DISCLAIMER : I will be discussing mental health in the following passages — namely, my living with and working to overcome an anxiety disorder. While my father is an LCSW R, I am not a professional within the field of Psychology and Social Work myself. The paraphrasing of my father that follows is NOT a substitute for case assessment and/or treatment of the reader by a licensed mental health professional. If the reader has unresolved mental health complications, the reader is strongly advised to seek out professional help of their own, in-person, if they have not done so already. Neither my father nor I will be responsible for any injuries resulting from self-diagnosis, self-medication, or any other form of misinformed, ill-advised recklessness on the part of the reader.
I am an anxiety sufferer. I’ve always been something of an anxious person, one very prone to existentialist thought-crises. The thought — the knowledge — of having been brought, unasked, into a pointless existence of suffering, decay, and death haunts my every hour. It requires the most concerted, draining effort of my mind and soul to arrive at any semblance of meaning that I cannot immediately disassemble and dash against the unforgiving, jagged rocky face of my psyche, confronted by a yawning, will-siphoning Abyss my tiny mortal brain cannot comprehend. I can only feel utter helplessness and despondence before it.
Even when I am not under conscious duress due to overanalyzing every potentiality and thought process my ever-restless brain can conceive, I am sometimes hit with the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction on a physiological level. Hardly ever requiring a cue, my body decides it has perceived some imminent threat the rest of me isn’t aware of: my adrenals kick into overdrive; my blood becomes saturated with cortisol; my thoughts become indistinguishable and racing; my body becomes tense and desperate, yet tired. I am exhausted. In pain. Helpless.
Both of my parents are, conveniently enough for me, professional social workers. While my mother has no particular specialty I am aware of and has fewer years of experience than my father, my father, an LCSW R with decades of experience in the field of Psychology and Social Work, is an anxiety and phobia specialist. It is my father I consult the most frequently.
In the many candid therapy sessions I have with my father, he tells me that my anxiety is conquerable. It’s a serious hindrance, but not one that is “serious” in the sense of being impossible to combat, subdue, and overcome. I must practice mindfulness and make it my undying routine in order to do so.
“This type of anxiety and related depression are, in part, the result of high intelligence,” he tells me. “It’s the ‘curse of genius,’ especially for the analytically-minded. Many of the people I see are absolutely brilliant, but live in fear and despondence. For all their capability and potential, for all their successes, many of them can’t function due to the paralyzing anxieties they experience from day to day. Their anxiety stems from their overactive minds. They deconstruct every thought until it becomes so abstract that they cannot relate to it. Then they become unable to relate themselves to anything, becoming highly stressed. This self-abstraction can often lead to anxiety and depression, which has the potential to become so extreme that it triggers psycho-somatic states of distress.”
“Like derealization or depersonalization episodes? Wherein you feel like a detached third-person observer, and become extremely light-headed?” I asked, recalling some previous conversations we had on the subject.
“Yes,” he replied. “And this is definitely the case for much of your anxiety and subsequent depression. The secret to overcoming your type of anxiety? Your mind does it, and it’s up to you to use your mind to undo it. Distract yourself mindfully. Engage in any activity — such as showering, exercising, solving puzzles, controlled breathing, focusing on the texture of something, anything within that vein — to alter the mind-body state and restore equilibrium to yourself.” And then he proceeded to walk me through the various methods of consciously altering the mind-body state enumerated by Dr. Edmund J. Bourne in his publications.
“So, basically, pull a Paul Atreides,” I quipped, alluding to one of our mutual-favorite works of Science Fiction, Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Yes. I must pull a Paul Atreides. Mental conditioning of firm and unyielding discipline, lest I am swallowed up, paralyzed, by the Abyss.
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it is gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear is gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
– The Litany Against Fear of the Bene Gesserit, from Frank Herbert’s Dune
Such things turn my mind to Set, my “Divine Father.” Dune is full of powerful words that I can easily imagine Set saying, words which ostensibly suit His nature and attitude quite well.
Set bears the epithets “Great of Strength” and “Powerful of Foreleg,” the latter relating to His association with the constellation of Ursa Major (to the Egyptians, it was the leg of a bull), and with this foreleg (hpš), sometimes referred to as a scimitar, Set vanquishes malevolent forces, and sometimes other Gods. (Te Velde, 87) These qualities render Him a very stoic God of both immense power and immense responsibility. He is self-reliance incarnate. And despite Set’s buffoonish and nasty behavior in the folklore that came out of the New Kingdom Period, particularly during the abysmal reign of Ramses V (Pinch, 79), He is also the stabilizing pillar and panoply of the community, of the Gods, of Creation, and of Cosmic Balance.
Set is described as being the only God strong enough to subdue the the vile nothing,
Apep, which repeatedly attempts to assassinate the Sun God in His Boat of Millions of Years in order to dismantle Creation and reestablish the “perfect state” of the Primaeval Void. Every night, Set drives His lance (or His “foreleg”/scimitar: hpš) into its mouth, killing it, and paints the light of the dawn red with its blood. Every night — night being the “stain of Uncreation” upon Creation (Meeks, 22) — the Apep reconstitutes its non-self, and reemerges from the Abyss to torment the Gods in the Solar Barque once more. Then, Set slays it again. The cycle repeats itself ad infinitum, with Set emerging victorious each and every time.
In other Ancient myths, Set is responsible for slaying the malevolent and tyrannical Sea God Yamm, having been conflated with the Ugaritic Storm God Ba’al-Hadad and the Hurrian Storm God Tešub, particularly during the Second Intermediate Period and other periods of Egyptian history that saw large influxes of Northwest and West Semitic immigrants. (Te Velde, 121; 123) Yamm had insulted and threatened the Gods of Egypt with destruction, demanding tribute from Them. However, no form of tribute was enough for this rapacious and conniving God, Who desired above all to be awarded the station of “Lord of All,” and none of the Gods of Egypt were strong enough to repel Him — except Set. They therefore called upon Set in Their desperation (and/or His Semitic War Goddess-wives ‘Anat and Astarte). Set thundered against Yamm and slayed Him, saving Egypt and her Gods from a terrible fate. (Ayali-Darshan, 19 – 21; Pinch, 59)
Set had in large part adopted the mythic cycles of both Ba’al-Hadad and Tešub. Each of these deities’ mythic cycles, it should be noted, were well-developed before any association between Them was established. (Te Velde, 123) Set is by proxy the slayer of dragons and violent beings of the sea similar to the aforementioned Mesopotamian Gods’ enemies : Lotan, Illuyankas, Hedammu, Mot — representatives of the Abyss which were identified with
Apep in the Egyptian mind. (Wifall, 2009)
Set has to face obstacles and monsters so terrible in His mythic cycles that other Gods either cannot or will not face them. Every time He faces His anti-Cosmic enemies, they fall before Him. Later myths and pieces of folklore, while they demonize Set, demonstrate His strength and inability to be killed or maimed permanently. As is the case with Ba’al-Hadad in His conflict with the wicked Mot, Set returns from death when He is killed by other Gods. He spontaneously restores His own genitals in myths and folkloric tales in later periods, after another God or several castrates Him. It is worth mentioning that literature from earlier periods tend to maintain that it is Djehuty Who restores Set’s genitals, after Set gets Himself wounded in His conflicts for supremacy. (Pinch, 98)
Set is therefore a God of meaningful transformation, of persistence. He is a God Who cannot ever be defeated or dominated for good and all. Set never relents. Set is the Lord of Terror Who descends into the darkness, confronts the Abyss, and makes it afraid of Him.
In addition to His being my chief God and a Divine Father-figure to me, these are the reasons why I turn to Him when it comes to my own weaknesses and fears. I try not to give into frightened impulses by running to Set and begging Him to protect me from existence. Rather, I approach Set with the desire and intention to cultivate self-mastery and bring to heel the Abyss I find myself confronted by. I am well aware that the world, that life, is not going to get any easier or gentler or less insane for my sake, or for anyone’s. I have to become tougher and be the master of myself and my anxiety, or I will get crushed. I therefore incorporate my “Divine Father” into the mindfulness techniques my actual, literal father gave me, in order to help facilitate this toughening and betterment of myself.
When it comes to meditation and mindfulness exercises, I cannot sit in one spot and force myself to feel calm and “think happy thoughts.” It simply doesn’t work that way. My mind is never quiet; I must divorce myself from my anxious, racing thoughts through motion, through mind-body exercises, to achieve such a state. The Ashtanga Vinyāsa spin on Haṭha yoga is my preferred method of body-mind meditation, and is an effective counter-anxiety tool. Yoga is Indian/Hindu in origin (Haṭha dates from the 15th century CE; Ashtanga Vinyāsa was introduced during the mid-20th century, and has become exceptionally popular in the West in recent years). It doesn’t really belong to any religious ideologies I personally subscribe to. Nevertheless, it is has done me worlds of good — studies have been done which elucidate its psychological and physical health benefits — and helps me connect to the Gods, specifically but not limited to Set, more deeply and meaningfully.
The yoga practice I engage in forces me to focus on breath control and articulations of physical power through a fluid yet challenging (sometimes painful) series of postures. It allows me to take that fear, that anxiety, that pain, and channel it into constructive, conquering, life-affirming, self-affirming, God-affirming force. It doesn’t silence my mind completely, but it tones down the interference significantly, allowing me to better connect with my own power and the Gods’ power. I can’t “hear” Set in this state, necessarily, but I can sometimes “feel” Him and picture Him in my mind; picture myself doing the work I need to do with, and for, Set.
I must endure a struggle each time I stretch my mortal clay upon my rubber mat before my deities’ shrine, in order to achieve fluid balance, perfect breath, and movement mastery. It is a purification, a minor ordeal, and an offering. It is never flawless, but each time I perform the exercise, I become better. I feel better. I am better. I am caring for my ka and cultivating a stronger spirit, which is not only pleasing and of benefit to me, but is pleasing and of benefit to the Gods and the communities to which I belong.
This struggle and demonstration of fortitude is not merely physical. The form of meditation is an abstract one. Of course, one could make the argument that all forms of meditation are abstract, but that is somewhat beside the point. As mentioned previously, much of the anxiety I suffer with stems from a tendency to deconstruct ideas and objects to the point of not being able to relate to or find meaning in my surroundings and my life, resulting in anxiousness and despondence. Haṭha requires that one divorces oneself from the material — engage in abstraction — in order to achieve the correct state. In other words, it translates to actively confronting the Abyss that causes me so much distress.
When I “sink down into the dark” through yoga, however, it is not with fear. This form of abstraction is healthier and controlled, not the worried, hurried form of abstraction my mind mires itself in while distressed.
When I “sink down into the dark” through mind-body exercises, I take inspiration from Ancient Egyptian funerary texts, such as the Pyramid Texts and the Amduat. In these texts, the “Osiris” (deceased person) goes through a series of rigorous trials, undergoing transformations and fighting malevolent forces in order to successfully become an Akh and reach Paradise. Various utterances within these texts outline how the “Osiris” takes on the form and identity of various Gods in order to overcome manifold obstacles. Some even take on the form of certain Gods in order to kill, or even eat, some of the less-than-friendly Gods of the Duat. Utterances 273 and 274 of the Pyramid Texts, known as “The Cannibal Hymn,” are an example of this.
While in my mind-body exercises I am probably not literally venturing into the Duat or the Abyss itself, I perform heka and “magically” assume the identity of various Gods in order to combat the Abyss, or more appropriately, the state of the Abyss which manifests within the anxiety-stricken mind. The physical motions are a positive, repetitive reinforcement of that heka. Rather than use the usual labels for the various sequences and postures within yogic practice, I apply the names and activities of the Afro-Asiatic deities of my understanding to them, and focus on those as I perform them. For instance, I don’t think of performing postures as “cat to cat-lift, to downward-facing dog, to upward-facing dog, back to downward-facing dog, to warrior sequence, to firebird sequence.” It takes on a much different narrative in my mind, to this effect:
I begin on the Primordial Mound. Tatenen receives me and raises me up, and I am stretched across the Heavens by His hands. I stretch myself over the borders of Creation and Uncreation as Khepri. I rise as Khepri, Who is ever-becoming and never-dying, Whose becoming is the becoming of all things. In my form of Khepri I see the Abyss and see within the Abyss nothing to fear. I am the one Whose brilliant plumage is blinding and strikes the lance of fear into the pericardium of the heart of darkness. I stretch forth my limbs and become the foreleg of Set, Whose foreleg is powerful. I am His foreleg, I am His scimitar, I am His powerful arm, I am vindicated. These my arms are Set’s arms, and this my body is Set’s body. I am become absolute and eternal and of irresistible strength. My arrows strike forth and pierce the Abyss as the incinerating rays of the sun. The Abyss is powerless against me, and I do not fear it. I cleave the dark in twain. I cleave the head of
Apep from the dead body of Apep which I have slain and made many mortal wounds in. The Abyss is powerless against me, the Abyss does not consume me, for I am in the form of my Father, the Lord of Terror, and I stand indomitable as the immovable Noble Djed.
Just as Set must slay
Apep again and again, I must stand up again and again to consciously and fearlessly cast down my anxiety and its physiological symptoms through these exercises. As a human being born into the world like every other human being — with an overwhelming instinct of fear and an innately frightened consciousness acutely aware of its own mortality — I may never be able to kill every last one of my anxieties forever, just as Apep never stays dead for good and all. The important thing is that I never back down, never let myself succumb to hopelessness and helplessness, just as Set never throws in His scimitars and lances and gives up on ensuring the perpetual triumph of ma’at and the continuation of existence.
One day, all the things I love and treasure will run their course and come to their inevitable ends. One day, my body will die, and it will probably be painful. I know this. And what do I do with that knowledge? Do I cower and cry in fear of it, mope about it, and allow my brief existence to be more miserable than it ever has to be? Or do I slap fear, anxiety, depression — the Abyss — in the face with the tools and techniques I have acquired, and say to them “you’re not going to ruin my life, and I’m not going to suffer for you”?
I go with the latter every time. That is the only real option. That is the only attitude and the only response that Set, the merciless executioner of every agent of the Abyss that ever tried to unmake His treasured Creation, will ever accept.
Ayali-Darshan, Noga. ” ‘The Bride of the Sea’ — The Traditions About Astarte and Yamm in the Ancient Near East.” A Woman of Valor : Jerusalem Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honor of Joan Goodnick Westenholz. Edited by Wayne Horowitz, Uri Gabbay, Filip Vukosavović. CSIC. ISBN 978-84-00-09133-0.
Meeks, Dimitri, and Christine Favard-Meeks. Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. Translated by G. M. Goshgarian. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1991.
Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Myth – A Very Short Introduction. New York : Oxford University Press Inc, 2004.
Te Velde, H. Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of His Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion. 2nd Ed. English Translation by Mrs. G. E. van Baaren-Pape. Leiden : Brill, 1977. ISBN 90-04-05402-2.
Wifall, Walter. “The Sea of Reeds as Sheol.” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft. Volume 92, Issue 3, Pages 325–332, ISSN (Online) 1613-0103, ISSN (Print) 0044-2526, DOI: 10.1515/zatw.19184.108.40.2065, October 2009. Date of access: May 13, 2013.