CathBlog - Abseiling the mountains of the mind


I used to be terribly anxious. Now, I am only anxious. This is a great grace.  

If you have been, or are, anxious you know what I mean. That restless, always present wariness can infect all of one’s days and hours. Anxiety can be the pervading backdrop to living as well as the chronic storm that paralyses and lays waste one’s peace and activity.

Anxiety and depression are closely related. Gerard Manley Hopkins describes the experience well in one of his Terrible Sonnets,

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.  Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there . . . 

We have had a succession of visitors over the past two months: a late middle aged married ma, an elderly man now living in a retirement village, a woman newly appointed to a prominent university position and, most recently, my step-daughter.  

All of them of them spoke about their anxiety/anti-depressant medication.  My heart went out to them and, at the same time, I found myself getting irritated by their self absorption.

For the past week, our house has been dominated by the dark cloud of an essay-deadline.  I am sick and tired of “The Mind-Body Relationship in Plato and Descartes”.   

Papers and notes covered the dining room table, frowns and concerns and reading and re-reading robbed a bright faced young woman of the fun that would bring smiles to the house.  

I know that feeling, and the circular, trapped thinking that destroys thought and creativity. Fortunately, that “great grace” kicked in and I found the fellow-feeling spilling over into thinking about anxiety and why I become uneasy about medication as well as natural therapies.

I have tried them all.  When I was getting headaches from studying philosophy and writing essays, I found a self-help book with complicated visual exercises and concentration techniques.  I added to this more prayer and penances (the spiritual equivalent of an athlete running an extra set of repetitions) and I increased my collection of grasped-straws.  

Next it was yoga, in various forms with various teachers, then Tony De Mello’s breathing exercises, body awareness, the lot.  

Tai Chi and mindfulness all promised relief.  And I did try medication for a bit, as well as a liberal dose of counselling.  As far as I could see, I was still “ as silly as a cut snake”, as my father would so eloquently put it.  My heart went out to my beloved step-daughter.

What turned the mild irritation into this fellow feeling was a poem of Sebastian Moore’s I had read many years ago, ‘Tears’.  I keep coming back to this poem.  It struck a chord then and continues to ring true particularly when I see mirrored back to me that helpless, consuming anxiety that cuts us off from others, from ourselves and from life.

We used to stop the heart crying
Like a child, using cajolement
And a gentle sternness:
You’re not the only pebble on the beach.
That was the sum total of our wisdom
That the only order we could impose . . .

Sebastian was writing about his Benedictine community and the fate of any individual, be he in a community, a family or any other close knit group.  Fit in!  Be normal!  For heavens sake, don’t let cries of your heart, the fears, the loneliness or the longings break the equanimity!

The tears, like anxiety in all its forms, have their origin in a deeper part of ourselves, in the centre of our being.  The anxiety may manifest itself in a desperate concern about an essay, whether I said the wrong thing at the wrong time or in various attention seekings.  Beneath all of this is a primitive awareness of a unique, God-given preciousness, an inalienable and indestructible, yet fragile core, a self, myself.  Sebastian goes on,

And yet the sobbing of a child,
The stamping rage, the clamour for attention,
Contains the whole secret of man.
It is the wild voice of the heart
Crying ‘here I am, I am, I am,
And through these tears
I would break to you in bitterness
And together we would be man
And the stars
Would be ours’.

This anxiety about the essay or the White Rabbit’s incessant “I’m late, I’m late for a very important date...“  parodies the deeper concern, my self, my soul is in danger.  At that moment I think that completing this task or being on time will preserve this precious core.  A mistaken but all too human error.

I am getting better at it, moving from the “mistake” to the “all too human”, my own and others’.  W H Auden wrote about The Age of Anxiety back in the 1930s.  Either we haven’t left it or we are back there.  

Thank God for our succession of visitors and for that odd couple, Plato and Descartes!  They brought me face to face again with this soul-threatening and soul-illuminating affliction.  

By all means seek relief from the symptoms of anxiety, for one’s own sake and for the relief of family and friends.  But, like Sebastian Moore, may we learn that this pain ‘contains the whole secret of man (sic)’ and it is in uncovering, honouring and rejoicing in this secret that peace and joy are to be found.  

Richard WhiteRichard White blogs from Cootamundra in southern NSW. Flickr Creative Commons image.

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