Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Cure for Anxiety

More often than people realize, psychological distress is caused by some combination of lack of meaning, lack of social engagement, and lack of spirituality. These and other existential issues aren't often discussed in Western therapies, but that doesn't make them any less real.

Also not discussed in Western therapies are the concepts of duality and non-attachment, social service as a means of transcending self-absorption, and the importance of mindfulness, meditation and yoga. We come from a culture that insists that to resolve our mental health problems, we need to focus on them- and ourselves- more. How do I feel? What do I need? What am I missing?

The answers are out there, if we're willing to listen, and looking in the right place. Recently, for me that place has been Eastern Philosophy, including Asia's two more prominent forms of psychotherapy, Morita and Naikan, both of which purport to offer complete psychological cure from fear, psychosomatic pain, perfectionism, anxiety and neurosis.

How do they do this? In the case of Naikan, the resolution of these issues comes from asking and answering three simple questions about the people in your life. These questions are:

what did that person do for me?
what did I do for that person in return?
what trouble and inconvenience did I cause that person?

As you probably noticed, not one of the questions is about ME. Both Naikan and Morita believe that relief from anxiety and malaise comes not from asking "what's in it for me" and "what have I not been given" but rather "what have I not given?"

It would be easy to dismiss Naikan as some Zen, optimistic ideal if it hadn't been proven in a series of studies to be as effective if not more than our own Western psychotherapies. Which means- get this- that the roots of anxiety may in fact be culturally created and empowered. Rather than an innate and inflexible response in all people to a host of life and family circumstances, anxiety may in fact be caused in large part by our conscious preference for self-focus, self-obsession, and self-absorption.

This is a hard pill to swallow- on a number of levels- for us Westerners… one that many people can't or don't want to stomach. The idea that all psychological unease can be resolved by an increase in gratitude and a decrease in victimhood is uncomfortable. Neither do Naikan and Morita seem, from our perspective, to take into account the anguish caused by physical and psychological abuse, or to hold the perpetrators responsible in any way, upping the discomfort level to infuriating...

Still, the next time you take a yoga class, go for a walk or sit before the majesty of the setting sun, consider quieting the litany of thoughts running through your head... your to-do list, your drama, your issues, your pain, and ask... first about your mother, then about your father... next about your siblings, then about your children... then about your friends, your colleagues, and your partner:

what did that person do for me?
what did I do for that person in return?
what trouble and inconvenience did I cause that person?

You don't have to be a believer in Naikan, Eastern Philosophy, or anything to feel your heart open and the tears stream down your face...

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Anonymous Sally Morgan said...

Once again, Jennifer your warm heart and giving spirit permeate. Thank you!

September 10, 2009 at 5:15 PM  
Anonymous Jennifer Hamady said...

Thanks, Sally! So glad you enjoy reading. Hope to see you soon!

September 10, 2009 at 5:17 PM  
Anonymous Hannah said...

I really appreciate this Jennifer. Thank you. I am wondering, how best to apply this with an audience. If we imagine them as our mothers and sisters and lovers, are we then giving them the gift of distraction through entertainment? If we are singing our own material, we might be giving the gift of our experience, but if we are singing standards, what are we giving?

September 11, 2009 at 5:55 AM  
Anonymous Toon Vandevorst said...

Beautiful post! This is a tough message to get across in our culture, but we need to hear this now more than before - not just for our own well-being, but even for the well-being of our planet.

September 11, 2009 at 8:56 AM  
Anonymous Jennifer Hamady said...

Hello Hannah! Hope you're having a wonderful time on tour... how relevant that you're in China! My initial reaction to your question is that Naikan and Morita are best applied in spirit, rather in specific practice, with an audience. By choosing generosity and gratitude in performance rather than the all-too-common self-focused thoughts of 'how do I sound, how do I look, what doing people think of my voice, how did I do', etc, you're thanking them for sharing the moment with you, and offering yourself in service, rather than wondering what you can get from them.

Regarding distraction, sometimes it indeed can be a gift. Depends on what the distraction is from. Music, art and nature are all invitations to shift perspective, to reallign with what matters and put on the backburner what does not. You have so much to offer Hannah... enjoy every moment! We're thinking of you!!

September 11, 2009 at 8:57 AM  
Anonymous Jennifer Hamady said...

So right, Toon... thanks for sharing. Hope to see you in LA in November!

September 11, 2009 at 8:58 AM  
Anonymous Mio said...

I have a very big problem and can't sing well at the moment. It's really serious.
So I'm trying Western harbtherapy though I'm a Japanese!
Nobody around me try Zen if they have mental problem. We go to hospital and will get western medicines like you westerner try Zen.

Yoga sounds very nice for me. I will try it.
Thank you, Jennifer.

September 12, 2009 at 9:00 AM  
Anonymous Jennifer Hamady said...

Ha! Mio, it sounds like you- and we- should all go back to your Zen roots!

September 12, 2009 at 9:46 AM  
Anonymous Jennifer Ann Gordon said...

Thank you, Beauty! I've experienced this many, many times in my life. Once, I was in severe pain when a friend called in distress, needing some comforting. Immediately, my focus shifted from my pain to helping her and, guess what? The pain disappeared. I will continue to ponder the idea that self-absorption causes anxiety, as it feels intuitive and my own life has illustrated the truth of this. Merci beaucou, Chere!

September 15, 2009 at 3:31 PM  
Anonymous Jennifer Hamady said...

Amen, Jennifer! So true.....

September 15, 2009 at 9:33 PM  
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