Where can you put your anxiety so that you can continue functioning?
Q: This COVID-19 pandemic is just another layer on top of lots of other scary stuff I have going on. My wife was recently diagnosed with cancer. We’ve been in therapy for months trying to see if our marriage can make it through her infidelity with someone I thought was a friend of the family. My mother's dementia is worsening and we need to make some hard decisions about caring for her. It all feels like way too much! Where do I put all this anxiety?
Wow, that is a lot you are dealing with all at once! With my patients, I often wish I could hit a fast-forward button that would get them through an extremely difficult time and allow them to resume their lives when some sense of normalcy has returned. But there is no such button for any of us.
Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s 1978 bestselling book The Road Less Traveled opened with wise words: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.” His wisdom has not become outdated by the passage of forty years, and it will still be relevant in four thousand years.
There is no way for the mind to do enough logical calculations to make complete sense of a difficult period like the one in which you find yourself. Stories, metaphors, art, or poetry are often more helpful than problem-solving when life floods beyond the banks of our understanding. The following parable, which I discovered in Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening, has been helpful to me in times of deep distress:
A student asked his Master, “My life is full of pain and anxiety—what am I to do?”
Reaching into a bag in his pocket, the Master said, “See this handful of salt? Stir it into this glass of water.”
The student did as directed.
“How does it taste?” the Master asked.
“Bitter!” was the student’s reply.
“Come with me,” said the Master.
They walked down to a lake and the Master again reached into his pocket and poured another handful of salt into the student’s hand.
“Throw it into the lake,” he said and the student did as he was told.
“Now drink from the lake,” the Master said, and when the student complied, the Master asked, “How does it taste?”
“Pure!” said the student.
“The pain of life is just salt, nothing more. Be the lake, not the glass,” said the Master.
Will this story remove any of the layers of pain and anxiety you are in now? No, but noticing your “glass” self’s willingness to repeat “this is way TOO much!” a hundred times a day and trying to refocus on your Lake Self can be a buoy in these turbulent waters.
How do we make contact with our Lake Self? The phrase “I accept” always invites me to move in the direction of my large Self. In your case, you could try saying the following out loud: My wife has cancer and we both feel high anxiety about that. I accept. Our marriage is still struggling greatly with betrayal and mistrust. I accept. My mother has dementia and that is really hard. I accept. This coronavirus could sicken or kill one or both of us. I accept.
Is the Lake Self large enough to hold all that salt? The only “I” that can say “I accept” to such difficult things is the Lake. When we say “I accept” we do not have to believe we are 100 percent accepting in every moment. Saying “I accept” is more like remembering that we contain a Lake within us that is vastly larger than our usual glass self. If we forget the Lake many times per day, that’s OK. But we can learn to remember it many times per day. Hard times can push us to live more often from Lake awareness.
There is, of course, no easy way through this time even if you do your best to stay in Lake awareness. The words of Spanish poet Antonio Machado fit when we feel lost in life’s troubles: “Pathmaker, there is no path, you make the path by walking. By walking you make the path.”
I wish you and your wife health, peace, and safety in this difficult time.
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Send your questions to [email protected] Questions may be edited for clarity or length. Dr. Anderson cannot respond to all letters. Sending a letter, whether answered in this column or not, does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.