Dear Therapist..."I'm Tired of Being in Survival Mode"
I’m in a funk. I feel like I’ve spent the last three years just getting on top of my anxiety about the state of the world. It’s been a lot of effort – regular therapy, medication and various practices to keep me feeling somewhat normal – but it’s like I’m in survival mode rather than really living.
It leaves me pretty disheartened to think this is what my life has become.
I’m so glad you wrote – you address a theme I sense is pretty prevalent these days. The feeling of ‘surviving not thriving,’ and a yearning for more.
You say you are ‘disheartened’ which is the crux of the matter it seems – cut off from, or apart from, your heart’s desires. ‘Dispirited’ is another word that comes to mind. Twenty-first century living doesn’t make much time for matters of heart and soul, and for this we are all lacking. Many of us seem stuck on a productivity treadmill; even when we sense we want more meaning or purpose in our lives this leads us to pursue goals that sound important or impressive rather than those that have personal resonance. But what if, as Joseph Campbell asked, our pursuit of purpose and meaning was really a pursuit of aliveness and rapture?
‘We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment,’ the poet Jack Gilbert wrote. And Robert Louis Stevenson: ‘The true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss it all.’ To miss the joy is to miss it all. Yes, this.
Joy is elicited when something aligns with who we truly are, with what we value, what we strive for, what we live for. Joy alerts us to the presence of heart and soul. It also serves as a barometer of our attunement to, and connection with, the wider world – crucial for us social animals often feeling isolated.
Joy is not a luxury. Cultivating it is a counter-cultural imperative. This isn’t a cognitive exercise, more something we feel our way into – migrating towards the people, places, activities, work that energise us, make us feel alive. This is stubbornly difficult for many of us to do, conditioned as we are to be productivity obsessed. Who would possibly prioritise, say, skateboarding, tap dancing, joining a choir, investigating wildflowers when there is just so much going on in the world? Joyful people do. Can we follow their lead?
Having a ritual or regular practice helps, as it does with most new habit formation. We are so accustomed to an incessant drip of fear-mongering (no thank you, 24/7 media) that it takes effort to intentionally refocus the lens. The late Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talked about planting and cultivating seeds of joy. Organising our days around watering these seeds, and not those that detract from our joy (‘selective watering’). The latter point – eliminating ‘joy vampires’ – is crucial. A client of mine’s whole world view changed when he went off Twitter. Not only does he have noticeably less angst, he also freed up a shocking (to him) amount of time to ‘water’ more joyful seeds.
So, Joyless, you are wise to let your current funk be a wake-up call. You have done a lot of work attending to despair. It seems now is the time to risk delight. Enjoy!