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In conversation with the subconscious

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…

The power of a horse race

What follows is an attempt to explain to those of you who couldn’t give a seasonal fig for horse racing one of the reasons that those of us that do love it, do.

It’s because of the story: the true story. In fact, a horse race is so true I want to attempt to separate it almost entirely from the world of story. It’s not easy and here is why. They say there are only seven types of story out there, literature being based on one, or another of them. And what we are inclined to do is (sometimes interchangeably) impose one of these seven narratives onto our own muddled existences. We do this backwards, to understand the past, and we do it forwards, to better enjoy, or ‘plan’ the future. However, the fact of the matter is that we only know the now, this present moment, and in this moment there is no particular story to be grabbed on to, unless we want to take down a reel from the shelf of life and roll it both backwards and forwards to make the present, the now, cohese with the past and the future that exists only in our minds.

And as complicated as that sounds, that is pretty much what we do. For example, many of us will have played the showreel labelled ‘Christmas’ on a loop for the last few days. We tend to think in narratives and we have accompanying reels for just about every mundane, and otherwise, scenario. And we do it so very well that the storytelling about ourselves, our lives and others becomes an automatic way of being and before we know it those stories are not just super-imposed onto the current context of our lives, they become our lives. Our minds become a dark space waiting for a reel to flicker into life. The flickering stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and others, start to run our thinking. Our thoughts fit the narrative from the shelf…

I am not against stories, but I am cautious of the way we let might let sloppy ones run riot in our own heads, unexamined and rarely called to account. The power of a narrative tool, used judiciously is a beautiful thing, but the reality is that we are awash with cheap, emotive and polemic narratives that do us all a disservice. Our unquestioning acceptance of our own and consequently other people’s stories about our lives, their lives: Life… leads us into an unthinking loop and when we tire of those narratives, we reach for the alternative but equally manufactured ones via tv remote, or a book, or the computer.

It is in this state of narrative-induced inertia that we en masse sponge up the stories of advertisers who infer to us that we’ll be more cool if we buy an iWhatever, or we’ll capture love if we buy and wear a certain perfume. We take those stories, and we say, ‘Aha! That’s a rubbish story that is. Of course I am not going to meet a film star if I buy a coffee machine. What do they think I am, stupid?’ And we forget about it… But do we? Actually we don’t. Of course we forget much of the detail, perhaps even the actual name of the perfume or coffee machine. But our memory has a remarkable tenacity and clings onto the basic narrative like a piece of driftwood. Our brains remember the gist of it, minus some detail and part of the reason we do this is because it makes the complication of life more simple. It makes the downright dog’s dinner of human existence cohese into a more palatable selection of amuse-bouches. It also makes us buy products whose advertising narratives best fit our own…

It’s not at all our fault and it partially explains why memory is so unreliable. See that showreel labelled Christmas? Well it’s not a re-run every time you play it on the Dave channel of your mind. It’s more a story board for the future made up of the basic gist of the past, missing quite a lot of forensic detail. We tend to retrieve only an abstract impression of the past, especially the commonplace, and even that shifts with every separate retrieval.

So why hang onto the horse race, which could itself be described in narrative form? Because amongst the smoke and mirrors of so many individually nuanced stories about life, crossing the line in front is a one true fact. A fact of the matter. It stands outside my context, and yours. It is what it is. And in the seconds of victory, that can be replayed at will in detail, unlike our own plentiful faulty memories, it ties us to a present moment like the very few other facts of existence that are uniquely glorious in their own immediate context: like the birth of a baby, or a gin and tonic.

Horse racing is a factual account that sits in its own context and demonstrates the power of now. Of course when Kauto Star won his fifth King George, in his sixth run in the same race, we ran the story backwards in our minds to enjoy the possible forwards of it all that much more if he won. But nothing was certain; he might have lost. For me, the power of a great horse race like yesterday’s story…

Kauto Star’s Fifth King George the Sixth

…lies in this one thing, the thing you can be fairly sure of amongst all the hyperbole, in all our story-ridden intepretations of life – the horse wasn’t counting. We can choose to overlay the day with a fantastic and triumphant narrative, if we like, but the main protaganist, the horse, will not.

We can learn a lot from that.

Yeats & Murtagh: one of them has a story, one of them does not