Worry

January 5, 2015

“Worry is like a plague without a face.  It drains you slowly but never appears as an enemy you can actually confront, a force, tangible and real, you can deal with through strength and manipulation.  Worry is more insidious than that, and so it is more dangerous.  It appears, sometimes, like a friendly voice or a reassuring presence, masquerading as guidance, as prudence, or as reason; it is not, in fact, worthy of any of these names.  Worry is not careful, it is not intelligent, it is not helpful, and it is not kind.  It is, rather, the fear of the mind expressed in a particular way, a way that disguises its teeth and its bite, a way that belies its ignorance, its futility, and its deep-rootedness in all things hopeless and untrue.”

So began a recent retreat focused on examining that insidious mental compulsion we call “worry”.   My own life is no doubt made less bright, less rich—in fact, less livable—by this tendency in me, and it helped to understand that worry persists as a vestige of our ancient survival mechanisms, and that countering it requires a kind of renunciation.

“The mind needs you to be afraid in order for you to fulfill its own agenda.  It needs you to be ever vigilant, ever wary, ever expecting the worst.   It needs you to be in a continual state of preparedness so that as soon as something terrible befalls you—and it is certain such terribleness is imminent—you will respond quickly, effectively, decisively.  You will not be caught unawares, you will not be surprised, and so, undermined by your own ease.  And perhaps if this life were a battlefield, perhaps if it were a struggle in the wild for mere survival, perhaps if you were, in fact, imminently and constantly threatened with your own destruction, worry, and the fear it is based in, would be warranted.  But you are not, and you are not even close to such threat.  Worry is a vestige of a time and place that required such responses.  It is a technique, no longer required, for keeping you safe when the odds were very much stacked against you.  You have the residue of all that history in your own mind, and it makes the right-seeing of your current circumstances almost impossible.  We are like people suddenly plucked from the middle of a war, from abject squalor, from the gladiators’ ring, from the midst of drowning, and set, surely and certainly, on dry ground with plenty to eat and no one to murder us and no enemies at our borders, no threats anywhere to be found.  But we cannot quite change our perspective that quickly and that dramatically.  We spend this whole lifetime clearing our eyes, trying to rub them of the film of the past, trying to rid them of all the old notions that cloud and confuse us.  We are trying to see.

To renounce worry is to commit yourself to seeing what is truly here.  It is to admit that what you know is simply wrong, and though there may be many excellent reasons for your ignorance, it is still ignorance.  To renounce worry is to concede that you don’t know what things will look like when you glimpse them clearly, and it is to let go of the comfort afforded you by your conviction of imminent doom and step into the relative discomfort of simply not knowing what is real.  To renounce worry is to be, first and foremost, in this position of uncertainty, and it is to realize that your touchstone, your only true ground, is the sense you have that something about your thinking mind no longer serves you, that this difficulty, this struggle, and this constant fear can’t be all there is.  Something inside you resonates with that hope, and in that resonance, in that hope, is your foundation.”

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