Anxiety, Openness and Freedom

O. R. Rao

Do animals feel fear? On the face of it, this seems to be an absurd question, for of course, animals do feel fear. The antelope flees from the panther and the leopard, the mouse from the cat and the rabbit from the wolf.

However, if we pause and give the question a little thought, another aspect of the matter emerges. Do animals experience the same sensations and feelings which human beings call ‘fear’? Are we anthropomorphizing, here, attributing to other sentient beings the feeling which we call fear? It is extremely doubtful whether animals when they experience something which we interpret as their fear, experience the same gamut of sensations feelings, volitional impulses and thoughts that human fears entail.

What then is the difference? The crucial difference becomes clear when we look at consciousness as it is manifested in different forms of life. When we look at the ‘ascending ladder of evolution’ from the single celled amoeba, through the various forms of insect life and other more and more complex forms up to the largest mammals like the whale and the elephant, we seem to discern a gradual increase in the degree of consciousness. While the beetle and the glow-worm do not seem to be conscious to a significant degree, we are quite sure that a dog or an elephant, and quite certainly a chimpanzee, does have consciousness.

However, and here we come to the critical point in the ‘ascending scale of consciousness’, with the arrival of the human species on the scene, there is an abrupt break. For human beings are not only conscious, but are conscious of being conscious. This is self-awareness, self-reflective consciousness, and with it comes a whole trail of fateful consequences. For, from now onwards I am a split being, as my self-awareness makes me think of myself as being separate from the world. I have split the world into object and subject. The object is the ‘external’ world and all that is contained therein, including other human beings, and the subject is my ‘inner’ world, where ‘I am I’, and in which my consciousness resides. However, there is more to come. I have not only split my experience into the objective external world and my subjective inner world, but I can split this inner world itself into ‘subject’ and ‘object’.

I can make an object of what I am conscious of now, that is, the act of writing, and look at it again, receding from it into a further ‘deeper’ consciousness.

Human beings are thus, as Niels Bohr the great physicist put it, ‘both actors and spectators in the great drama of life’. And with the birth of such a reflexive consciousness the great drama of human life unfolds for us. For, this new kind of consciousness brings with it all that is fateful in the human condition—the consciousness of the passage of time and with it awareness of the presence of death as the ‘fellow traveller’ with life. Now is also born awareness of the inner human psychic complex of sensations, feelings, volitional impulses and thoughts, that complex which we call the ‘ego’.

All this is the merest sketch, a caricature, of the entire range of questions which have been investigated by the greatest religious and philosophical minds of mankind down the ages. It is the great poets, artists, writers, and above all the great seers who give us glimpses of what it means to look directly into the heart of the human condition, which all these questions are directed towards.

Be that as it may, the immediate truth that emerges for us from this sketchy survey of the primordial human condition is that at the heart of it is the state of ‘not knowing’. St Augustine, one of the earliest of the Christian philosophers, put it dramatically when he exclaimed, ‘A question have I become to myself’. The questions have arisen, ‘What is the world and all that therein is?’ ‘What are time and death?’ and ‘Who or what am I?’ Alexis Carrel, a physician and psychologist who wrote in the middle of the twentieth century, did well when he titled a book ‘Man the Unknown’. We are beings unknown to ourselves. We seek to know, to define ourselves and the world, but we cannot.

It is our undefined nature that sets us off from other living sentient beings. We are part of Nature but we have no given nature. As Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher put it, ‘Man is free and there is no human nature which I can take as foundational’. Other beings are embedded in Nature which prescribes their behaviour in detail. The bird knows exactly when to fly from the nest after hatching, when to court, when to build the nest, when to brood, and above all when and how to die. But every one of these actions is a problem for human beings, it would seem! Nature does not prescribe to us how and when to act. We are left to ourselves to choose and decide. Human consciousness thus brings with it the burden of choice. We are now apparently free to choose what course of action we should take in the face of problems facing us. But this apparent freedom brings with it the burden of reckoning with the consequences of any course of action chosen—consequences which could be fearful or favorable or ambiguous (as they usually are). The future is forever an uncertain realm—a realm of insecurity.

The nature of the freedom which we, as distinct from other sentient beings enjoy, now begins to become clear. Freedom of choice implies consciousness of the passage of time, past, present and future. And time means anxiety, which is distinct from the immediate ‘fear’ which animals seem to feel. ‘Time’ also means awareness of the presence of death, which is in-built into human consciousness though our daily ‘overt’ consciousness is in permanent denial of this fact.

Human fear thus has the distinct dimension of an ever-present anxiety which has been called ‘anxiety without an object’ or ‘angst’. Individual fears come and go, but anxiety is an ever-present undertone.

The condition of being part of Nature but not having any ‘given’ nature, and being undefined, thus giving rise to the condition of ‘anxiety without an object’ is a fraught one pregnant with tension. This is the tension between the pull towards defining and ‘knowing’ once and for all, what and who we are and what the world and its entities are, and the awareness of our originary undefined condition of ‘not knowing’ which is a ‘given’ in the basic human condition, not to be escaped ultimately. Try as we might, the condition of not knowing who we are and the anxiety that goes with it, will never leave us. We also sense that there is a tension between these two forces which may be called that between ‘closure’ and ‘openness’. Staying with ‘anxiety without an object’, and thus being open and not closed beings is what makes us distinctively human, and has the potentiality of freedom in it. But more of this later.

Before we come to examine that aspect of the matter, we need to remember that we are not only part of Nature and emergent from it, but are also part of Society and are also emergent from it. Just as Nature provides us with the biological and physical frameworks of our existence in the form of the repertoire of our senses, the impulses that ensure survival, and the psychosomatic contents that accompany them, Society provides us with the language which enables us to make sense of and arrive at some understanding of the world. We do not look at or ‘understand’ the world and life directly in an unmediated way, but through the lens of language that gives us the meanings and definitions of entities in the world and of ourselves. Thus I understand Nature through whatever I have learnt of the modern physical sciences, or if I have not received a modern education, through the concepts provided by more traditional frameworks. I provide myself with answers for my existential metaphysical and religious probing through the religious and philosophical doctrines and theories available in society, and through the insights of its great writers, artists and seers. I am provided with certain positions, functions and roles in Society’s familial, economic, legal and other processes and structures. I am spouse, parent, sibling, a professional, farmer, skilled or unskilled worker and so on. Thus I take my place in Society and try to fulfil the tasks and responsibilities that go with it, as do other members of Society.

The complex web of relationships of all kinds produced by these functions, roles and processes, creates its own tensions, oppositions and anxieties in each of us. So do the meanings and definitions we have given to ourselves and others and other entities, through language and its manifestations in science, philosophy, religion and so on. In short, I am thoroughly conditioned by Society, and so are others. (‘You are the world’ as Krishnamurti often pointed out). These conditionings clash and produce the tensions and conflicts endemic in all social contexts. This endemic state of tensions releases the flood of emotions, volitional impulses and thoughts, the nexus of which we call the ‘ego complex’. This is the storage space for all these impulses collected through the mechanism of memory—the space in which we create our identities, and give ourselves an answer to the unanswerable question ‘Who or what am I?’ We identify with our social roles and functions in varying degrees as a way of defining ourselves. The pressure built up by memory in our ‘storage space’ of the ego is released in floods of emotions and impulses which carry us away. We are ‘paralyzed by anxiety’ ‘besides ourselves with rage’, ‘stung by envy or jealousy’. These ‘floods’ carry us away from our originary state of unknowing which is now far away and forgotten.

We cannot set limits to the forms which this flood of conditioning could take—it could vary from self images of extreme guilt to total amoralism, of masochistic asceticism to uninhibited hedonism, from the extreme depression to unrealistic self-inflation and so on endlessly. There is also the area of body images, so central to the ways in which we relate to people. These images have to do with matters of weight, height, shape, color etc. These are ways in which we freeze ourselves into rigid self images which prevent the free flow of the spirit.

There are also forms of conditioning which are of a wider social scope. These are a myriad in number, each specific to different societies, and Krishnamurti’s teachings have depicted those which are endemic in our age—identification with collectivities such as nations, or race or ideologies such as Communism or Capitalism, religious fundamentalism and so on. Rigid adherence to philosophical doctrines is the specific form of identification for intellectuals. For the ‘masses’, there are always the drugs of entertainment and sports, magnified in scope by the resources of modern technology.

Thus, through the varied forms of identification we are caught in—with roles, functions, collectivities, doctrines, ideologies and so on—and by allowing ourselves to be carried away by the floods of sensations, memories, emotions and impulses, we hope to forget the tension inherent in the state of not knowing and openness. But such closure only intensifies the tensions both large and small. And eventually it is the ‘small’ tensions in personal lives, and in the various sub-groups of society, that build up in an avalanche effect into large-scale conflicts. ‘War is the spectacular and bloody outward projection of our inner conflicts, ’ Krishnamurti said. It has been estimated that the deaths in the wars of the twentieth century far exceed in number the total war deaths in the entire history of mankind before that.

‘Human kind’, said TS Eliot, ‘cannot bear very much reality’. And the reality is that we are beings in a state of unknowing which we cannot bear. But it is only the state of unknowing, of ‘freedom from the known’, that is open to fresh unknown possibilities entering us. Normally we are in a state of closure. Fearful of the unknown, we cling to what we know which becomes the impermeable core of our being, thus shutting off the possibility of newness, creativity and growth.

This truth is graphically illustrated in the history of Science. The scientific attitude is one in which the scientist, in formulating theories, is open to follow wherever the evidence leads. Only in this attitude lies the possibility of making new discoveries and being creative. However, the beginnings of modern science tell a different story. In the sixteenth century, when Copernicus formulated his hypothesis of a sun-centred universe as better able to account for the motions of the planets than the Ptolemaic earth-centred universe which had been accepted for more than 1500 years, it was met with a sense of outrage and alarm. The new theory challenged the accepted known verities. It flew in the face of the ‘accepted known truth’ that a moving earth would be very unstable and would result in all objects on the earth being in a permanent state of displacement and instability. Also, it was heresy to say that the earth was not the centre of the Universe, as it denied the Biblical doctrine that God created man in his image and placed man’s dwelling place, the earth, at the centre of the Universe. All these dogmas took a long time to be displaced, in spite of the fact that the new hypothesis accounted for the motions of the planets in a much more elegant and simple way than did the entrenched Ptolemaic theory with its clumsy epicyclical motions.

Similarly, Newton’s mind was open enough to discard the two-thousand-year-old assumption of the distinction between the celestial realm of the planets, where all motions took place in the ‘perfect’ regular form of circles, and the terrestrial realm where motions could be linear and irregular and thus ‘imperfect.’ It was this openness that made possible his grand synthesis that explained all motions including the planetary ones and those on the surface of the earth by the postulates of linear inertial motion, universal gravitation and impressed forces. His adoption of linear inertial motion as the ‘natural’ one in place of the old perfect circular motion too was a revolutionary step, which discarded the ‘common-sense’ known truth enunciated by Aristotle that a continuous applied force is required to keep a body in motion.

If ‘openness’ and ‘closure’ are relevant in the restricted field of Science, how much more so are they in the field of our relationships, which life itself is! All our relationships, whether with material things such as property and money or with other people, are fraught in different degrees. The most fraught are the ones with those who are closest to us—spouse, parents, children, siblings. Precisely because of our closeness to them, we have the almost inescapable conviction that we know them, and that we know ourselves in relationship to them. Needless to say, this is as close to total closure as possible. The relationship then freezes into rigidities that prevents all free flow of spirit, inhibits all freedom and creativity in the relationship. It falls into familiar repetitive patterns that are deadening, or it explodes into conflict.

However, if the relationships are open, as they need to be, they allow a free flow of the spirit. Openness is the creative leaven in our lives. Our vision of openness means not only that persons have the potentiality of being open, but also that the world too is an incurably and radically open place. This is because the ‘world’ consists of situations and contexts, and these are ever changing and new. In such a vision, action is always situation-based and context-based, innovative and marked by virtuosity. We are thus able to act skilfully in each context according to its needs and the needs of the persons involved at that moment. Action is marked by responsibility and relevance as the free flow of the spirit is not impeded.

However, lest we be tempted to underestimate the extent of our conditioning, we need to remember its overwhelming force which can carry us away in an instant. The almost automatic response to the force of the flood which threatens to submerge us is to resist it. But all resistance inevitably only increases the force. Here we remember a saying of the nineteenth century maverick philosopher Nietzsche who said, ‘He who constantly fights the devils becomes a devil himself’. So we cannot fight the forces of conditioning. We need instead to think of ourselves as open valleys through which the floods and hurricanes of conditioning are allowed to flow freely. This is of course far easier said than done and we often fail in the doing. But the vision of openness is not lost and therein lies our permanent gain.

It is said that the ideograph in the Chinese language for both ‘opportunity’ and ‘danger’ is the same. This is an apt metaphor for the primordial human condition in which human beings are undefined and open. Non-definition and openness give rise both to all pervasive ‘anxiety without an object’ (from which arises the urge to define and freeze, with all its destructive consequences) and also to the possibility of freedom and a creative flow of the spirit. It is up to us to decide which alternative we choose.