Humans are built to react. If we were born, and just stayed still, then we wouldn’t survive long. We are designed to respond to our environment with appropriate action. When there is a threat to be reduced, we have two main options: confrontation and engagement, or avoidance and evasion.
Anxiety is usually caused by an instability of choice between those two main options. If we are unsure whether to engage or avoid, then our behaviour will become quite erratic. One minute we will be determined to ‘sort something out’ with direct action; and the next, we will be insisting that we cannot face it.
This push-and-pull, or vacillation, is the cause of a lot of wasted energy. We start things, and then stop them. We become demanding, then retreat. We expose ourselves, then we hide.
OUR WAVE FORM
Think of yourself as a sound wave.
- If there is complete peace, then it means the wave is not moving at all, and there may be silence.
- Equally, if there is reasonable flow, the wave is moving at a moderate amplitude, and there is moderate, manageable sound.
- However, if there is strong vacillation between engagement and avoidance, then there is too much energy, too much noise in the system, and it will seem deafening to you. This is anxiety.
In particular, what bothers humans is not situations, but uncertain situations. Uncertainty is brought about by three main factors:
- Instability (or lack of compassion) in the environment
- Instability (or lack of compassion) in the mind
- Insufficient information (or lack of wisdom) about environment or self
The items in brackets are for those who prefer a spiritual explanation. Those who like a traditional scientific model may prefer to stick to terms such as ‘instability’, or ‘insufficient information’. But ‘lack of compassion’ and ‘lack of wisdom’ explain things equally well.
For the scientists, what this means is: humans can get anxious when placed in an unstable environment, or when facing the world with unstable inner processes; they can also get anxious when supplied with insufficient information about what they are going through.
For the spiritual, what this means is: humans can get anxious when placed in an uncompassionate environment, or when facing life with an uncompassionate inner process; they can also get anxious when they lack wisdom about their situation.
The spiritual explanation can be more useful, because compassion and wisdom always have a calming effect, even in unstable or information-starved situations.
HOW TO STAY CALM UNDER PRESSURE
Going back to the wave form idea, our mission is to do one of two things.
- If we want to, we can train ourselves not to move at all, and remain at complete peace. Meditation, for instance, has techniques to do this. An example is some forms of Buddhist meditation, which train the mind to see all things as emptiness, and to ‘become’ emptiness.
- If we want to, we can also train ourselves to flow moderately. Some medications aim to do this by chemically reducing the amount by which our moods swing. Equally, we can employ some thinking techniques which have a similar effect. Again, meditation is a good example of such a technique.
For various reasons, meditation often focuses on compassion and wisdom. Roughly speaking, this is because compassion helps us think more of others, and less of ourselves, and therefore breaks our intense, selfish perspective. Wisdom gives us the ‘street-wisdom’ to apply actions wisely and at the right time, and is a practical skill. Learned and applied well, compassion and wisdom help us to remain calm even in unstable or ill-informed situations.