If there is one thing in life that is certain, it is the fact that life in itself is uncertain. This for many people can cause anxiety, worry and pain. As people, we all suffer anxiety – it is part of living, and part of being human. The biggest problems clients can face with anxiety however is actually in the act of trying to find solutions to the ‘life problems’ or events that cause it in the first place. The ruminating thoughts or the suppression or controlling of anxiety therefore causes people unwittingly to make the persistent arising of anxiety even more troubling.
As counsellors, sometimes when clients get over anxious, we use a ‘grounding’ technique that involves putting your feet firmly on the ground. Amazing how it can make you feel alive by just feeling the ground beneath you. My own meaning for this is a reminder of the power of the world… there you are going along, living your life, putting your own meanings on it, and suddenly something unexpected happens, and it throws you. It is like when you are a kid and you are standing there minding your own business, and someone comes along and kicks you behind the knees and you suddenly fall over! And to make matters worse, it feels like everyone is laughing at you – life is like that sometimes.
The Philosopher Heidegger argued that we as humans face no certainty in life; we make choices as to how we live but hold no control over their outcome. The only certainty we face is this anxiety.
I met up with one of my good friends recently, and we were discussing this uncertainty. He is originally from Syria, and so is having to face the very real situation that is currently unfolding over there, a country where his whole family still live. He was talking about how all those plans you make, getting married, moving house etc… just seem to fall away into nothing when you are faced on a day to day basis with such huge uncertainty. I agree with him, uncertainty and the anxiety it causes in its natural form, is uncontrollable. It can feel like life is not listening to our plans; in fact every now and again it seems to be doing the exact opposite, it is ruining them, making them seem like nothing, making us as humans feels powerless and at times, drowning in a sea of disappointments.
And how do we cope with life’s major disappointments? Albert Camus on talking about the greatest disappointment of all, famously coined the term ‘the absurd’, meaning that the suggestion that human beings should demand significance or certainty in their lives, in an uncaring, indifferent world. He called one of philosophy’s fundamental questions the subject of suicide; life has no meaning so what is the point in living he asked? On a basic level, I disagree with this, because I think we find meaning in our here and now momentary living, and holistically speaking, each of us as humans will have positive and negative experience. However, I have to be honest here as a human as well as a therapist, and say that we all as people have ideas of what we want for our lives/where we are going, and when what we expect of life does not happen, it can sometimes feel like a big disappointment. Because sometimes we can try to micro-manage our lives, trying to be ready as a person to take on anything – take on the world! Then, that thing happens that makes us fall over. And all those controlling habits in us are scrabbling for the pieces, trying desperately to put our lives back together, trying desperately to quash that anxiety inside us.
A big part of being human is how we learn to deal with this. When faced with angst, I walk onto Clapham Common and then I stand there and let the anxiety inside me rise. This causes me sometimes to feel uncomfortable, sometimes ill with pain, but I feel real and alive. And then, I look at the goose standing next to me (actually probably it’s a flock of geese), and I think, yep you and me are part of this world, and this is it. This is actually it. All those things we all reach out to fill up our lives, a lot of it is actually meaningless. Sure, it is great to do things that make you happy, that you enjoy, but at the end of the day, they will never cure that anxiety, or that aching inside you. This is life.
Irvin Yalom, said: “Everyone – and that includes therapists as well as patients – is destined to experience not only the exhilaration of life, but also its inevitable darkness”
So in the same way, I as a counsellor ask clients to sit with their true feelings. In fact, we sit together as two people doing this. The uncertainty, the anxiety that comes with it sometimes feels too much to bear. We might try and push it away, shut it down or try to find a solution for the thing causing anxiety, but, if we accept this is a fundamental part of living, it will always come back. We might as well, through all the difficulty, sit with it, feel it, be it, and be fully aware of ourselves in order to keep living in the here and now moment. If we let it control us, or try and control it, we will never know authentic awareness and appreciate our true-selves, our real needs and wants.
The popular Existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said that ‘bad faith’ is an attempt to impose structure on this very structureless universe, and to believe that we do not have the freedom to make the “total choice of oneself”. Sartre arose out of the massive intellectual twentieth century movement that was Existentialism – the array of ideas that dealt with ‘existence’ and particularly the way humans experience this .Two kinds of Existentialist thought became prominent: Christian Theist Existentialism and Atheist Existentialism. In the counselling world, the ‘humanistic’ tradition came out of the latter. So rather controversially perhaps, I am going to use the words ‘Existentialism’ and ‘religion’ in the same sentence! However, the Existential idea, that we cannot fight the uncertainty of the world, or somehow rationalise or control it with our own human bound concepts, is also conveyed within an Eastern Philosophical/religious Taoist idea called ‘Wu Wei’. This describes the technique of ‘Action with no action’. Confused?! Those sages and their seemingly paradoxical statements!! Let me illustrate what it means with this example:
Imagine a fast flowing water stream and you throw a stick into it, the stick will go along the water: it is moving forward in action but, it is not fighting the current, it flows along nicely and reaches the bottom seamlessly – right, he is our hero okay?! He has floated past the big old boulder in the river which is static and worn away by the water – that would represent non-action and no personal responsibility: the boulder is waiting for an answer that’s never going to come. Imagine, now that I poured my magic dust over that stick so it became a stick man, and when I threw him in he tried to swim against the current back towards me – he drowns (poor stick man). The reason is because he fighting life, he is trying to control and exert his will on the universe and expecting it to listen.
So you see as a person you can be passionate and acting, responsible and make choices, without controlling or forcing certainty onto that which flows in a very uncertain way.
I am a person; I struggle like everyone else, but these days I try my best to just stand with it, whatever comes. I visualise a big wind trying to blow me over, and then decide I will either stand or I will fall. If you fall, which most people will at a time in their lives (unless your name is Superman), you can get back up again but it has to be slow and compassionate to yourself. And if you stand, maybe each time, you get closer to reaching a point where you realise that the wind is always going to blow, when one gale leaves, another will come but maybe next time you will be that bit stronger. I figure if we can look every day right in the eye and meet it where it is, I believe it only makes our souls stronger. Growth comes through conflict, growth comes through pain, but the realness that comes with staying with that experience is something that no one can take from you.
So, what can you do when life throws you a curve ball? Nothing, you can do nothing. You cannot save yourself from pain, and you can’t hide from reality. But, the positive side is, that you can learn to cope with the outcomes, even if they are difficult and gut-wrenching. If you wake up everyday, and say ‘come on life, give it to me’, you are strengthening your inner being, and you can still cry, or wish that things were different, but believing that life goes on, and that your truth matters, beats pushing feelings down or ‘de-pressing’ them (also known as depression). Real life is happening now, the world will throw you anything – ever heard the expression, ‘if you can’t beat it join it’, do that with the world… after all we are all part of it.