In recent weeks, I’ve reluctantly become acquainted with my 200-year-old cellar. When it rains all day, the concrete floor becomes damp like a thin layer of perspiration on my forehead. Though empty, the cellar is not uninhabited. Small creatures with large, receptive eyes move around in the thick darkness and drink up the moisture. A particularly large species of hopping insect (about an inch long) — let’s hear it for the Camel Cricket! — thrive down there. Army green and sharply jointed, they look like alien scouts probing for suitable colony. The crickets are physically harmless but psychologically menacing. I tentatively reach for the light switch, or brace when lifting a board off the floor, suspecting that a phalanx of many-jointed insects are set to ambush me (look at me in this photo, trying to appear comfortable but also expecting to be tackled from behind).
When I’m down in the cellar, I’m often half-hunched because the ceiling is low (plus I’m a little freaked out). There’s a sense of urgency to checking the furnace or retrieving a tool. Part of me feels like I might end up like one of those poor Blair Witch hikers.
Well, the other day as I was meditating upstairs in a sunny spot with a nice view, I could feel my body hunching and tense as my stress response kicked in. Physiologically, I was back in the cellar. I had slipped into familiar worries: money, the innumerable holes in the yard, the helpless dogwood tree being strangled by vines. In fact, while I sat on my silly cushion literally doing nothing, I felt alarmed that at that very second the vines were advancing. (False urgency is a characteristic of life in the cellar.)
This is how we cycle through our day: we go from the top of the hill where we have space and quiet, to the cellar where we can find neither. One moment we feel grateful and easy, and the next we feel at risk of losing everything. Yet, as divergent as they feel, the main difference between existence in the cellar and at the top of the hill is awareness. There is little self or environmental awareness when we’re stressed.
You can leave the cellar by coming back to your senses, to your body, the top of your spine. We don’t escape anxiety by tying up every loose end or chasing out every last cricket. The cellar will always be there — our worries will always be there, our to-do list will forever be unfinished — just as the hilltop with the view in all directions will always be there. Sure, I wish I could never be worried, clenched Dan again. Yet all we can do is notice when we’re stuck and be kind: “Hey you big neurotic lug, you’ll get anxious a million times and I love you anyway!” Just being kind reminds us that there is a hilltop, a higher view above the struggle.
What does it feel like in your body when you are really worrying? According to Buddhist teachings, the door to freedom appears as soon as we become aware of our senses in the present moment. It’s not that life is suddenly all hunky-dory. Instead, we stop nibbling on worries and are able to face uncertainty as we were meant to: with openness and embodiment.
It’s also by truly feeling what it’s like to be scared or overwhelmed that we develop compassion for how engrossing anxiety can be. On a heart level, we understand how other people get stuck. They act irrational, they get compulsive. They go to Chipotle, order a burrito, then nervously track the burrito’s assembly as if their destiny depended on the right proportion of sour cream. We can see their humanity better and have more compassion for them (who doesn’t have strong feelings about sour cream?).
We are then better able to help them and ourselves when we check in with our body, our top of spine, and (briefly) return to higher ground.