Anxiety comes from desire. You are anxious when you desire something but not sure if you can get it.
Linear Independence of Desires
I’d like to see different desires as being linearly independent.
Linearity. When you have many desires, they “superpose” to increase your level of anxiety. For example, if someone wants to be rich, be famous, to have a superb partner, and to be playing all day and not have to work … all at the same time, then this must be the most anxious person in the world.
Independence. Whether or not one desire is satisfied doesn’t affect your ability to satisfy another desire. For example, you don’t have to be rich to start doing things you like, you don’t have to be gorgeous to start building a good relationship, you don’t have to be the most intelligent person to be confident.
As a corollary, if you just give up most of your desires, you will stop being overly anxious and have much more energy to persue your most important desire.
Pick One Desire and Enjoy Life
My last year of PhD was an incredible year for me. But I actually failed to graduate the year before. I spent some hard time with myself in the summer and decided that I would try to achieve one big goal in my final year: to graduate as a competent scholar. I picked this goal because I wouldn’t be satisfied with just graduating and then spend my time working on some random job just to get by. I truely hoped to still be able to enjoy doing creative work after graduation.
To achieve this goal, my logic was plain and simple: I need to be productive to be competent for my work; I need to be healthy to be productive. So I started eating healthier and exercising more regularly.
Interestingly, as I became a healthier person, I also began to enjoy life. Over the year, besides focusing on my work, I also had a very supportive relationship and became a more grateful person, which in turn made me a more confident person and helped me build new connections. In the end, I had not only graduated, but also delivered a speech at the commencement and found a job I liked which allowed me to continue to do creative work.
I am sure a lot of these results were just luck, but it was fascinating how the world seemed to be coordinating to send me through an upward spiral.
I have learned two things from this experience:
(1) I don’t really need a lot of grit or perseverance to achieve something. All I need to do is let go of all the other desires, then I have plenty of mental power to work on the one big thing.
(2) Letting go of other desires doesn’t mean I won’t be doing all those things. It just means that I don’t see them as “goals.” For example, I was eating healthy food and exercising regularly only because I enjoyed them, I didn’t have to do them if I thought they made me feel worse.
Your One Big Desire
There was one quote that I thought was very beautiful but which had never really believed:
When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.
This was from the fiction The Alchemist by Paulo Coello. Behind this quote was one of the most romantic stories I have ever read. So romantic that I never thought reality would work that way.
However, since then I have had this “something” that I truely wanted for a few times (although each time it lasted only for a year or two). Each time I made up my mind, I had this peculiar feeling that the world did seem to be helping me out in unexpected ways. These experiences had pushed me to read between the lines. I am realizing that maybe this “something” in the quote has to be singular. It must be the one thing that you absolutely want during that period of your life, from which you won’t get distracted by anything else. In a world full of uncertainties, this one desire can be the very certainty that guides you through chaos and doubts.
What is the one desire that is truely important to you? It is okay that you are anxious about that one and only that one.