Anxiety is a Symptom of Amnesia

Why do we get so freaked out? Can we stop freaking out already?

First, we have to understand what’s happening. And then do what’s necessary to not freak out.

That’s the four Noble Truths, slightly out of order (2, 3, 1, 4). The Buddha understood that making the world, especially other people, conform to our preferences is a losing battle. But then, more radically, he realized that losing the battle is no problem—except that it feels like one. 

The standard formula for the Noble Truths identifies craving as the problem to be solved. Stop craving, the teaching goes, and all these painful things—birth, aging, sickness, death, misfortune, failure—are revealed to be simply natural expressions of a dynamic ecosystem. You’re not terrified at nightfall based on the idea that day will never come again, because you know how the cycle of day and night works. Darkness is never permanent. In just the same way, we are enjoined to understand the cycles of the world, and of our own bodies, so deeply that we are never again anxious about the future.

Anxiety, as a nervous system state, is on the fear spectrum, so there’s activation in reaction to a perceived threat that is mobilizing the body for fleeing to safety. Mostly, though, our anxieties are relational, cultural, and terrestrial—we’re troubling about people we’re connected with, communities and nations we’re in, and the very planet we live on— and there’s nowhere to run to. Anxiety is a somatic expression of obsessive thinking about the future. When I think about what might happen, mostly bad stuff comes to mind, so my body freaks out, which makes me feel like I’m right and the bad stuff will happen, which makes me freak out even more. 

The core insight that disrupts this unvirtuous cycle is the understanding and clear seeing of impermanence. Impermanence doesn’t just mean that we see that things are constantly changing. It also means that we really don’t know what will happen next. One of the illusions we suffer from is that we can see the future based on current conditions. Things look like this now, so I can see how they’ll unfold. But we’re so often wrong! 

The Buddha suggests that the reason we are wrong is that our memory of the past is too weak. We haven’t seen with sufficient clarity how actions lead to results, and so we keep making mistakes in our narrative. Our wish for things to be a certain way, which includes our anxiety that they will be a certain terrible way, keeps warping our perception of how the world works. 

The medicine he proposes is to really understand how the world works by remembering in profound detail how things have gone in the past. This is why the first inquiry that led to Gotama’s liberation was into his previous lives. One lifetime, even remembered in great detail, is too small a sample to be reliable as a test case for how the world works. But millions of lifetimes, including animal, spirit, and many social classes of human, is a solid data set. 

Anxiety is the state of freaking out about the future because we can’t remember the past. If we remembered more, we would understand how the cycles work. We would remember feeling tremendous pain and tremendous joy, and we would know that neither of them was more than a momentary explosion of sensation based on what was happening at the time. Liberation in this sense is a kind of maturity: like becoming a grandparent who has seen it all. But really all. When the Buddha calls himself “the eldest in the world,” I hear him speaking not to his somehow being older than everyone (everyone is the same age, because the round of rebirths is beginningless), but to this depth of maturity.

Gotama’s second insight was to see “how beings pass on and reappear in accord with their actions.” Having first looked at the past by remembering it—so he wasn’t just relying on other peoples historical narratives, which are inevitably marked by their own cravings and identities—he looked around at others with this same meta-historical analysis, and saw how the process was working for others. Having remembered the past as he experienced it through his own bodies, he analyzed the sequences of bodies demonstrated by others, and finally understood the pattern: your actions determine your state, moment to moment, lifetime to lifetime, cosmic eon to cosmic eon.

Stop if you can. …

Did you know that history is just a replay
And you affect it by what you do and what we say?
Did you know that history is just a memory
And we are the present memories of future centuries?
You gotta know your history, the what and the how
And be aware, you’re making history right now
So since history is a record of past events
Let’s give the future something it can respect

(KRS-One, Meta-Historical)

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