Monthly Archives: October 2009

Freed from the Fortress

We have been looking at the freedom that rises out of the regular practice of meditation. These are not things we have to strive for or changes that we need to make in ourselves. These are the naturally arising benefits of spending say, a half hour each day in meditation. I mention all these freedoms not as commodities to be acquired or goals to be reached, but as gifts that you might notice receiving as you continue to practice.

We each receive these gifts in different orders, in different ways, to varying degrees, and there are probably many gifts that I cannot tell you about, because they are not my experience. All Buddhist teachings come from the direct personal experience of its teachers. There is an established framework of concepts and terms to help interpret the experience, but there must be the experience. It is through this encouragement of direct experience that Buddhism has stayed a living teaching rather than desiccated dogma. It’s like sourdough bread making. Buddha provided the initial starter, but each of us adds our own flour, our own practice and intention, to make the dharma dough fresh each day.

The Buddha ended his dharma talks by saying, “Don’t believe me. Go find out for yourself if this is true.” And every Buddhist teacher’s greatest hope is that students will question the ideas proposed in dharma talks, take them out into the world for a test drive, take them into their own lives, their own experience, their own hearts, and ask “Is this true?”

Teachers speaking from direct experience end up sharing their lives in anecdotes as grist for the mill of sharing the dharma. And the freedom I share with you today is certainly the one that is most intimate to me and that has probably made the biggest difference in my relationships with others. It is the story of being freed from the fortress of my defensiveness.

When we were first married forty years ago this week, Will told me I was the most defensive person he had ever met. It seemed that he couldn’t say anything without me bristling with hurt feelings.

It is hard for me to imagine now, yet I know it was true. If you had asked me about my childhood memories back then, I would recount every experience where my feelings had been hurt, where I had been humiliated, slighted or made to feel stupid.

I remember being teased, and it is easy to see in retrospect how I used all these experiences as building blocks for the fortress. Every comment that anyone made, no matter how benign or light-hearted or even loving, I took in and interpreted through complex filters that turned everything into slights, criticisms, or name calling that somehow made me wrong, stupid, naïve or ugly. Then every time someone DIDN’T say something, I would interpret that negatively as well. For me at that time, silence was not golden, it was leaden and toxic.

Thus experienced, it’s not surprising that my relationships with others were difficult. To befriend me was to walk through a mine field and try not set off any of the millions of land mines I had planted as tests of your love for me. Agh! That anyone bothered is amazing to me now.

How fortunate that I came upon meditation when I was still relatively young, in my twenties. And how surprised I was to suddenly see that fortress for what it was, and to watch as it crumbled away with regular meditative practice. Over the course of years as I continue to meditate, I still on occasion find more leftover bits of the fortress, lone walls standing with no foundation or purpose, but still sending little messages into my system that might, if I’m not noticing, prompt a habitual reaction. My awareness of them lets them disintegrate, at least for now. These walls are leftover unquestioned assumptions that, under the light of insight, can’t justify their existence. As long as I keep the light of insight shining, this freedom from defensiveness is a gift to myself and all around me. (Trust me!)

So what is it that actually happened to me? What is it that happens to meditators in general? Why does a simple practice of meditation produce such radical changes in our psyches? Scientific studies show some of the physiological changes that happen with meditation, including the raised levels of gamma waves. Studies show that during meditation, a flux in blood flow and activity excites certain neurons. The act of maintaining attention sustains activity in designated regions. The brain’s grey matter begins to grow, actually changing its physiological shape.

Of course scientists can’t put a value on whether this change is for the better. But as meditators, we know the value from our own felt experience of living our lives with the benefits of meditation.

Now, I didn’t know about the physiological aspects of any of this, but I suspected there was a chemical component. When I lived in San Francisco’s HaightAshbury in 1966, not surprisingly I had a few chemically-induced psychedelic experiences. I called my experience ‘losing my ego.’ In sharp contrast to my normal life as a typical disgruntled, critical, judgmental adolescent, suddenly I was simply delighted to be alive and engaged in the senses. I recognized the gift of life, the humor, the beauty, the complexity and the simplicity. In that state, I seemed to have none of the bristly, defensive qualities that usually plagued me.

But even as great as it was, at some point I would turn to a friend and say, “Remind me not to do this again.” I could feel the extreme and unnatural strain on my body, suddenly flooded with an overload of mind-altering chemicals.

A pivotal point for me was one ‘trip’ when I had a vision of a mountain with many paths going up it. Some of the paths were vertical, some gently switch backing up the mountain. Some were rocky, some lush — all different, but all eventually went to the top of the mountain. I observed people on these paths, earnestly plodding, one footstep after the other. It looked boring, and I noticed that I was already at the height of the top of the mountain, already experiencing what they were seeking. But then I noticed that they were on solid ground and I was in a balloon that was deflating and descending. I may have been experiencing the benefits of this heightened perspective where I could see the wholeness of life, the interconnection and rejoice in that awareness, but I was losing altitude rapidly. There was no way I could sustain my mountain top experience. I realized the only thing to do was to set the intention to climb the mountain myself.

So I have been climbing the mountain ever since, first on a path fueled by an eclectic variety of teachers and books, then for a while with Dances of Universal Peace, then a more intensive period of group and independent meditation that resulted in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, and for the past couple of decades I have been plodding along on the Buddhist path. I have found it to be a path that is well-traveled over the past 2500 years, but always fresh, not worn out. I travel in silence but feel surrounded by a loving and supportive sangha (community) of practitioners, with teachers who, if I get lost, shine a light on the path so I can find my way again.

Do I feel the way I did when I was tripping? Sometimes. One time on a retreat I even had some of the visual effects I remember while walking in the woods, not the patterning but the luminosity of life shining so brilliantly, even in the shadows; that same day I remember hearing a symphony in the clattering sounds of utensils on dishes and chairs scraping in the dining hall. On my most recent retreat I became intensely aware of the mystery of all that is, how so much is hidden, and it’s absolutely okay. I relaxed into the delights of the don’t know mind.

But these experiences are so much better than those brief trips from back in the day, because these are naturally arising rather than ingested, and my body is comfortable, wholesome and cared for. Even when I don’t have that same intense experience, I feel the awareness, the clarity and the sense of connection. In my daily life this has become a constant presence, this feeling of being very present. I can trust in these gifts of joyous awareness as long as I continue to meditate on a daily basis. I am on the mountain path, and it hasn’t been boring at all!

Thanks to dedicated meditation practice, I no longer see myself as the object of others perceptions but as the universal life force expressing itself through this perspective from this particular point in space and time. When I do think of myself as a unique and separate being, I feel compassion for my humanness as I would for any other unique and separate being I know or see in the world. I am more in touch with my child self than before, and therefore more in touch with creativity, fresh eyes, carefree laughter and pure pleasure.

The fortress of my defensiveness has crumbled, for there is nothing left to defend. Instead there are all these universally shared experiences and traits to be curious about, and the shared joys and challenges of this human experience. The fear of being judged seems to have fallen away. I admit I have not been put to any real test. I am surrounded by the kindest of family members, friends and colleagues who have no intention to harm me. But I subject my creative work to critique, my speeches to evaluation, and my commercial writing and design work to committee, so I have many opportunities to get my feelings hurt or receive confirmation of any negative belief I might hold about my lack of ability. Now if people love something I do, I thank them but don’t feel the same kind of relief I used to feel. When people have negative comments, I appreciate their interest, their creative assessment, and consider their comments seriously, but don’t feel they have attacked me in any way. What a difference! Now I have a sense of collaborating to increase clarity and connection through these various forms of expression. Much more fun!

Being freed from the fortress of my defensiveness is a sweet surrendering of all that had seemed so vitally important for my own survival. I thought I had to be smart, pretty, clever, talented, skillful, savvy, knowledgeable, etc. in order to be acceptable. In order to be loved. What a set up for misery that was! I didn’t stop to notice that what I loved about people, the traits I found most endearing, were often the least ‘perfect’ aspects, and certainly the least striving.

Freed from the fortress of my defensiveness, I am happier, safer, more supported and enriched. I am acceptable in my imperfection. I am fine with saying “I don’t have a clue!” I am fine with being totally uncool. Because cool or uncool, in this moment I am free.

Freedom to See Fear & Its Manifestations Clearly

Recently we discussed how fear is believed to be useful, but in every case we could come up with it was either useless or harmful. We talked about how it is contagious and is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I shared a little bit of how through the regular practice of meditation we eventually relax into a spacious fearlessness that is not acting out as a daredevil, seeking danger, but is opening to a deeper truth about the nature of the world and life itself.

In my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, I talk a lot about fear, saying that all negative emotions arise out of fear, as all positive emotions arise out of love. This book was written in deep meditation, and people reading it resonate with it because it rises up from the same source of universal wisdom that they themselves have access to when they are able to quiet down and listen in.

This book was written in the early 1990’s, before I began to study Buddhism, so do not take it as a transmission of Buddhist philosophy, which in general I try to share here with my own take on it. But Sylvia Boorstein, Buddhist teacher and co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, many years ago called this book ‘jargon-free dharma,’ so apparently it isn’t un-Buddhist! Which makes sense, since when I came to Spirit Rock and the Buddhist teachings, it was like coming home.

I haven’t read or heard anything in Buddhism to suggest that fear is the root of all negative emotion, but there is a valuable Buddhist-style question contained in the concept. Whenever a negative emotion arises, we can ask, “What am I afraid of?” and find a very useful answer.

Last week when discussing the self-fulfilling nature of fear, one student mentioned a jealous boy friend from her distant past. His jealousy was rooted in his fear of losing her, his fear that he was not enough in some way to keep her. So it’s easy to see that jealousy is rooted in fear.

It’s not surprising that so many of us feel we are not enough somehow, given how saturated our lives are with messages that tell us we could be so much more if only we would use this or that product. We remind ourselves that these messages are not about us but simply corporate efforts to reap profits, but it is very challenging to let go of the belief that has been so long instilled. When this message comes from an individual, if we pause to think about it, we realize this individual has been duped into believing that they are not enough, and are trying to make themselves enough by the unskillful means of making us feel unworthy in comparison.

As we come into more steady consciousness, these kind of messages are seen for what they are and begin to fall away, or at least loosen and clarify. When we see clearly, we see that we at our core are fully acceptable, worthy of being loved, and if we open to it, we can sense that there is a universal loving-kindness that loves us, with a love that does not have to be earned. When we can fully relax into that understanding, quite quickly we can see our patterns of behavior and belief that have been disrupting our lives and probably the lives of those around us. We are able to see these patterns of behavior as misguided attempts to gain what we believed we were lacking. We can see they arose out of a fear that we were not enough.

Once we access that spaciousness, that Right View (see post of 1/14/09), then when these left-over beliefs and behaviors show up again, we can acknowledge them, as Buddha acknowledged Mara the tempter again and again under the Bodhi tree the night of his great awakening. “Oh Mara, I know you.”

“Oh pattern, I know you,” we can say to an addiction, a reaction, an erosive belief. “I know you, and in knowing you I am not afraid of you. I know you, and in knowing you, I know you are not me. I know you, and in knowing you, I can be curious about you. I can sit with the experience of you and learn all your ways, so that I will recognize you as Mara even sooner next time we meet. Not so that I can run the other way, but so that I can greet you by your true name.”

Whatever we encounter, we can remind ourselves that this is not the only ‘voice’ present for us. When I fall into an old habitual pattern of circling around to graze in the kitchen, I can open to the inner spaciousness of my mind and recognize that there is more than one ‘voice’ present, more than just the “ooh, ooh, yummy, yummy, gimme gimme” chant. I can take a relaxing breath, slow my pace, and open to an inner wisdom that questions whether I am really all that hungry for food right now, whether I wouldn’t find a walk in the garden or a phone call to a loved one even more satisfying. The first time I recognized that there was not a monologue but a dialog inside me, I was amazed. It opened such possibilities for breaking the chain of my habitual behavior. But that wise voice is so quiet and calm, I really do have to slow down and listen in.

When we feel a negative emotion arising and we think to ask, ‘What am I afraid of?” we have a tool for coming in to the present moment. We can sense into the body to see how this fear is manifesting itself. When we find a particular sensation – a tight chest, jaw or a pain somewhere, for example – we can let that sensation tell us how it feels. It may speak of sadness, loss, anger, depression, confusion, impatience, judgment, envy, jealousy, etc. Whatever emotion it tells is fear mixed in with story. As we sit with the sensation and the emotion, keeping our attention as much as possible in the present moment, the emotion gets clear of the story and appears as the pure fear it is.

Once we have touched pure fear we can hold it in an open loving embrace, just as we would hold a terrified child, with great kindness and compassion. If we try to nurture ourselves when we have only touched the sadness or the anger, we will most likely get involved in the story they embrace. Instead of simple kindness and compassion, we will probably use excuses, explanations, accusations, justifications and dramatic plots. None of this is useful. It just entangles our thinking mind in a tighter knot. When we relax, breathe, and sense in to the physical sensation of the fear, we can give it our full loving attention and acceptance in a quiet spacious deeply loving way that is transformative, without judgment or expectation.

Given the unconditional love of metta, fear may soften its grip on us and pass away. For now. We accept that this is a life long condition, awakening to what is true in this moment frees us enough to see clearly. But if we believe, ‘ah ha, now I’ve conquered fear,’ we get sucked into yet another delusion, believing ourselves to be immune to fear in all its forms. Instead it is more useful to be open and curious to whatever arises, to develop meditative techniques that enable us to more easily access the present moment, where we see clearly. We remember that Mara visited the Buddha all through his life, even though he was awakened. His awakening was not being free of Mara, but being free to see Mara in all its many aspects, and to hold it in an open embrace of curiosity and compassion.

Meditation Class: What to Expect & How to Replicate it at Home

Since a storm cancelled our class, I will use this week’s post to go over a few meditation techniques that are intrinsic to the class, but not usually mentioned in the blog. Should any of you who are blog followers like to join the class, let me know.

Creating a Setting for Sitting
We turn off our cell phones and give ourselves over to this time we have claimed in the day. Although we are a group of women who have many responsibilities and we arrive at the class at the end of busy days, we let this be a sacred time out of that busy-ness. We recognize that if we give ourselves this time, we can return to our responsibilities totally refreshed and better able to cope with whatever arises. We recognize that in this time we have claimed for ourselves, there is absolutely nothing right now for which we are responsible.

Body Preparations
Before we start our meditation, we each take a moment to stand and stretch whatever in the body calls out to make one last movement before sitting. Whatever movements we make, we do them from a very interior receptive place, sensing into the body, really feeling the muscles, the energy body, our emotional and mental state at this moment. We notice how we are arriving, and we use this opportunity to gather our thoughts into focus on this moment.

Some students find doing a little deep breath work helps to create spaciousness and release the thoughts and images that linger from their busy day, making room for meditation. Try it and see if it is something of value to you. Take a deep breath and really release it, adding a sound on the exhale if that feels right, really letting go of all holding. This can be a valuable tool, but one that isn’t entirely portable, since you probably won’t want to do it in an airport waiting area. So use it if you like it, but don’t depend on it.

Sitting Posture
When we are sitting, we want the buttocks to be higher than the knees. Sitting on the floor, this means using enough cushions to make it so the knees can touch the floor. This cross-legged position does not work for all bodies. It certainly doesn’t work for mine. When I am sitting on the floor, I use a zafu (round sitting cushion) on end and let it support my buttocks as I sit in a kneeling position.

We want our spine to be as vertical as possible, creating an open channel for the easy flow of breath. We want to let our skeleton hold us erect so that we may relax our muscles. If we need to rely on our muscles to maintain our position, we will find ourselves in pain later on in the meditation.

If sitting in a chair, it’s best to sit forward, with the feet firmly planted on the ground. The back can be well supported upright or not supported, but it shouldn’t recline, as this will hamper the practice. In our class in my home we are sitting on cushy couches that don’t create the best posture. We each take responsibility to be sure that we are using added cushions to support a more conducive posture.

Depending on the position you are in, if you can tilt the pelvis slightly forward, like a bowl tipping to spill some of its contents, this will provide the strength to maintain your position.

Let the skull find a seat of balance on top of the spinal column so that it will not be straining to stay upright.

If you have back problems or other physical limitations, find the position that works best for you. You can meditate flat on your back if you don’t fall asleep in this position. You can meditate standing as well, and meditators are encouraged to stand if they find themselves falling asleep in other positions. (Another antidote to sleeping is to have your eyes slightly open with a downward gaze. This is standard Zen meditation position, and is perfectly fine.)

If you think you may get cold sitting, since the body will be still for quite some time, put on socks, add a sweater, or wrap yourself in a shawl or blanket.

Awareness
When we meditate, we are not closing out the outside world but releasing all the boundaries within ourselves that keep us feeling separate. We relax into an awareness of our body, opening to all the sensations present in our experience. This will be different from person to person, from moment to moment, but in general we sense in to the overall energy first. We notice if our body is feeling energized or sluggish, for example. We can do a body scan, starting at the top of our heads and noticing where we are feeling tension. If we find tension, we can pause to sit with that sensation, make some small movements that might help to release and relax the tension, maybe breathe into the area. This is not a fault-finding mission. Tension is a normal part of life. Tension is a knot attached to a story, however. So to the extent we can ease our tension during meditation, we may relax more spaciously into this moment, beyond our stories of other times and other places. Tension anchors us elsewhere. The breath and other sensations anchor us in this moment.

Intention
Once we are settled and relaxed, we set our intention to be present in this moment. We set the intention that, when we notice that we are lost in thought or lost in a fog, we will bring our focus back to the present moment, the sensations in the body, the rising and falling of the breath. We set the intention to do this with great compassion, knowing that it is natural for the mind to think, so no scolding is necessary, and in fact scolding would simply take us off into another thought cycle.

The heart of the meditation
Every meditation is different. Letting go of expectation, we open to what arises in this moment. We notice sensations first and foremost, but we will also become aware of thoughts, moods, emotions as they pass through. Whenever we notice them, we expand our awareness so that there is room for all of our experience.

We may get bored. We notice boredom. We notice where we feel boredom in our body. We may feel achy. We get interested in the complex symphony of sensation within that sensation we had simply labeled ‘ache.’ We may find ourselves judging the experience, or judging ourselves. We notice the judging, notice here we feel it in the body. Is there some tightness that goes with the judging? We sense in to the tightness.

And so it goes. Whatever meditation we have is the right meditation for right now.

Mantras
Some students have previous meditation training, and typically they will have been given a mantra as part of TM training. Mantras are fine. A repeated word or phrase is a fine practice. But allow the mantra repetition to keep you present, not take you away in some quasi-dream state. Students often prefer these dream-states, seeing them as ‘real’ meditation. Whatever experience you have is fine, but for the purpose of our work together, we do Insight or Vipassana meditation. Going into a dream state is like a nice vacation, getting away from daily life, getting a good rest, maybe having some intense psycho-spiritual experience. These are all valuable in their way. But it often seems that people who meditate in this way are easily overwhelmed when they return to their lives from this mini-vacation.

Insight meditation is learning how to live daily life with joy, being present for all that arises, so that you don’t have to ‘escape.’ It is seeing the spiritual richness in even the most ‘ordinary’ moment of life.

That said, in our class we have some mantras that we enjoy singing out loud together for the last few minutes of the meditation some times.

Metta
Sending metta (loving kindness) is a lovely addition to any meditation. This can be the meditation itself, beginning with yourself, “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free.” Then extending it to someone it’s easy to send metta to, then someone neutral, then someone challenging, then all beings.

The Bell
I happen to have the most deliciously toned Buddhist bell bowl, featured prominently at the top of this blog. When it rings it sends out such sweet sounds out into the silence, touching the depth of the clear pond of our experience. I ring it three times, and then we bow. Bowing is a way of honoring our practice, honoring each other, and showing our gratitude for this opportunity to awaken.

The Dharma Talk
This is where I give the dharma talk that I later post on this blog. There is often discussion that arises and the sharing is very rich.

Dedication of Merit
We end our practice with a dedication of the merits for the benefit of all beings. “May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be free.”

Freedom from Fear

Is fear useful? Most would say yes. They say, “Fear keeps us from doing dangerous things and therefore is a valuable survival tool.” Is this really true? Everyone in the Tuesday meditation class nodded their heads in agreement.

What is your experience? Can you name a situation when fear was useful for you? As you think back, try to focus on a scene in which you were afraid. Hold that scene in your mind, and then ask yourself: What role did fear play? Did it help or hinder?

In class we shared our biggest scares, and in each situation that students could remember, it wasn’t the fear that saved them, but their own training, intuition or common sense. This has certainly been my experience as well. Yet fear has this reputation of being so useful!

We also discussed the self-fulfilling prophecy nature of fear, how a jealous boyfriend loses the girl he is afraid of losing out of fear-based jealous behavior. One student said that Philip Roth’s book, Indignation, is based on this whole idea of fear being self-fulfilling. So this is not new news here! But why does it persist?

Fear also has another reputation, counter to the first. It is known to be highly contagious. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most famous quote is, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” These words are famous because their perennial truth resonates within us. Fear begets fear. When we feel fearful, we contract and express ourselves in the world in a way that puts fear in others. This can create dangerous situations.

When we see someone that makes the hairs on our neck stand up, someone who looks like they are violent, out of control or up to something dangerous, it is our intuition that aids us in understanding the situation. Chances are the person we encounter is operating on pure fear, charged with adrenaline. If we add more fear to the mix, more adrenaline coming from our side, the volatile situation is much more likely to ignite into something truly disastrous. The other person senses our fear and is drawn to it because it resonates. A synergistic fear event is not the kind of thing we really want to promote in our lives.

That doesn’t sound very useful. Let’s inquire further. We might say, “Fear is useful in keeping us from jaywalking across the street against busy traffic.” But couldn’t we manage that without fear? Could we do it from a love of life, a gratitude for the gift of life? That doesn’t have to be fear, just intelligence, just understanding the nature of our environment and moving with it as a flowing dance rather than a violent video game.

A typical fear response is fight or flight. Fear ignites anger and violence ensues. That’s the fight. How often does that turn out well? Running in many situations is known to be the worst thing we could do. Running from the police or from a wild animal might be deadly. The fear kicks in a response, locking out our ability to think clearly. Thus fear can itself be quite dangerous. It is so undependable. It might just as easily paralyze us when we should be running, like from a tsunami.

These are unusual moments of fear, but what about the fear that we live with day in and day out. Perhaps we have an underlying fear of loss, failure, illness and death. If our thoughts dwell a lot in the future, these fears keep us operating at half-mast as we mourn in advance of these eventualities. This constant fear causes our bodies great stress and could fuel disease and early death. What is the value of fear here?

What is the value of fear when we are too afraid to discuss important matters with our loved ones, or are too afraid to speak in public, fearful of what people will think of us? How does this fear protect us from anything at all? In fact, it keeps us from living in a rich connected way. It keeps us from being fully available for others, because we’re caught up in worrying what they will think of us. It keeps us from being able to experience and share the sweet fleeting gift of life on earth. Fear really traps us in misery. How is that useful?

Maybe we believe that fear is what keeps us lawful. “How could a society operate without people having a healthy fear of the consequences of unlawful behavior?” Keep people scared and they’ll stay in line. Is this the foundation of our society?

Ideally societies are formed to support all the members of the community for the mutual benefit of all. When you read the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, you can’t help but be inspired by the desire of “We the people” to form a “more perfect union” for the “general welfare.”

Fear sabotages all efforts to form a meaningful healthy community. When fear comes into play, people contract and become paranoid and suspicious. They feel separate and now they want only what they think will benefit them, not the rest of the community. They are blinded by their fear into thinking they can be happy at the expense of others.

In fear, they feel the need to make some members of their community be ‘other,’ calling any differences wrong, maybe even denying them basic rights within the society. Since fear is contagious, soon fear-based hate groups band together, seeing themselves as special, more entitled. Seeing this group makes excluded individuals fearful. Maybe they buy into the belief that they are wrong or unworthy, and the fear turns to self-hatred, or they recognize the injustice of the situation and they feel they must fight to protect themselves. Either way fear becomes the accepted culture, and generations later we can’t imagine anything different, can’t imagine that people are capable of living in a friendly supportive trusting way, in which the good of all is considered tantamount, because the happiness of the individual is so deeply rooted in peaceful coexistence and loving connection.

That fear on both sides and the resulting disconnection from any sense of responsibility to the community as a whole, becomes the basis of rude, aggressive and dangerous behavior. Thus laws are enacted that weren’t needed before. Trust is broken, doors are locked, weapons are amassed, and a ever-growing percentage of the population ends up imprisoned. The whole community suffers from this sense of separation and anxiety, this need to be on guard at all times from the dangers ‘out there.’ This culture of distrust extends out to how nations perceive each other as well. Global politics becomes as unskillful as the behavior of schoolyard bullies and their victims, and all from the same root. Fear sets us up for a failed society, the loss of real community that all of us crave.

Perhaps you think this view is naive. You say fear is a valuable tool because it works. Yes, if you believe it’s ‘us against them,’ and you want to keep ‘them’ in line, then fear is valuable. If you think you can make happiness for yourself based on the misery of others, then fear is a valuable tool. But let’s assume that you would not be interested in meditation, in developing your deep-rooted sense of connectedness, if you were suffering from that delusion. So for you, for us, fear has no value. The value in the situations we discussed earlier really lies in our native intelligence, in our caring about life itself, in our intuition.

But people in power use fear all the time. They themselves are rooted in fear, and thus feel it is quite acceptable to promote it in others in order to protect themselves. I spent a number of years in advertising and the better I became at it, the more insidious the industry seemed to me. Advertising is based completely on fear: You are not enough. You need this product to make you more beautiful, healthy, happy, successful, safe, etc. Psychological fear creation is the corner stone of capitalism! Corporate profits depend on it!

So much of our culture is rooted in a fear-based belief system. In fear, we despair, but it’s time to wake up! When you recognize that fear is being used to rush a vote in Congress, or to get you to buy something you’re not sure you need, wake up! It is only when we are fearful that these needy people, trying so hard to fill themselves, notice us and are attracted to us. If we dwell in fear, we offer ourselves up as victims, because we resonate with their fear. We don’t intend to, but our fear sends out the message that we are there for the taking.

I am not suggesting that when you notice fear that you push it away or try to talk yourself out of it or try to replace it with happy thoughts. Not at all. That wouldn’t be helpful, skillful or get the desired result. It is important to notice the fear when it arises. Maybe you don’t want to notice it. Maybe you think it reflects badly on you and you push it away or stuff it down. Fear is just fear. It’s not you. You didn’t create it. It arises within all of us.

Instead of trying to change it or ignore it, we get curious about it. We notice where we feel it in our bodies. We ask what thoughts are co-arising with this sense of fear? This is the practice. We neither grasp or push away the fear, but if we do grasp or push it away, we notice that too. We just keep noticing, sitting with what is.

The more we sit, chances are in time we will find less to be fearful about. We discover something in the depths of our being that is unafraid. Who can say what this is? When I talked about ‘metta beyond measure’ in a previous dharma talk, I talked about how it was possible for there to be a loving synergistic energy in which the whole world is vibrant with optimal well being, all within the natural circular life process of birth, death and decay. And, yes, I know that sounds totally wacko! But when we talk about fear and the products of fear, the ways in which fear is attracted to fear, we begin to see that most of the really painful encounters in life come from feeding the fear and turning it into a raging fire of fear that destroys everything in its path.

So what if we were free of fear? What would that be like? Is that even possible?

On an individual basis it is absolutely possible to be free of fear. And if more and more individuals were living fearless lives – not as dare-devils, but as balanced, loving, giving, harmonious people – then those who live in fear would at least not find so many opportunities to fuel their fear. And they might discover that this kind of deep rooted loving-kindness is even more contagious than fear.

Accessing spaciousness through meditation paves the way to this kind of fearlessness. Also developing a metta practice, where we send loving-kindness to all beings, that all beings may be well, happy and free, is key to beginning to feel the loving kindness that is ever present in the universe.

Accessing that loving-kindness, allows us to ‘lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside’ and become conduits for that loving energy in the world.

Here is a poem I wrote fifteen years ago when I was recovering from a long illness:

POEM: Dirt Bag Dharma

I don’t know how long I had been ill…
Long enough to see myself as
fragile, wan, weak, in need of protection
from violent images and emotion
that could suck the life right out of me.

But I needed soil for my garden
and the worker assigned to shovel
ten bags of dirt for me was apparently
way overdue for a break, and no doubt
had other grievances fueling his anger.

I backed off — to give him space, I thought,
but really more to give me space,
as I retreated to the cocoon of my car to wait.

Feeling guilty, I began to send him metta:
May you be well, may you feel ease.
At first the words had a begging quality
like the prayers of a small child, cowering
in a corner, terrified of the bogey man.

But then I began to feel the power
of my words flush through me, transforming me
into a strong conduit of loving-kindness.
So I returned to his side and soon
we were chatting — who knows about what,
it didn’t matter, because — all the while
I radiated that peaceful energy.

Soon his shoulders and jaw softened, his voice lost
its edge, he chuckled at something I said,
and when his boss yelled another order,
he didn’t bark or bristle as he’d done before.
Instead he smiled at me, rolled his eyes as if to say,
Ain’t this shitty life grand?’

In that moment,
standing amidst my dirt bags,
I realized I was well.

– Stephanie Noble