What — Me Worry?

And Other Hidden Enlightenment Teachings

By Dean Sluyter

Copyright © 1998 by Dean Sluyter
All Rights Reserved
Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam
ISBN 0-87477-905-7



True story:

A San Fernando Valley afternoon in 1961. I'm twelve years old. My family is planning to see a drive-in movie later in the evening, and my mother sends me to the garage to clean out our Rambler station wagon. As I gather up the toys and clothes and comic books my brothers and I have left there, my hyperactive mind is, as usual, rehearsing and rehashing conversations, fretting over eventualities, calculating consequences. I am, as usual, utterly unaware of the noisy, agitated way my mind is functioning, both because my mind has always been this busy (I have nothing to compare it to) and because it is so busy (it's too caught up in chasing and snapping at its own tail to notice that it's caught up).

The next item I find on the backseat is a Mad magazine. I glance at the cover, with its picture of the magazine's idiot mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, and read his motto: "What — Me Worry?"

Time stops.

Suddenly it's as if my skull has been cracked open and emptied out. In an instant, my mind stops sizzling in its habitual static. In the vibrant silence that follows, I realize that this sizzle is what's called "worry," and that, until this moment, I've been doing it for as long as I can remember. My mind — freed at last from whipping itself through all those tortuous channels of how-come's and what-if's — becomes blissful clarity, perfect peace. I feel like an endless sky from which ancient, toxic clouds have been suddenly blown away. I am, in fact, floating in a bona fide state of satori, and I continue to float through the rest of the afternoon, the evening, the movie (Parrish, a plantation soap opera starring Troy Donohue), till bedtime, when I float blissfully into sleep.

The Sanskrit term for this phenomenon is mahavakya — "great utterance." When a master realizes that a disciple's mind has reached a moment of particular ripeness, he or she utters one of the classic formulations of cosmic Reality, perhaps a line from the Upanishads, such as "Thou art That." And whammo: the disciple clearly, experientially Gets It. In my case the master was Sri Guru-ji Alfred E. Neuman. Well, the Lord moves in mysterious ways.

Or maybe not so mysterious. Maybe the Infinite reveals itself in ways that are exquisitely tuned to time, place, and audience. The most nagging worry of adolescents (Mad's traditional readership) is physical appearance. Is my chest too small? Is my nose too big? Braces? Acne? Alfred E. Neuman has splotchy freckles, protruding ears, ridiculous cheekbones, impossible hair, gap teeth, cockeyes … and he doesn't worry! Cheerfully oblivious to his funny looks, he embodies the teenager's chronic worry and explodes it away in the tension-release of laughter.

We Cold War kids also had some special, acute worries, which Alfred showed up just in time to ease. We grew up doing "drop drills" — huddling in silence under our desks with our hands clasped over the backs of our heads, waiting to see whether the next moment would bring nuclear Armageddon or the teacher's all-clear. And precisely in that moment of breathless, fearful anticipation lies the problem. Two thousand years earlier, Jesus diagnosed the condition and prescribed the cure:

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.

The futility of worry is rooted in the element of time: worry is the agitated anticipation of what the world may do to us in the near or distant future. (Resentment is the agitated recollection of what the world did to us in the past. Guilt is the agitated recollection of what we did to the world — and often a convenient form of self-flagellation that allows us to keep doing it.)

The cure for worry, then (and resentment and guilt), is to live right now. This is not just some happy-face spiritual slogan, but the starkest realism — in fact it's our only option. We worry about tomorrow, but we always wake up today. It's never tomorrow, never five minutes from now, never one second from now. (When the future arrives, please raise your hand.) There's no time but the present, and even that is suspect.

In meditation you can see through the illusion of past, present, and future — your experience becomes the continuity of Nowness. The past is only an unreliable memory held in the present. The future is only a projection of your present conceptions. The present itself vanishes as soon as you try to grasp it. So why bother with attempting to establish the illusion of solid ground? 
– H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Relinquishing the illusion of solid ground may seem scary at first; it does mean going into a kind of endless free-fall. But we're falling in delicious, total freedom indeed, with the growing realization that just as there is no ground to support us, there is no ground ever to hit.

Does living in liberated Nowness mean we can't work on Monday to get a paycheck on Friday? Or that we're not responsible for what we did in June because it's October? No — that would be flakiness, not enlightenment. We earn the right to be blasé about the illusory past and future only by being conscientious in the perpetual present. To the extent that we're functioning in a time-bound apparent world, we have to deal sensibly today with the seeds of probable tomorrows. But we don't have to be lost in agitation over the ways they may sprout.

This distinction became clear to me some twenty years after my Mad experience, in another automotive epiphany. A friend was driving me through some aggressively congested New Jersey traffic. He was holding forth passionately on some topic or other, making lots of emphatic gestures, looking to me for nods of agreement, and failing to note much of the sudden braking and lane-changing going on around him. Soon I felt my right foot stomping on the brake — the imaginary passenger-side brake that I had used for years in similar situations. Then suddenly, in mid-stomp, I realized: This brake doesn't work. It doesn't stop the car; it doesn't slow it down even a little. If the situation is truly dangerous, I should ask the driver to let me out (or better, to let me drive). Otherwise, I may as well relax and enjoy the ride.

I decided to renounce that imaginary brake. But suppressing the urge to stomp on it caused a whole new set of unpleasant sensations. My breathing grew constricted as I struggled to stifle my anxiety, and the tension I had denied to my right leg crept up into my gut. (Years later I became friends with some cops involved in dangerous assignments and discovered that they all had serious gastrointestinal problems.) Suppression, I realized, merely drives worry deeper into the psyche and the body, there to grow more toxic, resurfacing later in some other guise. So then I truly let go, of both worry and suppression. I breathed freely, my muscles relaxed, my tension evaporated.

We also have an internal passenger-side brake, which we stomp on incessantly. Worry about work, worry about family, worry about health … all involve futile straining for that brake and tensing ourselves against imagined crashes up the road. Whenever there is a practical way to grab the steering wheel of our destiny (work smarter, talk through the family problem, eat our healthy vegetables), we should certainly do so, but beyond that we may as well just breathe out and let go. Having done what we can, we can relax into the spacious freedom of simply Being and let whatever happens happen — which it will do whether we "let" it or not.

You have claim to your actions only; to their fruits you have no claim. 
– Bhagavad Gita

This realization — that once we've done our best the chips are going to fall where they may — is profoundly liberating. But only if we want to be liberated. One stormy evening as I was leaving the school where I teach, I saw a mother standing under the front portico, peering anxiously up the driveway through the lightning and rain. She was, she explained, waiting for the bus to bring her son back from a fencing meet. When I suggested that she could relax in the faculty lounge with a cup of coffee, she smiled tightly: "No, I'll stay out here — I'm a worrier." Although worrying couldn't get the bus there a minute earlier, her job description as a good mother apparently required it. To stop would be to let go of that strained, unproductive self-definition, probably lifting considerable pressure off her children as well as herself.

If you had done everything in the past exactly the same except for the worrying, what would be different? What will you ever do in the future that worrying will improve?

while you worry about what each note means, 
the band plays on.

you are running from a dog 
who only chases because you run.
turn and face him.

though you hear the buzzing of the bee grow louder 
be still. 
do not fear a sting you have never felt, 
you just might be a flower.

do not worry 
about things falling into place. 
where they fall 
is the place. 

– Mark Hartley

Suggestions for further practice:

  • Quit worrying (wouldn't you quit any other job that paid so poorly?), or at least take vacations. Breathe out and take your foot off that internal passenger-side brake for a day, an hour, even a moment. As you gain confidence that your universe does not crumble without the tension of worry to hold it together, extend your vacations.
  • If that seems too hard, start by watching yourself worrying: "Ah, yes, this is called worry, it's something I choose to do." If even that's too hard, observe the worry of others. Note how much of their energy it consumes, and how it distorts the patterns of mind, speech, and body.
  • Meditate. (More on this later.) The taste of transcendental ease that you catch through meditative practice will feed your faith that somehow everything's fundamentally okay. When you wake in the middle of the night gripped by anxiety, even the faint, lingering flavor of that transcendence can keep you you from being overwhelmed.
  • A yet more profound liberation into Nowness comes from abandoning hope as well as worry. But that's an advanced technique.