Anxiety is a natural physical response. Two hundred thousand years ago, for example, women who went out to gather berries while the men hunted mammoths had to be alert, even a little anxious. Today, the snap of a twig while we garden just means we broke a twig. In prehistoric times it might be caused by a sabre-tooth tiger about to pounce.
Unfortunately, we modern people are subject to repeated stress and chronic anxiety as we try to cope with “breaking news,” traffic jams, and social media slights that are not life-threatening but do over-activate our nervous systems. Our anxiety levels go up and stay up, leading to cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems, and—yes—brain damage. Our prefrontal cortex—decision maker and emotion regulator—loses dendrites that connect its neurons. Our hippocampus, the brain’s long-term memory center, shrinks as its cells atrophy and disappear.
So, the first step toward good anxiety is to reduce the excessive, bad anxiety that is so prevalent in our society. Dr. Wendy Suzuki, professor of Neuroscience at New York University, suggests three methods to tame run-away anxiety: meditation/breathwork, mindset, and exercise.
Meditation frequently involves slowing down our breathing. How does this reduce anxiety? Well, part of our nervous system is the so-called autonomic system, consisting of two opposing components—the sympathetic and parasympathetic networks. The sympathetic system is activated when we sense a threat—real, imagined, or exaggerated. It speeds up our heart, diverts blood from the digestive system to our muscles, and increases respiration so that more oxygen gets to the blood. Thus, we can more effectively “fight or flee.”
The parasympathetic system does just the reverse, slowing the heart rate, sending blood to the GI tract, and bringing respiration back to normal. In fact, by consciously controlling and slowing our breathing in meditation, we activate the whole parasympathetic system, thereby counteracting the sympathetic system and decreasing fear/anxiety. Particularly effective is “box breathing”: inhale for four counts, hold the breath for four counts, exhale for four counts, hold for another four counts before inhaling again. Box breathing can easily be used right in the middle of a traffic jam or as the boss yells about your poor work habits—and the boss doesn’t even know you’re using the technique.
Besides meditation/breathing, Dr. Suzuki advocates changing your mind set—your belief system. For example, before giving a speech, you feel a surge of anxiety that threatens to leave you tongue-tied. Rename that anxiety, reframe that anxiety as excitement. Instead of being fearful, you embrace the belief that your super-active sympathetic nervous system is really elated at the prospect of giving a great speech. Let your anxiety/excitement drive you into forgetfulness of self and “flow.” You may well give the best speech of your life.
Physical activity can also tame harmful anxiety. Exercise—even just ten minutes of walking—causes an increase of the brain’s neurotransmitters: dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin, and endorphins, for example. Physical exertion also increases the level of BDNF—Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor, a chemical that promotes the growth of the brain’s dendrite connections. Of course, exercise also pours cortisol into your body as part of its stress response, and cortisol potentially damages the brain. However, it appears that exercise also releases other chemical factors that neutralize cortisol’s harmful effects.
With this flood of chemicals, your mood, focus, and reaction time all improve. So, I guess the best way to defuse excess anxiety is to walk or run ten minutes while reframing your anxiety as excitement, perhaps repeating short, positive affirmations. After stopping the exercise, use the Box breathing technique, and your stress should have come down to a normal level. Any remaining anxiety is just a sign that you are alive and alert. This kind of anxiety may push you to be more productive and may lead to more “flow” experiences where you’re forgetful of self. And your personal experience of anxiety may help you to empathize with others who are undergoing the same experience.
Empathy should be a Quaker trait. With the energy from good anxiety and the empathy that it may foster, we may be able to change the world for the better.
(For a YouTube video of Dr. Suzuki talking about good anxiety, click HERE.)
~ Richard Russell
now everyday advances and nothing retards,
no drift over blunt shoots stalls,
nor is the sky darkened with squalls
that threaten with white a yellow yard.
When was there snow that would guard
my quiet? Two short storms that raised no sail to haul.
The ground's been barren. No candid blanket palls
its winter dreams with melancholy crystal.
I cannot enter Spring by so straight a route.
All streams here are too warm for keeping ice.
Ground locked and unlocked, a poor warder that fooled
with secrets, flustered them out of bulbs. Christ could
rise who had a cave and hell. Brute
me with granite, clack a grate of frost right
at my door. Clouds will drop their loot,
the fire steam, an icicle grow longer than an afternoon,
drafts gang up on candles, sap break old pines,
and a defeated sun rest its chin on my lintel
before I'll come out ready at last for moist winds.
As a Quaker Catholic, I have no problem identifying Penington’s Savior with the historical and “Post-Easter” Jesus. And I agree with St. Paul when he says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Although I don’t believe in a literal Resurrection, I do believe that, after his crucifixion, the Disciples had a mystical experience of Jesus’ Presence.
Of course, many Quakers do not believe in the Resurrection and cannot bring themselves to call Jesus “Lord.” No matter. As Penington reflects in the passage below, there are many names for that Presence which we sense in our meetings. And salvation does not depend on accepting Paul’s formulation or believing the Catholic doctrine of a literal Transubstantiation. Read what Penington has to say about the Quaker metaphor of “The Light”:
Q. I perceive, by what is said, that there is a Saviour; one which hath virtue, life, and power in him to save; but how may I meet with him?
A. Yea, he that made man pitieth him, and is not willing that he should perish in the pit into which he fell, but hath appointed one to draw him out, and save him.
Q. Who is this Saviour?
A. He is the tree of life I have spoken of all this while, whose leaves have virtue in them to heal the nations. He is the plant of righteousness, the plant of God's right hand. Hast thou ever known such a plant in thee, planted there by the right hand of God? He is the resurrection and the life, which raiseth the dead soul, and causeth it to live. He is the spiritual manna, whereupon the quickened soul feeds. Yea, his flesh is meat indeed, and his blood is drink indeed, which he that is raised up in the life feeds on, and findeth the living virtue in them, which satisfieth and nourisheth up his immortal soul.
Q. But hath not this Saviour a name? What is his name?
A. It were better for thee to learn his name by feeling his virtue and power in thy heart, than by rote. Yet, if thou canst receive it, this is his name, the Light; the Light of the World; a light to enlighten the Gentiles, that he may convert and make them God's Israel, and become their glory. And according to his office, he hath enlightened every man that cometh into the world; though men neither know the light that cometh from him, nor him from whom the light comes; and so, notwithstanding the light is so near them, remain strangers to it, and unsaved by it.
Q. Why dost thou call him the light? Are there not other names every whit as proper, whereby he may as well be known?
A. Do not thus set up the wise and stumbling part in thee; but mind the thing which first puts forth its virtue as light, and so is thus first to be known, owned, and received. Yet more particularly, if thou hast wherewith, consider this reason: we call him light, because the Father of lights hath peculiarly chosen this name for him, to make him known to his people in this age by, and hath thus made him manifest to us. And by thus receiving him under this name, we come to know his other names. He is the life, the righteousness, the power, the wisdom, the peace, &c., but he is all these in the light, and in the light we learn and receive them all; and they are none of them to be known in spirit, but in and by the light.
~ quoted by Richard Russell
Probably several OCMM members remember John Silber. After all, Massachusetts is New York’s neighbor, and Silber was President or Chancellor of Boston University from 1971 to 2003. He was also the Democratic nominee for Governor of Massachusetts in the 1990 election, which he lost to Republican William Weld. Although Silber taught at Yale while he worked on his Ph.D., his first full-time faculty position was as a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin.
When I arrived at the University of Texas in 1964, I enrolled in Plan II, an honors degree plan in Liberal Arts. One of Plan II’s required courses was an introductory philosophy course taught by John Silber. As I sat in his class the first day, I immediately noticed that his right arm was half as long as normal, ending in a stump with rudimentary fingers. I don’t remember for sure, but Silber probably gave us our first assignment on that first day. We were to write a short paper in which we discussed objectivity as applied in the sciences and the liberal arts.
I do remember very well the class in which that assignment was returned to us. Silber shuffled through the papers, seemingly wanting to toss them aside (perhaps into the trash can), a look of impatient disgust upon his face. He read excerpts from what appeared to be a random selection of student work. Apparently, most of us (myself included) had argued that science approached the world objectively while humanists could only give their subjective impressions of reality. That provoked John Silber, who proceeded to demolish our naiveté with irrefutable proofs that all knowledge was subjective, whether scientific or not.
John Silber was smart, and I couldn’t help respecting his intellect and his passionate personality. In fact, my interest in philosophy has its roots in Silber’s philosophy course. However, from my first encounter with him, I guessed that Silber carried around a load of anger related to his defective arm. Tom Wolfe—the famous journalist—seems to confirm my suspicions when he writes that
(Other kids) …called him (Silber) “One-Arm Pete.” His only recourse, he
finally concluded, was to punch the little trolls out, small and handicapped
though he was. He punched with his left fist and used his truncated
right arm like a cattle prod. The bone was just under the skin of his
proto-fingers, and when he jammed it into his little combatants’
stomachs or kidneys—Aha! Thrust PRODDDD!—they would go oof or
arrrgggh!...the action would come to a halt, and little John Silber
could take a break. If he didn’t have a quick temper and a pugnacious
side before all that, he sure did afterward. (Seeking the North Star, p. XII)
In fact, Silber probably lost the 1990 gubernatorial election because of a display of temper during an interview, seen HERE in a YouTube video.
Regardless of his failure as a politician, Silber led a successful life full of achievement. He was a noted scholar of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy and took Boston College from a mediocre “streetcar school” to the status of a world-class university dedicated first and foremost to teaching students. Tom Wolfe calls Silber a Stoic because he embodied in his life the philosophy and values he preached.
One of those values was providing educational opportunities to the poor and disadvantaged. Silber wanted to create an elite class of educated people whose status was based on ability as opposed to wealth or family connections. Their success would be the result of a capacity to reason through problems, and that
reasoning ability would be acquired through quality primary, secondary, and university schooling.
While I agree with Silber’s idea of opportunity for all, neither Silber nor I believe that the lower classes in American society can attain equality with the elite. (Otherwise, there wouldn’t BE an elite!) A combination of genes, environment, bad luck, and personal choice conspire to keep people “down.” However, we can potentially have a society and culture where everyone is respected whether they cashier in Walmart or design rocket engines.
That respect may best come, not so much through reason and education, as through a belief like the Quaker “that of God in everyone.” If we acknowledge that we are not self-created, that our talents and gifts come from God, we are more likely to see a “holy equality” in all human beings. All of us share in each other’s achievements because—ultimately—we are all the “same” in God. Thus, religion or spirituality—not education—is the solution to the problem of inequality. In the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus, nobody is above anybody else.
(The sources for this article are my memory and Seeking the North Star: Selected Speeches by John R. Silber.)
~ Richard Russell
Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; … put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:11-14)
I have watched in horror as war has broken out again and been subsumed in grief and cynicism about the state of the world. This time Ukraine. Last time Iraq and Afghanistan.
These things are rightly called by Paul, the apostle, the "works of darkness." It is so easy to destroy things and so much work to build them up. But we must build them up because the alternative is too hard to fathom.
I was sitting in silent meditation and remembered this quote from Romans. What is the "Armor of Light?" And why is Paul using a war metaphor to bring the peace of Christ?
I've heard it said that in order to have power over those things that oppress us we must make the slur or the insult our own. Black people have taken ownership of the "N" word. The LGBTQ community took ownership of the word "faggot." Maybe it is time the peace loving people take ownership of the language of war and do what Paul instructed us to do?
When an article of clothing becomes too tattered, too small, or no longer fits we discard it. The works of darkness are ignorance. And we have labored under the illusion that peace can come from war. That it is only through destruction that we can find peace. That peace requires the utter elimination of something or someone.
Light dispels darkness. Discernment dispels ignorance. Unknowing and expectant waiting offers new ways of thinking and being. We can't find new solutions to old problems with what we already know "to be the truth." There are only dead ends on that route.
To clothe ourselves with the armor of light is, I think, to be open to the working of God in our lives in unexpected ways. It might just be saying out loud "we don't know what to do here, but it can't be what we've always done in the past."
For Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and back into the dark and the dank of human history we have tried violence and failed. For inside every "victory" lies the seed of more violence. There are ways of peaceful coexistence. Nature finds ways of doing it. It is possible.
My inquiry for today is about the sources of ignorance:
When we pet our dogs or even just silently admire them, a hormone called oxytocin travels from the pituitary gland through the bloodstream to the heart, where it slows pulse and lowers blood pressure. Oxytocin is also carried by neuronal (nerve cell) pathways to social and emotional centers of the brain—the so-called limbic system. It activates these centers and causes feelings of affection and bonding along with a decrease in anxiety as it inhibits the amygdalae, our “alarm system.” So, now you know why your dog often makes you feel happy, loving, and relaxed. You are responding to your pet much as you would react to your girlfriend or boyfriend!
So it is that dogs have become emotional support animals and are even used as part of psychological therapy. For example, combat veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disorder, when given dogs as companions, often find their symptoms become less severe, their distress at least partly relieved.
Dogs can also be trained to detect the symptoms of a panic attack. At the first signs of an episode (sweating, trembling, etc.), the dog will place its head against the patient’s body. Such tactile, canine reassurance may reduce the intensity of the panic or even end it.
Autistic children have been shown to benefit from having a dog. In the presence of their pet, they often become more verbal and social. Dogs also seem to help prevent the emotional meltdowns that afflict many autistic children.
And, of course, dogs are a good influence on everybody. They amuse with their play and may alleviate the emptiness of living alone. Older dog owners—with lower blood pressure and a sense of purpose as they care for a pet—tend to live longer than seniors who have no animal companion.
Moreover, dogs are “essential beings,” not acculturated, not corrupted by social norms. As they unabashedly beg for food or steal from another dog, they remind us of how much hypocrisy and deceit exist in human society.
Dogs do have memories of the past and can even anticipate the future. Nevertheless, they live in the present where mindfulness meditations aim to take us. Dogs live in the Eternal Now which we try to experience through Quaker worship. When we look lovingly at our dogs, we sometimes catch a glimpse of the Spiritual Presence found in Nature, its creatures, and—we hope—our meetinghouses.
The material for this short essay was taken from four podcasts: Chasing Life, Speaking of Psychology, The Happiness Lab, and We Can Do Hard Things. The individual episodes were The Health Benefits of Pets, Exploring the Human-animal Bond, Let Slip the Dogs of More Happiness, and Pet Love: Are Animals the Closest We Come to Unconditional Love?
~ Annie, Bentley, and Richard Russell
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