All of us suffer from anxiety. Not necessarily the clinical type, but anxiety nonetheless. Philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual adepts have always pointed to fear in some form as the fundamental problem of the human condition.
Our vulnerability in the face of an unfathomable universe can leave us feeling helpless, exposed, and profoundly overwhelmed. When asking the inevitable existential questions—“Who am I?”, “Is there meaning to life?”, “What is to be done about suffering?” and “How can I be happy?”—we hear our questions echoing in a seemingly endless void. But these questions, the essence of our human predicament, beg for answers. We are compelled to rise above our unknowingness, to find some mastery over our circumstances no matter how daunting the task. We cannot quit in this; our need for answers will not relent. It is a task worthy of our greatest devotion. For in the end, what else really matters?
With the understanding that fear is the fundamental problem in being human, we have our starting point. To pursue this quest, we must fully deconstruct anxiety, reveal its origins and mechanism, and find its resolution. This is so for anyone working with identified anxiety as well as those who seek to resolve suffering in general, to discover an authentic, enduring fulfillment in life.
Three Postulates for Deconstructing Anxiety
There are three postulates that form the foundation for this quest, which I call the Deconstructing Anxiety model:
- There is an absolute truth that can be realized. It brings a transcendent experience of fulfillment and is characterized by wholeness, completion, and freedom from limitation. It is our original and natural state.
- Fear (being used here as a synonym for anxiety) distorts this truth, fracturing it into partial, relative “truths.” It breaks up the wholeness, leaving us feeling incomplete and vulnerable to suffering, separating us from our natural state.
- Deconstructing anxiety resolves fear’s distortions, opening the way back to absolute truth and returning us to our natural state of fulfillment.
These three postulates define our path for the resolution not only of anxiety, but suffering in general, and the (re)discovery of a transcendent fulfillment. For, despite the anxiety that seems inherent in our state of affairs, there is something in the human spirit that yearns for this transcendent experience, an absolute truth that is invulnerable to the distortions and limitations of fear.
It is a yearning to be whole and fulfilled, to find a unified and harmonious way of being beyond all relative, shifting states. We long to know who we truly are, with a constant and certain sense of self. Exhausted from the ever-fluctuating moods and changing identities of our usual experience, we seek a solid place to stand. We want a satisfaction that does not continually give way to disappointment, to know that we live in more than a random, chaotic universe. We are called to find something greater, something that is, indeed, absolute.
[Read “While Art Unites, Beauty Transcends“]
An Impossible Challenge?
Too often, though, this seems an impossible challenge. We arrive in the world ready to be afraid. Helpless and vulnerable, we are completely dependent on others. Bit-by-bit, we become caught in a web of defensive postures and self-protective maneuvers to ensure our needs will be met. Fear becomes our chief advisor in this effort. We learn to seek its counsel first in every situation. Its strategies are supposed to provide security but inevitably lock us into ever-more fearful ways of being. Like a hermit crab peering out of its shell, we move through life anxiously looking for signs of danger, ready at an instant to jump back inside and hide behind our door.
This fearful approach to life exacts an extraordinary toll. Its walls of security place blinders on our experience and boundaries on our potential. Like looking into a broken mirror, they fracture the unified truth we seek into many partial views, vacillating perspectives that can leave us hopelessly lost about who we are and how to be happy. We try valiantly to accept that this is the best we can expect—a sort of truce with our suffering—buying into the social conditioning that this is what it means to be “well adjusted”. Still, the need for something greater, for a deep and true fulfillment, will not leave us. And so we live in a constant state of restlessness, complying with fear yet urging for wholeness.
It has become “fashionable” to accept the inevitability of our human condition, to believe that transcendence and an absolute truth are not possible. We are, as a culture, cynical and suspicious of anything which suggests this transcendent view. Many will vehemently defend their cynicism and their vehemence gives us cause to question their objectivity. But the stance that says we must “accept reality” (while certainly an advance beyond Pollyanna-type thinking), will always leave us unsatisfied, even dejected. And what is the value of accepting a “truth” that does not promote well-being? No matter how convinced we are that there is no absolute truth, we simply cannot rest until we pursue the question further. When negating the possibility of transcendence we must instead ask: Why do I need to defend this position? What is the fear if I at least consider the alternative?
Furthermore, what if the idea that there is no absolute truth is itself a relative truth, the result (as in our second postulate) of hidden fears not fully examined? What if the only reason we have not experienced an ultimate state is that we have not yet fully deconstructed and resolved our fear, seeing it all the way through to its other side (the third postulate)? We cannot afford to pre-determine that this goal is out of reach before finding out for ourselves whether this is so.
Anxiety Distorts Truth
The second postulate—that fear distorts truth—and the third postulate—that working through fear paves the way to truth—provide the great key to answering these questions. And the answer is irrefutable. For it must be so that fear distorts truth; by definition, it makes us too afraid to see the truth of things calmly and objectively. Fear causes us to invest ourselves in seeing the truth we wish to see, not the truth that is. This is perhaps the single most important principle we can rely on to find a path to freedom. Simply put, fear makes us afraid to see reality as it is—we need to see it in a way that makes us feel safe. Freeing ourselves from fear, therefore, necessarily reveals the truth behind the distortion. This, then, becomes our task: to let go of any investment in seeing things as we wish to see them, becoming willing to see them as they are, whatever we may discover.
And this applies to how we approach the question of an absolute truth. If we reject the possibility out of hand before adopting such a willingness to consider it, it can only be because there is a hidden investment—a secret need based on fear—making this decision for us. Similarly, if we insist on any particular point of view at all before being willing to be wrong, we may be sure there is an unexamined fear driving the insistence. Our exploration begins with the decision to follow the trail of this fear, deconstructing it all the way to completion, so that we may then make a clear assessment of whether the transcendent view we seek is possible.
This point cannot be overstated; if we reject an idea (such as the possibility of an absolute truth), if we cling to a point of view, we must be willing to look at whether we have fully and honestly examined our reasons for doing so. We must always consider whether a hidden fear has us invested in a need to reject a thing, with a secret agenda to preserve our convictions. The only guiding principle we can rely on is that fear obliges us to see what we wish to see, not what is. This becomes our test of truth in every situation. If we want to know whether an absolute truth is possible, we must make certain we are unafraid to consider it. We cannot afford to sell ourselves short in this endeavor. The stakes are no less than our chance for freedom from fear and the discovery of our fulfillment.
And yet the resistance to doing so can be enormous. Wars and crusades have been engaged because of just such investment in beliefs. It is the source of political partisanship, cultish behaviors and the wide variety of relationship struggles. All of these and more are built on fear’s strategy of self-protection and security. If we seek a true fulfillment, free from the anxiety behind such an approach, we must find our way to resolving the fear that has been distorting our view.
A Cause for Real Optimism
Of course, it can be challenging, to say the least, to break from the consensus. Our enculturation conditions us to buy into the strategy of fear. Seeing everyone around us doing the same, we become afraid of not playing the game of fear. In fact, we are socialized into this from the first moments of our lives. Nevertheless, we are left exhausted and depressed by this strategy and long for a different approach to life, one that offers the chance to breathe freely once again.
Our postulates propose this alternate approach. Without fear imposing its blinders and distortions, there would be nothing to limit our infinite view, a view that would explain all relative truths in a sort of “unified field theory” and show us the way back to freedom. As with the fractals of Chaos Theory, when we rise above our fear, we see the tangled web of differences around us resolve into an elegant whole, a whole that is coherent, purposeful and beautiful. But to attain this view, we must not let a worn-out conviction in fear stop us from even attempting the climb.
Deep within each of us is still the sense of wonder and awe, the love for life, that was natural to us as children. It was then that, as Emily Dickinson said, we dwelt “in Possibility,” a place where we could spread wide our “narrow Hands/ To gather Paradise.” Deconstructing anxiety is how we reawaken this potential. Whether it is an actual memory, perhaps faded into unawareness, or merely a longing waiting to be fulfilled, we will discover that this sense lives within us still. This is not meant as a platitude and is certainly beyond wishful thinking (for it will take courage and honesty to direct our attention onto fear). The postulates propose that before the learned repressions of fear, before we became jaded by the heaviness of life and its apparent disappointments, we knew this truth. In fact, it was completely natural to us, again, as we see in children. And this, precisely this, is what gives rise to the urge for transcendence of our sorrowful state and the call for a greater fulfillment. Somewhere inside we still know of this fulfillment, though it may be buried under layers of forgotten dreams, painful life experience, or the imposed pain of others who have too long lived under the dictates of fear.
The principles and practice of the Deconstructing Anxiety method are designed to help people rediscover this potential, this truth that can be known beyond all relative truths. As per the postulates, once anxiety is out of the way, transcendence is inevitable. No matter how indoctrinated we may have become by the social conditioning, the mass hypnosis that would have us believe such thinking is a fantasy, I invite you to listen deeply to see if there isn’t still a call for this kind of freedom and this kind of fulfillment. The three postulates set the stage for a genuine pathway to its discovery. Let us not close the door on the possibility before finding out if it might just be attainable.
This is an edited excerpt adapted from Todd Pressman’s Deconstructing Anxiety: The Journey from Fear to Fulfillment (2019), published with permission from Rowman and Littlefield Publishing. All rights reserved.
(Featured image: Jad Limcaco/Unsplash)
Todd is a clinical psychologist, speaker, and author in the field of holistic approaches to healing and growth. He is the founder of Pressman and Associates at Logos Wellness, a psychotherapy center dedicated to bridging the best of traditional and complementary strategies for well-being.
In 1982, he traveled the world to study the great wisdom and healing traditions—including with a Zen master, a Jain family, a Zoroastrian high priest, and a Sri Lankan firewalker—to develop a new paradigm for healing which he calls deconstructing anxiety. A national and international speaker, his unique approach to resolving fear and transcending suffering has been hailed as “a whole new perspective on anxiety,” “extraordinarily important,” and “one of the most exciting new developments in the field.”