I’ve gone on a lot of tangents on this blog, looking for similarities between the sacred and the secular. In my mind, I’ve drawn two columns.
|Religious Practice||Analogous Secular Practice|
|Imagining the personality of God||Imagining what is above and greater than the self|
|Reading scripture||Careful reading of any text that is written with care for the benefit of the reader|
|Asking God for guidance||Asking the unconscious mind for guidance|
|Picturing heaven after death||Picturing continuous improvement|
|Picturing hell after death||Picturing hell before death|
The compelling analog for this week is: anxiety = conscience.
This week I’ve been engaged in this experiment: what if I listen more closely to my “anxiety”, and what if I treat it as if it were my conscience? In other words, it is always information, or at least data, and my job is to interpret it.
Clearly we all do this. It’s how we survive. But, at some point, based on unconscious assumptions and cultural norms, we think we’re feeling too much. We think it’s unreasonable, a distraction. But are you sure? This week, I’ve been acting under the assumption that if it feels uncomfortable, it’s just my failure to interpret it and act on it adequately
I picture a Quaker sometimes when I think this way, and I know from experience to note that picture and add to it, to make more visual correlations so that when that picture fades and loses its power, as it inevitably does, my connection with the thought doesn’t follow.
Of course, acting as if anxiety is OK and deliberately letting go of aversion to it is counterintuitive in part because I assume that the aversion itself is part of how the brain makes the mind understand. If anxiety isn’t bad, will I be inadequately motivated to act in ways that minimize it? Reading Anders Ericsson’s book Peak brings this concern to the forefront. The discomfort of not being able to perform a specific task in a skillset that we are deliberately practicing is part of the process by which our brain rewires itself so that we can perform the task. But if we become too comfortable with this discomfort, does that interrupt the process? In Buddhism we are often, it seems, encouraged to just accept and sit with the discomfort. As I’ve talked about a lot, this troubles me for a few reasons. This is one. And that discomfort, I can describe this way: how to deal with anxiety has to be a central aim to religion. If a religious practice doesn’t alleviate anxiety, then who will practice it? And, as Viktor Frankl observes, a very effective way of making suffering tolerable is to put it in the context of a meaningful story. The Nietzschean How/Why quote.
So, is conscience just more meaningful a concept than anxiety? Isn’t saying you’re anxious an easier out than saying your conscience is troubling you?
¹A friend observes that I should put meditation as the counterpart here. Which is interesting. In Zen meditation a question is often employed. But isn’t it a koan? A koan is paradoxical. It shows you the inadequacy of your reasoning. (Does that remind you of something? The paradox of the following the law: the wages of sin are death, and yet. The epiphany of vicarious atonement.) Also, recall the three pillars, great faith, great doubt, great determination. In the doubt, there is boundless inquiry. Or something.
But I am thinking more of prayer as a dialogue between the self and the conscience. This is also the dialogue of a story.
What else, what else. In the Buddhist practice, you are setting up a story, clearly. The story of you and all the beings reaching enlightenment. So these are the two I keep coming back to. “Dropping the story” and controlling the story. But sometimes it strikes me that when we ask our conscience a question, the listening we do isn’t auditory. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? But for years I was literally listening.