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Out of Fear


Meditation wasn't the great panacea Susan Piver had hoped for, because fear and the other negative emotions didn't just go away. But it did lead her to a surprising discovery—to fear less you've got to open more.

When I began practicing Buddhism in 1995, I hoped it would help me cope with depression, make me more loving, and, mainly, decrease the level of fear that seemed to always accompany me—fear of financial ruin, war, my own unlovability, and who could be calling me on the phone. And it really helped with these things; I calmed down a lot. But it also happened that even deeper fears and unresolved pain surfaced, presenting themselves for consideration. The more I meditated, the shakier I felt. Was this what was supposed to happen? Anything could make me fall apart. Suddenly it was like I had PMS all the time. Was I going crazy? Where was the famous equanimity alleged to be associated with Buddhism?

In the meditation tradition it’s said that when one begins to practice, it’s like all the dead fish at the bottom of the harbor suddenly float to the top, bloated and stinky. It seemed like this was what was happening to me. The more I practiced, the harder everything hit me and the more afraid I became. The barriers that had kept emotion at a comfortable distance were coming down. No longer pinned by the weight of complete ignorance, fear bobbed up. There was no choice but to look at it.

This may not be the greatest time in history to begin reckoning with fear. Forget about being afraid of too much debt or of not finding true love. Now you can fear meeting a terrorist on the subway or that one of us will eat the last fish in the sea. It’s unbearable, isn’t it? Yet my Buddhist training tells me to be a warrior, and that’s something I desperately want to be. But I don’t know how.

Oh wait, I do. I do know how. I’ve been instructed to allow my heart to break in the exact way it already does, for those who suffer in war, for the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, for everyone who believes they’re right and someone else is wrong, and for the devastating vulnerability of those I love and those I don’t. This vulnerability is real, and with its recognition comes an equally unbearable sense of preciousness and gratitude.

At a certain point of immersion in the spiritual path, you can no longer pretend that everything is going to turn out OK, nor can this hope be tolerated. You can’t step back into false security or go forward onto ground that won’t also give way. All you can do is run as fast as you can off the edge of the cliff into space and, like Wile E. Coyote, notice how your legs keep pumping furiously—even though there is no longer any surface to tread upon.

As it turns out, this state of not-here-not-there creates tremendous fear and discomfort, and there is only one quality that can help: gentleness. The very first person to whom this quality could be extended is yourself. No matter how hard you push you’re not going to find solid ground, so the only choice is to relax. Gentleness is allowing what you honestly feel to arise without ignoring it, obsessing over it, cataloging it, or getting freaked out by it. “What is left?” you may be asking. As you discover in meditation, what is left is the present moment and the willingness to try to come back to it, no matter how intense or boring things get.

How Not to be Afraid of Yourself: Gentleness

I once ran into a friend and fellow practitioner as I was exiting a contentious business meeting. He could see that I was upset. (My sobbing must have given me away.) I explained what had happened at the meeting and then expressed dismay at the weakness of my Buddhist practice: “I must be a very poor practitioner if one jerk can throw me so completely into hysterics.” He said, “So you think that not getting upset is a sign of progress?” I realized that I had been hoping it was. “No,” he said. “Progress is how quickly you can stabilize your attention on what you’re feeling. Progress is how quickly you can come back.”

The only way to come back to the present moment is to soften and let go, to accept what you’re feeling even if it is completely unfair and uncomfortable. And then you sit with it as you would sit with a sad child. When a child is sad, you don’t shake him and say, “What is your problem?” You don’t ignore him and hope he’ll go away, nor can you talk him out of it, no matter how brilliant your reasoning. You just be there with him. Difficult emotions can be dealt with in the same way. You can be this way with yourself.

When you clear away the judgments, criticisms, assumptions, and beliefs about your internal experience, you discover that what is left is tenderness and the ability to feel things deeply. You can be kind to yourself, not because you earned it by achieving goals or living up to an ideal, but because you possess a human heart that, when left to its own devices, comes back over and over to its natural state.

Who are we harder on than ourselves? Deep down, we’re not convinced we’re good enough at anything. Self-doubt is our constant companion. Often, we don’t know where this harsh self-criticism comes from. Our own mind? Parents? Teachers? Lifestyle magazines? We con ourselves into believing thoughts, such as I’m too needy, I’m not clever, I’m ugly/fat/old, I’m a loser, and I’m sure it’s all my fault (my personal favorite). How does one suddenly become gentle without faking it, without using gentleness itself as just another device for self-improvement?

In 1990, the Dalai Lama met with a group of Western researchers and Buddhist teachers at the third Mind and Life conference in Dharamsala, India. Sharon Salzberg, a teacher from the Insight Meditation Society, asked him how to help her students with their feelings of worthlessness and shame. The other Western participants eagerly awaited His Holiness’ response because they had all encountered this issue among their own students.

The Dalai Lama turned to his translator for an explanation of the question. They began a lengthy, increasingly rapid conversation in Tibetan. Finally, it seemed the translator was successful. When he understood the question, the Dalai Lama was surprised; he had never heard of such a condition. He asked the participants if they were certain their students and their patients really suffered from this problem. They assured him that they did. They saw it in the people they worked with, and even in themselves. Incredulous, he pointed to each one and asked, “Do you experience this? You? And you?” They all nodded yes. He seemed genuinely shocked. Why would you dislike your self?

But most of us understand Salzberg’s question perfectly. Our ideas of self-worth go up and down, up and down, all day long. Personally, I’m as good as my last phone call. If I had a pleasant or valuable interaction, I feel optimistic. If things didn’t go so well, if there was contention or distance, I think my world might be falling apart. Most people have their own measures of self-worth or worthlessness: the car they drive, the school they attended, their job titles, or even what they ate for lunch.

Gentleness arises when you recognize your innate, limitless, and extremely powerful goodness. When you remember how basically good you are, you can stop pushing and pulling yourself toward perfection, struggling for acceptable proof of your value—the perfect job, the perfect boyfriend, the perfect body/mass index, the perfect sofa, the perfect what-have-you. You are already so totally beyond good enough.

How do I know that you possess this goodness? We all do.

Even if you can’t identify it in yourself, it’s easy to recall a time when you saw goodness in others. Perhaps you felt this way while reading the story of a saint, a hero, or even a regular human being who gave his or her all in the name of generosity or kindness. Seeing how people greet each other or say goodbye at the airport, overhearing a particularly sweet exchange between lovers, or watching television and seeing victims of disaster being rescued can bring tears to your eyes. Noticing a flock of birds move together in perfect connection or listening to an extraordinarily soulful piece of music can deeply touch you, too. You remember childhood slights with vividness because it was confusing and painful to have your goodness questioned. Goodness comes first in all of us, and our world is full of proof that this is so.

In Buddhism, this basic goodness is called buddhanature. It’s not associated with the historical Buddha, but it is what the Buddha possessed that enabled him to transcend suffering and fear. We each possess this enlightened quality, and we can each return to it, just like the Buddha. Buddhanature is so innate and so precious that when self-loathing was explained to the Dalai Lama, he asked, “But how can people dislike themselves when they possess buddhanature?”

How Not to be Afraid of Others: Delight

As I write this, I’m sitting in my room at a Buddhist meditation center in the Colorado Rockies. It’s six a.m. in the dead of winter, and I’m at my desk waiting to catch a glimpse of the sunrise over snowy mountains. All around, I can hear the other retreatants begin their day: some are walking to the dining hall for coffee, others are doing their morning stretches.

The first time I attended a program like this, I sat in the seat closest to the door. I wanted to be able to slip out silently if it was too weird. I watched my fellow meditators make their way to their seats and, with each new arrival, I felt more dismayed. Everyone looked so bogus—self-important or New-Agey or just plain silly. The woman who sat down next to me must have gargled with patchouli oil and bathed in sage. Yick. Was I going to have to put up with these smells the entire week? In fact, every single person in the room looked unbelievably irritating. I did not belong here. This was a giant waste of time and a huge mistake.

A week later the retreat was over, and as I gazed around the circle at my fellow students, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving them. There were many hugs and meaningful gazes. As we said good-bye, we cried. In the last seven days I had developed a willingness to jump into their lives and help them and love them in any way I could.

How were these people transformed from ridiculous losers into people before whom I felt humbled? It was easy. I stopped listening to myself and started listening to them. Each had a very real, even shocking story of difficulties endured. Each was making the best effort he or she could to go on with life. If there were fifty of us in the group, my heart broke forty-nine different ways. By the program’s end, I was in awe of each of them.

By bringing awareness to thought, the practice of meditation helps you get free of your immediate negative reactions, which are fear-based. Instead of being judgmental, you can become inquisitive about other people and take delight in them. You can take them in completely. You can do this even if you still end up not liking them very much.

Delight comes when you replace criticism with openness and genuine curiosity about others. Because you have experienced the recovery of emotional equanimity during meditation, you can take chances. The first response to others is usually to play it safe and wait until general trustworthiness is proven, but in doing so you miss the opportunity to see who is right in front of you, even your own friends and family. If you wait until you think safety has been established, at that point it’s already too late, because that holding back is actually what creates fear.

The antidote is to open yourself first. By making yourself vulnerable, you reduce fear within you, and between you and other people.

How Not to be Afraid of Your Own Life: Confidence

With this knowledge comes genuine confidence and the chance to be who you really are, all the time. Paradoxically, this confidence makes you shaky. If I was hoping that confidence meant always feeling certain that I was not ridiculous, then I was wrong. Instead, confidence is the willingness to be as ridiculous—not to mention luminous, intelligent, and kind—as you really are, without embarrassment. This type of confidence encompasses everything in your life that’s great and everything that’s a wreck. It requires, runs on, results in, and is composed of a kind of deep vulnerability. You’re stuck without any certainty whatsoever. Viewed one way, this vulnerability looks remarkably like instability, but in another way it looks like intelligence.

If you want to see if this is really true, fall in love. I often tell my husband that if I had known I was going to love him this much, I never would have married him (and I’m not kidding). The more thickly entwined our lives have become, the more uniquely precious the relationship seems in both its profound and silly aspects, and the more clearly I see that I am going to lose it someday.

Whether you like it or not, the more you open, the more you love and the more you have to lose. You dig and dig for a way to safeguard against losing what is most dear, but you can’t find one, and that just makes you love all the more. There is so little time! I don’t know why loving someone makes you think about dying all the time, but it does. If someone had told me that this whole marriage thing would be a continual reminder that everything I touch is also impossible to hold, I don’t know that I would have done it.

The openness required to really give yourself in love is the very thing that breaks down certainty and stability. The less sure you are of anything, the more confidence you have, in some weird way. The good news and the bad news is that your breakability and your fearlessness are the same thing. You can let your heart break completely, and it’s OK.

Beyond Fear: Joy

Disciplined and consistent spiritual practice changes your experience of fear by creating a mysterious congruence between your inner experience and your external circumstances. They begin to align. After a while and with commitment, the path gains its own momentum, and this gives a great sense of relaxation and faith. Your life gets a life of its own; the people you encounter, events that transpire, and things you do all seem to be part of the same story, one that till now you weren’t quite aware was being told. Greater forces are at work. You can bank on it. And from this faith comes joy.

Whether circumstances are helpful or hurtful, the mind of joy is happy to be alive. With it, you can meet your own life, not with defensive strategies but with a willingness to let it touch you completely. This is the mark of the spiritual warrior. She can hold sweetness, sorrow, terror, and pleasure equally and fully. She can watch as emotions rise and fall, notice how she longs for some and recoils from others, and know that somehow she’ll find a way to bring whatever she experiences to the path. Whether her world is friendly or inhospitable, smooth or rocky, she can abide in it wholeheartedly.

A joyful mind is as infinite as the sky and, like the sky, can contain sunshine and storms, snowflakes and hail. Conditions are continually shifting, but the sky is always the sky. From within it, the sun rises in the east, the moon meets the tide, and the circle is always complete.

Susan Piver is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Hard Questions. She is frequently featured in the media and has appeared on the Oprah show, the Today show, CNN, and others. Her latest book, How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, is published by St. Martin’s Press.

Out of Fear, Susan Piver, Shambhala Sun, May 2007.


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