fearlessness

Why it’s important to meditate every day

Buddha meditating

I used to envy people who were able to meditate every day, because it was something I struggled with. Certain people just didn’t have a problem with meditating daily, but I found it hard.

I’d have successful runs of a few weeks, and then I’d end up not meditating one day. And that perceived failure led to me missing more days, on the dubious assumption that if I couldn’t do something perfectly there was no point even trying.

Eventually I did manage to become one of the people I used to envy, able to meditate every day. I’ve shared how I achieved that here in this blog and also in a course I created, called “Get Your Sit Together.”

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But you may wonder, why even try to meditate every day? You may experience benefits from sporadic meditation and not see the importance of becoming what I call a “rock-solid daily meditator.”

So I’d like to share some of the reasons I think it’s important.

Putting First Things First

Meditation is one of the most important things I do in my life. It changes everything. The mindfulness that I develop, the kindness that I develop in my meditation practice, the insights that I have from my practice, all change my life in many, many ways that make me happier and also make me a better person to be around.

And that for me is a very important motivation. I want to be a better person to be around and have a more positive influence on people around about me and not to be an asshole because that can happen.

The things that squeezed meditation out of my schedule were always less important in the great scheme of things. Spending time on social media, or watching TV, or working are just not important enough that we should allow them to stop us meditating regularly. No one on their death bed is going to think, “I’m glad I spent so much time at the office,” or “Looking back, I’m most proud of binge-watching Supernatural.”

Even things like family and intimate relationships shouldn’t get in the way. I’m not saying those things are unimportant. They’re very important. But the quality of those human relationships is going to be better if we have a regular meditation practice. Meditation gives us an opportunity to be better human beings: better parents, better partners, better friends and mentors. So it’s worth taking time out for practice.

Going Deeper In Our Practice

If we practice anything regularly, with the conscious intent to get better at it, then we’re more likely to see progress. It doesn’t matter whether that’s tennis, or cooking, or meditation. If we’re prepared to learn from what doesn’t work so well and what works better, then we’ll see progress. And seeing progress is encouraging.

My meditation practice doesn’t get steadily deeper and deeper. It’s more like a long, winding path with highs and lows. But on the whole it’s more inclined to be creative and enjoyable and transformative if I’m doing it regularly.

Experiencing the Benefits of Practice.

Meditation has lots of benefits.  It has social benefits, emotional benefits, and health benefits. Consistency allows us to experience those benefits more consistently. We’ll be healthier and happier if we keep our practice regular.

It’s just like if you only went to the gym or a yoga class once in a while rather than having a regular schedule; you’ll see some benefits, but not as much as you could.

Not Letting Fear Rule Your Life.

In the days when I found myself unable to motivate myself to meditate and got caught up in other things, it was often about avoidance of feelings. There was often some kind of restlessness or dissatisfaction within myself and I did not want to sit down and face that.

So there was fear involved in avoiding meditation.

Now, I don’t want my life to be dominated by fear. I don’t want my life to be manipulated by my fears. I feel good when I overcome my fears, when I face them squarely and overcome them. I feel more in control of my life. I feel more fearless.

Feeling Better About Yourself

When you see yourself as the kind of person who can’t meditate every day, you don’t feel good about yourself. It seems that other people have will-power, and you don’t. You’re lacking.

It turns out that will-power isn’t what we need in order to meditate every day. It’s about intelligently using strategies to make it easier to sit than to do something else. It literally can get to the point where it feels unthinkable to miss a day. You probably feel that way about brushing your teeth. if it can feel that way for that activity, it can be that way for meditation as well.

And once you do manage to sit every day, you feel good about yourself. You shed that view of being “lacking” and defective. You feel strong and confident.

Instead of believing you’re the kind of person who can’t meditate every day, you know that you do meditate every day. It’s just what you do. It’s part of who you are.

I feel good when I’m meditating every day. I feel good being faithful to my practice. I feel good being faithful to myself, being faithful to my intention to keep practicing.

So those are some of the reasons why I find it helpful to meditate every day. And I enjoy sharing with others how to bring that about.

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Taking refuge in the Buddha

As a teacher I’m often asked: What does it mean in Buddhist practice when you agree to “take refuge” in the Buddha? Does this mean I need to worship the Buddha? Or pray to the Buddha? Isn’t this setting up the Buddha as “other” or some kind of god?

Traditionally, there are three fundamental refuges are where we can find genuine safety and peace, a sanctuary for our awakening heart and mind, a place to rest our human vulnerability. In their shelter, we can face and awaken from the trance of fear.

The first of these is the Buddha, or our own awakened nature. The second is the dharma (the path or the way), and the third is the sangha (the community of aspirants).

In the formal practice of Taking Refuge, we recite three times: “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sangha.” Yet, even though there is a formula, this is not an empty or mechanical ritual, but a practice meant to expand our understanding and intention.

With each repetition, we allow ourselves to open ever more deeply to the living experience behind the words. As we do, the practice leads to a profound deepening of our faith: The more fully we open to and inhabit each refuge, the more we trust our own heart and awareness. By taking refuge we learn to trust the unfolding of our lives.

The first step in this practice, taking refuge in the Buddha, may be approached on various levels, and we can choose the way most meaningful to our particular temperament. We might for instance take refuge in the historical Buddha, the human being who attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree 2500 years ago.

This doesn’t mean that we are worshipping the man who became enlightened, or setting him up as “other” or as “higher” than ourselves, but bowing and honoring the Buddha nature that already exists within us. For instance when the Buddha encountered Mara, he felt fear—the same painfully constricted throat, chest and belly, the same racing heart that we each experience when fear strikes our heart.

By willingly meeting fear with his full attention, the Buddha discovered fearlessness — the open, clear awareness that recognizes the arising and passing of fear without contracting nor identifying with it. Taking refuge in the truth of his awakening can inspire us on our own path toward fearlessness.

At the same time, those who are devotional by nature might seek safety and refuge in the living spirit of the Buddha’s awakened heart and mind. Much like praying to Christ or the Divine Mother, we can take refuge in a Being or presence that cares about our suffering.

In taking this first refuge, I sometimes say, “I take refuge in the Beloved” and surrender into what I experience as the boundlessness of compassion. When I am feeling fear, I surrender it to the Beloved. By this, I am not trying to get rid of fear, but rather letting go into a refuge that is vast enough to hold my fear with love.

In the most fundamental way, taking refuge in the Buddha means taking refuge in our own potential for liberation. In order to embark on a spiritual path we need faith that our own heart and mind have the potential to awaken. The true power of Buddha’s story, the power that has kept it alive for all these centuries, rests in the fact that it demonstrates what is possible for each of us.

We so easily believe limiting stories about ourselves and forget that our very nature—our Buddha nature—is aware and loving. When we take refuge in the Buddha, we are taking refuge in the same capacity of awareness that awakened Siddhartha under the Bodhi Tree. We too can realize the blessing of freedom. We too can become fearless.

After taking refuge in the Beloved, I turn my attention inward, saying “I take refuge in this awakening heart mind.” Letting go of any notion that Buddha nature is something beyond or outside my awareness, I look towards the innate wakefulness of my being, the tender openness of my heart.

Minutes earlier, I might have been taking myself to be the rush of emotions and thoughts moving through my mind. But by intentionally taking refuge in awareness, that small identity dissolves, and with it, the trance of fear.

By directing our attention towards our deepest nature, by honoring the essence of our being, our own Buddha nature becomes to us more of a living reality. We are taking refuge in the truth of who we are.

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The dance of allowing

woman dancing, surrounded by flames

There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt, containing a tornado.
Dam a stream and it will create a new channel.
Resist, and the tide will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry you to higher ground…

I recently discovered this wonderful poem by Danna Faulds (which is an excerpt — the full poem is here.) It has really struck me because the themes of letting go and allowing have been coming up everywhere for me.

My unconventional life, where I’m earning a living as a dharma practitioner and teacher, is full of uncertainty. There are no clear paths for me to follow, and the ups and downs can be pretty wild. Teaching and coaching also demand a constant dropping of my facades of self-protection. That’s because the more open and vulnerable I am, the better I’m able to connect, heart to heart, with another person. And I’ve written in this blog before about my health issues – my chronic fatigue, depression, and injured wrists. They constantly demand that I change plans, do things differently, and shift expectations. These are just a sampling of the ways I feel surrounded by constant demands to let go, let go, let go.

When I mentioned in a recent personal newsletter about my health issues, I received many emails of sympathy and support. And believe me, I really appreciated them! But I also wanted to express that living this way doesn’t mean I’m just stoically enduring my suffering. It’s becoming something different – quite positive really — and I’ve been grasping for words and metaphors to describe it.

When a certain pattern persists, over and over again, it’s clear to me there’s a message behind it. I need to get closer to it to hear what it has to say. I know it’s a sign that I’ve gotten into the mistaken habit of going against the grain of the world, and it’s my resistance that’s causing the friction. I can also tell there’s freedom on the other side. I can smell it.

An image that came to me recently is of dancing. Dancing with an unpredictable partner in a 100% committed, full-bodied embrace. My life, with all its demands to let go, is my dance partner – a very powerful, lifelong partner who is pointing me in the direction of freedom.

His presence feels to me like a stream, a force, a current — something that carries me along. I’m learning to lean into him, so close that our movements and energies are completely merged as one. When I’m that close, I know immediately and intuitively when he’s going to move or turn, so we move together as one. And I can’t predict very far in advance what he’ll do – it’s only a moment-to-moment thing, communicated through the touch of the present. He leads, and I move along with him. When I find my way to flow and add my energies to his, our combined creative power moves in amazing ways.

There are also times when that current takes me to some scary and difficult places. But I know it’s where I need to go, so I try not to resist or hold back. It demands a lot of courage to allow the current to flow just as freely, regardless of how I feel about it.

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And let me be clear that I’ve NOT become a totally passive follower. I still have to take responsibility for myself, do my own part. I have to make sure I stay healthy, rested and alert, so I am able to dance, for example. I also need to keep my conventional life as a member of American society intact – for example, maintain a home and financial means to stay alive and present in this body, functioning in this world. My dance partner won’t just give those to me on a platter. That’s what I mean by doing my part.

And there are times when he gives me the space to dance alone. Sometimes he steps back and waits for me to make my own choice, move in a new direction, take a leap. He doesn’t encourage me in any particular direction, because it’s a true fork in the road. It really is up to me to decide what to do. And then once I make a choice, he comes over and rejoins me wherever I happen to be at the moment I decide. We create a new flow from that point forward.

I also know that he would never, ever harm me. And I know there are no “wrong” turns. No, I don’t mean that I’ll never make mistakes, get hurt or feel pain. They’re too much a part of the fabric of life. I understand that if I try to wall myself off from those unpleasant things, I’m also walling off all the good things. And I can’t learn without making mistakes. I can’t selectively shut out the parts of life I don’t want. It’s a short-sighted strategy that really doesn’t work. No, that’s not what I want.

When I say my partner would never harm me, I mean that he is always pointing me, guiding me, to higher ground. And it’s only by letting go and allowing him to show me that I can find my way there, to real freedom. He is the most challenging, no-nonsense, uncompromising partner I’ve ever had. But without question, he is also the best teacher I’ve ever had.

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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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