Sometimes the best medicine is to give none at all but to pull back, go inward, and meditate. Sometimes calming meditation is all you need to clear the head and soothe the body. A good dose of quiet time alone will do wonders for the human body and the human soul. During stressful times think first of calming meditation to address your woes. You can’t do any harm, and isn’t that the first consideration? Do no harm, meditate.
Deep work on the self is inevitably accompanied by equally deep encounters with anxiety. Heightened anxiety states not only shut down our ability to explore and process our self-discoveries, but often become a major preoccupation, taking most of our energy and attention to manage.
Inherent in our body are physical movements that regulate our anxious states. When we dream our eyes move rapidly back and forth as we put to rest disturbing experiences from our days. This is an unconscious, built-in body movement that regulates our anxiety every day. Without this body processing function, our lives would be overrun by the anxiety of one long run-on sentence without the punctuation of completion and rejuvenation that our daily dreams provide us with.
The Shamans of Ancient Mexico discovered, in their dreaming, the Magical Pass of Recapitulation. This pass also involves a back and forth movement, similar to the rapid eye movement of dreaming, though not just of the eyes, but of the entire head. This movement is accompanied by an inhalation and an exhalation as the head sweeps from side to side. Those shamans discovered that those movements could be consciously performed to put troubled life experiences to rest, whereby reducing anxiety through release of energetic attachment to the past.
Francine Shapiro inadvertently discovered the same bilateral mechanism inherent in the body in what has come to be known as EMDR. In EMDR, like in shamanic recapitulation, anxiety is reduced through bilateral movement that enables processing and putting traumatic experiences to rest.
The ancient Hindus discovered many body poses and breathing techniques to master the central nervous system, which manifests anxiety. They came to call these body practices yoga. One such breathing technique is called Nadhi Sadhana or alternate nostril breathing.
In this pranayama exercise, using our right hand, we close off the right nostril with our thumb while breathing in through the left nostril. When the inhalation is complete, we close off the left nostril with the ring finger, in effect gently pinching the nose closed for a brief pause, before lifting the thumb and exhaling through the right nostril. At the completion of the exhalation we inhale through the right nostril, close it off with the thumb, pause for a moment with pinched nose before lifting the ring finger and exhaling through the left nostril. This back and forth breathing practice counts as one complete breath. The sequence is repeated, going back and forth through alternate nostrils.
Jan and I practice this breathing at least twice each day for a total of at least twelve complete breaths. Our personal finding is a significant reduction in anxiety, resulting in a calming of the central nervous system that lasts throughout the day. This yoga breathing activates the inborn automatic bilateral movement of dreaming in a conscious way, offering a high level regulation of anxiety.
We do not recommend this breathing to accompany the processing of memories or trauma, as the recapitulation breath takes care of that. However, it is highly effective, if practiced regularly, to reduce the overall tension and levels of stress in the body. And for that we recommend it.
The body is our temple. Though itself mortal, it houses all that we are and all that we will become beyond our mortal lives. The body as temple houses physical movements that we can consciously access and exercise that greatly support our spiritual journeys, and that prepare us for our ultimate life without a body.
Enter the temple of the body self with reverence for its movement wisdom. This is not a mental process, but a physical doing. Do it, and see what happens!
I was energetically drawn to read Scott Stossel’s article, My Anxious, Twitchy, Phobic (Somehow Successful) Life, in the January/February issue of The Atlantic. Though totally appreciative of his full personal disclosure, I was disappointed in the outcome of his lifelong journey to lift this pervasive, crippling symptom from his life; his seemingly best cure—a combination of Xanax, Inderal, and either scotch or vodka—necessary prior to a speaking engagement in order to pull it off. It’s pretty clear that the subject of anxiety needs revisioning beyond the failed rational therapies of our time if we are to truly tackle this mythic giant.
Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell spent much of their lives demonstrating the relevance of myths to modern life. Carl Jung insisted that analsands discover the myth that governed their own lives that they might effectively find the path to their individuation. I propose that we treat anxiety as the curtain call to our personal myths, that is, that when anxiety calls, we treat ourselves to a mythic encounter, a mere mortal summoned to interact with the gods.
When anxiety calls we become helpless children, shuddering before a world of giants—adults—who have total power over our life and death. How will we fare in the encounter? Will we survive, be cared for, tossed aside, punished, welcomed, accepted? These are the fears and hopes we harbor in our smallness when we enter into our mythic encounters.
What will his/her mood be when he/she enters the room? I shudder.
Will my work be acceptable? I shudder.
Will I get promoted? I shudder.
Will I be expected to have sex? I shudder.
Will I be capable of having sex? I shudder.
Will the plane fall from the sky? I shudder.
Will I be able to perform? I shudder.
Will I lose it? I shudder.
Will I be attacked? I shudder.
Behind each of these anxious anticipations lies a mythic encounter, whether it be with a goddess, a good witch, a bad witch, an ogre, a wise god, or some other permutation of power that we feel inadequate in the face of. Our challenge, in this life, is to become the hero that takes the journey to secure our rightful place and find fulfillment. That journey, like all heros’ journeys, is filled with adventures into mythical realms; encounters with dragons, tricksters, witches and helpers that challenge and support our growing ability to hold our own as we follow the yellow brick road.
Anxiety is the necessary alarm that summons us to our challenge and ultimately asks us to turn off its shrill call. The tasks are formidable; all myths are epic and lifetime adventures. Sometimes the challenge is to unmask the larger-than-life wizard, like in Oz, to subdue a projection that generates anxiety. Sometimes the challenge is to marry into the gods, to experience the numinous and ecstatic without disintegration. Sometimes the challenge is to wrestle the giant to the ground, overcoming our fear that we are not enough, that we have no power. Turning off the anxiety alarm might also mean challenging ourselves to consciously learn to deeply relax and regulate the nervous system; the mythic encounter here being with the body itself.
In revisioning our lives in this world as, ultimately, anxious encounters with the mythic realm, we offer ourselves the opportunity to hone our beings to continue as mythical, magical beings in infinity beyond the human form. Thank you anxiety for waking us to our magical selves! May we all be heroes that accept where we are, our starting points of fear and trembling pointing out our immediate challenges.
Heroes come in all forms and each must face their own unique challenges. If we are here in this world, we are already heroes, even if reluctantly so. We all made it through the dark canal, cut the cord, and became adventurers in a new world. Don’t stop now!