Freedom from Hurry and Worry: Undoing the Catch-22 of Our Time


It is mid-September and chestnuts are falling. Hundreds, thousands of chestnuts, falling on the sidewalks and streets outside my psychotherapy office in southwest Portland. Every year, in early autumn, I bring home a handful to my family. We don’t roast them we place them on the kitchen table to adore. There, we marvel at the rich mahogany brown of the newly hatched gems and lose ourselves in their luster. They don’t need polishing, but we can’t help ourselves and take to rubbing the smooth shells until each is glowing and we are left smiling, touched by beauty.

It is my habit to walk about the neighborhood of my office on those scintillating autumn days searching for unblemished chestnuts. One day I discovered the perfect sanctuary near the Burnside entrance to Washington Park. There, the little darlings make the long fall into a soft bed of cedar needles. Many survive the fall without breaking out of their armored casings. One glorious morning I came upon a set of twins snuggled into their thorny cradle like a couple of happy kittens.

When I discovered that bed of pristine chestnuts, my heart skipped a beat, and I began foraging for the most beautiful specimens I could find. Some were still in their prickly shells and slipped out oh so smooth and glowing. I gathered enough for a queen’s necklace, but as I did, I noticed a disturbance growing in my gut. I was hurrying. Hurrying to find the next incomparable beauty. Hurrying. The hunger to find the perfect chestnut became compulsive and I scurried like a squirrel from one to another, rejecting some, gathering others. Slowly, I became aware that the hurried feeling was in actuality a camouflaged state of anxiety.

Why had I turned this lovely ritual into an exercise in anxious hoarding? The pleasure and delight I experienced at the outset disappeared, and a serious, nearly desperate energy sprouted from somewhere inside. I was obsessed. Greedy hunger took over and I urgently scavenged for a chestnut that would make me feel . . . what, complete, whole, happy? What was I anxious about? What was I searching for?

What, me Hurry?

Were Alfred E. Neuman and Mad Magazine to stage a comeback, the cover caption for our time might read, “What, me hurry?” Why worry when you can hurry? Really, worry is so out of date. We have outrun it, medicated it, and left it behind. “Hurry up,” is the first commandment of our “Busy Town,” neo-liberal market economy. Forget about loving life, or your neighbor. Never mind the present moment; that stuff is for losers. You better move fast, baby, or IT will pass you by. What do you hear on the sidewalks and coffee shops? “Man, I’m so busy, it’s crazy busy!”

I am pained to remember how many times I bought into that religion and said to my kids, “Hurry up, you’ll be late!” I cringe when I think of getting mad at them for having the audacity to keep on enjoying the moment when it was obviously imperative that we leave for school, get ready for bed or comply with any number of urgent schedule demands. In my own life, I find myself hurrying to gulp down my granola in the morning, tripping over myself to put my socks on and get out the door, cursing at the traffic when it is making me late for my first patient - I’m embarrassed to say, the list goes on.

In 1981, Dr. David Elkind came out with the first edition of The Hurried Child in which he warned of the negative effects on children pressured to grow up way too early and way too fast. Sadly, Dr. Elkind’s voice of reason and wisdom was drowned out by the din of a society accelerating towards a life of plenty. Nearly forty years later, we are reading reports of an unprecedented number of high school and college students suffering significant states of depression and anxiety and, to no one’s surprise, an increase in the use of popular self-medicating solutions for enhanced performance and the curbing of anxiety.

What are we doing? What do we want? What’s the hurry? Who, or what, is driving us to go at such a pace? Let’s face it, every day we seem more ensnared by the trappings of the material world. It’s as though we have taken an oath to race around helter-skelter getting stuff done and in pursuit, of what? Our collective fatigue and breathlessness seem to me evidence of a frantic effort to earn status and prove ourselves worthy. I can’t tell you the number of people who arrive at my psychotherapy office convinced of their defectiveness. We chase after happiness and, as psychologist Brene Brown says so poignantly, “We hustle for worthiness.” Non-stop, 24/7. Is that what I was up to in the chestnut grove? Hustling for self-worth? In a chestnut?

Conditioned to believe our value must be earned – suckered by the crush of marketing into believing that what matters most are commodities rather than substance, transactions rather than relationships and the material rewards of compulsive acquisition rather than a close relationship with our own being – we hustle. As if we could scramble enough and manipulate our world enough to buy and earn happiness. As if by constant striving, we might bend life to our will and find self-regard. We are living in a meritocracy that requires every bit of personal worth to be earned.

This is the rat race at its core. This is what was driving my urgency in the search for the perfect chestnut. It is the Catch-22 of our time: you can go home when you fly your fifty missions – that is, when you earn your basic goodness, either through achievements or by way of acquisition. Then and only then can you feel okay. As was the case with Yossarian, the protagonist of Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, Catch-22, that day never comes. It’s all a sophisticated and seductive trap! Nelson Rockefeller, former governor of New York and a member of the 20th century oligarchy club said it best. When asked by an interviewer what was enough, he smiled and said, “Just a little more.” Exactly.

We shouldn’t condemn ourselves for this waywardness. The demands of the economy for more productivity have squeezed working people dry and made the majority frantic trying to keep up or simply survive. Moreover, the pressure on parents to provide their children with non-stop activities is overwhelming. We need empathy, not condemnation. And we need to recognize that despite the riches that surround us, we live in a land of poverty – spiritual poverty. That state of psychic and spiritual malnutrition, and the compensatory rabid hunt for material satisfaction, is rapidly turning planet Earth into a wasteland. This beloved planet is reflecting back the state of our inner lives which are depleted and polluted by shameful narratives such as the one I hear most often in my work, “I’m not enough. Something's wrong with me.”

An Epidemic of Unworthiness

It was a restless walk back to my office. The short four blocks felt like a mile. My pockets bulged from the chestnuts I’d stuffed in them, and my stomach turned, still percolating from the dis-ease of the hunt. By the time I reached my building and climbed the stairs to my office I was looking forward to being back in its warm embrace. A therapist’s office is a place of acceptance. It is the contemporary setting of confession, only people do not come to confess their sins. They come, with a considerable amount of shame, to reveal their feelings of unworthiness in hope of being understood and relieved of their suffering. “I never feel good enough.” “Something’s wrong with me.” These are the words echoing off the walls of my psychotherapy office nearly every hour of the day. This is the common refrain of our time and the expression of the collective emotional and spiritual suffering plaguing our people. Despite the glitter and gold of this gilded age, when the rush of designer coffees wears off, the rich and the poor, young and old arrive at my door and collapse on the couch, exhausted and close to despair.

Like so many seeking therapy, Fred came to me feeling depressed and anxious when all his maneuvers failed to bring him satisfaction or happiness. Despite a successful career in medicine and a family he claimed to love a great deal, Fred complained of feeling little enjoyment and appeared worn out at a time in his life one would expect might be most fulfilling. In fact, his success seemed to only aggravate his problem as the demands of the medical field grew more and more taxing. He found himself becoming increasingly self-critical of his work, convinced he was not helping his patients lead healthier lives. Lately, very little gave him pleasure or contentment and he suffered from a growing sense of dread that he was trapped and falling into despair. Nothing had worked, not vacations, not hobbies, not drinking, not exercise. Nothing worked, because he approached all these strategies with the same drive and urgency. Fred slumped on the couch and looked at me wearily, certain that I too would fail to help him overcome his feeling of shameful inadequacy.

Though a composite of the individuals I work with, Fred is not an exception, he represents a disturbing norm. A norm I see as epidemic in numbers and growing. This is my story, scrounging under the chestnut tree, this is our story, manifesting in the collective manic scramble to find self-affirmation in the seductive offerings of consumptive living. A way of living that Mother Teresa rightly identified as more poverty stricken than the hunger of India. This form of poverty leaves us empty. Empty and craving something, something external to our inner being that will end the painful sense of lack shadowing our days.

The sense of lack is not a new phenomenon. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, wrote about busyness and the sense of lack nearly two hundred years ago. The great English author, Virginia Wolfe echoed the tragic conviction of her inadequacy in the suicide note to her husband. Today, an existential state of shame and unworthiness has reached epidemic proportions. Although Fred is a fictitious character, the self-loathing he feels is as common as your next-door neighbor. We don’t see it because it is hidden, but if Fred’s inner world were visible, it would resemble the grotesque distortions of a Francis Bacon portrait. Shame is the cause of this erosion of self-regard. It is rust under the car, eating away at the self. Carl Jung, the wise and brilliant Swiss Psychoanalyst said, “Shame is a soul eating emotion.” It is a colonization of body and spirit. Unworthiness is the conclusion of a mind besieged by shame. It is the collapse, the giving over to the flood of shameful emotions and the simultaneous gang of thoughts that declare: “I am bad. Something must be wrong with me.” Shame makes us feel small. Humiliation makes us want to disappear.

As a consequence, we have constructed elaborate strategies, most of them in keeping with the “hurry-up” mandate, to conceal rampant anxiety and the sense of defectiveness. Elaborate efforts to make ourselves feel better only increase the tensions gripping our bodies. Moreover, they do nothing to rid us of feelings of shame and inadequacy. In fact, they add to our pain when the compensatory plans fail, and the full force of self-condemnation floods the inner world. That was me foraging for my worth under the chestnut tree. Overcome by the trance of unworthiness, I must have looked like the creatures I see at home racing about, preparing for winter. A scavenger, scrambling to fill my pockets with self-affirmation. Striving to fill the holes of my being with beauty. Never enough, must have more. Is there another way? What can we do to help ourselves out of these repetitive cycles of inflation and deflation? Where should we turn for help with our dilemma?

The Still Point

For much of human history, human beings have turned to the wisdom of poetry and literature to enlighten and guide the way to better living. From Homer to The Bible and Shakespeare, the support we find in good literature provides inspiring models for the journey to freedom from the dictates of the dominate culture. The work of poets has always been to reveal the true nature of existence and the essence of human beings. More recently, the work of novelists like Toni Morrison and Richard Powers has helped us understand alternative ways of being. Ms. Morrison’s Sethe, in Beloved, and Mr. Powers cast of characters in The Overstory, struggle with various forms of enslavement and find both integrity and a new sense of aliveness in freeing themselves from oppressive systems.

A philosophical grounding to this approach can be found in the poetry of T. S. Elliot. Take these remarkable lines from his poem, Burnt Notion, the first of the masterful Four Quartets, which reveal the actual nature of the paradoxical world we belong to. Read them out loud and listen for the suggestion of an alternative way of living and being.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from

nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline.

Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Ah, the still point of the turning world. It might seem that the world is only spinning. But wait, there is something else! When the “still point of the turning world” is recognized, or better yet, experienced, we enter mystery and find the still point to be all points. At that instant, the veils of physicality and identity fall away, revealing that which is always there: a field of stillness and silence at the core of our lives. This field is not empty, on the contrary, the still point is brimming with the creative imperative. “First there is nothing, and then there is everything.” This is the opening sentence of The Overstory, and the opening chord of movement from the still point to the dance.

We encounter the mystery of stillness in any number of ways. My Shakespeare professor in college surprised our class one day when he said to us that Shakespeare was the greatest of all poets because his verse teaches us everything there is to know about life and the spaces between the words reveal everything we can know about eternity. The same holds true with music. Lately, I’ve been listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas on the drive into my office. In particular, Sonata No.8 in C Minor is knocking me out. There is the remarkable musicality of course, the fingers of the pianist flying over the keyboard, from near chaos to the sublime, and then, in the midst of a flurry of notes, swirling in rapture – stop. Silence. Instantly, we are enveloped in that silence that is the still point: But neither arrest, nor movement, and we disappear from the spatial world into a field of spaciousness. In short, ordinary consciousness is interrupted and we are astonished. And astonishment gives way to epiphany: what the Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz described in A Book of Luminous Things in this way:

Epiphany is the unveiling of reality. What in Greek was called epiphaneia

Meant the appearance of a divinity among mortals…

But epiphany is not limited to encounters with genius. Indigenous cultures saw epiphany in every step, in forests and streams, in the night sky and moon. In love and human sexuality. All of life, and death, has the power of Shakespeare and Beethoven to awaken the mind to sacredness.

Elliot writes, “Not flesh, not fleshless.” This is the spiritual realm, the source of creation where, impossibly, something spawns from nothing. Where, impossibly, all spatial and temporal orientations and markers fall away in a state of boundless, dynamic being. “Except for the point, the still point,” which is all points, not a singular point, there would be nothing – no party, no dance. We can’t fully understand this grand paradoxical reality, but we can experience it.

It should go without saying that the hurried society makes a spiritual life all the more difficult because our inner-self is the first to be crowded out by the contractions brought on by fear and chasing after worthiness. The clear message of Elliot’s poem is that another reality is present. Its implication is that the still point, though “neither flesh or fleshless,” exists at the center of our lives. Richard Powers echoes this perennial wisdom in the opening page of his remarkable novel, The Overstory, with a sentence that resonates throughout the novel like a great Taoist gong:

“A thing can travel anywhere, just by holding still.”

This sentence reverberates in the reader’s mind like a Zen koan as the story introduces us to the lives of trees and the communal consciousness present in their stillness. The forest, as illuminated in this novel, is a vibrant metaphor for what can be when we come home to stillness. There, the creative impulse is waiting, its desire to dance quivering and ready to inspire the living.

As we slow down and de-center from the idealization of the individual and the relentless striving for self-affirmation, “the still-point of the turning world” will find us and transform our lives. But what will we find, undergoing this transformation? What is the nature of that still-point?

The Luminous Self

Thousands of years prior to the beginning of the Christian era, the poets and sages of India created a body of literature known as The Upanishads. The Upanishads were part of a larger body of sacred wisdom known as the Vedas. Vedantic thought came to have a profound influence on many of our great writers and thinkers from Emerson to Whitman and even the work of T. S. Elliot, himself a devout Catholic. Of the 108 Upanishads, the Isha Upanishad is considered a diamond amongst the dozen or so primary writings that elucidate the Vedic vision. Consider the similarities between Elliot’s verse on the still point and these lines from the Isha Upanishad, translated by Alister Shearer and Peter Russell.

The one Self never moves, yet it is too swift for the mind.

The senses can’t reach It; It is ever beyond their grasp.

Remaining still, It outstrips all activity,

yet in it rests the breath of all that moves.

It moves, yet moves not. It is far, yet it is near.

It is within all this, and yet without all this.

Remarkable. Nearly five thousand years separate the modern poet from the ancient sage, and yet the similarity in meaning embodied in the paradox of their verse is as profound now as it was then. For each, the still point and the Self are at the center of a centerless expanse of consciousness that illuminates creation. In the tradition of the Vedas, the Self is synonymous with the ineffable source from which all possibilities emanate. As such, this poetry is not dry ancient scripture or modern intellectual philosophy but revelations emanating from the luminous ground of existence. The Vedic poets gave us an evocative image to convey the generative richness of this self-luminating source. They named it, “The Golden Womb,” to capture the radiant and fertile nature of being.

For millennia, poets, artists, wise women and men spanning the globe and all its peoples, have done their best to bring attention to the profound nature of our inner being. They have promised that true satisfaction, peace and joy lie within. This is not esoteric knowledge, this is the common pulsation of life manifesting in the depths of the world and all its inhabitants. It is what indigenous peoples have recognized in the natural world and most religions have identified as the divine presence in all creation. Alister Shearer and Peter Russell, authorities on the Upanishads and Vedic philosophy, describe the nature of our inner world with the lovely expression, “effortless being.” Effortless? The western mind balks. Alfred E. Newman grins. My father says nothing good comes without effort. Right?

Effortless being is not in opposition to action and action is not synonymous with busyness. We can move and act from a place of ease. In fact, whether in athletics, our work, artistic endeavors or any number of activities, our common experience is that when fully engaged, the egoic “me” disappears and the generative and satisfying presence of being comes forth. We are in the flow. The beauty and tragedy of our lives is that ease is ever present and seldom found. As the old Vedic tale goes, we are sitting on treasure and don’t know it. Instead we go in manic pursuit of happiness by straining and striving to earn it, acquire it, steal it, win it. Hustling for worthiness. Anxiously trying to prove we are good enough. Anxiously trying to disprove something is wrong with who we are. Twisting ourselves into pretzels trying to be what we think we should be. Anything – yoga, exercise, religion, meditation, love—you name it, can be perverted by the anxious brain into serving this agenda, thus further enslaving us to the demands of the meritocracy.

I was taken over by this hurried trance when my delight in September chestnuts morphed into a manic search for the perfect specimen. In short, I was lost. Disconnected from my inner self and scurrying about in search of a shiny chestnut to fill the hole inside. The next day I returned to the grove, humbled and more aware. I walked about, admiring the shine of the rich, chocolatey brown mirrors at my feet. In good time, I bent down and picked one up, held it in the palm of my hand, appreciated its smooth glow and walked back to my office satisfied. One was enough. I was enough. Enough – the greatest threat there is to meritocracy and unworthiness. 

Mad Magazine, and Back to Being

Hurry is noise. Is worry unleashed – madness running. Running the show. Running from fear, from shame, form weakness, running from self. From death. Running from noise. I was a skinny kid, growing up in Ohio when I discovered Mad Magazine. The freaky, goony characters looked like me and acted like me. Until I found Alfred E. Neuman and the rest, I was sure something was wrong with me. When I looked in a mirror, I felt a loathing for that boy. It seemed impossible to escape that feeling. Except through fantasy. And hiding. Especially hiding. Hiding in James Bond and hiding from James Bond. Hiding in lies and stories and memories that happened to other people. And what better way to hide, than to hurry? Hurry after approval and affirmation of this defective self. Searching for worthiness, even in a chestnut.

I miss Alfred E. Neuman and Mad Magazine. I miss that goofy smile and the reminder that something is very wrong with society, not me. Or you. What is zany and mad is our culture’s pursuit of riches and status, not our differing makeups and personalities. Mad Magazine reminded me that our minds are held captive. Captive of a system that every single day turns people into Werewolves snarling at one another and competing for security in affirmation and acceptance and affluence. By falling for the seductions of the system, we are diminished; and our capacity to recognize the astonishing beauty of the world and of one another is also diminished. We suffer from that blindness, along with the Earth.

I also miss (I can’t believe I’m saying this) the boredom of the 50’s. I think of the amount of time and space my friends and I had in those endless days to make up stories while sitting on the porch watching fire flies dance on the summer stage. Our family had a small black and white TV and it was pretty much limited to a few shows on Friday night. I miss a time when people wrote letters and savored the intimacy of a hand-written note. I even miss church on occasion and the coming together to sing and pray.

Of course, I don’t actually miss the cultural climate of the 50’s, but I do miss the pace. Something is absent from our hurried lives that makes me remember those times with some nostalgia. It’s what makes me yearn to be in the wilderness and watch the slow walk of nature –and listen to silence hum its lullaby to the world. I want to breathe fresh air, not anxiety. I want to move with the ease and grace of a wild creature – slowly and with attention to the mysterious presence that guides my footsteps.

Mad magazine also told us it is OK to be mad. That was a revolutionary message in 1958 for good boys and girls growing up in Ohio under the rules of obedience. We were required to banish anger from our minds. God knows there is plenty to be mad about today; we should shake our fists at every injustice and Catch-22 we encounter. Saying no to a hurried life of consumption and distraction is a healthy protest. It is an act of civil disobedience that benefits many and contributes to inner peace. Even when we are outraged, effortless being is the eye of the hurricane enabling us to act reasonably and creatively for the common good.

Effortless being – is it real? Yes, it is! You have experienced it many times. The quintessential example is the magical sunset that takes one’s breath away. In that instant, everything is still. Or, think of a moment when you looked into the eyes of a child and the extraordinary presence looking back at you stopped the active mind in its tracks. You know it in relation to beauty as the quiet that overcomes the mind and reveals the stillness of the inner self. At those moments, we lack for nothing, our spirit is satisfied and quite naturally settles into effortless being.

How do we make a practice of connecting with effortless being? In an essay on the work of Gertrude Stein, author Toni Morrison wrote, “There is a third response to chaos, which is stillness. Stillness is what lies in awe, in meditation…” It was Ms. Morrison’s practice to rise every morning while the world was still dark. Before beginning to write, she sat with herself in stillness. Only after that time of awe and meditation did she feel ready to begin her work. Stillness, awe, effortless being—It’s right here, free to all and ever present. As they say in the Vedas, effortless being is closer than your own breath: Stillness is what lies in awe, in meditation.

Meditation is a revolutionary act. By returning us to being, it dispels the trance of unworthiness. It obliterates the myth of scarcity enabling the brain to relax and assume a state of non-urgent presence in the world. Having found the flexibility and ease our neurological system is designed for, we can find our way out of the collective spell that binds us to cycles of hurry and worry. That blinds us from seeing the astonishing multitude of life before us – the ten-thousand chestnuts resting on the ground, the bounty of love within our hearts, Then, we will feel good enough to slow our engines and re-unite with plentiful being. Good enough to shed the illusion of scarcity and the trappings of the culture of more. With this transformation, doing will surrender its place of dominance to serve being, and the promise of poets and mystics will be realized.

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