The first unit of my Four Noble Truths course – https://learn.tricycle.org/ – left me with some contemplative exercises. The first one began by asking me to identify the difference between being completely happy and what I experience now. What makes the difference? What stops me from being completely happy – or, to put it another traditional way, ‘living with ease’?
I had to ponder that one, because I’ve reached a generally happy time in my life, though of course there are ups and downs. What was the deepest and most authentic answer to these questions? I find a pervasive background anxiety (my brand of dukkha). At this stage of my life it manifests as a felt sense of vulnerability in the world and of my capacity to navigate it as I age. This is turn is linked to an anticipation of increased personal frailty whilst witnessing a collective mismanagement of our world in the Anthropocene Age.
I believe that this anxiety is natural, largely realistic, and offers valuable information about me and my environment. I would not want to swat it with, say, a simple injunction to live in the present moment. It is true that, subjectively, I live in a flowing present and have never been out of it. Past and future do not exist. But memory and anticipation exist, as human skills, and are part of my flowing present. Anticipation gives me a limited power of foresight and prediction. It enables an awareness of actions and consequences. So, for me, imagining personal frailty and social stress in the future has a value. A measure of energetic arousal, which I might label ‘anxiety,’ is also not in itself a problem: it can be helpfully motivating.
But I do see problems, two of them. The first is identification with the anxiety, so that it becomes ‘me’, rather than the affective aspect of a message, whose cognitive aspect is a scanning for threats with my inherited ability to anticipate them. The second is feeling bad about the anxiety and wanting it to go away. If I am identified with the anxiety as well as feeling bad about it, I can end up feeling bad about myself. At worst, I can fall into a narrative of not coping, when in fact the initial experience may contain seeds of good coping.
My solution to the dukkha dimension here has two aspects. The first is disidentification. I am not my anxiety, which will come and go and change its taste and texture on the way. The second is acceptance. I welcome this anxiety into the field of experience. It has a place at my hearth. I don’t let go of my anxiety so much as my rejection of it – for it comes bearing gifts. This, I think, is what I mean by ‘living with ease’. I have always liked this phrase, because it has a sense of relaxing into enjoyment, an enjoyment which may hold anxiety itself within a larger loving awareness. Ultimately, it’s the larger loving awareness that makes the difference.