This has been one of the predominant thoughts playing in my mind since 2020 – anxiety about the well-being of my near and dear ones, anxiety about how the world is going to cross this huge obstacle, anxiety about the future.
Let us examine the source of this anxiety. Firstly, there is the fact that things are going to be different in the future than they are now, and we have no idea how they are going to turn out. Furthermore, we also wish that that change should not be in an ‘unfavourable’ direction. Therefore, deep at the root of anxiety is uncertainty plus a desire for things to be in a certain way. When we examine this further, we notice that the desires in our mind have themselves changed over time so much. Our desires were very different when we were younger than they are today. And most certainly, they shall be very different in the future too. Certain desires are fairly constant over a long period of time though – for example, that we wish well for our near and dear ones. Therefore, the anxieties driven by those desires are perhaps harder to handle. The source of desire itself is something that must be examined, but we will come back to that later.
Next, what do we typically ‘do’ when we feel anxious? We try to do whatever we feel is in our power such that things go in a favourable direction. So, I have spent hours and hours over the last year telling my parents not to do this, not to go there, etc. because of my fear of Covid. So did the anxiety go away? Not quite, but it at least felt like I was doing what I could. This ‘responsibility’ and ‘agency’ that we feel about our actions drives us to do at many times even what feels like impossible tasks. Whenever we act with conviction, it can give a sense of satisfaction and relief that we are doing the right thing. Living in Sweden during this pandemic has been quite a challenge to say the least. However, every time I wore a mask, despite the stares, despite being an outlier in any setting, it still felt like the right thing to do. Still, with more responsibility that we feel about doing the right thing, we are in fact more worried about the results of our actions. This constant worry about the results, in fact, detracts us from doing something efficiently and in the right spirits. When do our actions feel effortless, natural? We feel like we lose ourselves when we get into a ‘flow’. This is the secret to work/action – doing it as selflessly as possible, without worrying about anything, with a clear (higher) goal. And often times, we can see that we are extra careful, efficient, and worry less about our own problems when are doing something for someone else or when we do something for God (for example, preparing prasadam for a puja).
But what if there is nothing that we can do or we have done possibly everything we feel we could do? In fact, that is when the feeling of helplessness accentuates the anxiety. That is when it is good to take a step back and observe the motion of things in this universe. For a certain action to happen, millions and millions of atoms have to move and change. My ‘intent’ behind a certain action is a tiny ‘event’ in this whole cosmos. In fact, when I think of an action as ‘I’ did it, I am only identifying with that thought. ‘I’ had very little to do with it. Call it nature, call it God, but it is not this little ego that runs this universe. And that fact can be most humbling, provide a sense of relief, awe, gratitude, and may even inspire a feeling of devotion. The moment we identify even slightly less with our ego and see ourselves as a part of this cosmos, there is a lightness and joy automatically. If we have some love for God in our heart, then that joy is even more palpable. Ultimately, the true devotees are supposed to surrender completely and revel in the Glory of the Lord, while the Lord takes care of the business of running the world*.
If all of that is hard, then there are some practical hacks that have come to the forefront more and more over the last century in the Western world, but which have been developed and practised in India for a very long time. There is a clear correlation between the state of the body and the state of the mind. If we exercise some control over the body and the activities of the senses and the breath, they automatically calm the mind down. Just sitting still with our eyes closed and observing the breath for a few minutes can also help. There are more advanced yogic practices as well. I haven’t been very regular in doing this, but even short stretches of time of doing yogasanas regularly give a feeling of energy and freshness in the body and mind.
All of the above can help immensely, but they feel temporary until the root cause of the problem is completely removed. We had narrowed down the root cause of anxiety to desire and difficulty in dealing with change/uncertainty, but it goes deeper than that. Advaita Vedanta says that the root cause of desire is ignorance – ignorance of who we really are. We feel that we are just this body, mind, and intellect. This changing mass of things. But we are not. We are the limitless, Infinite, All-pervading Existence itself. The ignorance of this fact drives our desires, because we feel like we are this limited being that has to be preserved and sustained. All our actions keeps ‘us’ in this incessant stream of changes, and we perceive this world as ever-changing and full of suffering. How blissful it would be to break free of the shackles of our mind and limitedness and rediscover ourselves! Every moment of suffering, in fact, has the potential to shake us out of identification with the ever-changing realm of things. As Swami Chinmayananda points out, when Arjuna is in a state of deep dejection and confusion, Krishna gives him the Knowledge of the Ultimate Reality and instructs on the paths to attain that. The clues to rediscovering ourselves exist in our very experiences. If we are the body and the mind, where do they go when we are in deep sleep? If the world is so real, where does it go in dreams? If the body, mind, and intellect keep undergoing changes all the time, why do we still associate with them and feel that we are a constant, unbroken ‘I’? Pondering these questions can open a window unto that Ultimate Reality.
P.S. This is an attempt to describe how to deal with the specific problem of anxiety using the ‘four-fold’ spiritual path of Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Raja Yoga prescribed by Vedanta. Swami Sarvapriyananda has talked about this clearly at many instances.
*अनन्याश्चिन्तयन्तो मां ये जनाः पर्युपासते ।
तेषां नित्याभियुक्तानां योगक्षेमं वहाम्यहम् ।।
Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 9, Verse 22