Some image or event will push me over the edge into a dark, disorienting anxiety. The untimely death of a friend or loved one. A prolonged power outage that highlights how utterly dependent we are on our fragile infrastructure. A picture of one of the many floating islands of garbage in our oceans. Another article about how greed wins out over the long-term well-being of people and planet.
I slip from a generally happy state into a panicky realization that the future may – and probably, to some extent, will – hold earth-shattering trauma and unimaginable pain for me, my loved ones, my community, my country, the beautiful creatures of this earth, and the biosphere. It feels like being suspended over a pit of lava, and then looking up and realizing I’m hanging by the last thin thread of a fraying rope. It feels like my previous happiness and peace of mind were predicated on ignorance or denial, and the only way back to joy is to shut my eyes, plug my ears, and forget the situation as best I can.
Fortunately, Zen has shown me another path – a middle way between denial and anxiety. By “middle way” I don’t mean a half-hearted compromise. A Zen Buddhist “middle way” is a vital, living dance on the razor’s edge between two extremes. It’s a refusal to get trapped by my own conceptual renderings of reality.
When I remember the middle way, I wake up to the fact that, although disaster may strike at any time, it hasn’t struck yet. At least, the disaster I am fearing and anticipating hasn’t struck yet. Sure, lots of awful things have happened, and are happening, but I feel okay – at least at this point – about dealing with them. I still have hope with respect to the way things are. What fills me with terror is where they may be headed. I step into the nauseating quicksand of anxiety when I imagine what will happen if I lose my husband, my health, or my financial security. Or when I imagine civilization consumed by world war, nuclear war, or the global devastation that will likely come with climate change. Or when I imagine the world without monarch butterflies, polar bears, or elephants.
When I let go of imagining, I hear the song sparrow singing outside my window. I sense the warmth of my little dog, who is lying curled up against me. I feel breath coursing in and out of my relatively healthy, pain-free body. I anticipate the return of my husband from work, and the nice meal we will share together. I feel gratitude for my friends, family, and sangha. I marvel at the relative peace and prosperity I, and most people I know, still enjoy.
As a result, I feel happiness and peace of mind because of the possibility of imminent disaster, not despite it. The shit hasn’t hit the fan yet, isn’t that incredible? I’m not about to sacrifice the joy of this moment, this day, out of the fear that I will deprived of such joy in the future.
By the way, walking this middle path between denial and anxiety does not mean I give up trying to prevent disaster! It just means I don’t have to be miserable while doing it.