fear

From fear and denial to love and acceptance

Photo by Erico Marcelino on Unsplash

In the opening words to his book “The Road Less Traveled,” the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck says:

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

I’d put this less absolutely than Peck does: once we know, understand, and accept that life is difficult, it becomes less difficult. This difficult thing of being human is made easier when we accept the inevitability of suffering.

I’d like to offer a series of suggestions to help you see the truth of this. And so I invite you to read the following points slowly and with care, allowing yourself time to take each suggestion on board, testing them in the heart and comparing them honestly with your own lived experience.

Drop any defensiveness or desire to be seen as perfect, and allow yourself to feel your own vulnerability. Let go of any desire to see yourself as “succeeding,” and let yourself be gloriously, humanly imperfect.

I suggest you spend at least a minute on each of these thoughts, and perhaps a bit longer on the final one.

  • First, as you read these words become aware of your vulnerable human body, with its beating heart, and the constant rise and fall of the breathing. This body is aging, and prone to injury and illness, as are all human bodies. Recognize yourself as an embodied, living being who will not be on this earth for long. If this is at all uncomfortable, see if you can regard those painful feelings with kindly eyes.
  • Next, allow into your awareness that your feelings are important to you. Perhaps in this moment you’re not feeling much, but sometimes you suffer, and sometimes you are happy. Consider the reality of this, recalling moments of happiness and of unhappiness, recognizing yourself as a feeling being.
  • Consider that you want, as your deepest desire, to find some kind of wellbeing, or happiness, or peace, and to escape suffering where that’s possible. When you remember times you’ve been unhappy, was there a desire to be free from that suffering? When you remember times of peace, happiness, or wellbeing, was there a wish to remain in that state? Recognize yourself as a being who desires happiness as your deepest yearning.
  • Now, remind yourself that happiness is often elusive, and that you experience suffering far more often than you’d like, were life ideal. Recognize yourself as a struggling being—as someone who is doing a difficult thing in being human.
  • Finally, try saying the following words to yourself for a few minutes: “May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be kind to myself and others.”

The first four activities help you empathize with yourself. Through them you sense yourself as a being in need of support, worthy of support. And this empathetic awareness of yourself provides a grounding for being kind to yourself. The phrases—“May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be kind to myself and others”— are ways of showing yourself support. By the time you got to the fifth suggestion you may have felt that you actually wanted to offer yourself kindness and encouragement, and that you wanted to offer yourself support.

These reflections open us up to experiencing our own vulnerability, and this can be an uncomfortable process. It may be, for example, that heartache or sadness arose. That’s a common response. These reflections can put us in touch with yearnings that we have, perhaps out of duty or fear, long suppressed. We can spend much of our lives pretending to ourselves that we’re much happier than we actually are. We can pretend that suffering is an unfortunate accident we’re on the verge of recovering from. It can be frightening to take on board the truth that we frequently suffer, and that we’re not fully in control of our own lives.

Should painful feelings of sadness or heartache arise, it’s wise to accept them and show them kindness. If they do appear, that’s a good sign, because it shows that we’re getting more fully in touch with the reality that life is difficult. Empathizing with ourselves, and being kind toward ourselves, is essential if we’re to accept that reality, because it allows us to let go of the fear that leads to denial.

These reflections help us to more from fear and denial to love and acceptance. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable lets us see how challenging and difficult life is, but it also allows us to empathize with ourselves and to offer ourselves kindness and support as we do this difficult thing of being human.

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Sincerity and meditation

Devi Sawh, Huffington Post: It was funny to me when at a meditation retreat in 2015, the facilitator used the word “sincere” to describe the type of meditator I am. It was funny because that has not always been the case. I have had to work for that like just about everything else on this journey of self-growth.

I remember a very long time ago when I first started to try to make meditation a daily practice, I had a very hard time being sincere each time I sat for meditation. I was trying it because I was …

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Inviting Mara to tea

Tea set, Tea Cup with Teapot and Rose

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!…
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
—Rumi

One of my favorite stories of the Buddha shows the power of a wakeful and friendly heart. The night before his enlightenment, the Buddha fought a great battle with the Demon God Mara, who attacked the then bodhisattva Siddhartha Gautama with everything he had: lust, greed, anger, doubt, etc. Having failed, Mara left in disarray on the morning of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

Yet, it seems Mara was only temporarily discouraged. Even after the Buddha had become deeply revered throughout India, Mara continued to make unexpected appearances. The Buddha’s loyal attendant, Ananda, always on the lookout for any harm that might come to his teacher, would report with dismay that the “Evil One” had again returned.

Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”

He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honored guest. Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two earthen cups with tea, place them on the low table between them, and only then take his own seat. Mara would stay for a while and then go, but throughout the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.

When Mara visits us, in the form of troubling emotions or fearsome stories, we can say, “I see you, Mara,” and clearly recognize the reality of craving and fear that lives in each human heart. By accepting these experiences with the warmth of compassion, we can offer Mara tea rather than fearfully driving him away. Seeing what is true, we hold what is seen with kindness. We express such wakefulness of heart each time we recognize and embrace our hurts and fears.

Our habit of being a fair weather friend to ourselves—of pushing away or ignoring whatever darkness we can—is deeply entrenched. But just as a relationship with a good friend is marked by understanding and compassion, we can learn to bring these same qualities to our own inner life.

Pema Chödron says that through spiritual practice “We are learning to make friends with ourselves, our life, at the most profound level possible.” We befriend ourselves when, rather than resisting our experience, we open our hearts and willingly invite Mara to tea.

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How to mind your feelings

wildmind meditation newsDaniel Goleman, Lion’s Roar: While we can’t control when we feel anger or fear—or how strongly—we can gain some control over what we do while in their grip. If we can develop inner radar for emotional danger, we gain a choice point the Dalai Lama urges us to master.

When I asked the Dalai Lama how to find this inner choice point, he suggested one method: questioning destructive mental habits. Even though there may be a bit of legitimacy to our griev­ances, are the disturbing emotions we feel way out of proportion? Are such feelings familiar, recurring again and again? If so, we …

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Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche discusses the relevance of science as a tool for meditators

Tricycle Magazine: Born in Nepal in 1975, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is the youngest son of the eminent meditation master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and received the same kind of rigorous training associated with previous generations of Tibetan adepts. In his new book, The Joy of Living (Harmony Books), Mingyur Rinpoche recounts how he used meditation to outgrow a childhood beset by fears and extreme panic attacks. From a very young age, he also displayed a keen interest in science; he has pursued this curiosity and how it relates to Buddhist …

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The teaching of the zombie Buddha

By day I’m a peace-loving Buddhist; by night a fearless zombie slayer.

That second part isn’t entirely true. Last night I didn’t actually slay any zombies, and I certainly wasn’t fearless. In fact I was terrified as I cowered inside my car as a ravening undead creature tried to force its head through the half-open window, growling and gnashing with its foul, gaping maw. I tried to stab at it with a pointed stick, but never quite made contact. (Pointed sticks are for vampires, I know, but you have to use the tools available to you, and that’s what I had at hand.)

As it happens, this was just one of the very realistic zombie adventures that wove themselves into my dreams last night. You might think that I’d wake up feeling disturbed after all these encounters with the living dead, but this morning I actually felt elated, because I understand these dreams and have learned to recognize them as a good sign.

I’ve had many similar nightmares in which I’ve been pursued by dangerous fiends, although these were my first confrontations with zombies. Curiously, whatever form these threatening figures take, they never actually harm me. They are also immune to my attempts to harm them. In these dreams it is they who are terrifying, but it is I who am violent. I hope that strikes you as curious.

What I’ve realized is that we don’t always dream from the viewpoint of our conscious daytime selves. Often our dreams give us an insight into what it’s like to be part of our subconscious.

Call to mind a unhelpful habit that you have—perhaps a tendency to binge-eat, or to get hooked on Facebook, or a tendency to be bad-tempered. Personifying those habits for a moment—which is quite reasonable since they are in fact quite major parts of a person—think of how meditation must appear when seen from their point of view. They don’t want to change, and certainly doesn’t want to cease existing, and yet that’s what meditation is going to do to them. From the point of view of those habits, meditation is a threatening—even terrifying—force. This is true not just for meditation, but for all Dharma practice, which gently destroys who we are in order to birth a new us.

In traditional Buddhist iconography, enlightened figures have both peaceful and wrathful aspects. The peaceful forms are as you would expect: figures meditating quietly, sometimes dressed in simple monastic robes, or sometimes adorned with jewelry, arrayed as princes or princesses. The wrathful forms, by contrast, are wildly dancing, often wreathed in flames. They’re clad in flayed skins, decorated with garlands of skulls, or draped with the corpses of humans or animals. These wrathful forms represent enlightenment seen from the viewpoint of our resistance. They are the zombies I’ve fought in my dreams.

My zombie dreams are encounters with awakening, which is why I’m happy that the undead came close to gnawing on my flesh last night. Something within me is in active pursuit of unskillful patterns of thought and action, and wants to transform them. Something inside me is trying to destroy the recalcitrant habits that cause me suffering. This pursuit is only terrifying in my dreams because I’m experiencing things from the point of view of my habits. Those habits don’t want to change, and so they flee and try to fight back. The forces of compassion and wisdom, on the other hand, may be perceived as threatening but never do any harm.

Last night’s dreams confront me with the fact that although of late I’ve been meditating daily, I haven’t been throwing myself into my practice in a way that’s going to lead to deep transformation. I haven’t been putting in enough hours, or practicing with sufficient diligence. And so I feel a joyful urge to cast myself into the midst of the zombie horde, and to be devoured. In other words I feel enthusiastic about meditating longer, going deeper, and surrendering myself to change.

When I’ve turned to face a threatening figure in my dreams, it’s been revealed as beautiful, wise, and compassionate. And I have confidence that when I meditate deep and long, sitting with any fear that arises, some creative part of me will bring about unexpected and unimaginable transformations in my being.

When we turn to face our fears, everything changes.

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Relax needless fear around others

Crowd walking - group of people walking together (motion blur)We all know this fear. You’re walking down a street, someone you don’t know comes toward you, and there’s a second or more of wariness, scanning, apprehension, and tension or bracing in the body: a barely conscious assessment of possible threat. Or you step into a meeting with people you know and still there could be a watchfulness, a restraint, a certain carefulness in how you speak that comes more from subtle anxiety than reasonable prudence. Perhaps someone disagrees with you in this meeting – and you feel uneasy, off balance, unprotected; maybe later you worry what others thought about how you responded to the disagreement: Was I too irritated and pushy? Do they think I’m defensive? What should I do next time? When you get home, let’s say your teenage son is quiet and prickly as usual. You want to tell him that the chilly distance between you feels awful, and you want to open your heart to him . . . but it feels awkward, you’re afraid of making things worse, and when you spoke from the heart while growing up it did not go well and the fears reaching back into your childhood shadow and strengthen your fears today, so you say nothing, again.

And these are just the milder anxieties. Consider stronger ones, such as common fears about others getting angry, public speaking, being vulnerable, talking with authority figures, what others might think about your body, or being around people who aren’t like you.

Sometimes these fears are justified. People at home or work might actually want to hurt you. On a larger scale, think about Europe as it lurched into World War II, a time when many people treated others terribly, and when underestimating this threat had devastating consequences; there are many similar examples.

But often our fears around other people are not justified. They could care less about what we did – we are usually just a bit player in their own personal drama, anyway – or if they do care, it’s a passing feeling. Even if the other person does react, most likely you could handle it fine. Further, if there truly is something to deal with – a conflict, issue, broken agreement, betrayal – it is possible to be clear-eyed, strong, straightforward, confident, and secure without being anxious about it (see the chapter on kindness and assertiveness in Buddha’s Brain. Anxiety is something added to our response to situations; sometimes it’s helpful, but usually it clouds thinking, adds needless suffering, and fuels conflicts with others.

So there are two kinds of mistakes we can make: having too little or too much anxiety around others. We should do our best to avoid making either kind. But which mistake is more common?

It’s the second one: needless anxiety stirred into the sauce of life, making it bitter.

Be mindful of anxiety around others, especially subtle unease, concern, tension, nervousness, or worry. Tune into your body, that little jump in heartrate or funny feeling in the pit of your stomach. Watch the thoughts passing through, the quiet murmuring in the back of the mind that overestimates threats and underestimates resources, that predicts problems which are actually unlikely.

Be aware of the costs to you of unnecessary – not useful, not valuable – anxiety. Besides feeling bad, it makes a person play smaller with others, hold back his or her truth, and hunker down – or go to war, in ways small or large. Then really decide in your heart if you want to be free of this worthless fear.

With someone who you know cares about you, try saying to yourself (adapt my suggestions to your needs): I know you’re not going to attack me. Find your way to having the statement ring true, and then see how you feel. Do it again with this statement to yourself: Even if you did attack me, I would still be OK in the core of my being. Let the truth of this and related good feelings sink into you. Here’s another one: I can take care of myself around you. Let this, too, sink in. And: If you hurt me, I’ll still be OK in my core. And: I wish you well. If you have any difficulty with this practice, try other people who love you. The essence here is to feel your way into a place in which you recognize others and situations as they truly are, you take care of your own needs, and no needless anxiety is added.

Then try this practice with one or more friends . . . and then with a neutral person, such as a stranger on the street . . . and then even with someone who is difficult for you. If there is truly something to be anxious about, so be it. Otherwise, keep opening to the experience of being realistic about others and strong on your own behalf – without feeling any pointless fear.

Also try this approach when interacting with others. Can you talk with a family member, a friend, a neutral person, and a difficult person without one bit of unnecessary worry, alarm, sense of threat, or uneasiness? As you deepen your sense of being appropriately fearless with others, keep letting this experience sink in so you become increasingly grounded in this way or being.

Enjoy the sense of freedom this practice brings, the greater ease with others, the confidence. Notice how you can be more relaxed, patient, open, and caring with other people when you are not afraid.

What a comfort, and what a relief.

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When you’re afraid of meditating

Birds nest in old mans handsFor various reasons, we can sometimes experience a fear of meditating. We may know that meditating would help us, but we find the thought of getting on the cushion terrifying. Perhaps we bury ourselves in distractions in order to keep the fear at bay.

If this is something you experience, how can you deal with it? I’d suggest that rather than “be tough” and forcing yourself to meditate, it would be more useful to be accepting and compassionate toward your anxiety. Your anxiety isn’t intending to be your enemy — it thinks it’s protecting you from some kind of danger. It’s misguided rather than “bad.” So what you need is reassurance.

I encourage people to notice where the anxiety is most strongly centered in the body (often it’s the solar plexus, where there are lots of nerves that get activated when fear is aroused).

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Then, as best you can, let the anxiety be there. The part of your brain that’s generating the anxiety is already expecting an attack, so do you really want to confirm its fears by being the one who does the attacking? So let go of any thoughts about how anxiety is bad, or how it shouldn’t be there, or how you shouldn’t be anxious, or how there’s something wrong with you for being anxious. If those thoughts arise, don’t encourage them. Just note their arising and relax back into your experience of the body. Your anxiety is just a sensation in the body. It’s not (if you’re anxious about meditating) a sign that there’s something wrong, or that there’s something wrong with you. It’s OK to feel anxious. You can reassure yourself about this by saying, “It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this.”

What the anxious part of you needs is kindness and reassurance. So try putting your hand on your solar plexus and saying to your anxiety, “I love you, and I want you to find peace. May you be happy.” You can make reassuring movements with your hand as you do this. If the anxiety is specifically about meditating, then you can add things like, “It’s OK. We can do this. I know you’re afraid, but we can handle this.” Become your own healer.

At this point you’re already meditating, so you can just sit where you are and continue. Perhaps after some time you can gently move to your meditation place.

As Rilke wrote, “Be of good courage. All is before you, and time passed in the difficult is never lost.”

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How to make enemies

toy green army man surrounded

I’ve been making a lot of enemies lately. People I don’t even know. A guy passes me on the street and looks a little too fashionably dressed and carefully coiffured. I pass a negative judgement (“what a poser”) and the world looks a little nastier. When cars overtake me at unnecessary speed I resent the fact that such idiocy exists and again the world has a few new enemies in it. A lady wearing expensive clothing and a fixed look of disgust on her face stares through me from the passenger seat of a car, and I feel my own face begin to crinkle in disgust. She’s one of them.

For every enemy I add, my world gets darker, more lonely, more frightening. I can feel it happening even as I am doing it. But when I step back and take a moment to consider what’s going on, I can see that the only thing happening is that I am painting the world black. I’m not making any discoveries about some outside reality – life continues all around me as before. I haven’t identified my enemies, I’ve created them.

I’m constructing my own reality and I’m doing it in an unskillful way. I’m feeding the wolf of hate (to use Rick Hanson‘s image) because some part of me believes that I am protecting myself from the things and the people I don’t like. But I’m not. Instead I’m just creating more things and people to dislike and surrounding myself with them. I feel like I’m under siege.

Yesterday, with the help of my Google + sangha, I started to break that siege. Yet another potential enemy approached me on the street: A young man with big shades and bigger hair, designer clothes and matching scowl.  I caught myself in the act of creating a new enemy and the phrase “Is this what I want to fill my mind with?” – suggested by a friend in the sangha – arose. Into that famous ‘gap’ between stimulus and reaction I introduced a new thought, aimed at the approaching youth – “may you be well”. I began to remember the stomach-churning pressure to fit in and look good that comes with youth, and I felt a wave of sympathy for him. The relief was instant. I can still feel it now as I write. There is more space in my experience. More warmth. More colour. The world continues to do what it always does, but I don’t have to paint it black.

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The trance of fear

tara-brachAll of us live with fear. Whenever fear takes over, we’re caught in what I call the trance of fear. As we tense in anticipation of what may go wrong, our heart and mind contract. We forget that there are people who care about us, and about our own ability to feel spacious and openhearted. Trapped in the trance, we can experience life through the filter of fear, and when we do, the emotion becomes the core of our identity, constricting our capacity to live fully.

This trance usually begins in childhood, when we experience fear in relating to our significant others. Perhaps as an infant our crying late at night may have frustrated our exhausted mother. When we saw her frowning face and heard her shrill tone, suddenly we felt unsafe with the person we most counted on for safety. Our arms and fists tightened, our throat contracted, our heartbeat raced.

This physical reaction of fear in response to disapproval may have happened repeatedly through our early years. We might have tried out something new—putting on our clothes all by ourselves and gotten them backwards. We might have poured a cup of grape juice—but spilled it on the living room carpet. Each time our mother’s disapproving look and tone of frustration were directed at us, we felt the same chain reaction of fear in our body.

While the bodies of young children are usually relaxed and flexible, if experiences of fear are continuous over the years, chronic tightening happens. Our shoulders may become permanently knotted and raised, our head thrust forward, our back hunched, our chest sunken.

Rather than a temporary reaction to danger, we develop a permanent suit of armor. We become, as Chogyam Trungpa puts it, “a bundle of tense muscles defending our existence.” We often don’t even recognize this armor because it feels like such a familiar part of who we are. But we can see it in others. And when we are meditating, we can feel it in ourselves—the tightness, the areas where we feel nothing.

This trance of fear not only creates habitual contraction in our body. Our mind too becomes trapped in rigid patterns. The one-pointedness that served us in responding to real threats becomes obsession. Our mind, making associations with past experiences, produces endless stories reminding us of what bad things might happen and strategizing how to avoid them.

Through I-ing and My-ing, the self takes center stage in these stories: Something terrible is about to happen to me; I am powerless; I am alone; I need to do something to save myself. Our mind urgently seeks to control the situation by finding the cause of the problem, and we either point the finger at others or at ourselves.

Feelings and stories of unworthiness and shame are perhaps the most binding element in the trance of fear. When we believe something is wrong with us, we’re convinced that we’re somehow in danger. Our shame fuels ongoing fear, and our fear fuels more shame. The very fact that we feel fear seems to prove that we are broken or incapable. When we’re trapped in trance, being fearful and bad seem to define who we are. The anxiety in our body, the stories, the ways we make excuses, withdraw or lash out—these become to us the self that is most real.

Whenever we’re in this trance, the rest of the world fades into the background. Like the lens on a camera, our attention narrows to focus exclusively on the foreground of our fearful stories and our efforts to feel more secure.

The key to transforming this trance is by becoming aware of it—mindful of all our strategies, stories, physical reactions and bodily sensations—and allowing ourselves to be present to all of it without added constriction and judgment. If we can stay honestly and courageously awake to our fear, it can enable us to recognize and fully experience whatever is arising in the present moment, and keep us from falling into the trance.

Especially with intense or traumatic fear, a full mindful presence is often not advised or even possible as a first step. Rather, we need to take some time to cultivate inner resources of safety, strength and loving connection. In time, these inner strengths will allow us to stay present when fear arises, and meet the experience with interest and care.

For all of us, whether traumatized or not, there is deep conditioning to reflexively pull away from contacting the rawness of fear. Yet this avoidance is exactly what solidifies trance. As we cultivate our willingness, mindfulness and compassion, we can learn to face and transform our fear. We discover that we can awaken from the trance of fear even in the midst of the most challenging circumstances.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Whenever we can relate to fear rather than from fear, our sense of who we are begins to shift and enlarge. Instead of constructing a tense and embattled self, we can reconnect with our naturally spacious awareness. Instead of being trapped in and defined by our experiences, we can recognize them as a changing stream of thoughts and feelings. In these moments we have awakened from trance. We are inhabiting a wholeness of being that is peaceful and free.

Adapted from Radical Acceptance (2003)

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