Because the origin of all fear and anxiety is separation from Krsna, the cure is to take shelter of Him.
I remember as a child climbing up the metal ladder of what seemed like a towering playground slide. With each step up, my legs quivered uncontrollably and my heart beat rapidly. When I reached the top rung, I stared down at the ground, feeling dizzy and overwhelmed with fright. What had started out as excitement now turned to panic. My father, standing at the bottom of the slide, urged me to slide down, but fear paralyzed my muscles, and I stood frozen. I thought of climbing back down, but several children were now perched on the rungs, anxiously waiting for me to take my turn. They began to shout tauntingly, hoping to make me move. Feeling trapped by overpowering fear, I began to cry.
My father, realizing that I was beyond prodding, crawled up the slide and rescued me. Relieved but embarrassed, I looked back at the slide, which seemed an insurmountable mountain. This was one of my first recollections of being consumed by the irresistible power of fear.
Now, over forty years later, I often work with clients whose quality of life is greatly diminished by fear or anxiety. Sometimes the fear is circumscribed by a single object or event, such as elevators, flying, snakes, or dead bodies. But in many cases, the anxious feelings pervade their lives, making even the simplest tasks difficult. Afraid of making the wrong decision, of saying something inappropriate, of being judged, they weave a cocoon of anxious strands around their subtle bodies, restricting their ability to live happily and peacefully.
Physician, Heal Thyself
Many self-help books target this most debilitating disorder. One of the most popular is The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, by psychologist Dr. Edmund Bourne. Having suffered from a severe anxiety disorder, he compiled this workbook of techniques ranging from relaxation to desensitization. Readers found varying degrees of relief, and Dr. Bourne became a well-known authority on the subject.
Some time after his popular book came out, Dr. Bourne himself became incapacitated by anxiety. All the practices he prescribed in his book did little to help him find respite from his scorching psychic pain. Finding no material solution, he sought relief from spiritual practices. In his latest book, Freedom from Fear, he shares his journey to his partial recovery. In essence, he recognizes that the underlying cause of anxiety is lack of trust in a higher power.
His realization is corroborated in all the major scriptures of the world. In the Vedic scriptures the eternal spiritual world is called Vaikuntha, "free from anxiety." All the residents there act for the pleasure of the Lord. Their every action is motivated by their deep love for God. Having no separate interest from His, they experience freedom from all worry.
In the material world, most of us are focused on gratifying our own senses. We act independent of our creator and try to enjoy separately from Him. This separation is the origin of our anxiety.
Recently I was watching a toddler assert his independence from his mother by running away from her. He was laughing and enjoying his newfound power. But when she hid from his view, he became very anxious and started to cry. The mother, seeing his anguish, appeared before him and assuaged his fears.
In many ways we are like that small child; we have tried to become independent of God and in the process have become lost from our very source of solace and comfort. But unlike the child, who knew he wanted to find his mother, we don't know what we have lost or what to look for. In our distress, we look for other solutions, many of them destructive and against our real self-interest. When we realize the futility of all material solutions, we can turn to the Lord for shelter.
Seeing the Positive
Krsna has expertly designed the material world to rectify our separatist mentality. If we decide to live in line with the purpose of the creator, then we'll see the environment as favorable for our spiritual progress. We'll see things, good or bad, as coming from the Lord, and we'll understand how to use them in ways that will assist us on our path of self-realization.
Much of the anxiety we experience is unnecessary and obstructs our emotional well-being and spiritual progress. But anxiety and fear can also help us navigate this temporal existence. Had I not felt some anxiety about failing in college, I might never have gone to my classes and obtained a degree. Fear of dangerous situations has helped to protect me from an untimely death. Most important, my anxiety about finding meaning and purpose in my life and my fear of death and beyond brought me into the association of devotees.
After practicing Krsna consciousness for over twenty-seven years, am I free from toxic material anxieties and fears? No, I've made significant progress, but I'm still confronted with situations that test my dependence on the Lord. Recently my husband and I put our house up for sale after starting to build a home at Prabhupada Village in Sandy Ridge, North Carolina. We planned things so that we would have a smooth transition from our house in Baltimore to our new home. Our house sold on the first day it went on the market, but the buyers were willing to rent it back to us for two months, while our new house was being built. But our new house progressed slowly, and it soon became evident that we were going to be homeless and would have to rely on the generosity of friends and relatives.
My anxiety became intense, and I had trouble sleeping at night. I was able to easily diagnose my problem as a lack of trust in Krsna's plan for us. In the Bhagavad-gita Krsna tells us to depend on Him in all our endeavors, and I was clearly negligent in following that instruction. As a result, I was suffering from an unhealthy anxiety.
Focus on Chanting
Since I have experienced such lack of dependence on Krsna in many situations, I have had many opportunities to practice reversing my consciousness, and here was another chance.
My initial reaction was to resist the anxious feelings, but experience has taught me to sit with the feelings and allow them to be what they are. Fighting against the nervous energy will generally intensify the feelings. I have learned to breathe deeply, which relaxes my body, calms my mind, and allows me to focus on chanting the Lord's holy names in a prayerful mood. To chant with attention, I bargain with my mind to allow me to hear the holy name without nagging distractions. In exchange I agree to give my full attention to the problem after I'm done. I generally have to renegotiate this agreement several times throughout the course of my japa meditation.
While the ultimate purpose of our chanting is to free us from material identification, uncover our spiritual identity, and awaken our love for Krsna, we must deal with the immediate problems that impede our progress. A good chanting session has always helped me see things in proper perspective and remember my ultimate purpose in life to fully trust and depend on my Lord Krsna, a prerequisite to developing pure love for Him.
I also repeatedly tell myself, "Krsna is my dearest friend and well-wisher, and everything He does is for my highest good." A favorite saying in God-centered self-help groups is "Let go and let God." This is a high ideal for any practitioner of a spiritual path.
In the Mahabharata we find the famous story Draupadi and the gambling match. Draupadi was the beautiful and chaste wife of the exalted Pandavas.
In an effort to bring shame and ruin to her spotless reputation, the Pandavas' envious cousins tried to disrobe her in a public forum. Because of the politics of the time, no one could stop the atrocity.
As the wicked Duhsasana licentiously pulled at her sari, Draupadi, filled with fear, held onto the cloth with one hand and petitioned Krsna with the other. Realizing she had no other shelter than the Lord, she literally and figuratively let go and let God, raising both hands in supplication to Lord Krsna. At the moment she stopped trying to control her situation and fully surrendered to the Lord's will, He gave her full protection by providing unlimited cloth.
My anxiety about our lack of a home subsided when I took shelter of my spiritual practices and the teachings of the scriptures. I was able to spiritually realign my consciousness and begin to face the problem of finding a place to live. My husband and I generated a list of options, and I tried to see the benefits of the situation. The most attractive benefit was the opportunity to spend more intimate time with friends and family. I also tried to understand what lessons I could learn from this anxiety-provoking situation. An obvious one was to depend on Krsna in all circumstances; another was to be patient a point I frequently have to revisit.
I find it helpful to keep a journal of situations in which I've been worried and fearful about the outcome. In retrospect I often see how ingeniously Krsna orchestrated events to bring about a favorable conclusion. These experiences serve to increase my faith that Krsna loves me and that His actions are directed to bringing me back to Him. And I know that if I practice dealing with day-to-day anxieties in a Krsna conscious way, that will help me face the inevitable problems of old age and death, the ultimate fearful situation.
Arcana-Siddhi Devi Dasi was initiated by Srila Prabhupada in 1976. She lives with her husband and son in Sandy Ridge, North Carolina, where she works as a family therapist.