I often work with people who feel crushed under the weight of their obligations. They have so much to do, and they’re constantly worrying that it won’t get done. When I suggest they can calm themselves by changing the way they think, I’m usually met with skepticism. “Changing how I think won’t make my obligations go away,” they say. “I need ways to get things done faster, not a new perspective on life.”
Their views tend to change, however, when I recommend a new way to look at their anxiety. Their problems seem so overwhelming, I suggest, because they believe they have such a dizzyingly complex array of things to worry about. They feel paralyzed by fear and indecision because they think they have a nearly endless list of things to be afraid of. But at bottom, all their worries stem from a single fear—the fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist and becoming nothing.
I demonstrate this by having them describe an aspect of their lives they believe isn’t going to go well. For example, maybe they’re afraid they won’t be able to pay the bills; that their intimate relationship is going to end; that a project they’re doing at work won’t be well-received; or something else.
I then ask what they believe would happen if their worst-case scenario came to pass. For instance, someone who worried that her relationship was going to end might tell me “I’d be alone.” When the person says what they think would happen, I ask them what, in turn, would result if it did. “What would happen if you were alone?” I’d ask in the example I just gave.
I continue this process until the person can’t think of any more negative events that would occur if their worry came true. Usually, the last consequence they can come up with is that they’d be “nothing,” “gone,” “unimportant,” or “dead”—language that reflects a fear of destruction, of nonexistence. I then repeat this exercise with other aspects of their lives they’re worried about, showing them that the same fear—the fear of annihilation—is at the root of those worries as well.
Sometimes, I also illustrate this point by having the person I’m talking to pay attention to the sensations they feel when they worry about some problem in their life. For instance, perhaps they feel a heat and tension in their shoulders and upper back when they worry that their job performance isn’t up to snuff.
When they’ve taken some time to become familiar with that sensation, I have them turn their attention to a different problem in their life. For example, maybe they’ll shift their focus from their career anxieties to their relationship with their kids. Often, the sensation this new worry creates in their bodies is the same one they experienced when thinking about the first problem. This helps them physically experience the fact that each of their seemingly complex array of worries is, in fact, rooted in the same fear.
Although one would think the fear of annihilation might be more unpleasant to contemplate than, say, the worry that one forgot to pay a parking ticket, recognizing that this fear underlies most or all of our anxieties can actually produce a deep sense of peace. This is because, when we have this realization, we no longer feel overwhelmed by the number of problems looming over us. In fact, there is ultimately only one problem we must come to terms with to achieve fulfillment and composure in our lives. If we can face our fear of annihilation, we can face anything.
As we know from the amount of spiritual and philosophical thought out there, there are many approaches to coming to terms with the fear of nothingness. Some, including myself, believe that “annihilation” as we usually think of it is not possible. Because I, at the deepest level, consist of the same energy that comprises the rest of the universe, I cannot be destroyed. When my physical body dissolves, I will remain part of that changeless energy field. But even if you aren’t yet sure how to address your fear of nothingness, just knowing that this fear underlies all your anxieties brings a simplicity and clarity to your thinking.
I’ve come to realize that our minds create the belief that we face so many problems and worries to avoid dealing with the fear of annihilation. We convince ourselves that the unease we regularly feel results from our massive collection of needs and obligations, because that belief gives us hope that we can relieve our unease through accomplishments in the world. If we just got a better job, were on better terms with our loved ones, got into better shape, and so forth, our anxiety would disappear.
Ironically, our minds create more difficulties than they solve with this approach. By splitting the fear of nothingness into innumerable worries over smaller matters, we overwhelm ourselves with perceived problems—killing our appreciation for life by a thousand cuts. And because the fear of annihilation never subsides until we reconcile ourselves with it, the mountain of problems we create to disguise it never seems to shrink. As Richard Moss puts it in his insightful book The Mandala of Being, our fear of annihilation is “at the root of the perpetual sense of insufficiency and insecurity that drives our unrelenting quest for survival, long after our basic survival needs have been assured and far exceeded.”
If you feel overburdened by your worries, take a moment to consider what would happen if those worries came true. If you didn’t accomplish all the tasks you think you must do, what would be the ultimate result? When you closely examine your anxieties, I suspect you’ll find the fear of fading into nothing lurking deep within them.
At first, the prospect of your destruction may seem too terrifying to focus on for long. But as you contemplate it more and more, you’ll see that recognizing that fear as the root of your worries brings a simplicity to your emotional life. Peace accompanies the realization that, if you come to terms with the fear of annihilation, no problem can overwhelm you.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Healing, located at http://createathrivingbusiness.com/carnival-of-healing-131/2008/03/29/.)