How the East can teach us to master our anxieties


In the daily round of life, all of us are prone to experiencing conflict.  It’s just the nature of the beast; but what if I told you that a lot of this conflict is of our own making?  As Jungian analyst Ken Wilber reminds us in his insightful No Boundary, we’re often into the habit of creating boundaries, by which he means barriers, walling off a great deal of life’s potentiality of larger experience, since we’d rather feel safe in the confines of the familiar.

That said, it reminds me of the fences Robert Frost  writes of in his beloved poem, “Mending Wall, that people erect to wall out their anxieties:  “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Let’s sidetrack for a moment.  Have you noticed how many things in life fall into contrary couplings, with one of them tending to be more positive?  By way of some examples, here’s my partial list put into categories, and you can add yours:

Spatial:  up/down, inside/outside, east/west, near/far, above/below, over/under, wide/narrow

Temporal:  morning/evening, today/tomorrow, past/present,  sunrise/sunset

Attributes:  short/tall, beautiful/ugly, clean/dirty, brave/cowardly, smart/dumb

Theological: heaven/hell, good/evil, God/Satan, flesh/spirit

Philosophical:  logical/illogical, realist/idealist, rationalist/romantic

Biological:  male/female, child/adult, young/old, thin/stout

Psychological: bold/timid, aggressive/passive, introverted/extroverted

My point:  These couplings belong to our world, not nature’s, which brings us back to “Mending Wall,” where nature abhors Man’s barrier artifacts represented in the stone wall.  While nature may feature its own divergencies such as ripe and unripe, it possesses no mindfulness about them or the accompanying paroxisms that plague us.   No dog thinks about its ending or worries about present illness.  No bird deliberates on life or death or the hereafter.  While nature includes pain and animals respond, it’s physiological and thus without angst.

By contrast, humans hover around their drawn boundaries as bastions preserving their control. In turn, this results in anxiety, limiting their happiness.  Ken Wilber sums up our dilemma when he writes, “the firmer one’s boundaries, the more entrenched are one’s battles. The more I hold onto pleasure, the more I necessarily fear pain.  The more I pursue goodness, the more I am obsessed with evil.  The more I seek success, the more I must dread failure.  The harder I cling to life, the more terrifying death becomes.  The more I value anything, the more obsessed I become with its loss” (p. 19).

At the heart of what Wilber says, though he doesn’t mention it, lies the concept of polarity, largely an Eastern notion not understood in Western cultures with their foregrounding in dualism.  In the polarity approach, which I’m proposing here, we encounter the healthier option, opposites being viewed not as contraries but complementaries, succinctly captured in William Blake‘s dictum that “opposition is true friendship.”

In our Western dualism for instance, we think of good vs evil as utterly opposed and embattled contraries.  In the East, this becomes unfathomable as how can you have one devoid of the other?  How can you know what good is, unless you have the yardstick of evil?  How can you know love unless you also know what lacking it means?

Like virtually all Westerners, I couldn’t get a grasp around this notion of polarities, or two sides to one coin.  Then one day it clicked and it’s been a norm for me, informative and helpful, across the years.   I had been invited to give a paper at the University of Delhi.  Afterwards, I fell into conversation with an Indian delegate and somehow, as often happens in India, it turned metaphysical.  I mentioned the Problem of Evil, a salient concern  in appraising the credulity of religious belief in the West.  His response, simple and direct, startled me:  “Problem of evil?  What problem?  Do we not have day and night, hot and cold, life and death?” The light turned on.

And how does any of this bear on our well-being?  If you’re still belaboring this question, go back and review my earlier Wilbur borrowing, as it gets to the very heart of the matter.

When I try to wall out anxieties about what will happen today or tomorrow, or how people will regard me, or matters related to my health, finances, relationships, etc., I invariably allow worry to wreak its cortisol devastation to my health and on my daily well-being.

In the West, we measure progress across the board in science, religion, business and private life as movement towards the positive and elimination of the negative.  This is the wrong formula for living the happy life, since it’s foreign to life’s dynamism, or plentitude.  Those we love can decline, die, or even engage in perfidy.

Today’s job may not be there tomorrow.  Accidents and genes may ultimately define our futures.  I think of baseball:  very few hitters ever bat 300 and when they do, fewer still repeat it.

To live life well, you need to take the spectrum approach that takes-in the full sweep of life’s potentiality.  By the way, this is heart and soul behind why we get life and health insurance.  We’re actually better off or lessen our anxiety in facing up to life’s quirkiness.

Opposites aren’t really mutually exclusive anyway.  They require each other to exist.  I can’t know pleasure apart from the possibility of pain.

Polarity, the notion of complementaries, can ease our wrestlings with our fears, reflected in our desperate folly of erecting fences or boundaries.  It also teaches us to simplify our values, particularly the material kind;  informs us that nothing is ever really ours, that everything is on lease as it were;  helps us treasure what we enjoy now, our families and friends; most of all, enjoins us not to cling. When I give up my exclusions, an unexpected pleasure exhilarates, and I call it grace, for then I am set free.  Or as  The Bhagavad Gita, or Hindu scripture, has it:

He is to be recognized as eternally free
Who neither loathes nor craves
For he that is free from the pairs,
Is easily freed from the conflict.

Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

5 thoughts on “How the East can teach us to master our anxieties”

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  2. Very interesting read – thank you! I used to teach Kindergarten and stumbled across many of these same ideas during a lesson on opposites/antonyms. One of my students pointed out how almost every pairing had one “good one” and one “bad one.” These labels are really powerful to kids who developmentally have less ability to see the gray area or to realize the necessity of the “bad ones” in defining the “good ones.” I enjoyed reading your article and thinking about these things again!


  3. Another great topic, Ralph. I do worry, even so, about the degree of confidence with which we make certain observations.

    For instance – How do I ‘know that I know’ that a certain dog (or lower form!) could never reflect or have a more expanded awareness than what we traditionally attribute. Though I have respect for the best in things like common sense and intuition, this respect does not entail an absolute sense of other creatures limits. Obviously, much more could be said.

    My hunch, by the way, is that – indeed – the all-grey cat I petted this morning does not contemplate the problem of evil. Even so, I am really impressed of late on the severity of limitation that is always-already on our knowing.

    ‘Anywho’ – thanks again!



    1. I wondered about this as well, as I’m not an animal behaviorist. I know my dog can fret if I don’t serve up his food on time and that animals experience anxiety, but such responses seem always related temporally to a stimulus and otherwise cease when the stimulus is eliminated. As always, Kevin, thanks for reading and for your comments.


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