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Who can help with your anxiety?

Modern life is anxiety-ridden.  A surprising number of my students have diagnosed anxiety disorders.  Things don’t always go our way, and often it feels like they never do.  We spend inordinate amounts of time planning and strategizing to try to get things just as we want them, only to have the balance upset easily.  I have a friend who has caring parents, went to a good private school through high school, went to a good college, got good grades, got into graduate school, successfully received masters and Ph.D. degrees, and now has a job teaching college, which is what she always said she wanted.  Yet daily she complains bitterly about how she has it so much tougher than everyone else and never gets a break.  If you try to point out that things are really pretty good, her response is how you “just don’t understand.”  I wish I could say that this view of the world was unique to her, but I hear it from both of my equally privileged teenage daughters, I hear it on reality TV shows, and I hear it from presidential candidates. I believe I even heard it come out of my mouth during my miserable divorce.  So this seems to be “the Human Condition.”

But does it have to be?

If we examine what is underneath the complaining, self-pity, blaming, and anxiety, it’s the truth of dukkha.  We don’t get what we want.  We get what we don’t want.  We get what we want only to lose it.  We don’t feel the way we want to.  Want want want.  Get, don’t get – it doesn’t matter.  We are discontent soon, no matter what the external circumstances.  This is good news

If we are discontent no matter what the external circumstances, why do we keep believing that the solution is something external? Pema Chödrön says you can always ask yourself “Have I felt this before?  Have I done this before?”  If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” then it’s a clue that it’s time to try something different.

This is not new.  In 1930, Bertrand Russell wrote:

We are all familiar with the type of person, man or woman, who, according to his own account, is perpetually the victim of ingratitude, unkindness, and treachery.  People of this kind are often extraordinarily plausible, and secure warm sympathy from those who have not known them long. There is, as a rule, nothing inherently improbable about each separate story that they relate. The kind of ill-treatment of which they complain does undoubtedly occur.  What in the end rouses the hearer’s suspicions is the multiplicity of villains it has been the sufferer’s ill fortune to meet with.  In accordance with the doctrine of probability, different people living in a given society are likely in the course of their lives to meet with about the same amount of bad treatment.  If one person in a given set receives, according to his own account, universal ill-treatment, the likelihood is that the cause lies in himself, and that he either imagines injuries from which in fact he has not suffered, or unconsciously behaves in such a way as to arouse uncontrollable irritation. (The Conquest of Happiness, pp. 89-90)

From a Buddhist point of view, this conclusion is much too harsh.  The perpetual victim is not particularly different from anyone else – he just makes the same mistake we do more often.  What is the mistake?  It is ignorance of at least six types.  First, we don’t see the multiple causes and conditions of our situation, so it looks like things just “happen to” us.  Second, we see ourselves as separate from the situation, rather than an integral part of the situation.  Third, we see the situation as a series of endpoints, rather than an ongoing organic process. Fourth, we maintain the illusion that we should have more control over our experiences than is actually possible. Fifth, we try to hold ourselves apart from our experiences, as if we need to constantly be defensive, perhaps because we secretly know we can’t control life. Finally, we prefer to blame the situation and others so that we have an overly simplistic story to tell ourselves and others.

There isn’t anything terribly wrong with this pattern, other than that it will continually repeat.  Some people seem so enamored of their stories of suffering that they actively resist doing anything that might truly make themselves happier.  That would be much scarier than continuing to fail and be able to blame others for the failures.

Does this resonate for you?  You aren't actually stuck.  There is tremendous freedom available to you in this next moment.

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