Buddha and his Anxiety: An Existential View

It was 4:30 am on a Friday morning and I was saying goodbyes to my family and friends. We all stood outside the international airport terminal as I began to feel this tingling sensation flowing through my body. It was excitement, contentment, and sadness. I was heading to Ireland to pursue a Master’s degree in Psychology. Wait, let me rephrase this: I was going to sit in an airplane for the first time in my life, fly off to a country where I didn’t know a soul, carrying baggage with me that pretty much had everything I had at that time. That very moment, I realised it wasn’t just excitement and sadness that I was feeling! It was the burden of a set of expectations I had set for me, what my family and friends had expected of me. What if I fail? What if it all turns out to be a dream? What if I let myself and my parents down?

Anxiety has been a constant companion of mine. So is the case for a lot of us. Much of our anxiety arises from the expectations that we have from ourselves and others have from us. As humans, we have a tendency to cling and pin our hopes for happiness in fulfilling these expectations. Natural selection has made us think that way. For example, for me, my morning cup of freshly brewed ginger tea will for sure give me that moment of fleeting happiness. I expect this every day when I wake up. Robert Wright in his book “Why Buddhism is True” says, “Natural selection didn’t design our mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that will help you to take care of your genes”. The bottom line is that natural selection does not care about whether we see the world clearly. Happiness is something that is designed by natural selection to fade away because that keeps us motivated. For example — we eat our favourite meal for dinner – that feels good, but the pleasure is fleeting. So, as long as we have good reasons to believe that fulfilling an expectation will make us happy, and we take the necessary steps towards fulfilling those expectations; it’s all good and there is nothing wrong with this!

The problem of expectation occurs when we expect something to happen without it being realistic and perceivable. If I believe that my expectations themselves will bring me what I need, I am being delusional and looking towards that existential anxiety to crack open again. It’s quite straightforward when we are talking about brewing that tea. I can’t make that cup of tea just by imagining it into existence. I need to take realistic actions to have that cup of tea. For starters, I need water, tea, etc., then I can work with them towards my goal.

Now that we know the origins of anxiety, how can we deal or “embrace it”? Let’s start with keeping realistic expectations from ourselves. With societal pressure penetrating from every dimension, it can be highly emotional for most of us to deal with it. What we can do is to channel these emotions and understand them as they are, separate from us. We need to perceive emotions as a separate entity. What I mean by that is to channel that anxiety you are feeling as an external entity. Buddhist meditation practices such as mindfulness can be a saving grace for this. Close your eyes and try focusing on the physical sensation you have within your body when you feel that anxiety. Is it the tingling sensation beneath your feet, palpitation of heart? Focus on it, see it as it is, without its essence. This scepticism toward your feelings makes sense when you realise what they were engineered to do (like that ginger tea for me), and scepticism towards your feelings is part of this exercise.

The need to connect with our emotions, to love, and being loved has never been this essential, especially during these strange times. As Camus puts it beautifully in his visionary book, The Plague, “If there is one thing one can always yearn for, and sometimes attain, it is human love.”

(Contributed by Madhav Bhargav. Madhav is a Ph.D. researcher in developmental clinical psychology at Trinity College Dublin. He has previously worked as a researcher in the area of adolescent mental health in Ireland. He is a researcher by day and a movie fanatic by night. Find him on Twitter here @MadhavBhargav9.)

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