Anxiety and The Big Empty

So, I’ll preface this with the standard legal disclaimer–I am not a doctor or a counselor. I am not a medical professional and this is not medical advice. This is simply my musings on generalized anxiety, which I’ve struggled with my whole life–my musings on how I combat it.

Anxiety, that old shadow. There in the corner of my eye then gone again, misaligned from the real thing just enough I catch it in my periphery–a skitter, a syncopated heartbeat, or sometimes, a full-stop of will. It is quiet, until it isn’t. Then it’s freight trains and sirens all the way. It’s a construct. It’s a neuro-glitch. It’s an idea of an idea couched in corporeal cogs and gears. My machinery hiccups, and again, and suddenly, full-stop. Then, all systems normal. Fit for duty. Resume operations but maybe run diagnostics when schedule allows–

When I was a little girl, I tried to understand it–to name it, fit it into a logical framework. I tried to comprehend how I could feel so out of control and afraid. I developed strategies to rout it or at least subdue the unease. I came up with a game, complex and ephemeral and remarkably effective. By the time I’d gotten to high school, the game had a name–The Big Empty. It was how I kept my mind awake, my senses keen and how I slept at night. It was how I looked into the heart of who I was and realized my own strength and ability to adapt, to not only survive but to thrive. To live the questions, as Rilke would have it. To love the shadows away.

bigemptyThe Big Empty is always a place that goes on forever, where everything is doubly what it is, bigger than life and where I am alone. A place where I’d go in dreams or daydreams. Places I had actually been but expansive beyond reckoning, or places I imagined. I grew up by the Atlantic Ocean so the game started there. Yellow sands, no footprints–at least, no human ones. Tidal pools and sun scattered in glinting shards over the rolling surf. Sometimes it was the beach at night–blue-black, inky seas shimmered over with a moon-path that gutted the sea to the horizon. Sometimes it was the star-glutted sky above the sea. As I grew, the game did, too. It changed. It’s been mountain valleys, primeval forests, savannahs, fjords, moors. The silver-gleaming salt flats in New Mexico, the color of fish scales, where I stood late at night with my brother, the air brittle and crystalline. Shifting, cool and silken gypsum white dunes under a cerulean sky. The enormous and ancient oak trees of the Carolina barrier islands, trunks wider than a truck. Most recently, it is the edges of the Painted Desert, the sky sunset-ochre, the silence warm and golden.

I goes like this–I create my Big Empty. I stand or sit or hover and I wait. I slow my heart and mind, shove aside ny ticker-tape worryings, disperse them like flocks of startled starlings. And yes…the anxiety, the shadows can make it to The Big Empty but they find it hard to take root. The place is only itself, is what it needs and no more, no less. Shadows need to be needed. They need fertile will to thrive.

I close my eyes if only for a moment and feel the air wherever I am–hot and dry or hot and Florida-swamp humid; cold and salty or still and chill. I see stars or cloud or storm. I watch for life–the flora, fauna. I smell honeysuckle and gardenia or brackish pond or juniper and pine or ozone or snow. I listen–I hear the world around me. The keening of a Harris hawk or eerie ghosting call of a barn owl. Wind over a canyon. The distant howls of coyotes. Cicadas, or surf and the plash of a large scaled and finned creature lashing against a wave.

When I see, taste, smell, hear and feel my surroundings, I see myself in them. What am I, in this place? Winged death, peregrine…or winged prey, damselfly in a web? Am I a cactus, spiny and adapted to the harshness of the world around me…needing so little to thrive and even less to merely survive? Am I wind? Am I the land itself? Am I a distant star playing at being coldly diamondine when really I’m burning, dense and life-giving but deadly in high doses radiance? Or am I simply me without my attachments, my worries…me bared and nothing more than what I am, needing nothing more than exactly who I am in this moment?

What I see tells me everything I need to know about the problem I’m facing. What I see there informs me on how to proceed, how to do what I need to thrive in adversity.

Once upon a time, I worried that The Big Empty was daydreaming and avoidance–was even dissociation. Then I read a bunch of Jung and Campbell and even Camus and Sartre along with scriptures and basic psych books and everything else I could get my hands on. A lot of us humany types understand our worlds through archetype, symbolism and myth. When I went to my Big Empty place, the very world I saw was a symbol for whatever problem I was dealing with. I wasn’t avoiding, I was facing it down–looking at it, eye to eye. Naming it, but in a safe place. Problem-solving how I would best beat it into submission. Lately a friend who is studying Existential psychology/therapy has got me thinking again about having the courage to see difficulties and pain for what they are. I’m thinking again about how to get past surviving into thriving by facing these uglies down. About fixing problems at the root instead of slapping a band-aid on a hemmoraghing wound.

I see now, I wasn’t kludging there in the Big Empty–I was rebuilding the infrastructure. I wasn’t throwing on a band-aid–I was healing. The Big Empty. It simply is. And I am stronger for its simplicity of purpose. I am me, and that is more than enough for me to thrive in this beautiful and strange and complex life.

8 comments

  1. This post is stunning in its beauty and truth. I would sometimes put myself in the yellowy blue seas of a Turner painting. I’d want to climb in them like Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace get to Narnia in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. NGH! *hugs you whoever you are unless you don’t like hugs and then it’s a fist-bump* I know exactly that scene…and a Turner! How lovely that would be…so much light, such big, beautiful skies…Thank you so much for reading this, and even more for commenting. I hope you find all of the yellowy blue seas you need to beautify your world beyond your wildest dreams! ^_^

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  2. Reminds me very much of what I recently read in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Art of Communicating, of the process of coming home to oneself. In chapter two titled Communicating with Yourself, he writes,

    “When we begin to practice mindful awareness, we start the path home to ourselves. Home is the place where loneliness disappears. When we’re home, we feel warm, comfortable, safe, fulfilled. We’ve gone away from our homes for a long time, and our homes have become neglected.

    “But the path back home is not long. Home is inside us. Going home requires only sitting down and being with yourself, accepting the situation as it is. Yes, it might be a mess in there, but we accept it because we know we have left home for a long time. So now we’re home. With our in-breath and our out-breath, our mindful breathing, we begin to tidy up our homes.”

    Fortunately for you, your home sounds neither neglected nor messy. :-)

    He continues later with more words that echo what you wrote, about the vastness of the Big Empty, and about the shadows being present but not taking root,

    “The quiet of nonthinking and nontalking gives us the space to truly listen to ourselves. We don’t have to try to get away from our suffering. We don’t have to cover up what is unpleasant in us. In fact, we try to be there for ourselves, to understand, so that we can transform.”

    Zen fits very naturally with existential psychotherapy. In many cases, they seem to me to merely be different expressions of the exact same attitude.

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    1. So I’d quote your quotes but it’d pretty much just be quoting your entire comment. I love Thich Nhat Hanh’s observations and tenets of true mindfulness in wake of difficult emotions! Wow, those are particularly relevant quote you included, too…and I agree with what you said about the philosophy of zen being nearly a different expression of existential therapy! Ha, it was T. who turned me onto that way of thinking…I started seeing so many parallels. What I love about Thich Nhat Hanh is how he discusses self-empowerment in simple, everyday life–in mindfulness. How he tells to thank our anger or difficult emotions, because they provide useful information–but then to let them go. And how yes, “(w)e don’t have to try to get away from our suffering…[or[ cover up what is unpleasant in us.” We allow it instead to be self-knowing and, because of this knowing, self-empowerment. Thank you so much for reading and for your comment…I have a lot to think about! ^_^

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  3. Awesome! Your description reminds me of the climatic moment in the movie, “The Cell”. In it, the primary protagonist initially attempts to find the location of a kidnapped victim by using sci-fi magic to enter his dreams/subconscious. This doesn’t work out too well for her, so they reverse the roles and force him into her dreams/subconscious, and from there, she has way more power to get what she wants. “My world, My rules.”

    What’s interesting is that she also uses A Big Empty in her subcounscious in the opening sequence of the movie:

    So yeah, it’s awesome that you’ve discovered a way to tackle issues on your own terms!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my goodness…I remember that place in the movie! And you’re right…she totally claimed her power and projected this into the reality she created around her. Wow, that’s a really awesome observation! Thank you so much for reading and for that comment…now I kind of want to see that part in the movie again, hehe. ^_^ YAY!

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    1. Ack, I thought I replied to this! Well, I did…in my BRAIN. And I’m so glad you found it helpful! That was the reason I put it out there–a hope that people might find the exercise useful in some way. And it *is* restful in a way that helps me distance myself from emotional white noise and get to the root of what ails me. ^_^ Thanks so much for reading and for commenting! *hugs*

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