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Cultivating innerfaith in the New Year
I began the New Year dis-eased. After we cheered and the people boarded their electric carriages to brave the snow (it was about 12:30 am at that time), the feeling arose inside me like a wave of nausea, inexplicable and irrational. I tried to swallow it down, but the more I consumed, the more restless I became, and the more the dis-ease circulated throughout my body, flooding my limbs with restless energy.
I knew I was experiencing anxiety, but what did I have to feel anxious about (beyond the usual existential threats that were already always there)? It was the first day of the New Year; I was in the middle of break. I had no pressing obligations (some work, but no immediate deadlines), and I could take the day entirely to myself and my family without feeling guilty about not being productive, because it was a holiday—one of the only days of the year, it seems, where we can justify our inert laziness. Yet as I lay in bed that night, waves of cortisol shook my body, causing my arms and knees to jerk uncontrollably and yanking me out of my sleep just as I would begin to still. The hours ticked by until finally, as the sky began to lighten outside, I lost consciousness, my body too exhausted to keep sponsoring my mind’s misgivings.
The following morning, I restarted in panic mode, acutely attuned to the abnormal sensations in my body—a little tightness in my chest, throbbing in the upper right side of my heart, roughness in the back of my throat from gulping down jagged breaths all last night. For the rest of the day, I had to find ways to keep my mind engaged—reading, listening to podcasts and music, watching TV—anything that would allow me to escape the discomfort of my own body. I was afraid of actions or substances that would cause my heart to behave strangely—things like not getting enough sleep, drinking caffeinated beverages, drinking alcohol, smoking weed, not getting enough exercise, or feeling full after eating too much. I’ve never felt so unsettled, so atomized, ever before in my life.
Panic Disorder is a type of heightened general anxiety in which one is afraid of having another panic attack. The first time I had a panic attack, I thought I was having a heart attack; I genuinely believed I was going to die. It is the fear of fear itself, and it is hard to understand if you’ve never experienced it. The best way I can describe it is like this: it is the omnipresent alertness you feel, as you wait in apprehension for the sharp, intermittent chime of a smoke detector whose batteries need to be replaced. That is the feeling of anxious panic or dis-ease, in which the nervous anticipation of something—a sound, a bodily sensation—occupies the mind more than the actual sound itself. An anxious mind is one that perpetually exists in the future and the past, but never the present.
In a strange way, by sharpening my sensitivity to my bodily sensations, anxiety seemed like an express lane to awareness—a state of mind that I’ve always wanted to achieve—by almost forcing me into a hyper-awareness of my body and environment. But I was quick to notice the discrepancies: awareness—at least as it’s applied in mindfulness practices—is meant to help you live more healthfully, and anxiety was clearly not making me feel more at ease or joyfully attuned to my surroundings. Healthy awareness, I believe, is akin to the sensitivity of Anna Tsing’s mushroom hunters searching for matsutake in the forest, or of indigenous elders who artfully harvest sweetgrass from the Earth, as Robin Wall Kimmerer describes in Braiding Sweetgrass. Healthy awareness breeds harmonious coexistence between the body and the environment (man and nature, if you will). In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes:
“The simplest answer nowadays for literal getting lost is that a lot of the people who get lost aren’t paying attention when they do so, don’t know what to do when they realize they don’t know how to return, or don’t admit they don’t know. There’s an art of attending to weather, to the route you take, to the landmarks along the way, to how if you turn around you can see how different the journey back looks from the journey out, to reading the sun and moon and stars to orient yourself, to the direction of running water, to the thousand things that make the wild a text that can be read by the literate. The lost are often illiterate in this language that is the language of the earth itself, or don’t stop to read it.” (pp. 15)
This “art of attending” Solnit names is an art of living that I fear is becoming lost amidst our data and information-saturated, capital-driven contemporary society. Perhaps it has always been diminishing, bit by bit, as we became more technologically advanced as a species, but with the rate at which technology has progressed in the past 60 years, we haven’t had much time to stop and reflect on what we really want and need as individuals, let alone as a species. We are introduced to the next new thing before we have even finished processing the last. The principles of fast fashion govern our attitude towards life, from our gadgets to our relationships.
Recently, I learned that my grandma learned how to cook different Korean dishes when she was young by using her tongue to identify flavors and test different recipes. Her mother passed away at a very early age in her childhood before she fled North Korea with her father, and her stepmother was very young as well, hardly fit for the role of mother. She didn’t have anyone to learn from, except by using her own wits. Sometimes, it seems, our awareness is awakened by necessity, as we are thrust into situations that require a certain attentiveness in order to facilitate our survival. But when, in the age of the Internet, we can look up a recipe for kalguksu at the drop of a hat, why would we ever feel the need to develop a practice of mindful eating?
Mindful eating is slow eating: it requires savoring each mouthful, swishing the morsels around in your mouth as you extract every last bit of flavor, and tending to the layers of experience packed into a single bite. Moreover, it takes time to foster the kind of skill or insight necessary to dissect a meal into its component parts (ingredients), or navigate one’s way through the forest in search of edible mushrooms. To live mindfully, then, is to live slowly; to live mindfully is to get lost.
Getting lost, from a capitalist standpoint, is really inefficient (and thus BAD). That is because getting lost prioritizes the process of discovery, rather than the end product itself (capitalism gives absolutely no fucks about process, unless it can be used as a marketing scheme to boost the price of a product). For people who have anxious proclivities, this is a markedly bad evolution, as anxiety—at least in my experience—seems to thrive in conditions that splinter our attention, and ask us to spend more time distracted by the things around us rather than confronting what we’re feeling inside. As solitude becomes more difficult to come by, especially online, is it really such as a surprise that rates of anxiety and depression have increased over time? We are trained to be more at ease with our exteriors than with ourselves.
For in life, the self is the true unknown. In pursuit of control, we are loathe to get lost in ourselves. Sartre famously described that the look of the Other simultaneously reaffirmed one’s own existence, while also instilling a deep-rooted insecurity in the ego. Once the gaze of the Other was acknowledged, the self inherently became unstable, dependent on something outside of itself in order to be known. As it follows in Sartre’s logic, in order to protect oneself, one had to “capture” the other first in one’s own gaze. How do we reconcile the complete unknowability and volatility of the self—as a shape that is contingent on the forces of the surrounding world—with the desire to remain rooted, grounded, and at home in the self?
I wrestle between wanting my name to be known and wanting to be a recluse. So unsure of myself, so lacking in confidence, I require the attention of the outside world to know myself. I’ve come to view my anxiety as a symptom of this mental instability—the propensity for rumination, for a lack of belief in my own opinions and values. Fundamentally, I feel dis-eased in my own mind and body.
I kept searching for some god or religion to put my faith in—but I’ve begun to realize (ironically by reading Buddhist scripture and listening to Buddhist speakers) that I will never be able to achieve peace of mind if I keep searching for some sort of stronghold outside of myself. What I lack, and what I need, is faith in myself, for that is the meaning of self-confidence.
Buddhism, for me, has been tremendously helpful in treating my anxiety and panic disorder. I have meditated almost every day since the beginning of the New Year, and although there are days when my mind doesn’t want to quiet, I have been learning to feel more comfortable with feeling my heart beat and my belly expand as I breathe. I was listening to a talk by a Buddhist nun about a week ago, who said that we can’t control what happens to us in the world, but we can control how we react to external stimuli. Buddhism strives to eliminate suffering and increase happiness by training individuals to be more aware of their (re)actions. Solnit notes that “there’s another art of being at home in the unknown, so that being in its midst isn’t cause for panic or suffering, of being at home with being lost.” If the self is the true unknown and life is the process of discovering the self, then Buddhism teaches us how to be at home with the uncertainty of this process.
A few summers ago before the pandemic hit, I saw Sengai Gibbon’s “Universe” painting at the Kenninji Zen Temple in Kyoto (pictured at the top of this essay). The premise of the painting is that any complex form can be broken down and rebuilt with squares, triangles, circles. The “Universe,” as the painting is referred to in English, is no more than these three shapes. Sengai’s painting epitomizes abstraction through its simplification of the world; it reveals how simplicity can be more elegant, precise, and beautiful than any amount of complexity.
I may have had anxious tendencies or thought patterns growing up, but I have not always considered anxiety to be a defining part of my day-to-day life. I used to be able to swing between extremes, staying up late and pushing myself to experience life to its fullest. I still want to live my life fully and heartily, but I’ve begun to realize that perhaps, I should not be so greedy with what I want to experience. It takes great self control to say no to consumption—to stop eating when one begins to feel full, or to not take on additional responsibilities when one has reached their emotional and mental limit for work—particularly when we have the world at our fingertips, and especially when our environment teaches us that we are lazy if we are not endlessly producing and consuming. However, I know that I will feel much better in my body and mind if I stop when I need to. A part of living more simply and more mindfully is knowing when to say no to consumption (of all kinds). When we consume, we are not fully by ourselves, as we are directing our attention to external stimuli. By limiting my consumption, I hope to practice listening to silence, so that when I do get lost in myself, I know how to find my way out.
“In [Walter] Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography,” writes Solnit. Maybe it’s not so much the act of losing oneself that allows one to be present, but rather that, in order to truly lose oneself, one must feel trusting and centered—one must have innerfaith (faith in oneself).