Integral Inquiry for Anxiety

Published on May 22, 2018 by in anxiety and fear


Integral Inquiry for Anxiety

Approach your fear with mindfulness, creativity and courage

Most of us experience the discomfort of anxiety at some point of our lives, and many of us experience various forms of anxiety frequently. Since I was a young child, I have dealt with anxiety that I believe significantly interfered with my pursuit of valued life goals. Initially, this was in the form of separation anxiety from my parents when going to school. I had such strong fears that at times I would refuse school attendance altogether. I recall one incident where I did not want to go into my grade four class, and my father basically pushed me in through the door. I started crying and the entire experience was of being humiliated in front of my peers. Although not always as dramatic as that episode, these challenges with anxiety continued for me through my school years and into my days at university. I became depressed in part because of how anxiety had come to limit my life.

In my early 20's, however, i had the good fortune to meet a gifted psychologist whose assistance helped me turn my life around. His attuned presence, care and wisdom, combined with my determination to recover, helped me get better. I became interested in the fields of psychology, including humanistic, trans-personal and integral psychology, and dedicated myself to assisting others to suffer less and enjoy life more, just as I had been able to do with the assistance of Dr. Johnson.

This article introduces the integrated approach to anxiety that I have developed over the past several years. Note that my focus will be on what you can do individually to address anxiety and fear. There are others, notably Michael Fisher, whose work focuses on a social-cultural analysis of and response to anxiety and fear. I strongly support Dr. Fisher’s work, seeing it as complementary to mine.

An Integral Inquiry Approach to Anxiety

Please note that in the next section of the article, I will be referring to the diagram below describing the “quadrant” aspects of Ken Wilber’s AQAL Model.

Ken Wilber’s “AQAL” Model

In his seminal meta-theoretical work, Ken Wilber points out that there are at least four major domains that we need to consider when addressing any complex challenge. These four domains, in turn, arise from two key distinctions — that between the interior and exterior, and between the individual and the collective. To make this feel more real to you, I’d like to guide you now on a tour of your experience in these four areas.

“Wherever you are reading this right now, I invite you to sit back from the screen, perhaps close your eyes for a moment, and just bring your full attention to what is going on internally. First, feel your feet. For example, I can feel right now the pressure of my feet on the lower rung of my chair. What are you aware of in terms of sensations in your feet? And then from there, what else are you aware of? It will be some combination of sensations, feelings, and verbal and visual thoughts. The thoughts may be self-referential, a commentary on current experience, or “time-travel”, a mixture of memories about the past and projections into the future. For example, I can feel right now that I have many thoughts moving quickly from topic to topic. I am also aware of some images from last night’s dreams lingering in the back of my mind. All of this is what in the integral approach we call the individual, interior, or “UL” quadrant.

Moving clockwise, we come to the “Upper-right” quadrant. We sometimes call that quadrant the “video-camera” view. What would a video-camera record right now? For example, I am sitting in a garden level office, where i can look out and see the sun shining today. I am sipping a cup of coffee. Any of our behaviors, as well as all the activity of our brain — for example that which could be recorded by an fMRI — are included in this quadrant. Note that some materialist views of reality assert that this quadrant is the ONLY REAL one. In contrast, we use our integral approach to avoid reducing reality to any one of the four quadrants.

Moving to the lower-left quadrant, also sometimes referred to the “we-space” or the space of mutual understanding, I’d invite you to take a moment to become aware of your important relationships. Pick one of your relationships, and take a moment to feel into your sense of connection, or mutual understanding, with that person. How solid is yours sense of “I-thou” as Buber spoke about, in that relationship? Do you feel like we are in a state of secure attachment with loved one? If you are like me, there is probably some work to do in this area.

In the Lower-Right quadrant, we are encouraged to stand back a bit from immediate experience and take a systems, or big-picture, perspective. System theory is one of the great advances of our era, and we can use this perspective to see patterns that might otherwise go un-noticed. A general proxy for the system perspective in our individual lives is to think about our careers as niches in an ecosystem. You might take note of your certifications and or memberships in the world of work as a way to get in touch with this part of your experience right now. For example, I am a member of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, and certified by them as a Canadian Certified Counselor. I am also a Certified Integral Therapist with Dr. Mark Forman, Ph.D.

Integral Inquiry for Anxiety

Now we come to the fun part — the what to do part [feeling excited!]. Whenever you feel anxious, what I recommend you do is inquire into that feeling starting with one of the four zones (a simpler name for a “quadrant”) illustrated above. It doesn't matter which one. If I notice some anxiety, I might ask myself, “avoiding relating?”. Aware that anxiety is always about avoidance, I am deliberately investigating what it is that I am currently avoiding, and by doing so, I am consciously approaching and therefore lessening that resistance to experience. Sometimes when I do this I became aware of one or more important emails to which I haven’t attended! Since this is also a willingness or commitment based model, then taking action to address the avoided stimuli is a relevant next step. So your action step to reduce your anxiety might be to deal with that inbox.

It does not matter your order of attending to the zones, or whether or not you attend to all of them — just move around them as feels relevant. So I might, then, move next to the Upper-right zone, and inquire, “avoiding moving”? Sometimes, the avoidance is of taking action — there is something we know we need or want to do, perhaps going for a run or working out or running an errand, and yet we find ourselves resisting that awareness and instead build up a sense of anxiety about it.

“Avoiding feeling” is a common defense that many of us use, and corresponds to the upper-left zone in the diagram above. An easy way to feel into this zone of experience is to bring your awareness into the bodymind. Often closing our eyes is helpful. The territory of our inner experience includes sensations, verbal thoughts, and imagery that plays out on the movie screen of our minds.

Letting Go and Letting Be

Back in 1998, Dean Shapiro and John Astin published a book called Integrated Control Therapy. I haven’t read the book, but I did read one of their related articles which describes a two fold approach to helping us feel a sense of control in our lives. The two types of control are active and passive. This process I describe above is an active approach to addressing your anxiety — you are doing something, namely inquiring. The second inter-related technique of my method is to also be able to let go. Spiritual teacher Adyashanti has a simple injunction that he uses in his retreats, which is simply “Let everything be as it is”. One way I introduce this injunction to my clients is to point out to them that they weren’t aware of any effort involved in becoming aware first thing in the morning. They just found themselves aware. So our experience arises effortlessly of its own accord and sometimes the best way to address anxiety, particularly of the existential kind, is to deliberately do nothing at all about it. Just let everything be as it is.

No need to get to the top of a mountain before “letting everything be as it is” 🙂


These two approaches — the “Active” and the “letting go” — form a dialectic. We can experiment by moving back and forth between them: sometimes inquiring into experience and where we are avoiding, and then other times just letting go of everything. I believe if you give these methods a try, you will experience a benefit in terms of your ability to manage your fear and anxiety. Let me know what happens for you!

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