settle down or power up?

 Some time ago I wrote a to-me-pleasingly-grumpy post against the ethos behind some of the uses to which mindfulness meditation, as I see it, is put. I was critical of it, that is, as any kind of palliative to stressful living. Today I want to take all this in a slightly different direction. So, I've become more and more aware recently of how much talk there is about 'managing anxiety', 'relaxation' etc. in my profession and in my workplace. The idea seems to be that anxiety is a not very good thing and that we need to learn to deconstruct, manage, separate from, calm it. The body and mind, let's say, go into a certain state of fight-flight-freeze activation, the person is then beset by their own body's reactions, and the game we clinicians invite ourselves to play is one of helping them to manage or get a grip on or climb out of these reactions.

Of course, there are times when 'the anxious mind' creates worries for us, attempting to evade uncertainties with compulsive doing and ruminating, and these can make it all worse. And sometimes it's good to sit back from this, notice what's going on, create some inner space, return to the present moment, and so on. And yes, I do have patients who, more than anything else, need deep inner soothing, and need to be provided with and reminded of this. That is precisely what I myself often need too. And, yes again, we do need to become aware in the first place that we are anxious - not simply be lived, flung along, by it, perhaps unreflectively projecting it. That is a good juncture for something we can call 'mindfulness'. In terms of the classic zen ox-herding pictures, a few of which I've borrowed for this post, we must first have a look for the hoof marks on the path - become aware that there is something going on here in our internal world - rather than be blithely flung along on the journey.

But what I'm objecting to here is the way that this notion - the notion of trying to manage and settle anxiety - seems to have taken over as the mainstay approach in psychology and psychiatry. Its hard now to even think of meaningful alternatives. So, well, here's me having a go at that. Which go has it that what the anxious person often needs to do is not take the energy out of their anxiety, but instead to cultivate and get in touch with a different set of 'internal objects', a different set of pre-existing but muted identifications, such that the energy of the anxiety can be re-owned, re-integrated, and re-channelled towards lively active confident assertive doing.

In a nutshell: rather than try to settle down, the more helpful and courageous task is instead I believe to power up. The unsettling energy of the anxiety that besets a person is not, I want to suggest, often something to be 'managed'. The anxious state is one of an alienation from one's own bodily energies which, rather than being lived from, now besiege one. Trying to settle them can often involve staying in this same external relationship with one's own bodily possibilities. So, how about becoming them instead? Becoming them within the context of having powerfully reestablished agency, withdrawn depleting projections, and reclaimed one's power.

Feeling anxious? Great! What a wonderful lot of energy you've  got inside you, just waiting for redeployment and reownership! So, yeah, there's a rampaging ox on the loose that threatens to stomp all over you. So what are you going to do? Shepherd it into a distant field? Blow a tranquilliser dart at it? Or instead, go on, you know you want to, get on top of it and ride it about all over the ranch.

This idea of tackling anxiety through powering up, through expressive vital integrative mastery, instead of settling down, almost never gets a mention in the clinical literature. But we can grasp its essential contours with some simple Freudian metaphors. So we might imagine anxiety as a matter of a free-floating disruptive energy that besets the mind from underneath, threatening its equilibrium. And we may be tempted to try and evade this energetic onslaught one way or another (tranquillise the ox etc.) - with reflex unconscious defences, for example, or more consciously through cultivating a detached unspontaneous relationship with our own experience (that sometimes is described as 'mindfulness'). We might call on objectifying conceptions of our own mind - thus try and break free of a 'vicious cycle' of anxious thoughts and feelings, etc etc.

Or we might quit this anxious project of being an object to ourselves, quit being someone beset by their own emotional and visceral energy, and instead re-own, integrate, re-subject-ivise this energy as the spontaneous dynamism of our living personality. More simply put: we might power up, and quit trying to 'manage our mind' or be in some kind of externalising relation to our own feelings. Finally, in the ox herding sequence, the ox disappears, and we are left with a man - confidently entering the market place with bliss-bestowing hands. Now that, that might be a real relief.


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