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Smile at Fear
her powerful teachings, bestselling books, and retreats attended by
thousands, Pema Chödrön has become today’s most important American-born
teacher of Buddhism. In The Wisdom of No Escape, The Places That Scare You,
and other popular books, she has helped us discover how difficulty and
uncertainty can become opportunities for awakening. Recently, she has
given major teachings based on the book Smile at Fear: Awakening the True Heart of Bravery,
by her late root guru, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. This article is
adapted from her talks to some 3000 people in the Bay Area on October 15
to 17, with another 2000 viewing the teachings online.
what we might think much of the time and what the news programs imply,
we all wish to be sane and open-hearted people. We could take our wish
to be more sane and kind and put it in a very large context. We could
expand it into a desire to help all other people, to help the whole
world. But we need a place to start. We can’t simply begin with the
whole world. We need to begin by reaching out to the people who come
into our own lives—our family members, our neighbors, our coworkers.
Perhaps we are inspired to enter a profession where we can spend our
time and energy trying to help at a global or national level. But even
if we express our wish to be open-hearted by working for global peace or
justice or environmental well-being, even on that grand scale, we need
to work on what is immediate to us all the time. We need to work on
we do this work on ourselves, however, we can still think of it in the
wider context of our community, our nation, and our world. Viewing the
work we do on ourselves in this larger context is very important. I
don’t mean to be harsh, but I have to say that a lot of people who do
so-called spiritual work can be somewhat selfish. Their spiritual path
is all about taking care of themselves, and they may not notice that
what makes them feel comfortable and secure is actually at the expense
of other people. We all know other people like this, don’t we?
we’re hurting enough, and we really start looking for the source of our
pain and what we can do about it, it goes beyond just wanting to feel
better ourselves. In Buddhism, this is called the bodhisattva ideal. In
the Shambhala teachings, we talk about it as warriorship, or, you might
say, spiritual warriorship. At its most basic, it means working on
ourselves, developing courage and fearlessness and cultivating our
capacity to love and care about other people. It involves taking good
care of ourselves, but whatever we do, it’s all in the bigger context of
we look at the world around us—our immediate world and the bigger world
beyond—we see a lot of difficulty and dysfunction. The news we hear is
mostly bad news, and that makes us afraid. It can be quite discouraging.
Yet we could actually derive inspiration for our warriorship, for our
bodhisattva path, from these dire circumstances. We could recognize the
fact, and proclaim the fact, that we are needed.
are “we”? You and me and every one of us—each of us on this Earth is
needed at this time. Why are we needed and in what way are we needed?
We’re needed because there are hundreds of thousands of billions of
beings who are suffering. If even one small segment of us, one
sub-community, took it upon themselves to live their life in a way that
helped their families, their neighborhoods, their towns, and indeed the
Earth itself, something good would begin to happen.
we come to the understanding that we are needed and commit ourselves to
doing something about our own pain and the pain around us, we will find
that we are on a journey. A warrior is always on a journey, and a main
feature of that journey is fear. This fear is not simply something to be
lamented, avoided, or vanquished. It is something to be examined,
something to make a relationship with.
is a very timely topic now, because fear these days seems so palpable,
so atmospheric. You can almost smell the fear around you. The
polarization, fundamentalism, aggression, violence, and unkindness that
are happening everywhere on the planet—these bring out our fear and
nervousness and make us feel that we are on shaky ground.
truth is that the ground has always been shaky, forever. But in times
when fear is prevalent, that truth is more obvious. All this fear
surrounding us may sound like the bad news, but in fact it’s the good
news. Fear is like a dot that emerges in the space in front of us and
captures our attention. It is like a doorway we could go through, but
where that doorway leads is not predetermined. It is up to us. Usually
when we’re afraid, it sets off a chain reaction. We go inward and start
to armor ourselves, trying to protect ourselves from whatever we think
is going to hurt us. But our attempts to protect ourselves do not lessen
the fear. Quite the opposite—the fear is actually escalating. Rather
than becoming free from fear, we become hardened. As our fear spreads
within, it makes us harder and more set in our ways.