Category Archives: overcoming fear

Exploring our relationship with the ‘enemy’

On especially hot days I am reminded of the summers I spent in Philadelphia when I was in my late teens. My parents had moved there from California, so when I went ‘home’ for the summer it was to this place that didn’t feel like home at all. It was a brick oven of a place, a sauna — so different from the San Francisco Bay Area where ‘nature’s air conditioner’ rolled in from the ocean most evenings. And yet there was something wonderful about a ‘hot town summer in the city’ experience, walking about Center City in the warm evening and meeting up with other young people in Rittenhouse Square. I made friends with a girl who lived around the corner and she was my guide. She taught me, for example, that how you walk across town when you are a young woman is not always a direct route. If guys are out cruising and start saying ‘Hey baby’ etc. and won’t let up, then how convenient that Philly has lots of one way streets. You just turn up the next street that goes in a direction his car can’t go. Oh yes, she taught me the ropes.

Upon returning home we’d often spend the night at each other’s homes, and finding it difficult to get to sleep in the oppressive heat, even at midnight, we’d make up lists. Our favorite list was of all the things we would get rid of if we had the power to do so. We could easily get to one hundred, taking turns naming, for example, people who do obnoxious things. We would get very specific. So, ‘boys who won’t take no for an answer’ might be on the list. Or ‘people who leave gum on the street’ or ‘girls who wear…’ whatever fashion we didn’t find becoming. I don’t remember the details of the list, just that we made one and that we were perfectly ready to wipe them off the planet for their offenses.

In retrospect, of course, this seems at the very least harsh, and at most horrifying. It was all in good fun, a shared complaint about the state of a world over which we had no power.

As a mature woman, I recognize that there is still an internal list, not as lengthy and not of people I would wipe off the face of the earth, but of things I perceive as a threat. And I know for a fact I am not alone in this regard.

At a time when so much saber rattling is going on in the world, it’s worthwhile to take a look at what we identify as ‘enemy’. We don’t have to be at war to have an enemy, do we? Throughout the day we find ourselves at odds and finding fault with all manner of people, situations and aspects of ourselves.

In the Buddhist tradition, we practice kindness, but not ‘nice-nice’ in the way of my mother and perhaps yours, who if I said I felt a certain way told me I shouldn’t feel that way. No, in this tradition we look at what is arising with as much compassionate awareness as we can. If we can look honestly at our thoughts and our fears, we can cultivate a more loving skillful relationship with all that arises in our lives, recognizing its true nature.

So if you are game, take a moment to bring to mind someone or something that you react to as an enemy. Take note of the physical/emotional reaction as your body tightens up and fear or anger arises. This enemy may be a specific person or group of people. It may be a concept. It may be something that causes you pain. Just whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t need to be just one thing. It can be a list! Feel free to write them down if you want.

Now, assuming you were able to come up with at least something that feels threatening to you, let’s look at some common traits that things we perceive as ‘the enemy’ have in common, and see if this is true for yours.

The enemy causes a visceral reaction. We can feel ourselves tensing up and/or negative emotions arising when we think about the enemy. If there’s no visceral reaction, then it’s just an opinion, not something that feels threatening.

The enemy takes up a lot of space in our thoughts and emotions. It’s not just a passing thought. It’s not just someone with whom we disagree. If you doubt it takes up a lot of space, then how did you so easily come up with one or more ‘enemies’? They were right there, readily accessible.

The enemy has power. For example, an enemy might be:

  • A leader with whom we strongly disagree feels threatening, while a past-leader now ‘ordinary citizen’ doesn’t. Yet perhaps we can remember when they felt threatening to our well being, back when they had the power.
  • Pain has power to lay us low, sometimes change our personality and even cause us to feel life is not worth living.
  • Age has power to diminish our abilities in a number of ways.
  • A boss has the power to fire us.
  • A coworker has the power to make us miserable forty hours a week.
  • A parent can feel like an enemy at times simply because when we’re in their care they have power over us. (Any power we give them after we become independent is an unexamined patterned response worth taking time to investigate.)
  • Disease in ourselves or in a loved one has the power to kill, disable and break our hearts.

What power does your ‘enemy’ have over you?

The enemy has volition. We are more inclined to perceive as ‘enemy’ someone who made a choice rather than, for example, an act of nature. There is a classic story of a man rowing his boat on a misty morning when he sees another boat heading towards him. As it comes closer and closer he gets more and more upset. Why is that person not watching where he’s going? Is that person purposely aiming for his boat? Who is it? What did I ever do to him? etc. etc. Enemy alert to the max. And then the boat bumps against his and he sees that it is empty, just a lost boat adrift in the water. All his anger vanishes. The boat is not the enemy. It is just carried on the currents. There is no enemy with whom to be angry.

Abstract concepts are not as powerful as personal experiences. We might be against violence in general, but it isn’t a palpable enemy unless it is happening to us (or did happen to us and we are still processing it), or it happens or happened to someone we love, or to someone right in front of us, whether in person or on a video or in a book. Abstracts do not activate our emotions in the same way.

Those are some things I have noticed as common traits of ‘the enemy’. What else do you notice? This is an exploration. Feel free to check it out for yourself and report back by commenting. (Click on reply at the top of this post.)

HOW TO COME INTO SKILLFUL RELATIONSHIP WITH ‘ENEMIES’

NOTE: If you are in a situation where you are in that moment being threatened, you will do whatever you feel in that moment that you need to do — your flight or flight response will likely kick in and nothing we discuss here will make a bit of difference. However, regular meditation practice will help you to be more mindful and better able to see the situation clearly, and perhaps will have cultivated some compassion that could help to ameliorate certain threatening situations. But street smarts and a call to 911 may be what’s needed. Just sayin’.

But, assuming we are talking about someone or something that is not holding a gun to our heads in this moment, but which satisfy the definition of ‘enemy’ for our purposes here, let’s proceed.

All of this ‘other’ making, this ‘me’ against the world or ‘us’ against ‘them’ thinking, takes a serious toll on our mental and physical health. It depletes our capacity for ease, joy and kindness to ourselves or anyone else. But it isn’t skillful to push these thoughts away or pretend they don’t exist. It is equally unskillful to actively antagonize an external designated enemy. This only adds to their power by fueling it with similar energy. So what are we to do?

Know your enemy
We’ve already made a first step by defining who or what we are perceiving as enemy. We have ruled out anything that’s just an opinion and anything that is abstract. Now we can focus on something that does activate a visceral reaction, that does cause us to feel threatened in some way. We get to know the enemy not to strategize how to defeat them, but in order to understand their true nature and the nature of our own mind.

Here are some ways to come into a more skillful relationship with the enemy or enemies we have named.

Expand awareness
We tend to get caught up in the story or the rant about whatever we perceive to be enemy. We probably don’t even listen to ourselves anymore, we just blather on in a habitual way. But we have a choice. Without pushing the enemy away, we can notice all else that is going on in this moment. We can come into an awareness of our senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.
We can notice pleasant sensations also going on right now. The enemy may still be present, but we see that it is just one part of all that is happening in this moment, a slender thread in the whole fabric of being. We can take in all of this moment with gratitude for being alive to experience it, enemy and all.

Interview, inquire, investigate
When we feel up for it, perhaps after meditation, we can invite the enemy into our thoughts for clearer observation and investigation. We can breathe into the discomfort. We can take care of ourselves. We can remind ourselves that the enemy in this moment is just a pattern of thought and emotion. It is safe to look more closely and to do some insightful investigation.
Part of this investigation might be actual fact checking. When we perceive something or someone as ‘enemy’ we might not be able to talk ourselves out of it, but it is worthwhile to know at least whether it is as dangerous as we think. So, for example, if we have a fear of flying, the fact that it is statistically much safer than driving may be little comfort, but it is an important fact to keep handy. Other typical fears — spiders and snakes, for example — can also be aided by discovering their benign and helpful aspects, and perhaps how unlikely it is that we would encounter a dangerous variety in our area. Some things are easier to fact check than others. We need to be sure our sources are reliable, that our enemy is not the product of some random thing read online or the irrational ranting of some pundit with an ax to grind and bills to pay.  We might notice how willing we are to believe someone who reinforces our existing view, and let that be a red flag for us to make further inquiry rather than getting more entrenched in our position which is causing us, and perhaps others, such suffering.

Consider whether the enemy is a projection
We can recognize the possibility that what annoys us about another person is the very thing that we are either suppressing or judging in ourselves, especially if it’s always the same ‘type’ of person who annoys us.

Back when I was too shy to speak my own truth, I found I was often judgmental toward powerful women. ‘Who does she think she is?’ But it was just my own insecurities and my own desire to feel that freedom to speak up that was making enemies of perfectly nice people who were more worthy of admiration than condemnation.

If the ‘enemy’ that you defined is not necessarily powerful, then there’s an even stronger reason to look at the idea of projection. Perhaps you’re annoyed by people who are virtually powerless. Then what part of you feels powerless? This is not an accusatory investigation. We inquire with respect and kindness.

enemy-as-messengerRecognize the enemy as messenger
We can look at the possibility that what we have taken to be an enemy with a weapon to harm us is in fact a messenger with an offering that has the potential to heal us. The image shown here could be carrying a weapon or a scroll with an important message for us. We won’t know until we take the time to look.

Let’s take tension, for example. It is the one thing we actively work to diminish in our meditation practice. So it is easy to see it as the enemy. But in fact it is the messenger. It tells us that our thoughts are caught up in the past and/or future. When we befriend the messenger — come on in, take a load off, care for some tea? — then the tension releases to whatever degree is possible in that moment, and we can be fully present with what is arising in that moment. Noticing the tension, we recognize where our thoughts have wandered. The tension is the messenger.

Let’s look at some other ‘enemies’ we might encounter and what their message is:

If you experience any degree of impatience or even road rage, then your ‘enemies’ may be:

  • Someone driving slower than you want to drive. The message is to cultivate patience and to stay more present in the moment rather than rushing to be somewhere else.
  • Someone cutting you off, being discourteous. The message is to cultivate compassion, to recognize that everyone is carrying a burden we are unaware of.
  • Someone driving recklessly, putting you and everyone else in danger. The message is to be mindful ourselves, to be aware we have great power to do harm as we drive around at high speeds in these metal ‘killing machines’.

You get the idea. So what we’re learning is how to be present with someone or something we perceive as enemy by cultivating a spacious field of awareness to hold whatever is arising.

As we stay present with the enemy in that spacious field of awareness, we can inquire about the message it is bearing. We can ask ‘What do you want me to know?’ for example. This would be very skillful in post meditation inquiry if a challenging ‘enemy’ is present.

Practice meditation on regular basis. By doing so we become more and more attuned to recognize the infinite interconnection – all one, that there is no separate self that needs to be defended against some outside enemy. In that way we are able to see through the faulty filter of fear that has named something or someone ‘enemy’.

Feed your Demons This is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that can be very skillful in working through a difficult relationship with an aspect of self that presents as enemy.

Send Metta  A powerful practice is to send metta, infinite loving-kindness, always beginning with ourselves and always ending with sending it to all beings. In between we can send it to a difficult person. I have heard so many first-hand accounts of the power of metta practice — May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. May you be happy. — to shift a relationship and reveal that in fact the ‘enemy’ is a vulnerable suffering being, worthy of kindness and compassion.
Here’s a recording of me leading an extended metta practice.

Speak our truth to whomever is in power, whether in government or in our private lives. Once we have cultivated compassionate awareness, we are ready to use wise speech to address any concerns we have. Instead of aggravating the enemy, turning off their ability to listen to us, we touch a deeper place and inspire their own inner wisdom to look more closely at their own way of being with difficult emotions.

I hope that these suggestions help to whittle down your enemy list, and create some powerful positive changes in the process. Let me know!

The Faulty Filter of Fear

 

fear-final-500

As I was meditating the other morning, I noticed fear arising. This is not unusual. Fear appears in many guises — worry, planning, anxiety, hurt feelings, self-doubt, anger, etc. Fear is felt in the body as tension. Fear is a presence I usually recognize when it shows up, but this time I saw the fear in a very different way. That new way of seeing fear has helped me. Maybe it will help you, too.

An important part of our practice, especially when things aren’t going well, is to do a little self-inquiry. A key question we ask ourselves is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ I could see that I was relating to my experience with fear. But how am I in relationship with fear itself? In that moment I could see that the fear is not part of the fabric of my being, but is, instead, a lens or a filter through which I am looking at experience. The fear is not me, not even an aspect of me, though almost every aspect of who I perceive myself to be looks at the world through the distorting faulty filter of fear.

If fear is simply a filter or a lens, suddenly it is neutral and more manageable. It is neither friend nor foe. It is not the boss of me. I don’t have to go into battle with it. It is simply an increasingly transparent filter that when in place distorts my view of things. Just noticing this gives me tremendous power! Whenever I become aware of fear arising, I can recognize it as the filter it is, and I have options: I can continue in my habituated way to look through the filter, or I can open my senses in this moment to see a world teeming with beauty and life ever unfolding in cycles of energy and matter. I can feel how this body, this transient gift, is intrinsically interconnected to all beings. And in that moment, that filter of fear reveals itself to be myopic and unreliable.

‘Now wait a minute’, you may be thinking, ‘fear is important and useful. Where would we be without fear? Would we have even survived as a species?’

These are interesting questions. So let’s look at fear more closely.

Let’s look at a situation where some innate sense in our body perceives a danger. Perhaps hair stands up on the back of the neck, or some other physical sensation that lets us know we might want to steer clear. Not walking into a situation that might put us at risk is a biological imperative. It’s instinctive. Point taken.

But I wonder when we live so steeped in fear all the time, if we really pick up on the instinctive cues. Fortunately I have not had the opportunity to see for myself. But I do follow my neighborhood online community and there was an interesting discussion about a ‘colorful character’ in town who wears different costumes on our main street, including one of a Buddhist monk! Another outfit is a kilt. Those are the only two I’ve seen. Anyway, the online conversation ranged from concern for the fellow to concern for public safety. But only one person in the group had actually had a conversation with the man. He found him to be a very sweet, not altogether ‘there’ person, who was clearly not a threat to anyone. Yet his very calm presence in his various guises really rattled up a lot of fear in a number of people. The filter of fear is full of faulty assumptions.

There are those hopefully rare times when an adrenaline rush sparked by fear gives us extra strength and speed to, for example, get out of the way of a moving vehicle. Okay, life saved! Good job! But upon closer inspection, we might ask how did we get in that position? Could we have been more mindful? More in touch with all our senses so that we could see that car coming? Maybe if we weren’t distracted by our phone, our planning mind, etc. But, yes, let’s acknowledge that adrenaline is useful in very small doses on such occasions. It’s when adrenaline is pouring through the body constantly keeping us on high alert that it can cause all kinds of problems in our bodies and minds.

Everyone in class this week recognized the existence of fear in an ongoing way. some immediately, some after an autopilot declaration of ‘I’m not afraid of anything.’ After a few minutes of looking more closely, they could see that it was fear itself that was making that bold statement.

It may help to consider whether fear itself is disruptive, or if it is our blindness to it that causes us trouble. For example, I am afraid right now, anxious about whether the medical treatments for my brother will work. If I don’t acknowledge how this fear is impacting me, how my whole torso is tense as a direct result of my concern, then I won’t treat myself tenderly. I won’t make room for all that is arising. And as a result I will be, I guarantee it, unskillful in some way: anxious mindless eating, prickly in relationships, exhausted and grumpy, or some other of many possible totally useless and sometimes destructive ‘coping’ mechanisms. And making an enemy of fear causes even more upset that may play out badly.

Just now from the other room I heard my brother on the phone telling his friend he didn’t know why Stephanie wasn’t able to find those other pills in his bag. Opportunity to notice my reaction: Okay, yup, there it is: Hurt, fury, ‘after all I’ve done for you’ yada yada, worry about being seen as a lousy caregiver by whoever he was talking to. word spreads, elder abuse – oh my! Okay now a little revenge, plotting to give my brother the cold shoulder for his lack of appreciation, (even as I know I won’t do that, because after all he’s operating out of fear too, and he’s in a fight for his life). All this mental storm in a matter of thirty seconds! Wow. Fear in the house!

Acknowledging the fear, I allow myself the time, space and compassion needed to be skillful in my life, taking care of the needs of others more ably and lovingly because I continue to be present and compassionate with myself. If this sounds self-centered, remember the oxygen mask directions on an airplane. Put your own mask on first before helping someone else. Especially for many women, this is a necessary reminder. How much of our willingness to give ourselves away, to always put others first even to the detriment of our own health, has to do with fear? ALL of it, in one way or another.

So we recognize fear. We feel it in the tension in the body. We don’t try to talk ourselves out of it, because that is just an inner battle between — let’s nickname them — ‘logical mind’ and ‘scaredy cat’. There’s no kindness or respect there. It’s more skillful to simply listen, using the infinite inner wisdom that rises up when we take the time to listen in. Every little aspect of self except that infinite inner wisdom is terrified of something. And it’s useful to see the nature of that fear. There’s the fear of making a fool of ourselves, so that aspect keeps us from speaking. There’s the fear of getting hurt in love, so that aspect keeps us from exposing our vulnerability. With awareness and compassion, we can recognize the specific fear-based message of any fear we identify. It can also be helpful to investigate where that message came from. But all of this is done in a loving and respectful way. Not to change or get rid of anything.

Fear sets in when we let unexamined assumptions motivate us. Past experience perhaps has taught us to be cautious in certain situations or with certain people. People who were major influencers in our lives handed down their own fear-based views, and we accepted them without question, too. So here we are, full of fear. But it’s just a lens distorting reality. And we have our tools of skillful questions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Is the man wearing a kilt one day and a monk’s robe the next a threat? 

For some fears, we don’t need to go on an inner journey. We just have to recognize what we are surrounding ourselves with in our daily lives. If the news is churning out endless images, headlines and opinions that are contrived to activate a fear-based addiction, is it any surprise we feel overwhelmed with fear?

When we don’t take the time to question the veracity of our beliefs and assumptions, then fear holds the reins of our lives, causing us to behave in ways that are destructive to ourselves, those around us and, since we’re all a part of the same living system, ultimately all life on down through generations.

‘Now wait a minute’, you may say again, ‘where would we be without fear? It’s a great motivator to do the right thing. Without the fear of negative consequences, wouldn’t we all just run around doing all kinds of damage?’  I don’t know the answer to that. Certainly people are motivated by fear to do the right thing: Fear of going to hell. Fear of a spanking. Fear of losing our job. Fear of getting a ticket. Fear of getting fat. Fear of being seen as less than admirable. Fear is a powerful motivator, no doubt about it. But the results of acting out of fear quite naturally fail.

Let’s take the example of the fear of getting a ticket. That’s a pretty common fear, one that all drivers tend to have. But we could drive with mindfulness and compassion, aware of the fact that we are driving a potential weapon of death, maintaining safe speeds, watching for pedestrians and other vehicles, sharing the road with kindness and consideration, and we would be skillful drivers. The fear of getting a ticket could make us think that as long as there isn’t a police car in the vicinity we could pretty much run rampant and ‘get away with it’. What are we getting away with? While not all laws are perfect, the majority of laws were made up to keep us safe. The laws are based in common sense, and if we use common sense, awareness and compassion, we don’t have to be afraid of getting a ticket.

For me now, the direction of this exploration takes a fearful turn. Because of the advent of videos capturing incidents of police violence against unarmed black men, there is a heightened awareness and what feels like a very reasonable fear. Because the majority of the men in my family are black, my chest tightens with fear when I think about it. When it comes to this particular fear, I am currently unable to talk myself down from the ledge. But I will keep looking at it, and that’s all any of us can do: Just keep practicing, and keep exploring. I have noticed that I am less fearful when I am able to actively do something, so that might be something to also explore.

Our practice is to notice what is arising. Noticing fear is not always comfortable. But finding a way to be present with fear, without pushing it away or making it the enemy, really does help us to come into more skillful relationship with all that arises in our experience.

See for yourself if you are looking at your experience or the world through a faulty filter. And please let me know what you discover!

Gratitude in the midst of it all

kwan yin

Kwan Yin, goddess of mercy and compassion

In the US every year on the last Thursday in November we get together with family and close friends to…engorge, imbibe and put on our game face. We call it Thanksgiving, but it’s the rare gathering that actually takes time to express gratitude in the midst of the turkey, gravy and stuffing. It takes a certain bravery to be the one to break up the busy conversation for a moment of silence, prayer, poetry or, even braver, a request that everyone tell what they are grateful for. (Can you hear the collective groan?)

Throughout much of the country the weather turns cold and we just want to be cozy. We may want to hide away from the news of the world, as it takes on a fierce quality, harsh as the winds that shake the house. It feels like the newscasters are just making this stuff up to scare us. And in some ways that is true because of where they focus, how they frame it, and the need to lead with what bleeds, knowing our negativity bias.

This year we are getting to know our future president, whomever he or she may be. That enforced and extended uncertainty can be stressful, particularly when the field is so large and the candidates so… well…

We may have issues we feel strongly about, and we may feel frustrated when fellow citizens don’t seem to care, or worse, see us as the problem. And even those who share our views can get distracted by things we may consider non-issues.

The world seems full of testosterone-crazed nihilists causing havoc and heartbreak both here and abroad. We feel compassion for those who are without a home and who may feel without hope. And we are inspired by those who rise above base fears to embrace shared humanity, as when Germans greeted beleaguered refugees with generosity and compassion, or when Parisians of all ethnicities and religions hugged each other in peace after an attack on their city. This too is the world we live in. For that triumph of the human spirit we are especially grateful.

On a Thanksgiving in turbulent times, we have the capacity to deepen in gratitude for being present, together, enjoying cherished traditions. For some of us, this is our first Thanksgiving without a loved one who was very much a part of our tradition, but gratitude is still possible. We are grateful to be alive to experience whatever life brings, regardless of current circumstances or conditions.

So if you feel inspired to be the one to tap your glass and bring the table to a brief moment of sharing in this deep way, know that just below the surface we all may be feeling a little vulnerable right now and perhaps more ready than usual to acknowledge our blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

– Stephanie

 

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.

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