Anxiety, which is different from a direct fear stimulus (say a spider in your bed), arises when we project ourselves into the future; by which I mean if I think about something I don’t fancy doing tomorrow, today, I might get a bit anxious about it. Of course, the time frame can be much longer than thinking about tomorrow, or it can be shorter: in the next minute I have to take an exam – that might get the gut churning.
Once you’ve made the connection you can ease the anxiety by putting yourself back in the now. That’s not to say you don’t rationalise and plan effectively for upcoming, less than pleasant events, but if you don’t want to be in the grip of anxiety the best method I find is to cognitively function very much in the moment.
All well and good, but what if you find yourself feeling anxious when you aren’t thinking about something in the future. When you are just doing some commonplace task and your mind is not elsewhere, but you suddenly realise you feel uptight, worried, angst-ridden. This is a more generalised anxiety and I think it’s possibly endemic in consumer-based societies. How to find the cause? Well, I guess perhaps you have to explore the subconscious – the list of all the things that might be on your mind, but weren’t, at the time. At least you thought they weren’t, but something must be…
And not just your own subconscious (if that weren’t difficult enough), you also perhaps need to have a poke around in the collective subconscious because, after all, you might be picking up some wider anxiety in the world. The collapse of the Euro, the rise of Nationalist parties, the increase in the price of oil ~ you are part of that too.
If I were to propound what Freud said, then this post would continue with me defining the subconscious in different ways and we would also be dealing with three different kinds of anxiety, but I don’t much find this helpful, although it probably makes life more interesting for the psychotherapist. Personally, I find the work of Joseph LeDoux resonates more; it is based on neuroscience and fear reactions in the brain (see here for his latest NY Times article).
What I find helpful in the grip of dread is to ask myself ~ are you projecting forward into the future by even a minute? If I am, I stop and I tell myself I will deal with whatever is causing the possibility of anxiety when it arises in reality, and not just in my mind. If the anxiety is some unnameable thing that has settled on my shoulder for a while, then I notice it. I whisper, ‘Hello, you again?’ and I accept it. I do not fight it or run from it, and, in the end, when it has seen what it came for, it moves on.
Is that a conversation with the subconscious?
Maybe not, but that’s as good as it is going to get.
In the writing of this post I spelled subconscious in about as many different wrong ways as it is possible to spell one word. I think it may be trying to tell me something…
Earlier this week I wrote about the fenscape of Lincolnshire and said that we ‘humans need the comfort of a boundary that is less ephemeral than a horizon.’ I also noted that under those fenland skies ‘you are quickly overloaded with the weight of the void’.
After I had written it, or it had written itself to be more precise, I wondered what it all meant. Why did it feel that way, and as in the theme of the previous post, how has it shaped me.
L’appel du vide is one of those French existential phrases that we don’t have in English, meaning the call of the void or the vacuum. It’s also translated as the urge some people get when they are close to the edge of a cliff. Does everyone recognise that urge I wonder – I know I do.
Perhaps it’s part of the reason I don’t like heights.
Anyway it partly describes what I was trying to talk about when I wrote about humans needing smaller boundaries than an endless horizon. Faced with vast emptiness do some of us experience externally something of the echo of our own internal void? I tend to think, yes, it’s not likely to be just me is it? And when I talk about a fen horizon being too ephemeral I mean that to relate and cope with the vastness of it, we need to box it up a bit, break it down. A tree here, a stream and hedge there – Devon for example. Otherwise the question our horizon asks is too huge to cope with.
Call it what you like in philosophical, literary or psychoanalytic terms but I believe we all have ‘a void’ and some of us try to construct buffers or, like leaking buckets, fill them up to avoid acknowledging the l’appel du vide. Shopping, religion, television, computer games, writing, eating, drinking – all on the list of potential void-avoiding activities.
Perhaps a whole existence is one which is able to encompass the internal space without either seeking to fill it with busyness, or succumbing to it in other ways. After all it is a beautiful and creative place to visit, but if you had to live there all the time it might become rather like the countryside in winter – dark, damp, muddy and depressing. A place where you might need to drink a lot to just get by. On the other hand, working with the void can produce art with qualities that speak to us beyond mere words.
Maybe that explains the paradox in my own life, which is: to give my mind respite from endless existential questions, I have to occasionally immerse myself in the natural space of a landscape, the type which I might be accused of complaining that I grew up with.
Experiencing the void externally in a wildscape teaches me to go back and accommodate the inner one more wholly again.
The process could look like a year’s walk to Istanbul, or as short as an hour walking the dog. It could be a holiday retreat in the mountains, or a picnic on the Rowley Mile. L’appel du vide, for me, is bringing the inside out and it is essential.
I don’t believe it is as bleak as it sounds though, unless of course your l’appel du vide shouts at you every day and looks like the inner equivalent of the fens…
nb Notwithstanding all of the above, writing this has made me as melancholy as hell so maybe it’s just as well we haven’t got a bloody word for it.
Albert Einstein said:The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.
The reason I mention this is because I am practically afflicted with a questioning nature, and in our urge for duality in life, where there are questions we then want a matching answer. But that’s the thing; questions more often than not lead onto more questions and not answers.
So this week I have (in my own way) questioned Freud’s theory of the id, ego and superego and I have revisited, with questions, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And I have come up with doubts, agreements, and ultimately more questions. Certainly if I were to hold a dinner party for dead people next week I’d have that triumvirate seated down one of the long sides of the dinner table.
Freud seems to me to have done a creditable job of identifying certain human behaviour and feelings which can now be linked to distinct parts of the human brain. Neuroscientists might agree today that the function of the limbic system (the oldest part of the brain, wired for survival and getting its impulses met) sounds like Freud’s id. And they might allow that the pre-frontal cortex, the part to do with ‘higher’ functions such as reason and logic and planning, sounds rather like Freud’s ego. So through his observations, it can be argued that Freud was also in step with future science fact, and I suspect that because the theories resonated they gained purchase in the popular psyche, even today. My superego is still thinking about contemplating its own existence however…
Maslow’s hierarchy again resonates because it makes sense: if a person is being attacked with a knife their limbic system will be busy dealing with that, and they are hardly going to be thinking about some other higher purpose. One of my questions about the hierarchy model is about the people studied to gain the data: the top 1% of US college students. Maslow stated that “the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy.” That’s a shame – if he had studied Indian sadhus he might have ended up with a circular model instead. I also believe we live, and think, in an interconnected way, and not just in stages. I frequently come into contact with people who would say their basic needs are not entirely met, yet are able to think and act in ways that suggest they are not trapped in the bottom couple of layers of Maslow’s triangle. I guess those people just don’t fit into the top 1% – but hey that’s 99% of us isn’t it?
More interesting, and less obvious, was Maslow’s study of people he considered to be self-actualizers (but that’s another blog post).
And that’s about it for now; no answers, only questions. Although I did experience one answer to a question yesterday evening when I collected the kids from a school disco. When I arrived, the hall was thick with heat, the kids by now standing around. Well that’s their energy, I thought, just hanging around in that heat in the hall. But where has it come from? Because as we know (because the blog likes to revisit it often) a universal law of energy is that it cannot be destroyed. So I stood in the thick fug of dissipating heat and looked for my children and thought to myself, this energy has come from the food they have eaten – that’s obvious. But then came the next question: where will this energy go?
And I don’t know the answer to that question; if I did I would tell you… But I do know that you could probably run the Blackpool Illuminations for a week if you could capture the energy generated by a few school discos and kids drinking quantities of sugary drinks.
Ive got a couple of theories circling the blog and when I have got some time later I will give them permission to land.
They arent mine by the way; they are theories that are based on limited scientific evidence, have few variables and yet have taken hold of the popular consciousness without so much as a by-your-leave.
The theorists are Freud and Maslow and for now I will only say this: Freud developed his ideas by mainly studying upper class Austrian ladies in the early 1900s; Maslow studied the top 1% of American college students 60 years ago – yet both theories have been enthusiastically extrapolated out to throw a blanket over us all.
I am no psychologist, but I cant help wondering what the superego would look like out of the drawing room and on the racecourse.