever steps you can to correct or control the new situation. But if that isn’t possible, you are left to feel the raw emotional reality of your relationship to your own vulnerability, or to the suffering of someone close to you. You are left with that same vulnerability you can never fully control or escape—the anxiety that is vibrating in you all the time.

Maybe this vibration is experienced on a low frequency, as background noise like the hum of your refrigerator or an automobile motor idling in the driveway next door. But when this background hum bursts right into the foreground of your life with experiences of sudden shock or loss of control—then the message of underlying panic about your survival is very direct and undiluted, and you can’t cover it over anymore.

This experience is not the result of your neurosis. Instead it is built into the existential situation—the essence of which is that you are trying to create something out of nothing all the time. You are trying to turn impermanence into permanence. The attempt is always futile, and its result is suffering. Here is how Suzuki Roshi described it: 

“The basic teaching of Buddhism is the truth of transiency, or change…Wherever we go, this teaching is true…Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transiency, we suffer.”

Two Kinds of Ego

To understand this clearly, we need to distinguish between “ego” as Freud thought of it, and “ego” as the Buddha and modern meditation masters such as my teacher use it. This is one of the most essential differences between Western and Buddhist ways of looking at the mind, and we will be returning to this difference again and again through the rest of the book.

In the most basic terms, Freud’s ego is a psychological function. The word “ego” is Latin for “I,” and represents a conscious, rational coping mechanism that enables us to live in the world with a certain measure of control and competence. From the point of view of survival, the ego is necessary and will always be necessary. Life in the world endlessly demands that you meet its challenges, and the ego does its best to rise to the occasion.

For the Buddha, ego is an existential distortion, an ongoing perceptual mistake. The Tibetan word for it literally means “grasping and fixating”, which has an entirely different connotation than Freud’s coping, managerial “I.” “Grasping” and “fixating” refer to much deeper, less conscious tendencies of the mind to search compulsively for security and permanence, to fixate on things to reassure it of the real existence of this security and permanence—and to ignore all evidence to the contrary.

It is this search that we are referring to when we talk about the desperate ongoing attempt to “create something out of nothing.” According to the Buddha, this search can never finally succeed. And this, he teaches, is the real source of our existential anxiety!

When you closely examine your experience of nowness in meditation, you see with unmistakableclarity that you are struggling, moment after moment, to use your thought process to pin down your constantly shifting experience. You are trying to give it an enduring reality that you can identify as “me” and “mine”—once and for all. But in trying to pin it down, you also see that you rob your nowness of its life. You are like a collector who captures beautiful butterflies in flight and then mounts them in a display case to preserve an experience of their beauty indefinitely. As William Blake wrote:

“He who binds to himself a joy

Doth its winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies,

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.”

The Buddha discovered that as long as he struggled to possess his nowness, he was caught in the tenacious grip of this anxiety. The only solution was to relax his struggle altogether.


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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Frank Berliner

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