Can Buddhism Help With Anxiety?

The Origin of Anxiety?

Anxiety. Angst. Worry. Apprehension.

Fear – in all its forms – has been a perennial “thorn in the side” of humanity since we first became conscious.

Evolutionary psychologists tell us that the “flight or fight” response – or fear, by another name –  evolved in us on the plains of Africa 200,000 years ago.

There, nomadic hunter gatherer proto humans faced many threats – other hostile tribes, wild animals, poisonous food. There was a strong need among the first Homo Sapiens to be aware of the many threats to their existence.

This need has served us well – over time, we have become the most successful species in history, spreading all over the planet, adapting to all environments. But it is said that this propensity to fear, this readiness to low-level anxiety – has not served us well in the modern world.

The psychologists tell us that modern psychiatric diagnoses and conditions, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, are merely the misfiring of the ancient human tendency to be concerned about their environment, in order to survive.

Following on from this materialist account of anxiety, treatments are offered according to the individual needs of the service user. Typically, medication and therapy.

Many people see recovery in these methods. But many struggle on.

So What About Buddhism? What Can it Offer the Anxious Person?

The Buddhist account of anxiety goes much deeper. It is much more psychological than biological, as described above. Rather than just trying to explain anxiety away as a epiphenomenon of evolution, the Buddha saw anxiety as laced within the very fabric of what it means to be an unenlightened human.

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth is usually stated as “Life is suffering”. The Pali word for suffering is “Dukkha” which can be translated as “dissatisfaction” or…”anxiety”.

So you could say that The Buddha’s entire project of Enlightenment is founded on eradicating worry or un-ease.

Remember when the Buddha says “Life is suffering”, he is not saying that every moment of life is miserable. That is clearly not true. What he is saying is that within all unenlightened experience, the is always an undercurrent of worry, or concern, or anxiety, or un-ease, like a “hum” in the background. This “hum” is a times, loud, at other times, just in the background.

From the Buddhist perspective, more-or-less perennial anxiety is so endemic to the human condition that just to it as recognise as a thing in itself, is a big achievement. After all, as the saying goes, “the fish is last to know the water”.

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth is that suffering, anxiety, in life is caused by desire. There are a number of aspects to this statement that need clarifying.

What is desire?

Desire is, in essence, an unwillingness to have a still mind and to selfishly cling and grasp to thoughts and experience. To understand the nature of this desire, and how it disrupts your consciousness, you must understand the three poisons, as described by the Buddha himself (He was a keen listmaker!).

The Three Poisons

The Three Poisons are the unskilful roots or thoughts that keep us bound to suffering, and are the central causes of our unhappiness.

They are – Greed, Hatred and Delusion. They are the Buddhist version of the Christian “7 Deadly Sins”.

Essentially what these three attitudes mean is that in meditation, and life, we tend to cling greedily to good thoughts, emotions and experiences, and push away those that are painful or “bad”. So we are greedy for good things, and hating of bad. Delusion is the ignorance of the whole situation that keeps the whole thing going.

I noticed the three Poisons at work in a meditation yesterday, when I noticed that virtually my whole meditation time is currently used to try to escape anxious emotions.  I have also been at the same time chasing pleasant thoughts and emotions in my meditation.

This constant pushing and chasing, Buddhism says, is a great hindrance to peace of mind. The goal of meditation is to be free from greed and hatred, and to accept, non-judgementally what ever enters your mind in each moment. This is the path to peace.

So what’s the solution to anxiety?

Well, the Buddha taught that the only real solution to this problem of suffering in human life, of anxiety, is self-knowledge through meditation. Scores of scientific studies have shown that meditation is a great healer of anxiety and depression (which often go together). Many GP’s now prescribe it instead of antidepressants.

It’s hard to give one-size-fits all meditation advice. Just having a regular practice, finding a technique that works for you – this is half the battle. As Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is just turning up”.

Just through regular practice you will increase in self-knowledge. Try to find a place where you accept, non-judgementally, the present moment completely. This attitude will keep your mind still and clear, and release you from the unskillfulness of the Three Poisons.

With regard to anxiety – just try to “see into it”. Observe it. What does it really feel like? How does it change? Over time, with daily practice, just doing this this will decrease its power and hold over you.

True non-attached awareness is like the sun burning away clouds. Energy is always dissipated in the light of awareness.

Not even anxiety can survive it.

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