Separation anxiety

Some years ago, I attended a big conference in Lugano, a beautiful lakeside town in Switzerland. Summer, breeze, pleasure, heaven. Waiting for a cable car to go up a hill, I watched my fellow human beings loitering in the plaza next to the cable-car stop. A boy, aged five or six, played a game on a smartphone. He looked up from his game, and to his horror his mother wasn’t in his line of sight. He let out a terrified and terrifying sound, animal, bestial, feral; an amazing sound for a child to make, not pretty at all but amazing all the same.

His mother quickly re-entered his line of sight, and the boy went back to playing his game as if nothing had happened.

I’ve witnessed other episodes of this sort, all terrifying, all amazing: a child’s fear of finding himself or herself alone in the world, separated from parents, and at imminent risk of death. This is separation anxiety in its most primeval form.

For a few months before our births, we’re completely amalgamated with the mother; we’re one with her, and symbolically one with the Universe. We’re cocooned, protected, loved, housed, fed, clothed though naked, our every need taken care of even before the need expresses itself to us; we're in heaven, like Lugano in summer.


Then we’re born, and things aren’t the same anymore: Separation starts, and with it its primeval anxieties. It’s a long process, unfolding itself over years and decades, over a lifetime—I mean, not a lifetime dealing with our separation from our mothers, but a lifetime dealing with separation itself, or the disruption of one-ness and the start of two-ness, duality, and conflict.

The word “doubt” is rooted in “two,” or more specifically “to have to choose between two things.” One: no conflict; two: conflict.

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Separation anxiety manifests itself in a thousand ways. You can feel anxious about separating from an old, frayed, stained shirt; separating from a friend at the end of a shared meal, even though you’ll see the friend again two days later; separating from an environment, as when you move house or as when you don’t want to leave the beach at sunset. You can feel anxious about separating from daytime and entering the night.

You can feel anxious about separating from your words and sounds; hence your hesitation to speak in public. You can feel anxious about separating from a habit, a thought, an idea, a feeling. Indeed, you can feel anxious—very anxious!—about separating from anything you identify with; that is, anxious about separating from your identity.

And yet, separate you must. The friend will go home, the moment will dissipate, the sun will go down; the sun will leave you; you won’t be one with the sun, but two: you here, the sun there, gone.


Paradoxically, the way forward is to embrace separation rather than trying to eliminate it. And, paradoxically, once you really embrace separation you’ll find yourself in heaven again, united with the Universe. You’ll separate from your ego and rejoin the self (also known as the Self). It’s simple, really: you’ll “separate from the separation.”


Simple, but not easy; it takes a tremendous amount of work, a whole lifetime; according to some authorities, several lifetimes; you’ll be reborn again and again until you succeed in separating yourself from the anxiety and ascending, as it were, to a higher sphere. But you don’t have to enter into metaphysical speculations to appreciate the importance of separation anxiety and the urgency of dealing with it.

And . . . how? Over the thousand years, a thousand schools have arisen, proposing meditations, prayers, methods, postures, sayings, disciplines; breathing exercises; psychotropic drugs. Despite the variety of methods, the message is always the same: Let go. Let go of the monkey mind, of the suppositions, of the judgments; let go of the resentments and worries, let go of fixed ideas and prejudices; let go, let go, let go. The letting go has been called Zen and it’s been called Tao; it’s been called distance, restraint, devotion, submission, non-doing, the Void, think before you act, don’t think so much, listen more and talk less, God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason. But it all goes back to this one principle: Let go. Let go of the thing, the idea, the place, the person, the emotion.

Here’s what I propose: a little drawing, a scheme, a formula! Yay, finally a formula for letting go! (It’s a joke, of course; the formula is secret, and I’m not allowed to divulge it.) (Meta-joke.)

You know how complicated those metaphysical speculations can become. I’m going to bypass the complication and embrace the simplification. I’m just going to show you the little drawing, okay? I’m not going to explain it, okay? I’m having separation anxiety, okay? This little drawing means a lot to me, okay? Bye bye, little drawing! Come back soon, little drawing!

with thanks to Alexis Niki.

with thanks to Alexis Niki.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara