Overcoming Anxiety Begins With Recognition

Adam Heymann

Opinion_Rust_Buddhism_Issue6

Illustration by Emma Rust.

This week I’m tackling something that pervades many of our young minds: anxiety. The Whitman experience can breed persistent distress. There’s the desire for academic success, a need to find romantic fulfillment, figuring out how to pay for an expensive private education and the basic questions of the human condition: Am I happy? Am I headed toward a fulfilling career? How can I make a difference in the world?

Thankfully Buddhism is jam-packed with universal ways to deal with suffering, which in this case stems from anxiety. First of all, Buddhism at its core is a method of combating suffering. Its main tenets, the Four Noble Truths, acknowledge the existence of suffering but assure us that tranquil existence is obtainable. The Truths are as follows: 1. Suffering exists. 2. Suffering stems from a desire to be and to have. 3. We can remove these wants from our lives. 4. The noble Eightfold Path (which I will touch on later) is the method of moving towards freedom.

Centuries ago Buddhists applied these rules to their lives in a way that bred asceticism –– they left their homes as nomads, begging for food once a day, wandering the land in search of separation from human desire. Personally, I enjoy many aspects of this modern life: my warm bed, the books that offer infinite knowledge, the music that fills my mind with soundscapes and textures, the technology that connects me to friends and family. So, I, like many others, have sought a middle ground to maintain modern life without the anxiety and materialism it can breed.

To do this, I have acknowledged that suffering awaits all of us in the form of death. Our personal mortalities and those that surround us ensure its role in the course of existence. I could be enjoying a gorgeous Pacific sunset as a coconut falls and bumps my life away, or I could be punching a criminal vending machine before it comes crashing down on my hopes and dreams.

Acknowledging death liberates us in life. Applying this to myself, the worry that I have not started a 13-page research paper due next week becomes pretty insignificant. In the face of our erratic existence, obstacles are minimized; now we can tackle them in an unattached way that leads to success; we stop worrying about the due date and instead concentrate on excellence.

So while suffering is life’s inevitable result, recognition allows us to take advantage of living. The Eightfold Path is an important resource in gaining the upper hand. It advises: 1. Right understanding. 2. Right thought. 3. Right speech. 4. Right action. 5. Right livelihood. 6. Right effort. 7. Right mindfulness. 8. Right concentration. In essence, these eight rules breed intent. When we do anything, be it sitting silently or conversing with friends, keeping these rules in mind will ensure conscious action that results in the actualization of ideal character.

For example, when I talk to people, I often over-analyze their reactions to what I say. Do they think I’m uninteresting? Do they think I’m uninterested? Did I say something that insulted them? A meditation on these eight truths has led me to one basic anxiety-crushing rule: maintain benevolence. By avoiding an assault on other people’s feelings and sensibilities in all situations, I have found comfort in my dealings with people.

Lastly, it is important to realize that anxiety is a worry that life won’t go well, that you won’t be happy, that you won’t make grades, that you won’t find your soulmate. To this I say, “balderdash!” because, in the end, we are not oracles. We cannot tell the future –– these self-defeating thoughts draw us nearer to failure than their complete absence.

To sum this up, I’ll leave you with a quote from Sadhguru, an Indian mystic who offers powerful and unconventional insights: “Your fear is always about what’s going to happen next. That means your fear is always about that which does not exist. If your fear is about the non-existent, your fear is one hundred percent imaginative. If you’re suffering the non-existential, we call that insanity.”

Live every moment purposefully and you will know at the end of life that you existed just as you intended.