For years I circled around the meditation cushion but could never land. But then---as is the case for so many of us---I realized I had no choice but to stop and listen.
I came to Zen practice because so much of what I tried for the better part of 40 years just didn't really touch the deepest recesses of fear and its side-kick, a chronic need to control. Everything. Sure, a lot did work to tend to other pockets of pain, anguish, and dysfunction. But the wild, cackling, judging, jumping bean of my mind was just too persistent and relentless.
When my world caved in at age 41, I found myself on my knees, doubled over in a heap of sobbing flesh and bones at my (then just met) Zen teacher's feet. And for the first time in my life, I experienced true surrender as I croaked out through a snot-covered face, “Please tell me what to do.... I have no answers anymore to my pain. I can't be with it, and yet I can't seem to get out from underneath it. It's killing me.”
She was totally non-plussed. Not in a cold way. More in a way that said to me, “oh dear suffering fellow human, I see you and I'll meet you exactly where you are, mired in confusion and dripping in tears. Your pain does not frighten me.” And with that, this tiny-bodied zen-robed priest with the widest of smiles placed her hand on my back as I sobbed and sobbed and felt my entire body surrender a life-time of holding. When I sat upright again, what I saw in her eyes was something I now understand and more importantly have come to feel was unmitigated acceptance of everything she witnessed in that moment with me. It was calm. And soft. And steady. And deeply, fiercely heart-centered.
Thus began my journey into Zen practice. It's a journey about sitting still ---and anyone who knows me knows that this alone is not a minor miracle; it's a process of developing through massive waves of typhoon-strength mind lashings a steadier observer who allows it all without bargaining or equivocation. Notice I say “steadier.” I'm likely a few lifetimes away from consistently steady, but that doesn't matter to me anymore because mountains moved for me with the development of “steadier.” The point is not to achieve a steady mind. It is to be able to witness steadiness, unsteadiness, anxiety, fear, bliss, boredom, and all the rest of the activity in the mind-body that make up this miraculous tapestry of human experience.
So I'm talking to you here from the front lines of human experience. This is not an intellectual endeavor for me and I don't want it to be for you either. You have to be willing to ask your chattering, nattering mind to take a seat on the bench as you enlist your observer to take on the role of captain of your team. And you have to invite that process with patience and even with a little spice of wonder. American Buddhist nun (who also happens to be---unbeknownst to her---my adopted grandmother) Pema Chodron, talks a lot about not too tight, not too loose. What she means is that we need to practice sharpening our observer in a steadfast, diligent, and dedicated way but also that that must be met with a soft heart that can receive and accept----without criticism and judgment----the reprisal of the same old stories of mind stuff that show up ad infinidum.
So let’s begin our inquiry into fear with this tenet: There is absolutely nothing wrong with fear. Let me repeat that. There is absolutely nothing wrong with fear. It is, in fact, an extremely useful emotion. Think about back in the day when we were cave people trying to survive in the wilds along with the animal kingdom. Fear would have helped us to remember where the lion's den was and then the more we would have allowed fear to inform us of this fact, the more likely would have been our success in staying away from that danger. And I'm not so sure that we cave people would have fretted too much over whether or not it was reasonable to be afraid. We were too busy surviving. But modern life with all of its “evolution” in many domains seems to have wrapped us humans into knots about our fears. We run from them. We pretend they don't exist. We drown ourselves in addictive behaviors and myriad distractions to try to outpace and conquer them. And yet they persist. Relentlessly for many of us. Why is that? What exactly is it about fear that makes it so hard to be with? I believe that the answer isn't found in the nature of fear itself, rather it is found in what we tend to do when we notice or experience fear.
Think of it this way: fear is just an emotion. A powerful one to be sure, but it's just one of many in the landscape of human emotions. And yes, those so-called “negative” emotions are generally more challenging for most of us to metabolize but I've witnessed fear (in myself and others) atrophy an otherwise well-functioning individual. Fear is what I refer to as a signal emotion. It lets us know that something is cooking. Ani Pema wisely tells us that “fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” I understand this to mean that fear is not the end of the story. It's the beginning. It's telling us something true about our experience and rather than push, shove, cajole, trick, anesthetize ourselves to block it out, we'd do well to practice the opposite: pull up a chair, park our tushies, and open up our big beautiful hearts to the wisdom fear can provide.
But how do we work with fear? Let us first open up to the possibility that our fear can offer us the opportunity to tune in and pay exquisite attention to the whirings of the mind-body system. Why would we do that? Well, because that which resides in the shadows of the unknown, inexperienced, untouched tends to haunt us like a m-er f-er. So we need to first be willing to explore it. And that very willingness takes some serious guts. But from that initial willingness to get familiar with our fears and the information it provides lays the foundation for our ability to ride the waves of fear like a world-class surfer.
Once we've committed to a process of exploration of our fears, we can start the work of seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, feeling our way to a relationship to it through our mind-body system. A place where everything (yes I said EVERYTHING) can exist without sending us into a tailspin of reactivity and emotional overload.
So the first stop on this train is the simple yet profound act of noticing your reaction to fear as it surfaces. Just. Notice. We notice to develop an awareness of our habit patterns that kick into swift action when fear arises. The practice of noticing without reacting or even responding initially (as in taking an immediate, knee-jerk action) will begin SLOOOOOWLY to create space for your neutral internal observer to wise up a bit to the mind's often unconscious modus operandi.
With that space you've created by noticing without reactivity, practice now opening to the real truth of what happens in your mind-body when fear surfaces and then name it. “I want to run.” “I want to punch someone in the face.” “My stomach is in knots and I feel like I'm going to vomit.” (Is it only me here who reacts that way to the presence of fear?!) Naming within the neutral stance of observing allows us to come into our truth about the mind's activity around this sometimes sticky, thorny, dizzying feeling. No matter how gnarly it is----just notice it. See it as you would each unique wave crashing along the jagged rocks shore-side. Few of us would judge one wave over the other. We'd generally just watch and see the qualitative differences---foamy, fast, creeping, undulating, ripping---Invite your internal observer to do the very same with fear.
The next piece then is to accept all that stuff that surfaces from noticing and naming. Yep, I said it. Accept ALLLLLLLL of it. Acceptance is often misunderstood as synonymous with agreement. It's not the same at all. Acceptance means being willing to be with the truth of what is arising without leveling any judgment. It means allowing your mind-body to begin developing a tolerance for the truth of your thoughts and feelings and then not running away---in either mind chatter, judgment, or reactivity.
In my own practice, I often borrow an exercise I learned on retreat from Zen teacher Reb Anderson. He instructed us to practice acceptance with one word: “Welcome.” Welcome the fear. Welcome the nausea, the rage, the numbing underneath the fear. Welcome the dis-ease and agitation in the mind-body. And then once the mind starts making a voluminous story about those thoughts, feelings, and sensations, simply say, “thank you, but I'm just going to hang out here a little while in my body and notice what I experience without assigning any grand meaning to it.” And then turn back to your sensations in your body and again just notice and accept the thoughts without judgment.
At this point you might be asking, “Why would I welcome all of that shit?! It's horrible!” I'll respond by asking you a question in return: “Resisting what arises, fighting its presence as it shows itself in your mind-body, denying, pushing, judging, scratching, and flapping your arms about it....How's that working out so far?” If you're anything at all like me, that answer would be, “Not so fantastic.”
Now I invite you---take a seat. Turn to that fear. See it. Feel it. Let it in wholeheartedly. BREATHE. Let it teach you where you're stuck. Let it point to you where you need more strident, committed self-care. Let it show you how resilient, warrior-hearted, perfectly imperfect you really are. And fear will eventually become perhaps not your bestie, but assuredly at least not such a fierce enemy to be beaten down or conquered. On the decided up side, it can become one of many sign-posts to the lived experiences of your time here. Start today. Damn, start now. Turn away from your device that delivered this post to you. Close your eyes.
John Burroughs famously encourages us, “Leap and the net will appear.” And psssstt…..here’s the glorious secret: YOU are the net. Your deepest truest wisdom is the net. Learn to trust it. Learn to trust you.
With love and deep bows,
(Originally published in "Everyday Adhara: On Words," January 2015)