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Once I was staying in close quarters with a friend who was really angry at me. It was the equivalent of being trapped on a Greyhound bus for a couple of months together—me, my friend, her anger, and my feelings of inadequacy. I tried everything to get her to like me again, but she just became angrier and angrier until she refused to talk altogether. That’s one of the most uncomfortable places to end up in with someone you are trying to get to like you again, because you’re getting nothing back. This situation intensified to the point where I realized that my whole personality, everything I did, the whole way I related to people, was based entirely on avoiding feeling bad about myself. I strove to live behind a mask that others would love and would therefore cause me to love myself. That plan did not work.

It was a powerful revelation to see that all my habits and approaches to life were coming from this deep hiding and avoidance. It was exhilarating in some way, but then I realized that my friend and I were still on the bus together, and work remained to be done. Life is like that. You have your insights, but the challenge remains.

I had heard the phrases “unconditional friendship” and “genuine heart of sadness” before, but at that point they began to make real sense to me. What produces a genuine person, I realized, is being open to not feeling okay. It means to be open to everything—to all the horrors as well as the beauties of life, to the whole extraordinary variety of life. I began to realize that this whole mess the human race is in—the fact that we don’t take care of the planet and we don’t take care of each other, the wars, the hatred, the fundamentalism—all actually come from running away. Individually, collectively we are trying to avoid feeling bad about ourselves.

Once you start to look at it this way, to smile a bit about this fear instead of letting it escalate, you realize that going about things this way is a bunch of bullshit. Wait a minute here, you might think, what’s going on? Seemingly, it’s just me. But me seems to be being pretty hard on me. What’s up with that? When I was stuck with my friend, I started to see behind it all. A smile crossed my face. If I allow myself to look at what hurts, I find a genuine, open heart. The business of avoiding who we are is a game that never needed to begin in the first place. That’s worth a smile. It was a very fortunate bus ride.

My companion never did really like me, but in that situation she became my teacher. When none of my cute words and jokes and compliments worked, I had to deal with what was under all of that—someone being harsh with themselves for no good reason. It takes guts to get to that place. I can’t say that I did it willingly, and I’m not sure that anyone would do it willingly, but situations like that can help us to see why we need to look into our fear.

It’s not so easy to do, but fortunately we have a method that can help us discover the courage to smile at fear. Meditation practice is a method for being with ourselves fully and completely, allowing the time and space to see it all with gentleness, kindness, and dead honesty. It is the safest environment within which to undertake this mission impossible. And when meditation practice has helped us to be honest and courageous enough to know ourselves in a deep way, we can begin to extend out and help others, because the things outside of us that appear threatening seem that way because of the fear within, the fear we have been reluctant to look at. The things that unnerve us, that trigger feelings of inadequacy, that make us feel that we can’t handle it, that we are not good enough, lose their power over us when we learn to smile at fear.

It’s not a one-shot deal, as Trungpa Rinpoche was fond of saying. There are many reruns. We go through it again and again. We feel uncertain, we busy ourselves, we become frozen, we are lazy, our fear escalates. But our practice also makes it possible for us to notice it happening again and again, and to allow fearlessness and genuineness to emerge from the very act of going into our fear.

While fearlessness may be our goal, so to speak, the basis of fearlessness is knowing fear, and that knowing takes place over and over again. Fearlessness and the compassion that arises from it are not solid and permanent. They emerge when your fears are triggered. I’m sure that if I had to go on the bus with that same lady tomorrow, it would be a very different experience, yet I would still be uncomfortable. But when my fear was inevitably triggered, warriorship would be triggered as well. And a smile might more easily cross my face.

If you touch the fear instead of running from it, you find tenderness, vulnerability, and sometimes a sense of sadness. This tender-heartedness happens naturally when you start to be brave enough to stay present, because instead of armoring yourself, instead of turning to anger, self-denigration, and iron-heartedness, you keep your eyes open and you begin, as Trungpa Rinpoche said, to see the blueness of an iris, the wetness of water, the movement of the wind. Becoming more in touch with ourselves gives birth to enormous appreciation for the world and for other people. It can sound corny, but you feel grateful for the beauty of the world. It’s a very special way to live. Your heart is filled with gratitude, appreciation, compassion, and caring for other people. And it all comes from touching that shakiness within and being willing to be present with it.



Originally published in the March 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun. Click here to browse the entire issue online.


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About the illustration at the top of this page:

This takeoff on the famous "Rosie the Riveter" poster from the Second World War delighted Pema Chodron when it was given to her at the Smile at Fear teachings in Richmond, which is home to the Rosie the Riveter memorial.


It has now been turned into a print ready to display as-is or framed, in a variety of sizes, signed or unsigned. All profits from the sale of these prints will go to the Pema Chödrön Foundation. To order, visit our online store.





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