There’s a beautiful quote from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who wrote, “Anxiety is there. It is only sleeping. Its breath quivers perpetually through man’s being.” I was reminded of this last month whilst on retreat, sitting in meditation feeling the breath of anxiety running through me, an unease with existence, a tremor.
For Heidegger, anxiety is interesting because it shows us something fundamental about what it is to be human. This anxiety is not a fear of anything in particular, but more a general sense of being unsettled; it is a mood that makes us aware of our essential aloneness, of the fact that we are in the world without choosing to be and the only certainty that awaits us is death, a certainty that is nevertheless the most uncertain thing: which breath will be our last, our final breath? Will we drink in this air a hundred times more, a thousand, a hundred thousand, or just once before our life comes to an end?
Sitting in meditation, in the silence of the Devon countryside, I saw clearly how, beneath my everyday concerns, my various projects, my plans, my schemes, my hopes, there is an awareness that the world we live in is contingent, changing, unsatisfactory, filled with suffering and with the possibility of suffering. It is not that suffering is the only thing, merely that here, in the world, it is inescapable; and being inescapable, it demands some other response than simply fleeing and hiding one’s head in the sand. But that is always the temptation. As I touched on this awareness of suffering, I was taken by the urge to get up from my cushions, to stride across the hillsides in the blustery rain, to write poems, to sing songs, to make plans for the future, to reminisce about the past, to do anything I possibly could to blot out this anxiety.
Normally, that is what I would have done. But on that occasion, I chose not to. Instead, as an experiment, I stayed with the anxiety, with the reality of suffering. And as I sat in meditation, I confess, I sobbed, realising with relief that I needed no excuse to do so, that simply living in the world was reason enough.
What is this quivering of which Heidegger writes? It feels to me as if there is a kind of double movement in it. As we settle into an awareness of the pain of the world, there is a relaxation. But there is also a kind of fear, as if, were we to settle too deeply into this awareness, the world might no longer hold us up, we might not be able to bear the reality of suffering. And yet… The legend goes that when the Buddha was confronted by the fears and terrors of existence before his awakening, he responded with a simple gesture, touching the earth lightly with his fingertips as if to say, ‘Yes, there is all this terror and pain, and yet still I sit, here upon the surface of the earth.’
For a moment as I sat in meditation I thought that this suffering might be all that there was. Yet in spite of the suffering, later that afternoon the sun shone and lit up the drops of rain hanging from the damp grass like a carpet of jewels; my fellow retreatants went about their business, calmly, quietly, each one bearing their own sufferings and joys, exchanging brief smiles, sitting in silence and looking out across the hills. And it struck me that there is something more fundamental than Heidegger’s anxiety, something that no longer quivers, something calmer, more stable, something that is echoed in that gesture of touching the earth. A kind of joy, for want of a better word, but one that does not exclude an awareness of pain.
Back in the flow of day-to-day life again, it is always easy to forget what precious insights are gleaned from being on retreat. It is a question of using these moments of insight to make concrete changes in your life or, as Jack Kornfield puts it, after the ecstasy, the laundry. An insight that is not put to use is no insight at all.
Reflecting on anxiety after the retreat, I realised that one of the things that feeds anxiety the most, at least for me, is the constant drip, drip, drip of misery from the mass media: newspapers, the addiction to the news programme in the morning radio, the habit of turning on the radio again for the six o’ clock news in the evening. These are the machineries of anxiety. The say that sex sells, and no doubt it does; but anxiety sells just as much, if not more. The experience of reading a newspaper can sometimes seem like a dim echo of the legend of the Buddha, facing the raging fears of existence as he sat calmly at the foot of his tree: for here all the terrors of human life are on display – rape, murder, mutilation, loss, hunger, disease, cruelty, death. But, unlike in the legend, even as we read the newspaper or listen to the news, we find ourselves in flight from the horror of that which we are reading or listening to. We don’t take it on board. We don’t really recognise it for what it is. We do not look the terrors square in the eye and gently touch the ground with our fingertips, because we are afraid that if we looked them in the eye, we might break apart. We turn our minds away from the reality of suffering. But it slips in nevertheless, taking root in the corners of our mind, feeing our jitteriness, our unease with existence.
This leaves a dilemma. Given that I am a British citizen, here in the 21^st^ century, I believe that I have certain responsibilities. It is true that I may not have chosen these responsibilities, but I don’t really think that responsibilities are really chosen anyway: we find ourselves responsible, and then we choose whether to act upon these responsibilities or not. I am, to some extent, responsible for what my government does, at least in the sense that I may be called upon to respond to what my government does. I am responsible for the ways I act, the things I buy, the life I lead. To cut oneself off entirely from what is happening in the world seems to me to be dangerously close to abdicating my responsibilities. At the same time, becoming a twenty-four-hour news junkie is clearly unhealthy. A middle way, perhaps, is needed, one that is neither hooked into the drip-feed of anxiety, but nor is it simply a case of burying one’s head in the sand.
My current solution is this. I avoid the news on the radio. I don’t have a TV, so I don’t have to worry about this. And on Fridays I buy the excellent Guardian Weekly, a digest of the best articles from the week, with a smattering of others from Le Monde and the Washington Post. The news when it reaches me is always a few days old, so it doesn’t fuel that ‘I’ll just turn on the radio and see what is happening with x’ habit; and whilst this keeps me up to date with what is happening, so far at least I am refreshingly free of the nagging, daily anxiety that is encouraged by our 24-hour news society…
Date First Published: Monday November 28, 2005