Fear is my ally

Eagle in flight

Fearlessness isn’t the absence of fear, but the ability stay with one’s fear and use its energy wisely. Sunada explains how working with (as opposed to fighting against) our fears can point us toward our own place of freedom.

We tend to think of fear as a bad thing. Something that gets in our way. After all, one of the enlightened qualities of a Buddha is fearlessness. Doesn’t that mean we should work toward eliminating fear from our experience?

Not so fast!

Let’s think about what fear is. On one level, it’s the instinct that propels us to run when we’re in danger. Think caveman running away from tigers and bears. Heart-pounding adrenaline.

if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it’s “bad”, we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world.

Now let’s dial down the intensity to normal everyday levels and remove that dreaded bite. It might help to imagine that same caveman walking through the woods without being chased, but still needing to be vigilant. What are the basic qualities at play here? I imagine he’d be mentally alert, with all his senses open and fully receptive. He’s physically alert as well -– nimble and ready to respond immediately and appropriately to any new sights and sounds. His mind would be clear and engaged. He’s in the present, and ready to deploy any of the skills and knowledge in his mental quiver. It’s his instinct and intuition that’s engaged. He’s in a state of readiness –- not to the point of hyper-anxiety –- but a clear, focused alertness that can respond intelligently to whatever comes his way.

Those qualities, I would argue, are the gifts that fear gives us. If that caveman had nothing to fear, he’d feel no motivation to be so keenly engaged. He’d just blunder through the woods, self-absorbed and doing whatever. So if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it’s “bad”, we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world. It also has the potential to draw out our inner resources that we may not even be aware of. It’s a force that can move us forward.

…what we’re really afraid of are our uncomfortable feelings about the fear, not the object of the fear itself.

In our present society, fear isn’t so much about physical danger. Most of us don’t encounter bodily threats regularly like that caveman did. For us, fears are mostly of the psychological kind –- like risking a leap into a new job or relationship, or a fear of loneliness or a lack of money. But fundamentally, all fear is the same.

I think we’ve so oversold ourselves on our collective belief that fear is “bad” that it’s become a hindrance. Sure, we all encounter fear from time to time, and yes, it’s very unpleasant. But I sense that what we’re really afraid of are our uncomfortable feelings about the fear, not the object of the fear itself. We hate that gnawing in our gut so much that we try to run away from it –- an instinctive reaction from our caveman days. But we can’t run away from ourselves. Not only is it futile, it’s also self-defeating.

If we have a particular fear that comes up repeatedly for us, I think it means we’re up against a self-created wall that we know is limiting us.

If we have a particular fear that comes up repeatedly for us, I think it means we’re up against a self-created wall that we know is limiting us. We’re at a boundary and know there’s freedom on the other side. That emotional charge wouldn’t be there if that thing on the other side weren’t so important to us. But it doesn’t feel safe to go there. And the more we try to fight our fear, the more it engulfs us. It fills our minds and dictates our thoughts. We’re left immobilized, and boxed in the same old limited place. There’s an adage that goes something like “what we put our attention to is what grows.” So this is another illustration of that principle.

Rather than fighting our fear, what if we used it intelligently, like that caveman walking through the woods? When we feel fear, we’re not in any real danger in that moment, are we? So stop, take a breath, and be with the fear. When we feel that emotional charge, recognize it for what it really is –- our wish for freedom. It’s something to be welcomed, nurtured, and cherished. Let’s use it wisely.

When I listen to [my fear], it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go.

So when the fear temperature rises, stay with it. But don’t fight it or indulge it. Recognize any doomsday thoughts that come up for what they are — just thoughts. In that moment, with your heightened awareness, look for what’s really calling for your attention. What’s one step we can take to move forward? As we sit, mindfully listening to our fear, we gradually loosen its hold on us. And slowly, we build our confidence to really step through to the other side, in an intelligent and grounded way.

I’ve grown to see fear as my ally. When I listen to it, it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go. It’s not just any helpful direction, but the exact place where I’m most in need of breaking through. The flip side of the same coin of fear is courage, or the fearlessness of the Buddha. Ironically the more I embrace my fear, the more strongly I connect with those little wisps of courage I can find within me.

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A leap of faith

child placing its hand in an adult's hand

Learning and growing as an individual is a do-it-yourself project… up to a point. Sooner or later, there comes a time when we need to take a risk and leap into something new and unknown, beyond our control. Sunada shares a recent experience and how it reinforced her understanding of faith.

One of the things that Westerners tend to find appealing about Buddhism is its emphasis on rationality and self-reliance. A lot of the Buddha’s teachings are very much about taking ownership of our lives. Meditation, study, and living by the ethical principles are all about objective, self-directed efforts that help us grow as individuals.

This is all accurate… up to a point.

To me faith means I don’t need to be so much in the driver’s seat of my life. I can let go of control to something I don’t entirely understand.

Here’s the irony. The more I practice in this self-directed way, the more I’m growing in faith. To me faith means I don’t need to be so much in the driver’s seat of my life. I can let go of control to something I don’t entirely understand. And there are forces greater than me that I can tap into to my benefit. So what’s that all about?

I’d like to share with you something that happened yesterday. I participated in a voice workshop in which I sang a solo in front of a small audience. Many of you know that musical performance anxiety is one of my biggest fears. I’m OK performing with a group, but solos are a completely different matter.

It’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life. On the one hand, music has always been my passion. I’ve been told by many people that I have a lovely voice. I’ve also been told I have a gift for communicating with an audience, and really enjoy doing so in other contexts, like speaking and teaching. But I didn’t get much encouragement as a child to pursue music – in fact got DIScouragement from some key people in my life. So that’s how my “I’m not good enough” demons came into being. Even though I know better in my head, those inner voices still taunt me, decades later.

I can put my boat [in the river] and try to paddle against the current, or I can let go and harness its energy so it carries me where I want to go.

For years, I did all the objectively “right” things. I’ve taken music lessons of one kind or another for my whole life. I studied music in college. I honed my technique by practicing diligently. I figured that if I felt more confident technically, I’d feel more self-assured as a performer.

That was true… up to a point.

But yesterday, I took some leaps. When the nerves started tensing my body up, I breathed more deeply, and lower into my belly. I put my trust in my body — and its ability to calm me down. I focused on the story I wanted to tell, and what emotions they brought up. I put my trust in my feelings — and their ability to connect me with my audience. When a difficult passage came up, I dropped more deeply into my present experience. I put my trust in my breath — and its primary role in supporting and gliding my voice through the tough parts. When my fear threatened to shut me down, I looked it in the face and risked being even more open. I put my trust in my authentic self, flaws and all — and how my willingness to be vulnerable makes me more engaging.

I’d known all these things in my head for years — that they were the best ways to get through an attack of nerves. But this time I really did it. I took a leap of faith.

It’s not a blind faith. I’ve put effort into learning about the nature of the river. I now feel I understand [it] well enough to feel confident in putting my trust in [it].

For me, my faith grew out of the deepening of my awareness. The more I learn about the nature of my body, my breath, my feelings, and the world around me, the more I see how they are not really in my control. They all have a certain energy about them, a way of moving and flowing that I can tap into, but not own. I suppose they’re like the flow of a river. I can put my boat into it and try to paddle against the current, or I can let go and harness its energy so it carries me where I want to go.

Faith is like putting my trust in that river. It’s not a blind faith at all. I’ve put effort into learning about the nature of the river – in this case my body, breath, and so on. I now feel I understand them well enough to feel confident in putting my trust in them.

I also know that they are part of forces in the world far greater than this small self that I think I am. To fight against them is futile and self-defeating. It makes so much more sense to give my trust to those larger energies, and let them carry me along. And what I’m seeing is that by doing so, they take me to places I couldn’t have gotten to on my own. That was certainly the case when I sang my solo yesterday.

It makes so much more sense to give my trust to those larger energies, and let them carry me along… by doing so, they take me to places I couldn’t have gotten to on my own.

I’m sure we all have situations in our lives where we’d like to do more and be more. And it’s likely we’ve taken many of the objectively “right” steps to try and get there. This is all well and good. We need to understand ourselves, our situation, and how to make our way through them. It’s a positive and constructive way to go about it.

This is all good… up to a point.

But then we come to the end of the path. We see that we have a choice. We can either stay stuck there doing what we’ve always done, or take a leap of faith into the river. And those are our only options.

So this is my understanding of where the Buddha’s path leads us. First, take responsibility for ourselves — make our own efforts to understand, to grow in awareness, sharpen our skills, and learn how the river flows. But at some point, take everything we’ve learned and put our boat in the river. Sure, it might be a rough trip. But we understand the river and ourselves well enough to ride it out. The more we do that, the more our confidence in that greater flow grows. With that faith, we’ll go much farther, and faster, than we ever could on our own.

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Playing our way through life

Girl playing, blowing bubbles

Many people think of play as a fringe benefit of life. Work comes first. Play is an “extra” that we reward ourselves with only after finishing our work. But Sunada sees it differently. On the one hand, play has a generative quality that can help us navigate successfully through life. But even more so, she sees it as an essential way of expressing life itself.

I recently listened to a fascinating podcast on National Public Radio’s show called Speaking of Faith. It REALLY made me rethink all my ideas about play! It was an interview with Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder and president of the National Institute for Play — a non-profit that sponsors research on the role of play in the development of human potential.

Play may be purposeless, but that doesn’t make it pointless.

According to Brown, “When one really doesn’t play at all or very little in adulthood, there are consequences: rigidities, depression, no irony — things that are pretty important, that enable us to cope in a world of many demands.” He suggests that play helps us learn empathy, trust, and problem solving, and also enables us to develop our talents and character over our entire lifespan.

Play as a positive approach to life issues

Play may be purposeless, but that doesn’t make it pointless. Play has a generative quality to it. It brings out our sense of curiosity and imagination, and allows us to explore unfamiliar territory in an open-minded, open-hearted way. It’s free of judgment, or the need to perform or be perfect. “Mistakes” and “wrong turns” are a natural part of the process. It also reframes notions of work and effort, and allows us to explore and learn in a joyful way.

These ideas can have some big implications for how we go about navigating and creating in our own lives. Think about it. When we’re faced with something new and unfamiliar – fearful even – which approach seems more likely to elicit a helpful and creative response: one filled with methodical problem-solving, fretful worrying, and willful effort, or one filled with a more open sense of imaginative curiosity? A friend of mine recently told me of a quote (unfortunately she couldn’t remember the author) that goes: “Adults typically only use their imaginations to worry.” What a waste is that?

What I’m talking about here is a state of mind – more about HOW we do things than WHAT we do.

Some people might at this point object by saying that their problems are very complicated and risky, and couldn’t possibly be resolved just by playing through them. But what I’m talking about here is a state of mind – more about HOW we do things than WHAT we do. From a Buddhist perspective, it’s our mental state as we go about doing things that determines the nature of what happens in our future. We certainly do need to analyze and plan our way through things. But rather than seeing them as problems, how can we view them with an attitude of openness and curiosity rather than constriction and timidity?

As a life coach, I often hear clients tell me they feel stuck with their problems because they don’t know what to do next. The way they say “I don’t know” has a tone of resignation and shutting down. Rather than throwing up the proverbial stop sign, what if we looked at the situation more like being on vacation in a new, exotic place? We might have no idea what to do or where to go, but there’s a sense of wanting to find out, and being willing to try things. Wouldn’t we do things very differently if we approached the “I don’t know” situations of life in that sort of way?

The spiritual dimension of play

In his interview, Dr. Brown also talked about a more profound, spiritual side of play. In one segment of the show he says:

“I was watching a pride of lions and two sub-adult female lionesses got up, looked at each other — and there’s a picture of this in the National Geographic magazine, what looked from a distance kind of like a fight, but it was a ballet. And while I was watching this, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this is — I’m almost brought to tears talking about it now — that this is divine.”

It turns out that this idea of a spiritual dimension in play is part of the Buddhist world as well. In the Mahayana tradition there is the figure of the bodhisattva – an enlightened being who takes on a human birth for the sole purpose of benefiting others. An essential quality of a bodhisattva is lila – Sanskrit for “play.” Far from being serious-minded martyrs, bodhisattvas joyfully play at everything they do. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, says, “One can regard this as a spontaneous overflowing of [their] inner realization, which transcends the immediate situation.1

My interpretation is that the play of the lionesses and bodhisattvas are essential expressions of life itself. There’s nothing frivolous about it. It’s not some nice “extra”. When they play, they are in effect saying “I am alive. I am here. In this moment, I am expressing my innermost nature.” It’s like saying “yes” to life, opening up to it in a full-bodied, wholehearted way.

When seen in this light, play isn’t something we relegate to our spare time, if and when we happen to have some. It’s an entire attitude toward life that ideally permeates everything we do. Life isn’t about problems to be solved, or to-do lists to be slogged through. It’s is something to be met full-on – lived and played in with 100% of our being.

1. From The Bodhisattva Ideal by Sangharakshita. Birmingham, UK: 1999, Windhorse Publications, p 139.

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Richard Wagner: “We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word.”

richard wagner

Wagner’s advice, that we need to learn to die, may bring up thoughts of our mortality: thoughts we may not be comfortable dwelling upon. But Bodhipaksa suggests learning to die really means learning to live fully, embracing the ungraspable flow of life.

“We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word. The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness,” wrote Richard Wagner.

In Wagner’s epic Ring cycle, Siegfried is the hero precisely because he lives by a code: never to let your life be shaped by fear of its end.

Religion is often supposed to free us from fear of death, and yet that doesn’t always happen. A recent study of patients with terminal cancer revealed that those who regularly prayed were more than three times more likely to insist on receiving intensive life-prolonging care than those who relied least on religion. Those who prayed most were most afraid of dying.

That’s rather sobering. Those who you think might be most happy to meet their end — so that they could meet their God — were those who most resisted death and clung desperately to life.

 …never let your life be shaped by fear of any kind.

This is ironic, and not just in the obvious sense; those who insist on heroic measures being taken to prolong their lives experience greater levels of psychological and physical distress because of the invasive nature of the medical and surgical interventions they insist upon. Clinging leads to suffering. Seems like I’ve heard that before, somewhere.

Siegfried’s code could, I think, be expanded into something wider — never let your life be shaped by fear of any kind, with death being just one particular thing to be afraid of.

Life is full of “little deaths.” There are million things in each and every day of our lives that we can either cling to, or let go of.

Every thought we have, every sensation we experience, every feeling and emotion that arises is an opportunity for either clinging or for letting go. There are a million opportunities for experiencing fear: a million opportunities to live heroically, in small ways.

Examples: I’m driving to a class I’m teaching, going smack on the speed limit. A car behind me is driving too close, looking for an opportunity to blast by me. I’ve lost the “safe space” that I like to have between my car and the vehicle following. Fear arises. Will I just let this discomfort arise and pass, or will I tense up, start cursing the other driver, or speed up to try and put some distance between us, or slow down in order to get revenge? If I just keep driving, allowing the fear to exist, I find I can be comfortable with discomfort. I don’t, after all, have to fear the loss of the sense of ease that I previously had.

The driver passes me. I experience the loss of the sense of being in front of someone. I fear a loss of status. It seems absurd, but that’s what happens. And it’s OK. I remind myself that driving’s not a competition (a useful mantra, I find). I wish the other driver well.

We can be busy resisting change — or we can love. We can’t do both.

A few minutes later in the same drive, and I feel a little bored. I’ve lost my sense of enjoyment. I fear the boredom. Will I turn on the car radio and see what’s on?

Maybe instead I’ll go deeper into my experience, take enjoyment in the quiet sensuality of driving, notice the movements in my body, the scenery passing by.

The vast majority of the time we don’t even notice these opportunities, nor do we notice when we capitulate to fear. These examples may seem trivial, but my point is that life is composed, in the main, of these supposedly trivial things.

“The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness.” In each of the examples I gave above there’s an opportunity to love. I can relate to my own fear and discomfort with love. I can cultivate lovingkindness for the driver who tailgates and then passes me. After all his bad driving habits are no doubt being fueled by his own suffering. I can remind myself to appreciate (love) the ordinary experiences involved in driving, rather than assuming that I have to look outside of myself for fulfillment.

Wagner said we have to learn “to die in the fullest sense of the word.” I wonder if the fullest sense of the word “dying” is to die in every moment. Every time some experience arises that we can cling to or push away, we simply accept it and allow it to pass. And in doing so we have an opportunity to create moments of love that fill our lives.

Maybe “to die in the fullest sense of the word” is to let clinging and aversion die. Maybe “to die in the fullest sense of the word” is to live in the fullest sense of the word.

If we can’t hold on to anything, then it’s necessary to stop trying to cling.

“The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness” because when we attempt to hold on to something that can’t, by its very nature, be held on to — and ultimately nothing can be held on to — we’re unable to appreciate. We can be busy resisting change — or we can love. We can’t do both.

Wagner, in the same letter where he talked about the necessity of learning to die, pointed out that the lesson we must learn is “to will what necessity imposes.” If we can’t hold on to anything, then it’s necessary to stop trying to cling. In order to live fully we have to learn to let go completely, to make it our “will” to embrace change and to cease clinging.

But what about “real” death. Siegfried embraced life, but the death that he didn’t fear was a literal one. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, frequently reminds us that “meditation is a preparation for death, and that death is a state of enforced meditation.” Learn to let go in life and we won’t end up like those sad terminal cancer patients, unable to accept the inevitable. We’ll perhaps be able to love death itself and see it as another opportunity to let go.

The next time you’re meditating, look at what’s going on as an illustration of the truth that you can either try to hold on, or you can love. When you feel frustration because your mind’s busier than you want it to be, realize that you can instead simply appreciate and love the sheer busyness of your mind. When you find yourself longing for some joy that has now passed, realize that you can instead simply love whatever happens to be present in your experience, and in that way experience a renewed joy.

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Blaise Pascal: “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room”

Blaise Pascal

Everyone is prey to distractedness, to seeing solace in activity as an escape from experiencing ourselves. In fact this is one of the major obstacles to a meaningful life. Bodhipaksa argues, however, that the force underlying our distractedness is a creative one, and that properly channeled it can take us all the way to enlightenment.

I’ve always been fond of this saying from Pascal’s Pensées, which reminds me that not being at peace with ourselves is a human condition rather than a uniquely modern one. All people at all times have suffered the pains of boredom, self-doubt, loneliness, irritability, restlessness, and anxiety that come from not being at peace with ourselves. I’ve experienced my fair share of that.

Like many people I have an ideal of being at peace and of enjoying rest. I struggle in my life to live and even sometimes to accomplish something meaningful, and all the time with the idea that sometime in the future — in a few weeks or perhaps next year — life will be more spacious and restful and I’ll have more time for meditating and reflecting, and for doing things that I find truly meaningful. And yet when by some rare combination of circumstances I have some free time, I find that I soon start to think about what I can do with it. And then I’m back to square one.

It’s part of the human condition to be restless.

It’s part of the human condition to be restless, to be seeking something better than we have at the moment. The Buddhist word for this is tanha, which literally means thirst. We all have a sense of thirst at the core of our being, a dissatisfaction that drives us to find meaning and happiness. But all too often we don’t actually move in the direction of finding meaning and happiness. We just move. Without self-awareness we are inclined simply to find diversion (the word “diversion” usually means “distraction” but its root meaning is “to turn away from”). We fill our lives with busyness, with distraction. And having done so we are temporarily released from our thirst. In the white heat of activity we are less aware that we are suffering.

Often the first thing that happens when someone begins to meditate is that they realize how distracted they are.

Inevitably though, we crave a lull in activity, being exhausted of or bored by the activities we’re engaged in. Running around pursuing happiness can be exhilarating, but it fails to address our deep-seated longing for meaning and happiness, and in the midst of busyness our thirst re-asserts itself, driving us towards stillness. And so we cycle through activity, a craving for respite, a brief experience of rest, and a renewed desire for activity.

When we pause and reflect — assuming we can find enough time and mental space in which to do so — we can become aware of this cycle and become dissatisfied with it. We can decide to make a break with our habitual avoidance of our real needs. And so we can decide to make a more conscious effort to find real meaning in our lives. That’s where meditation and mindfulness often come into our lives. We get to the point where the same-old-same-old looks tired and worn out and unattractive, and we intuit that we’ll really have to work with ourselves if we’re going to make a real change in our lives.

Inner restlessness is a powerful force within that drives us onwards.

What is meditation (or, more broadly, mindfulness) if not learning how to sit quietly in a room? Often the first thing that happens when someone begins to meditate is that they realize how distracted they are. And that’s the first opportunity to learn to be at peace with ourselves. When we see the inner tumult of our minds we have a choice: to become frustrated or to be forgiving with ourselves. It takes time and practice, but we can learn to accept that the mind is restless. Paradoxically, realizing this brings a measure of peace because we are less caught up in fighting with ourselves.

Our tanha — the inner thirst that drives us to look for a more satisfying way of being — now has a sense of direction and clarity. We develop more of an instinctual sense that the way to happiness is through facing ourselves rather than running away from ourselves. We realize that we have to transform states of mind that lead to unhappiness and cultivate those that lead to a deeper sense of fulfillment.

J’ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées

We learn simply to observe our thoughts rather than to get caught up in fantasies; our mindfulness deepens. We stand back from our thoughts, just noticing them; our patience becomes stronger. We find it’s possible to let go of anger and develop kindness. We find that the mind becomes less restless and that there’s a greater sense of calmness. Rather than being caught up with inner conflicts we are more at ease and happiness arises. We feel a sense of direction manifesting in our lives and we experience greater confidence.

Ultimately, Pascal points out in that same passage in his Pensées, our desire for diversion is an avoidance of the sense of our own mortality. Our “weak and mortal condition” is a “natural misfortune” that afflicts us and renders us inconsolable. Our being, he points out, is contingent (we might never have been born had circumstances been different) and impermanent (it’s certain we will die). And thus there is a deep-seated fear of non-existence, to which the ego tries to blind itself by embracing diversion and removing any possibility for deeper reflection. Meditation helps here as well.

As we continue to observe the mind we realize that all of the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise in our experience are impermanent. Within ourselves we can find nothing that is unchanging and enduring. Everything is in flux. All is change. Where then, is the “self” that we fear will die? With continued examination we begin to realize that “death” is happening in every moment. To change is to die, and change is taking place in every instant. And if that’s true, then rebirth is also taking place in every moment. As something changes, it becomes something else, and that “something else” is born. Looking a little deeper, we see that there is no “thing” to change. There is just process. The ego, upon examination, simply ceases to exist (at least in the way we used to think about it). There’s no permanent self to be found in our experience. And since the ego has ceased to exist we no longer have to fear its destruction. Death has lost its sting. Life has found its ultimate meaning. Contentment has been victorious over restlessness.

I have to keep saying “no” to distractions in order to say “yes” to my dreams.

Our tanha is not something to be seen as “bad” or even (in Buddhist terms) “unskillful.” It’s actually a powerful force within that drives us onwards. Without awareness it will drive us in circles where we make the same mistakes over and over. With awareness it leads us on to greater fulfillment and happiness.

In my own life I’ve found that I’m managing to live out my dream of being a full time writer. It takes discipline and mindfulness. I have to turn away from seductive diversions — even diversions like teaching that I find fulfilling and enjoyable in their own right. But I have to keep saying “no” to distractions (even to creative opportunities) in order to say “yes” to my dreams. And it’s challenging: the scary thing about the prospect of living your dream is that you may, when you get there, discover that it’s not what you want to do after all — and then where would you be? But it’s also rewarding and nourishing.

At the same time I have to bear in mind that no career — not even writing — can bring me true happiness. For that I have to face up to the “natural misfortune of my weak and mortal condition.” I have to cultivate insight. I have to learn to be able to sit — not writing — in a quiet room.

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Chogyam Trungpa on Warriorship

Woman in warrior pose, in front of what appear to be orange flames

In these extracts from a forthcoming book from Shambhala Publications, the late Chogyam Trungpa defines his vision of the peaceful Buddhist warrior and explains the joys of the warrior’s path.

The warrior’s weapons

If victory is the notion of no enemy, then the whole world is a friend. That seems to be the warrior’s philosophy. The true warrior is not like somebody carrying a sword and looking behind his own shadow, in case somebody is lurking there. That is the setting-sun warrior’s point of view, which is an expression of cowardice. The true warrior always has a weapon, in any case … The definition of warriorship is fearlessness and gentleness. Those are your weapons. The genuine warrior becomes truly gentle because there is no enemy at all.

From the manuscript of CONQUERING FEAR: THE HEART OF SHAMBHALA. Forthcoming from Shambhala Publications in 2009.

* * * * *

The joy of warriorship

When we speak of fearlessness, we are describing a positive state of being full of delight and cheerfulness, with sparkling eyes and good posture. This state of being is not dependent on any external circumstance. If you can’t pay the electric bill, you might not have hot water in your house. The building you live in may not be well insulated. If you don’t have indoor plumbing, you may have to use an outhouse. Millions of people in the world live this way. If you can raise your good posture of head and shoulders, then regardless of your living situation, you will feel a sense of joy. It’s not any kind of cheap joy. It’s individual dignity. This experience of joy and unconditional healthiness is the basic virtue that comes from being what we are, right now. You have to experience this natural healthiness and goodness personally.

When you practice meditation, that brings the beginning of the beginning of this experience. Then, when you leave the meditation hall and go out and relate with the rest of reality, you will find out what kind of joy is needed and what kind of joy is expendable. The experience of joy may be a momentary experience, or it could last a long time. In any case, this joy is an eye opener. You are no longer shy of seeing the world. You find that the joy of warriorship is always needed.

From the manuscript of CONQUERING FEAR: THE HEART OF SHAMBHALA. Forthcoming from Shambhala Publications in 2009.

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Waking up in the midst of loss


When life pulls the rug out from under us, we have a choice. We can either look backward at it as a disaster, or look forward through it as an opening toward something new. Sunada tells her own story of how she woke up in the midst of a personal crisis.

This week, I closed a major chapter of my life. I watched as my beloved Bösendorfer grand piano, which I had just sold, was wrapped up and carted off to its new home. This piano had once represented my dreams. It was no ordinary grand piano. It was a top of the line, artist’s instrument. Beautiful to the eyes as well as the ears. But now there is an empty space in my living room where it once stood.

I loved playing piano — I started when I was 8 years old, and studied classical music through my adult years. And I had long dreamed of having a piano like this. When I bought it, I was working in high tech, working my way up the corporate ladder and making good money. I thought I had it all – successful career, happy marriage, and a serious sideline hobby playing Chopin and Beethoven in my spare time. When a business windfall brought me some unexpected cash, I jumped at the chance to buy my dream piano. Music had always been my passion, and a golden opportunity fell into my lap. And in a way, this piano stood for many strands of my life coming together – a nice home, financial security, living out my musical dreams.

As irony would have it, I barely ever got to play my dream piano. About the time I bought it, I was pounding on a computer keyboard by day and playing the piano by night, so those hands rarely got to rest. And with that, my whole perfect world came crashing down. Within a matter of weeks, both wrists grew so painfully swollen from severe tendonitis that I had to stop using my hands almost entirely. When the injury was at its worst, I couldn’t even hold up a book or a coffee mug. It was too much strain. Playing the piano was out of the question. Permanently, as it turned out. I was at least feeling grateful that I could keep working and still had an income. But then after the events of 9/11, my fledgling business consultancy pretty much dried up, too. So much for my perfect world.

There’s a saying that when one door in life closes, a new one opens. It’s taken 13 years to recover from my injury and unplanned career change. And even today I live with lasting physical repercussions in my wrists, not to mention less financial security. But my life veered in a completely different direction because of this turn of events. It was what woke me up — and to this day I’m really grateful that it happened. The way I’m living now — as an ordained Buddhist, meditation teacher, and life coach – bears little resemblance to what it was back then.

What’s deceiving about such a condensed story told in retrospect is that it all sounds so neat and tidy. It glosses over the bumps in the road, the false turns and dead ends, and the terror of feeling forced to step out into the unknown with no guarantees that anything will work out. Even as recently as a few months ago, I wondered if I should just throw in the towel and go back to my high tech career so I wouldn’t have to sit with all the uncertainty and money worries. The compulsion to retreat into the comfort and security of the old and familiar is unbelievably powerful!

What I’ve learned is that when life pulls the rug out from under us, we have a choice. We can either look backward at it as a disaster and a loss, or look forward through it as an opportunity and opening toward something new. Which view we take makes all the difference in the world. And the key ingredient in making the wiser choice is a willingness to sit mindfully with everything, no matter what. I remember telling my friends that I felt like I was a trapeze artist suspended in mid-air: I had just let go of the swing behind me and was stuck in that moment where I couldn’t even see the swing in front of me yet, let alone grab it. And I didn’t want to look down because I knew there was no safety net under me. At moments like that, the pull of our fears and aversions can be overwhelming. But something told me I had no real option but to keep looking ahead. I had to trust that the forward momentum of my trapeze leap would carry me to a safe landing.

When we sit mindfully in the midst of our own chaos and confusion, something different starts to happen. When we stop the reflexive reaction of our fear-based choices and instead allow the moment to unfold on its own, we shift in a new direction. We’re no longer ruled by our thoughts and habits from the past, but instead applying our open curiosity and creative energy toward building something new. One small step at a time, we start changing the trajectory of our lives.

As I said before, my life looks very different today. I’m now a mezzo soprano and singing with a jazz/pop a cappella group that’s just starting to perform publicly. I love singing – to me it’s a much more direct and joyful experience to have my own body be my musical instrument, rather than to manipulate a complex contraption of piano keys and hammers. I think singing jazz and pop music is much better suited to me than playing classical piano ever was. And I love teaching meditation and coaching people toward living happier lives. It’s so much more fulfilling to me than building software programs!

But you know what? I never would have gotten here if that rug hadn’t been pulled out from under me. The thought of leaving behind my “perfect world” wouldn’t have even occurred to me. And what a great lesson I learned from it.

I also see now that these opportunities for waking up don’t only come along in once-in-a-lifetime personal crises. They’re happening all the time. Every moment we live is an opportunity to stop, look, and start afresh. I was just so soundly asleep that I needed something big and dramatic to grab my attention!

My living room is now more spacious since I’ve rearranged the furniture, sans piano. The room actually feels more comfy, more inviting. My husband and I — and our friends too — seem to gravitate to it more than we used to. I’m not sure what new things will come into this space that’s opened up, but I’ll be mindfully watching for what it might be.

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Scare the Heck Out of Your “Self” (Beliefnet.com)

Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman explains the value in ‘realizing your selflessness.’

People often ask me, “Why did Buddha have to be such a downer? Obviously nirvana is a happy, cheerful state. So why didn’t he just call it ‘bliss’ or something? Why did he have to label the reality he discovered with negative words like ‘voidness,’ ’emptiness,’ and ‘selflessness’?” When people respond negatively to these terms, it’s often because they’re worried that the words imply they are going to die, disappear, or go crazy in their attempts to seek enlightenment. And that’s exactly why the Buddha called reality by those names. He did it on purpose, to liberate you! Why? Because the only thing that’s frightened by the word “selflessness” is the artificially constructed, unreal, pretend self. It doesn’t really exist. That pseudo-self seems to quiver and quake because the habit that makes it seem real wants to keep its hold on you. So if you’re seeking happiness and freedom, then you should want to scare the heck out of your “self” — you want to scare it right out of your head!

Actually, it is constantly scaring the heck out of you. Your “self” is always busy terrorizing you. You have a terrorist in your own brain, coming out of your own instincts and culture, who is pestering you all the time. “Don’t relax too much,” it is saying, “you’ll get stepped on. A bug will bite you. Someone will be nasty to you. You’ll get passed by, abused, sick. Don’t be honest. Pretend. Because if you’re honest, they’ll hurt you.” And it’s ordering you, “Be my slave. Do what I tell you to do. Keep me installed up here at this very superficial level of the brain where I sit in my weird Woody Allen-type cockpit. Because I’m in control.” Your falsely perceived, fixated, domineering self is precisely what’s getting between you and a fulfilling life.

. . .

“Realizing your selflessness” does not mean that you become a nobody, it means that you become the type of somebody who is a viable, useful somebody, not a rigid, fixated, I’m-the-center-of-the-universe, isolated-from-others somebody. You become the type of somebody who is over the idea of a conceptually fixated and self-created “self,” a pseudo-self. You become the type of somebody who is content never to be quite that sure of who you are – always free to be someone new, somebody more.

That’s the whole point of selflessness. If you don’t know exactly who you are all the time, you’re not sick, you’re actually in luck, because you’re more realistic, more free, and more awake! You’re being too intelligent to be stuck inside some frozen mask of personality! You’ve opened up your wisdom, and you’ve realized that “knowing who you are” is the trap – an impossible self-objectification. None of us knows who we really are. Facing that and then becoming all that we can be – astonishing, surprising, amazing – always fresh and new, always free to be more, brave enough to become a work in progress, choosing happiness, open-mindedness, and love over certitude, rigidity, and fear – this is realizing selflessness!

Reprinted with permission from “Infinite Life: Seven Virtues for Living Well” published by Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam.

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Buddhists able to train their brains to feel genuine happiness and control aggressive instincts

Buddhists who meditate may be able to train their brains to feel genuine happiness and control aggressive instincts, research has shown.

According to Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy at Duke University in North Carolina, Buddhists appear to be able to stimulate the left prefrontal lobe – an area just behind the forehead – which may be why they can generate positive emotions and a feeling of well being.

Writing in today’s New Scientist, Professor Flanagan cites early findings of a study by Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin, who used scanners to analyse the active regions of a Buddhist’s brain.

Professor Flanagan said the findings are “tantalising” because the left prefrontal lobes of Buddhist practitioners appear to “light up” consistently, rather than just during acts of meditation.

“This is significant, because persistent activity in the left prefrontal lobes indicates positive emotions and good mood,” he writes. “The first Buddhist practitioner studied by Davidson showed more left prefrontal lobe activity than anyone he had ever studied before.

“Buddhists are not born happy. It is not reasonable to suppose that Tibetan Buddhists are born with a ‘happiness gene’. The most reasonable hypothesis is there is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek,” he writes.

Another study of Buddhists by scientists at the University of California has also found that meditation might tame the amygdala, the part of the brain involved with fear and anger.

Professor Flanagan writes: “Antidepressants are currently the favoured method for alleviating negative emotions, but no antidepressant makes a person happy. On the other hand, Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, which were developed 2,500 years before Prozac, can lead to profound happiness.”

The Independent (original article no longer available)

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