Contents: UU World March/April 2002
Contents: March/April 2002

Sacred Anxiety

by Robert Gerzon

We often run from the discord of worry, but a noted counselor suggests that it's time to stop and listen for a deeper, spiritual voice. Anxiety, he says, can open a path to spiritual wholeness.

We are living in a time of unprecedented anxiety. For me, as for most of my clients, friends, and colleagues, the "age of anxiety" is no abstraction. It is scribbled all over our calendars. It overwhelms our attempts to tame it with cell phones and Palm Pilots. Juggling work, family, exercise, personal time, friends, and community activities becomes ever more demanding. Just when it starts to feel manageable, life tosses in another ball: an aging parent becomes ill, our teenager gets into trouble, we lose our job. And since September 11, we are learning to juggle an unexpected and unfamiliar ball that threatens to explode in our hands at any moment.

Terrorism has brought home the reality that our individual lives, our families, and our neighborhoods are all at the mercy of a roiling sea of deep global anxiety. As we navigate this exciting yet perilous 21st century, our collective response to the raging anxiety and confusion on our planet may determine whether we descend into a destructive cycle of violence or evolve to a new level of human society. The most essential survival skill we can learn may prove to be the ability to put anxiety to good use, to be anxious about the right things in the right way.

Dancing with Anxiety

I realized many years ago that I had been dancing with anxiety — or, as we often call it, fear — since the day I was born, sometimes evading and avoiding it, sometimes attracted to it, but always interacting with it. Anxiety can be brought on by real or imagined threats to our physical well-being, but anxiety also accompanies everyday worries about money, health, and relationships — and our most profound philosophical and spiritual dilemmas about death and the purpose of life. When most people, including most physicians and psychiatrists, hear the word anxiety, they think of it as something negative, something to get rid of. I use the word not just in this limited pathological sense, but in its broadest compass as a profound and fundamental human experience. I learned that if we simply try to avoid or eliminate anxiety, we may miss one of our greatest opportunities.

How we respond to anxiety determines our character and affects our life path. As a psychotherapist, life coach, and spiritual adviser, I often see how people's inability to listen to and use anxiety effectively causes them to detour from their path or get stuck in cul-de-sacs. Aaron is paralyzed when faced with making a commitment to Sue, for example, because the prospect of marriage fills him with anxiety. Phil and Tamara have serious relationship problems because each responds to his or her own anxiety in ways that exacerbate the other's — they "push each other's buttons." Larry is addicted to alcohol, using it to numb his anxiety. Izabel has chronic headaches and Ron has heart problems because internalizing their anxiety over the decades has taken a physical toll. Janet, worn down by years of dysfunctional responses to anxiety, is depressed and has low self-esteem.

Anxiety has the power to confuse us because it strikes at the very core of our humanity. In its deepest sense, anxiety is the shadow cast by human consciousness. In the biblical story, it came into being the moment Adam and Eve ate the apple. Suddenly they could think for themselves, and they became frightened and hid from God. Descartes's famous dictum could be revised to say: "I think, therefore I am . . . anxious."

Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, writes: "The basic anxiety, the anxiety of a finite being about the threat of nonbeing, cannot be eliminated. It belongs to existence itself." Since anxiety is a natural and even sacred part of life, learning to deal with it leads to personal and spiritual growth.

Unfortunately, many current therapies are directed toward merely reducing stress and anxiety. But if, as the existentialists observed, anxiety is life being aware of its own aliveness (and inevitable death), then the only way to reduce our anxiety is to become less alive, to numb ourselves. Our problem as individuals and as a society is not that we are too anxious, but that we are not anxious enough — and not anxious about the right things.

Most current treatments for anxiety and depression miss the mark. Pharmacological and behavioral approaches address only the more superficial and symptomatic aspects of anxiety's mysterious presence in human life.

Over the years, I've become more conscious of my own anxiety. I've learned to use it as a guide and teacher. I've noticed that situations become "problems" or turn into "stress" only when they trigger anxiety. But anxiety itself is not the problem — it is a crucial warning and activation system that evolution has built in for our self-preservation and growth. Instead, the root of the problem is our confused and unskillful reaction to anxiety.

Anxiety's Three Voices

We create the world we live in by thinking about our experiences. Thoughts and feelings are amorphous, difficult to grasp and harder to change, but paying close attention to them helps us understand how our consciousness shapes the world we know. Our thoughts arise from the never-ending conversation we are having with ourselves. Don Juan, Carlos Casteneda's shamanic guide, teaches him: "You talk to yourself too much. You're not unique at that. Every one of us does. . . . We talk about our world. In fact we maintain our world with our internal talk."

We are talking to ourselves every waking hour — and the conversation continues even at night in our dreams. We talk to ourselves too much and too fast — and, most disturbing, much of our inner talk is negative. Anxiety and stress may not be caused primarily by what happens to us, but by how we talk to ourselves about what happens.

The good news is that awareness of our inner talk gives us a potent tool for personal growth. Inner talk is a window to our unconscious mind. It reveals the software that runs our brain and uncovers the beliefs and attitudes that shape our behavior. Even more encouraging, inner talk gives us a handle we can use to grasp those amorphous thoughts and feelings, to discard outdated and dysfunctional conditioning, and to choose new responses that accord with our true nature.

The key to using inner talk effectively lies hidden in a profound observation Plato made 26 centuries ago and that cognitive psychology has confirmed: All thought occurs in the form of dialogue. The crucial question thus becomes, "Who am I talking with?"

You might stop reading for a moment and just listen to your inner talk. What is it saying? What are you hearing? Who are you talking with? How does it feel to stop and look inside the black box, to open up the three-pound portable computer carefully fitted inside your cranium? There is a great cultural taboo against becoming self-aware, so we have been conditioned to deny that we talk to ourselves. We deny that, godlike, we create the world we live in by speaking it into being. But listening to our inner talk can lead us to question our beliefs about reality, about society, and about ourselves.

When I ask myself, "Who am I talking with?" — and when I observe the voices I hear in my clients' inner dialogues — I recognize three distinct voices. One always results in negative emotions and dysfunctional reactions. I call it the Toxic Voice, the voice of toxic anxiety, which we experience as worry, self-doubt, panic, and hopelessness. A second voice is positive, practical, and realistic. I refer to it as the Natural Voice, the voice of natural anxiety, which we experience as realistic fears and everyday uncertainties — energy we can channel into achievement and personal fulfillment. But a third voice addresses deeper spiritual and existential issues of meaning and purpose. I name this the Sacred Voice, the voice of sacred anxiety.

Personifying these inner voices can provide a powerful model for untangling inner dialogues. The Toxic Voice tries to impersonate the Natural Voice, saying loudly, "I'm the voice of reality. Listen to me!" Sometimes the Toxic Voice even mimics the Sacred Voice: "I'm only making you feel bad for your own good, because I care about you, and so you will be a better person." But its consequences give it away: distorted thinking, self-sabotage, and narcissism — and destructive urges directed at others, like disapproval, shaming, manipulation, violence, and abuse.

Unmasking the Toxic Voice and seeing it for what it is allows us to extricate ourselves from unproductive worrying and liberate ourselves from denial. Turning away from the Toxic Voice and cultivating conversations with our Natural Voice enables us to feel more confident, to solve real problems, and to move forward in our life. Communing with our Sacred Voice brings us into a deeper connection with our true self and helps us surrender to those things in life that are beyond our control.

The Sacred Voice

We enter into dialogue with the Sacred Voice when we confront the reality of death and when we grapple with issues that relate to our most basic values and beliefs: the very meaning and purpose of our life. A divorce, a serious illness, a major decision, the death of a loved one, a serious setback, a midlife crisis — all provoke anxiety at the deepest stratum of our being. This is the spiritual level of anxiety that most psychotherapies and all medications fail to address, leaving the treated individual feeling even more confused and disheartened about why they are "still anxious."

We experience sacred anxiety in our divine yearning for union and in our holy terror of nothingness and annihilation. Sacred anxiety characterizes the dread of death, the mystery of life, and our encounter with the ultimate. Sacred anxiety encompasses existential angst and what some call the fear of God. More positively, we may experience it as a numinous sense of awe and transcendence. This is anxiety on a cosmic level, an existential anxiety about our place in the universe. Though we may at first experience it as a dark and threatening phantom, it can guide us to a deeper peace and profound understanding of our own nature.

Sacred anxiety has two paradoxical aspects: Death-anxiety symbolizes our dread of loss, aging, death, and nonexistence, while life-anxiety represents our trepidation of living with full, sensual aliveness, authentic self-expression, and passionate commitment to our dreams.

Keys to Serenity
      in an Age of Anxiety

The key to feeling safe in an unsafe world is to realize that "the world we live in" is largely a creation of our own mind. Our mind creates our "world" with its thoughts about what is happening around us and within us. Mark Twain, an astute observer of human nature, wrote: "My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes — most of which never happened. Life does not consist mainly — or even largely — of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one's head."

Here are a few suggestions for transforming this post-September 11 age of anxiety into an opportunity for growth:

  • Sit quietly, whether in a place of worship, out in nature, or at home. Accept that on September 11 the unimaginable happened and acknowledge that your sense of safety has been threatened. Let the feelings flow through you. Breathe in your connection with the source of love and serenity. Remember that the religious term salvation and our secular word safety both come from the same root word meaning "wholeness."

  • Pay attention to your inner talk. Don't just let outdated mental tape recordings play in the background. When you talk to yourself, do so consciously and creatively. Tell yourself (and others) the truth. Talk to yourself in a way that builds self-esteem, generates enthusiasm for life, brightens your mood, aids you in functioning effectively, increases your energy level, and supports health and healing.

  • Affirm your determination to strengthen your aliveness. Take any anger and frustration and direct its full force to dissolve the toxic anxiety that blocks you from doing what you are here to do. Honor the thousands of lives that were destroyed by hatred on September 11 by recommitting yourself to manifesting the power of love in your daily life.

  • Find meaningful ways to express your love. There are many problems facing humankind — ecological, social, political, economic, spiritual. What do you want to do to help make the world a better and safer place?

  • Choose your media diet with care. TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, videos, CDs, and the Internet are all food for your mind. Just as drinking too much coffee will jangle your nerves, so will too much CNN — those thoughts and images go straight to your subconscious mind.

  • Connect on a heart level with loved ones, friends, and neighbors. Make real human connections. Your favorite TV shows and Internet Web sites will not "be there for you" when the power goes out. Who will be?

  • Construct a moral compass. Develop a clear understanding of the values and principles that you want to guide your life. Having a compass aligned with your spiritual north star will keep you heading in the right direction.

  • Help support a national political response that refuses to play hatred's game and instead explores ways to get to the root of the fear and hatred that threaten our planet. On this small and increasingly interconnected planet, unless everyone feels safe, none of us can feel safe.

  • Strengthen your moral fiber. Use your moral compass to bring your daily life into harmony with your values, make a habit of courage, and work to develop an unshakable sense of serenity. In times of crisis, a strong inner life will sustain you as it has everyday heroes throughout the ages.

  • Face death and enlist it as an ally. If your life could end at any moment (and it could, for any one of us) how do you want to spend this present moment? How can you use the ever-present possibility of death to help you live each moment more fully and more passionately?

  • Deepen your spiritual life. What gives meaning to your life? What is your life purpose? Times of crisis make philosophers and theologians of us all.

    — Robert Gerzon

  • "This is an adventure that every human being must go through," Kierkegaard writes, "to learn to be anxious in order that he may not perish. . . . Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate, . . . the more profoundly he is in anxiety, the greater is the man. . . . Then anxiety enters into his soul and searches out everything and anxiously torments everything finite and petty out of him, and then it leads him where he wants to go. . . . [Thus] the individual through anxiety is educated into faith."

    As I have employed this deceptively simple concept of the three voices in my own life and have taught it to clients and workshop participants at Harvard Community Health Plan, I have found that it possesses the power to liberate people from the tyranny of the Toxic Voice. It transforms anxiety, depression, or self-doubt from a terrifying monster into a dragon that can be tamed — and a guiding angel that can be embraced.

    Maria's Dilemma

    Everyone experiences a mixture of the three types of anxiety when confronted with a challenge. I am continually amazed at how easily we can become entangled in anxiety — and at how asking the question, "Who am I talking to?" can lead to healing and growth.

    Maria, a 44-year-old woman, consulted me because of insomnia and stress triggered by an escalating problem with her 17-year-old daughter, Cathy, who had been staying out late and was becoming increasingly uncommunicative.

    Like many people suffering from anxiety, Maria was confused and conflicted. When she thought about her problem with Cathy and asked herself what she should do, guess who stepped in to talk with her about it? Her Toxic Voice, of course.

    She began to identify her typical inner dialogues with the Toxic Voice. You'll notice the Toxic Voice will do anything to torture its victim — lie, shame, threaten, cajole, even contradict itself: "You're too lenient. You need to put your foot down. What if something happens to Cathy? You're not being a good mother."

    "Maybe you're just overreacting and being a worrywart. You should just try to stop worrying so much and lose weight and take care of yourself for a change."

    "It's not your fault. You're doing everything you can. Roger isn't doing his part. He's not being a good father."

    Maria, like many other clients I have worked with, experienced immediate improvement in her symptoms simply from being able to see that she had been in dialogue with a Toxic Voice. Knowing that she could talk to her Natural and Sacred Voices provided realistic hope for mastery of the situation. Soon she was able to untangle her inner voices. Within three weeks she was sleeping more soundly, worrying less, and feeling better in general.

    Maria's Natural Voice helped her develop a plan of action. She stopped criticizing Cathy and blaming her husband. She meditated daily and learned to calm herself. As Maria's power-struggle with her daughter abated, Cathy became less reactive and the two of them were able to come up with some new guidelines that worked better for both of them. Roger agreed to work with Cathy on her college applications.

    Maria and I spent time in a meditative state during our counseling sessions so Maria could access the unconscious parts of her mind. Her Sacred Voice spoke of deeper concerns.

    Maria confronted her image of a harsh, condemning God who would blame her if Cathy died or chose a life that was contrary to Maria's values. In this sense, Maria's anxiety was that she might have to feel bad about herself forever, a kind of psychological damnation. She became aware of how guilt-oriented her childhood religious training had been, and she realized that she could replace it with an image of a loving and forgiving universe that was more in harmony with her own values and beliefs.

    Talking with our Sacred Voice and taking responsibility for creating our own image of the divine are two of the most important tasks of adulthood. Unless we accept this responsibility, our childhood programming will govern our behavior whether we want it to or not.

    The 'Not Good Enough' Syndrome

    Why is Maria's feeling of not being "good enough," of feeling vague guilt and shame, so nearly universal? The one thing the homeless alcoholic and the high-achieving professional may have in common is an inner sense of not being good enough. From a spiritual perspective, we do not feel good enough because we are playing God — and we sense our innate inadequacy to the role. When we attempt to be infinite and omnipotent, we are doomed to fail. Criticizing and judging; thinking we know how things "should" be and what is best for others; trying to control what is beyond our domain: these are just a few of the ways we play God in daily life.

    A wonderful cartoon in my private of existential cartoons collection says it all. The illustration is filled with a sea of faces in a crowd. The caption reads: "You mean I'm not the main character?" Ultimately, the only remedy for this feeling of not being good enough is to face our mortality and our human limits, to let go of the need to be God and simply be human. Paradoxically, as soon as we stop trying to be the whole, we can again feel one with the whole of nature.

    One of the sacred questions all humans face is, "Who am I?" Ultimately, am I a separated "I" who feels anxiety about life and death, or am I a part of something greater, a part of the whole of nature?

    Another sacred question is, "Can I trust life? Am I safe?" In this post-September 11 age of anxiety, it is easy to lose faith in the future. We may not even feel safe in the present. The sacred dimension of the safety question is reflected both in Albert Einstein's most important question, "Is the universe a friendly place?", and in the revival camp preacher's searing question, "Brothers and sisters, are you saved?" Safety is the secular version; salvation is its spiritual counterpart. Both words have their source in a root meaning "wholeness." Salvation, though an individual responsibility, is also a collective endeavor. Water cannot boil until every drop is heated.

    Apocalyptic Opportunity

    Societies are subject to the effects of the Toxic Voice just as individuals are. Anxiety can divide a country, and it usually does. As we see throughout history and in this morning's paper, the religious or political image that one group views as the source of its security is perceived by its neighbors as the greatest threat to their security. In today's shrinking global village, as the events of September 11 make clear, the "graven images" of frozen histories present ever larger dangers. Below the surface of our lives swirls a disquieting sense that things are spinning out of control.

    No amount of psychotherapy, no amount of medication, will reduce the societal component of our anxiety. Instead of searching endlessly for personal neuroses, we need to place this portion of our anxiety out there where it belongs — and channel it into social action. We need to get anxious about larger issues such as social injustice, economic inequality, and ecological threats.

    We associate the word "apocalypse" with its secular meaning of cataclysmic destruction. Yet apocalypse also has a spiritual meaning. It signifies a revelation of what has been hidden. (The Greek root means "to uncover.") Apocalypse can be a time of spiritual renewal and revolution, of great and fundamental change.

    We are in the midst of a wrenching and traumatic disintegration of the regional cultures that have sustained humanity for millennia. In our anxious postmodern age, there is no universal myth to believe in, no one true religion, no 1950s-style American dream, no god of science to rescue us from life's problems.

    Yet amid the bewildering confusion of belief systems lies the riches of an entire planet's knowledge. Our age calls us to integrate the vast number of worldviews and cultures into a new synthesis that can usher in a whole new era of human civilization. This invitation can feel overwhelming, yet it is also tremendously exciting.

    Living our daily lives in harmony with values that unite us with one another rather than divide us from one another — like those embodied in our Unitarian Universalist principles — brings us serenity. Perhaps the revelation of this apocalypse is that the eternal quest that unites us is far greater than the individual differences that divide us.

    To love life unconditionally is our greatest challenge. Serenity does not arise from the permanent absence of anxiety, but from the habit of constantly transmuting anxiety into love. Each time we choose to transform anxiety into love it becomes fuel for our spiritual growth and enables us to see life more clearly. "Perfect love casts out fear" — a phrase inscribed by my father in my childhood Bible — contains a secret that can guide us unerringly toward serenity.

    From the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Muhammad, the world's spiritual teachers direct our attention to the paradise of the present moment. We seldom see this heaven-on-earth because we gaze at the world through anxious eyes. Not yet a full-time resident, I am becoming a more frequent visitor to that blissful realm that Jesus called the kingdom of heaven. On certain spring days I have breathed the sweet air of Eden. In the stillness of the night I have sometimes heard celestial music. I have glimpsed the radiance of the kingdom in a young child's face. I am not alone in this: You have seen it, too. May you follow your true inner voice to find the life you were born to live and enjoy the paradise of the present moment.

    Robert Gerzon is the author of Finding Serenity in an Age of Anxiety. A licensed mental health counselor, Gerzon has a holistic counseling and coaching practice in Concord, Massachusetts, where he is also a member of the First Parish (Unitarian Universalist). Visit his Web site at
    "Sacred Anxiety," by Robert Gerzon. UU World XVI:2 (March/April 2002): 34-40.

    Comparison of the Toxic, Natural, and Sacred Voices

      Toxic Voice Natural Voice Sacred Voice
    Basis Illusion-based Nature-based Spiritually-based
    Time Frame Past & Future Present Eternal Present
    Purpose Anti-life, anti-love. Distracts us from our true path and ultimately tries to destroy us. Helps us meet our needs and realize our desires. Warns us of real dangers, alerts us to opportunities, energizes us for growth. Calls us to be aware of our spiritual self and the deeper questions in life.
    Traditional Religious Terms Devil
    Natural Man/Woman
    Source Misuse of consciousness and ego. Past negative conditioning, especially from formative years. Negative patterns passed from one generation to the next. Suppressed desires, memories, and unresolved inner conflicts. The personal self. Desires, biological needs and drives, emotions. Realistic concerns about health, love, success. Our spiritual nature. The deeper existential unknowns — "Who am I?", death, the meaning and purpose of life, the afterlife, God.
    Tone Shames, blames, complains, catastrophizes, and lays guilt trips. May also indulge in grandiosity, narcissism, and Pollyanna thinking. Calm, respectful, friendly, confident. Can also be excited and enthusiastic. Logical, rational thinking coupled with emotional awareness. Unconditionally loving, wise, awe-inspiring, and occasionally divinely terrifying to the ego.
    Mental states Mental pathology and dysfunction. Anxious, depressed, confused, low self-esteem, frustrated. Or narcissism, megalomania, lack of empathy, and abusive. Clarity of thinking, healthy emotional self-awareness, good self-control and self-expression. Energized, empowered, confident. Deep inner peace, self-acceptance, and empathy for others. Unconditional love.
    Anxiety Reactions Activated by false alarms, overreacts to or paralyzed by real alarms. Sees opportunities as dangers. Vague, unrealistic, unreasonable, ineffective, repetitive mental tape. Responds to real dangers. Anxiety is in direct proportion to degree of danger. Energizes us for new opportunities. Specific, realistic, reasonable, helpful. Directs our attention to ultimate concerns about the meaning and purpose of life, and the inevitability of death. Helps us find unconditional acceptance and serenity.
    Duration Chronic, repetitive. Usually brief and informative. Continuous, but only rarely comes to conscious awareness.
    Control Tries to get us to focus on things beyond our control (like other people's behavior) while ignoring areas within our control (like our own thoughts and actions). Directs our attention to responses within our control. Helps us surrender gracefully to what is beyond our control. Reminds us to take full responsibility for our own experience of life.
    Resulting Behavior Inaction and paralysis or impulsive and counter-productive behavior. Procrastination, workaholism, addictions, obsessions, compulsions, worrying. Clarity, decisiveness, effective action, and change. Self-reflection, spiritual awareness, wise and loving responses to life.
    Effect on growth Veering off our life's path, getting stuck in stagnant "comfort zones." Active personal growth. Spiritual growth and acceptance.
    Skills & Techniques Needed for Mastery Self-calming, self-aware, emotional self-management skills. Life skills, mental clarity, problem-solving strategies, goal-achieving action, interpersonal skills. Aligning daily behavior with ethical creed and life purpose. Meditation, prayer, self-reflection.
    Potential Gift Gets our attention, makes us aware of unresolved issues and negative programming. Properly used can lead to healing and self-integration. Personal growth results in successfully surmounting challenges and achieving goals. More dynamic relationships, creativity, passion. Serenity results from an unconditional love of life. Spiritual growth, oneness, compassion, love and joy.
    Key phrase "Become aware." "Do it." "Let go."

    "Comparison of the Toxic, Natural, and Sacred Voices," by Robert Gerzon. UU World XVI:2 (March/April 2002): 41.

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