"Out of Fear" (Shambhala Sun 2007)

June 3, 2007   |   Leave a reply

When I began practicing Buddhism in 1995, I hoped it would help me cope with depression, make me more loving, and, mainly, decrease the level of fear that seemed to always accompany me—fear of financial ruin, war, my own unlovability, or who could be calling me on the phone. And it really helped with these things; I calmed down a lot. But it also happened that even deeper fears and unresolved pain rocketed to the surface, presenting themselves for my consideration. The more I practiced, the shakier I felt. Is this what was supposed to happen? Anything could make me fall apart and suddenly it was like I had PMS all the time. Was I going crazy? Where was this famous equanimity alleged to be associated with Buddhism?

In the meditation tradition, it is said that when one begins to practice, it’s like all the dead fish at the bottom of the harbor suddenly float to the top, bloated and stinky. It seemed that this was what was happening. The more I practiced, the harder everything hit me, and the more afraid I became. The barriers that kept emotion at a comfortable distance were coming down. No longer pinned by the weight of complete ignorance, fear bobbed up to be reckoned with. There was no choice but to have a look at it.

This may not be the greatest time in history to begin reckoning with fear. Forget about being afraid of too much debt or not finding true love. Now we could fear meeting a terrorist on the subway or that one of us may eat the last fish in the sea. It’s unbearable, isn’t it? Yet my training, my lineage tells me to be a warrior and this is something I desperately want to be. But I don’t know how. Oh wait, I do. I do know how. The instruction is to allow my heart to break exactly as it already does, for those who suffer in war, for the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, for everyone who believes they’re right and someone else is wrong, and for the devastating sense of vulnerability surrounding all those I love and all those I don’t. This vulnerability is real and with recognition of it comes an equally unbearable sense of preciousness and gratitude.

At a certain point of immersion in the spiritual path, you can no longer pretend that everything is going to turn out okay, nor can this understanding be tolerated. You can’t step back into false security or forward onto ground that won’t also give way. All you can do is run as fast as you can off the edge of the cliff into space and, like Wylie Coyote, notice how your legs keep pumping furiously even though there is no longer any surface to tread upon. (My friend Richard says that in his yogic lineage, this phase of spiritual development is called Stupefaction.)

As it turns out, this state of not-here-not-there creates tremendous fear and discomfort, and there is only one quality that can help: gentleness. The very first person to whom this quality could be extended is yourself. You know that no matter how hard you push you’re not going to find solid ground, so the only choice is to relax. Gentleness is allowing what you honestly feel to arise without ignoring it, obsessing over it, cataloging it, or getting freaked out by it. What is left, you may be asking? As we discover in meditation, what is left is the present moment and the willingness to try to come back to it, no matter how intense or boring things get.

How Not to be Afraid of Yourself: Gentleness
Once I ran into a friend and fellow practitioner immediately after exiting a severely contentious business meeting. He could see that I was upset. (The sobbing must have given me away.) I explained what had happened at the meeting and then expressed dismay at the weakness of my practice. “I must be a very poor practitioner if one jerk can so completely throw me into hysterics.” He said, “So you think that not getting upset is a sign of progress?” I realized that I had been hoping it was. “No,” he said, “progress is how quickly you can stabilize your attention on what you’re feeling. Progress is how quickly you can come back.” The only way to come back is to soften and let go, to accept what you’re feeling even if it is completely unfair and uncomfortable. And then you sit with it as you would a sad child. When a child is sad, you don’t shake him and say, “What is your problem?” You don’t ignore him and hope he’ll go away. Nor can you talk him out of it, no matter how brilliant your reasoning. You can just be there with him. Difficult emotions can be dealt with in the same way. You can be this way with yourself.

When you clear away the judgments, criticisms, assumptions, and beliefs about your internal experience, you discover that what is left is tenderness and the ability to feel things deeply. You can be kind to yourself, not because you earned it through achieving goals or living up to an ideal—but because you possess a beating heart that, when left to its own devices, comes back over and over to its natural state. In Buddhist thought, this is the proper way to see yourself. My teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says that gentleness is the best whip and it can be used to bring yourself back to this understanding over and over again.

Who are we harder on than ourselves? Deep down, we’re not convinced we’re good enough—at anything. Self-doubt is our constant companion. Often, we don’t know where this harsh self-criticism comes from. Our own mind? Parents? Teachers? Women’s magazines? We each have self-criticisms we like to con ourselves into believing, thoughts such as I’m too needy, I’m not clever, I’m ugly/fat/old, I’m a loser, and I’m sure it’s all my fault (which is my personal favorite). How does one suddenly become gentle without faking it, and without using gentleness itself as just another self-improvement device?

In 1990, the Dalai Lama met with a group of Western researchers and Buddhist teachers to discuss Buddhism in the West. Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist teacher from Massachusetts, asked him about how to help her students with their feelings of worthlessness and shame. The other Western participants eagerly awaited His Holiness’ response, because they had all encountered this issue among their own students.

The Dalai Lama turned to his translator for an explanation of the question. They began a lengthy, increasingly rapid conversation. Finally, it seemed the translator succeeded in explaining Sharon’s question. When he understood it, the Dalai Lama was surprised; he had never heard of such a condition. He asked the participants if they were certain their students or patients really suffered from this problem. They assured him that they did. They saw it in the people they worked with and even in themselves. Incredulous, he pointed to each one and asked, “Do you experience this? You? And you?” They all nodded yes. He seemed genuinely shocked. Why would you dislike your self?

But most of us understand Sharon’s question perfectly. Our ideas of self-worth go up and down, up and down, all day long. Personally, I’m as good as my last phone call—if I had a pleasant or valuable interaction, I feel optimistic. If things didn’t go so well, if there was contention or distance, I think my world might be falling apart. Most people have their own measures of self-worth or worthlessness: the car they drive, the school they attended, their job title, or even what they ate for lunch.

Gentleness arises when you recognize your innate, limitless, and extremely powerful goodness. When you remember how good, kind, and loving you are, you can stop pushing and pulling yourself toward perfection as the only acceptable proof of your value—the perfect job, the perfect boyfriend, the perfect body mass index, the perfect sofa, the perfect what-have-you. You are already so totally beyond good enough. How do I know that you possess this goodness? We all do.

Even if we can’t identify it in ourselves, it’s easy to recall a time when we saw it in others. Perhaps you felt this way while reading the story of a saint, a hero, or even a regular human being who gave his or her all in the name of generosity and kindness. Seeing how people greet each other or say good-bye at the airport, overhearing a particularly sweet exchange between lovers, or watching television and seeing victims of disaster being rescued can bring tears to our eyes. Noticing a flock of birds move together in perfect connection or listening to an extraordinarily soulful piece of music can deeply touch us too. We remember childhood slights with such vividness because it was so confusing and painful to have our goodness questioned. Goodness comes first in all of us, and our world is full of proof that this is so.

In Buddhism, this basic goodness is called Buddhanature. It’s not particularly associated with the historical Buddha but it is what the Buddha already possessed that enabled him to transcend suffering, or fear. We each possess this enlightened quality, and we can each return to it, just like the Buddha. Buddhanature is so innate and so precious that when self-loathing was explained to the Dalai Lama, he asked, “but how can people dislike themselves when they possess Buddhanature?”

How Not to be Afraid of Others: Delight
As I write this, I’m sitting in my room in a Buddhist meditation center in the Colorado Rockies. It’s 6:00 A.M. in the dead of winter and I’m at my desk waiting to catch a glimpse of the sunrise over the snowy mountains. All around, I can hear the other retreatants begin their day: some are walking to the dining hall for coffee, others are doing their morning stretches.

The first time I attended a program like this, more than ten years ago, I sat in the seat closest to the door. I wanted to be able to slip out silently if it was too weird. I watched my fellow meditators make their way to their seats and with each new arrival, I felt more dismayed. Everyone looked so bogus—self-important or new age-y or just plain silly. The woman who sat down next to me must have gargled with patchouli oil and bathed in sage. Yick. Was I going to have to put up with these smells the entire week? In fact, I noticed, every single person in the room looked unbelievably irritating. I did not belong here. This was a giant waste of time and a huge mistake.

A week later, the retreat was over, and as I gazed around the circle at my fellow students, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving them. There were many hugs and meaningful gazes. As we said good-bye, we cried. In the last seven days I had developed a willingness to jump into their lives and help them and love them in any way I could. They were so beautiful, so brave, and so admirable.

How were these people transformed from ridiculous losers into gods and goddesses before whom I felt humbled? It’s easy. I stopped listening to myself and started listening to them. Each had a very real, even shocking story of difficulties endured. Each was making the best effort he or she could to go on with life. If there were fifty of us in the group, my heart broke forty-nine different ways. By the end, I was in awe of each of them.

My own fears and insecurities had prompted me to judge these lovely people as losers without ever having heard a peep out of them. By bringing awareness to thought, the practice of meditation helps you get free from your immediate negative reactions, which are fear-based. Instead of being judgmental, you can become inquisitive about other people and take delight in them. You can take them in completely. You can do this even if you still end up not liking them very much.

Delight comes from replacing criticism with openness and genuine curiosity about others. Because you know how to recover emotional equanimity though the principles of meditation, you can take chances. I’m not saying you have to listen endlessly to whatever people say or invite them to move in with you. However, because usually our first response to others is to play it safe and wait until general trustworthiness is proven, we miss the opportunity to see who is right in front of us, even our own friends and family. Instead, we wait until safety is thought to have been established. At this point, it’s already too late because this is actually what creates fear.

The antidote in fact is opening yourself first. Making yourself vulnerable is what actually reduces fear within yourself and between people.

If a stereotypical Western ideal is the lone ranger who is gruff on the outside to conceal a tender heart, the Eastern model seems to be the opposite. Think of the Samurai whose exterior is soft and relaxed while inside there is uncompromising strength. With this kind of “soft front and strong back” we can relax, open to others, and return without hesitation to balance, no matter what we encounter.

How Not to be Afraid of Your Own Life: Confidence
With this knowledge comes genuine confidence and the chance to be who you really are, all the time. Paradoxically, this confidence makes you shaky. If I was hoping that confidence meant always feeling certain that I was not ridiculous, then I was wrong. Instead, confidence is the willingness to be as ridiculous as you really are, without embarrassment—not to mention as luminous, intelligent, and kind. This type of confidence can include everything in your life that’s great and everything that’s a wreck. It requires, runs on, results in, and indeed is composed of a kind of deep vulnerability. You’re stuck without any certainty whatsoever. Seen in one way, this vulnerability looks remarkably like instability, but in another it looks like intelligence.

If you want to see if this is really true, fall in love. I often tell my husband, if I had known I was going to love you this much, I never would have married you, and I’m not kidding. The more thickly entwined our lives become, the more uniquely precious everything seems in both its profound and silly aspects, and the more clearly I see that I am going to lose it someday. Whether you like it or not, the more you open, the more you love, and the more you love, the more you have to lose. You dig and dig for a way to safeguard against losing what is most dear, but you can’t find one, and that just makes you love all the more. There is so little time! I don’t know why loving someone makes you think about dying all the time, but it does. If someone had told me that this whole marriage thing would be a continual reminder that everything I touch is also impossible to hold, I don’t know that I would have done it. But this aspect took me by surprise and now I see that I’m in bed with someone I’m going to lose completely, and that includes all of you and also myself.

The openness required to really give yourself in love is the very thing that breaks down certainty and stability. Then, the less sure you are of anything, the more confidence you have in some weird way. I wish it didn’t work this way, but apparently it does. The good news and the bad news is that your breakability and your fearlessness are the same thing. Your can let your heart break completely and it’s okay.

Beyond Fear: Joy
Disciplined and consistent spiritual practice changes your experience of fear by creating a mysterious sort of congruence between your inner experience and your external circumstances. They begin to align. After a while and with commitment, the path gains its own momentum and this gives a great sense of relaxation and faith. Your life gets a life of its own: the people you encounter, events that transpire, and things you do all seem to be part of the same story, one that till now you weren’t quite aware was being told. Greater forces are at work. You can bank on it. And from this faith comes joy.

Whether circumstances are helpful or hurtful, the mind of joy is happy to be alive above all things. With it, you can meet your own life, not with defensive strategies but with the willingness to let it touch you completely. This is the mark of the spiritual warrior. She can hold sweetness, sorrow, terror, and pleasure equally and fully. She can watch as emotions rise and fall, notice how she longs for some and recoils from others, and know that somehow she’ll find a way to bring whatever she experiences to the path. Whether her world is friendly or inhospitable, smooth or rocky, she can abide in it wholeheartedly. A joyful mind is as infinite as the sky and, like the sky, can contain sunshine and storms, snowflakes and hail. Conditions are continually shifting, but the sky is always the sky. It never gives up. From within it, the great sun rises in the east, the moon meets the tide, and the circle is always complete.

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