I came across this quote “Anxiety is the fundamental mood of existence” — attributed to Martin Heidegger — in Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson. Markson also wrote that Van Gogh could make everything — even a pair of boots — seem to have anxiety. I don’t remember who he attributed that to.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a marvelous book — the height of the experimental novel, according to David Foster Wallace who committed suicide — probably due to his anxiety. But I don’t want to write about the book right now. I want to think out loud about the idea of Heidegger’s about the fundamental mood of life. Is it anxiety for most people? Is anxiety the fundamental mood of your life?
I discussed this with my wife. At first Aurora was skeptical. She is a very positive and cheerful person so ideas like this don’t usually sound right to her. Then, later after thinking for awhile she said something like — “you know it makes sense. We are in a mode (not mood) of survival — always deciding to flee or fight when pressured. And we are often pressured.”
Many of us feel like we are fighting a war. Business is war. The economy is survival of the fittest. In America when its time to file your income taxes it is always anxious time for most of us. We speak of the dog eat dog world. Even our holidays create anxiety. Getting away for a vacation is a source of anxiety for most of us too.
So is the purpose of philosophy and religion to help us over come this anxiety? There is another cause of anxiety — a kind of background noise for our existence as super-sentient beings — the knowledge of our impending, inevitable death. As I read about Buddhism I am learning that one purpose of meditation is to figure out how to deal with knowing that we will certainly die but at a time that is unknown and not of our choosing. Some Buddhists meditate on that daily and afterwards decide how to spend the day — which could be the last one for any living person.
Mortality is one of the truths about life Buddha woke up to. Its a pretty fundamental truth but many mortals do not face it until late in life if ever. By face it I mean think through what it means and how this knowledge should inform our daily life. Buddhist thinking has it that we can only be sure of the present moment. The past is gone, tomorrow may not come and is unknown if it does. Some western religions ask us to focus our attention on ‘the next life.’ Live in a way that will ensure entrance to heaven. Of course Buddhists — some Buddhists — believe in Karma and reincarnation. Karma = actions and the associated reaction of the laws associated with Karma. So this amounts to the same thing, I think.
Meditation is good practice whether dealing with mortality or trying to calm jittery nerves. So is being in nature if one really is there to enjoy it. Real work can also relieve anxiety but there isn’t as much of that around as there used to be. By real work I man doing something for the joy of the work itself and what it will accomplish. Some of us still have that kind of work, others seek it and make it out of an avocation. But there is no doubt that real work is a big help. And maybe the most favorable way to calm down to to help others. I think after meditation there are Buddhists who decide to do just that as well as Catholics, Unitarians and atheists as well.
I recently read a book entitled “Buddhism Without Beliefs” by Stephen Batchelor Its a condensed introduction to Buddhist practice and thinking without the mysticism. A little like Thomas Jefferson’s bible — Jefferson cut out all the mysticism and miracles from the New Testament and made a book that was mostly the sayings and wisdom of Jesus. I highly recommend it. It might help you deal with your anxiety — it helped me with mine.