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A Cure for Anxiety

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More often than people realize, psychological distress is caused by some combination of lack of meaning, lack of social engagement, and lack of spirituality. These and other existential issues aren't often discussed in Western therapies (or in performance and voice coaching), but that doesn't make them any less real. Also not discussed in Western therapies are the concepts of duality and non-attachment, social service as a means of transcending self-absorption, and the importance of mindfulness, meditation and yoga. We come from a culture that insists that to resolve our mental health problems, we need to focus on them -- and ourselves -- more. How do I feel? What do I need? What am I missing? The answers are out there, if we're willing to listen, and looking in the right place. Recently, for me that place has been Eastern Philosophy, including Asia's two more prominent forms of psychotherapy, Morita and Naikan, both of which purport to offer complete psychological cure from fear, psychosomatic pain, perfectionism, anxiety and neurosis. How do they do this? In the case of Naikan, the resolution of these issues comes from asking and answering three simple questions about the people in your life. These questions are:

  • What did that person do for me?
  • What did I do for that person in return?
  • What trouble and inconvenience did I cause that person?

As you probably noticed, not one of the questions is about ME. Both Naikan and Morita believe that relief from anxiety and malaise comes not from asking "what's in it for me" and "what have I not been given" but rather "what have I not given?" It would be easy to dismiss Naikan as some Zen, optimistic ideal if it hadn't been proven in a series of studies to be as effective, if not more than, our own Western psychotherapies. Which means -- get this -- that the roots of anxiety may in fact be culturally created and empowered. Rather than an innate and inflexible response in all people to a host of performance, life and family circumstances, anxiety may in fact be caused in large part by our conscious preference for self-focus, self-obsession and self-absorption. This is a hard pill to swallow -- on a number of levels -- for us Westerners: one that many people can't or don't want to stomach. The idea that all psychological unease can be resolved by an increase in gratitude and a decrease in victimhood is uncomfortable. It takes away our right to pout, our right to dwell on our fears and insecurities both on and off the stage. The next time you take a yoga class, go for a walk or sit before the majesty of the setting sun, consider quieting the litany of thoughts running through your head: your to-do list, your drama, your issues, your pain, and ask... first about your mother, then about your father... next about your siblings, then about your children... then about your friends, your colleagues and your partner:

  • What did that person do for me?
  • What did I do for that person in return?
  • What trouble and inconvenience did I cause that person?

Similarly, the next time you get on stage to perform, quiet the pervasive fear and ME-based mantras, What will they think of me? How do I sound? How did I do? And ask yourself before your first note, How can I share? What can I give? How can I help to touch the souls and hearts of the people that have come here today? You don't have to be a believer in Naikan or Eastern Philosophy to feel the precious shift in both your performance and life. This essay first published November 3, 2009 on The Modern Vocalist.com the Internet's #1 community for vocal professionals, voice health practitioners and pro-audio companies worldwide since November 2008.


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