Anxiety and Love

My yoga teacher and I are very good friends – deep soul friends. Two years ago, when she opened a studio in her beautiful new home and began teaching there I made the secret pledge to show up for every single class so she’d  never have an empty studio.

At first I was the only student – or one of two or three. Now, her classes are bursting and full. They are, as they were on the very first day, pools of wonder and peace.

My yoga teacher is a guru poet of love. She stands in front of the class in her hot pink tie-dye tee shirt with a multi-layered heart at the center of her chest reciting the poems of Rumi, David Whyte and contemplating love.

This is about a lesson she gave to me:

She was talking about anxiety – concerned about her parents – both in their 80s, living alone, hundreds of miles away. She’d received a phone call that had left her shaken and anxious. Her mother, sounding small and frightened, had called to tell her, “Your father seems to have oral cancer. Advanced oral cancer. I think this is serious.”

My teacher responded with outrage – how could her father have developed advanced cancer? Where was the dentist who let this happen? Had he even GONE to the dentist? Her mother’s response to these questions was, defensiveness, then confusion and tears. Of course, my teacher realized, shifting instantly to gentleness and soothing. But as she hung up the phone, she felt anything but soothed herself.

After a long night of worried dreams, she woke more agitated than ever. Concern for her parents sitting at the edge of her awareness, she prepared breakfast and packed her daughter off to school. Then, she came down to the yoga studio and sat down. There, emotions swirling, she closed her eyes.

How can I teach yoga today with all of this going on? she asked. And then,
All of what going on? a quiet inner voice asked. What is really happening? And what am I feeling?

She began to look:
What is really happening?
 My father has cancer. My mother is upset. They live far away. The cancer will complicate their lives – and mine. It could involve hospital stays – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, suffering. We could lose him.

What am I feeling?
Anxiety. Yes, but how does that feel, this thing that I’m calling anxiety? I don’t know, was her first response. I am so busy pushing it away that I don’t really know how it feels. Electric. Dangerous. Terrifying.

Yes, go deeper.

She went deeper. She sat inside of the anxiety. “I let it have me,” she told us.

She let it have her. She sat and let herself feel the cold creep, the ice-fingered touch as anxiety crawled down her spine and into her legs. She let anxiety crawl up to her armpits and spread into her arms. She let it have her, let it take her.

Which is when the most remarkable thing happened: she grew curious, interested. She engaged with the anxiety – and the moment that happened, she was no longer anxiety’s victim. Instead, she was in a relationship with it. Anxiety had her and she, in turn, had it.

As she felt into the anxiety, letting her awareness reach out and explore its contours and folds, examining its texture, its color, its temperature, she felt herself relax. “I see you,” she told anxiety, for the first time in her life; and that’s when my yoga teacher realized, “I know what this is – I have felt this before. Anxiety is love.”

Curiosity is the most remarkable gift. It re-animates the soul. It awakens awareness. It allows us to slice through terror and upset and emotion with the saber of consciousness, right down to the bone, which is where we discover that beneath anxiety, and every other negative emotion that we feel, there is love and the fear that if we allow ourselves to feel that love, it will break our hearts.

A Course in Miracles teaches that there are only two emotions. There is love – a spectrum of positive emotion which includes, at its gentlest, devotion – a mother reading her precious child to sleep, a nine-year-old cradling a beloved pet, a father, standing in the doorway and watching this. Devotion. At its other end there is joy: a fire hydrants open on full blast love that is generous and wild. A heart wide open, radiant “YES!” and a soul-drenching gratitude for the incredible gift of simply being alive.

The second emotion, A Course in Miracles teaches, is fear. Which feels, as we are in it, like lack of love (but it isn’t.) The Buddha would call this ‘suffering.’ This may surprise you. You may have thought the opposite of love was hate or rage or, even, anger. But these are only inside out love – shadow love, love turned in on itself when life surprises us with suffering.

Which is where this story began, with suffering: advanced oral cancer, outrage, confusion and fear and, my yoga teacher’s anxiety. This story began with suffering.

At its most concentrated, suffering arrives as sharp pain, sheer terror – at the edge of the abyss, as we face down a life-threatening illness or injury – but there are many grades of suffering. There is sorrow, when we learn, as my sister did, two days ago, that a dear one is suddenly gone. There is anxiety – the insidious, just-under-the-surface dread that sours life, and steals the color and joy from every experience.

Anxiety is a terrorist, lurking around every corner, pouncing on every joy. I know. I grew up this way. I didn’t even know it was there until recently. For years, I prided myself on my ability to rise above any situation. But my cool exterior was a mask. My “Everything’s fine” and reassuring smile was an empty, joyless smile; a smile that was really a shrug. An ‘Oh, well,’ sort of smile that hid, at its center, a sigh of exhaustion. It was overwhelming trying to hold the world together all by myself.

In the offices of many therapists and healers – and the several dozen marble composition books – through which I chased the elusive tail of joy, I discovered that my childhood experience  – which felt as if I lived in a house of fog; as if each member of my family were wrapped in lambs wool – was not carefree, and, though, these days, anxiety is becoming (alarmingly)  ‘normal’ – it was not healthy.

When I first began to really, truly feel my life, a rush of feeling came in. Feeling itself felt overwhelming at first.

No wonder I feel anxious all the time, I realized: I am constantly trying to keep the door shut to feeling. So, when that door began to open, the first feeling through it was terror – and kamikaze attacks of sobbing. I’d be sitting in an editorial meeting at work feeling perfectly fine and suddenly, I’d burst into tears.

“What’s wrong?” my colleagues would ask. (Of course they asked!  Who would not ask?)
“I have no idea!” I’d manage to gasp out between wrenching sobs.

What was wrong? I feared I was losing my mind. It’s only in hindsight that I can begin to understand, by observing the stages of feeling through which I passed: the heart-searing grief at the way I’d kept myself separate and the opportunities I’d missed – each time I could have played, laughed, loved, with my children, my husband, my sisters and friends – but kept myself apart, once-removed, disconnected.

I saw the way that I’d blamed others for judging me, for holding me behind a kind of emotional wall when it was I who’d held myself there, and I who was judging them. I saw, also, how my fear of intimacy (of feeling) had made it impossible for me to relate in a straightforward, honest way to teachers, employers or anyone in authority. Instead, I envied, I sneaked around. I cut corners at work (and at home). I stole money from my parents wallets and later, from my husband’s bank account – and if I was discovered, I blamed them. “You aren’t generous enough! You make me feel like a beggar!”

All of this was the result of that second emotion: fear and its brute squad: shame, dread and anxiety. The inner terrorists.

That day, as my yoga teacher was telling her story, I was just beginning to understand my own. I’d been able to see it  but I knew I was missing something – some critical piece of the architecture of the soul which I had not yet been able to snap into place until there, on my yoga mat, I found it: Anxiety is love; twisted, thwarted desperate love.

A few days later, while caring for my mother, I had a chance to work with this new understanding – and finally pop that puzzle piece into place. Here’s how it works:

Mom clutches her belly and moans in pain. My body tenses. Anxiety arrives.

What is really happening?
My mother is suffering. I am the only one here. No one has been able to explain the stomach pains that plague her constantly. She has had every test, every scope and cat scan and blood scan. The pain is a phantom, eating her from the inside out.

What do I feel?
Concerned. Powerless. There is nothing I can do to help her – believe me, I and the whole cast and crew that supports her now have tried. I feel annoyed: Why is she making such a fuss? Does she, perhaps exaggerate her suffering to win our sympathy? Does she use it to manipulate us?

Yes, yes, yes.

But suddenly, here at the bottom of all of this I see it, I feel it: love.
My mother is suffering. I love her. That’s what’s here. That’s what’s true.

My mother lays down on the sofa. I tuck the blanket around her toes.
Her eyes flutter and close. Her breathing deepens. Love floods into my heart. Real love. True love. Devotion. Joy.