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The Buddha at Work - "Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth." [Pema Chodron]

I find myself at one of those "holy shit" moments of my life, where certain critical beliefs I've had for ages are being exposed to me as fraudulent, and I'm having to choose whether to cling to them with desperation, or to let them fall away and begin anew. This has happened before, and the easiest thing, the thing I've probably done a million times before, is to grab onto them with anger and self-righteousness, knowing they'll probably come back in some form that'll do the trick for the time being. For some reason this time seems different. Maybe it's my age or the knowledge that I'll be in retreat soon and will have a harder time avoiding what's really going on. As terrifying as this is, I assume it's necessary. But it is fucking scary! Pema Chodron said, "Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth."

"No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear. We are very rarely told to move closer, to just be there, to become familiar with fear. I once asked the Zen master Kobun Chino Roshi how he related with fear, and he said, 'I agree, I agree.' But the advice we usually get is to sweeten it up, smooth it over, take a pill, or distract ourselves, but by all means make it go away.

We don't need that kind of encouragement, because dissociating with fear is what we do naturally. We habitually spin off and freak out when there's even the merest hint of fear. We feel it coming and we check out. It's good to know we do that––not as a way to beat ourselves up, but as a way to develop unconditional compassion. The most heartbreaking thing of all is how we cheat ourselves of the present moment.

Sometimes, however, we are cornered; everything falls apart, and we run out of options for escape. At times like that, the most profound spiritual truths seem pretty straightforward and ordinary. There's nowhere to hide. We see it as well as anyone else––better than anyone else. Sooner or later we understand that although we can't make fear look pretty, it will nevertheless introduce us to all the teaching we've ever heard or read.

So the next time you encounter fear, consider yourself lucky."

Fear is an indication, then, that we're facing the unknown. It seems obvious to me that I need to make friends with the unknown. After all, it's always around the corner. Still I find myself wanting to check out, to smooth it over. To suck it up.


I always leave some David Whyte on my iPhone so that his gorgeous voice pops up randomly in between Metallica tunes. I suspect the shuffle feature somehow knows just what i need at any given moment. Here he is from his CD, "Midlife and the Great Unknown":

"Wherever we want to go in life, that journey begins with the first step, and that first step has to be taken in the life in which we find ourselves. One of the great temptations of human existence is to base your life on contingency. That you will actually take the courageous step once all the conditions are absolutely and utterly right for you. When you have the right boss, when you have the right job, when the car payments have been made, when the kids are through college, when you're on your deathbed. When you're dead. It would be certainly easier then. The thought is that if only I can control the climate of my existence and get the temperature exactly right, then when I'm completely comfortable, and have a sense of freedom, and a sense that i'm not beholden to anything, then I'll take a courageous step in my life. Of course, these conditions almost never come.

Every courageous life is lived in the grit and difficulty of existence... As Dante said at the beginning of the Commedia:

Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita.

'In the middle of the road of my life, I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost.'

...one of the reasons that the Commedia has been such an abiding classic through the centuries of Western literature is because it is incredibly sincere. He is not basing his knowledge on all-knowing competence. He's actually basing it on a kind of investigative vulnerability. He doesn't say to you that he has these three rules, these seven laws, he says, you know one day I just stopped telling myself all the things I'd been telling myself, and I stopped needing to know all the things I'd been needing to know. And I just actually started paying attention to things as they seemed to be in their own voices. And you know to begin with everything went completely dark. And everything seemed to disappear. And I was in a very narrow place. But you know, in that narrow place, I found myself on solid ground and from that narrow place, I could take a step into something I could actually call my own life.

And I think this one of the abiding phenomena of courage. The ability to cultivate a relationship with the unknown. To create a form of friendship... with what lies around the corner, over the horizon, with those things that have not yet fully come into being."

But it's scary being in a dark wood, being wholly lost. Pema's advice for when it's scary? Keep going.

"The trick is to keep exploring and not bail out, even when we find out that something is not what we thought. That's what we're going to discover again and again and again. Nothing is what we thought. I can say that with great confidence. Emptiness is not what we thought. Neither is mindfulness or fear. Compassion––not what we thought. Love. Buddha nature. Courage. These are code words for things we don't know in our minds, but any of us could experience them. These are words that point to what life really is when we let things fall apart and let ourselves be nailed to the present moment."

As Mary Oliver wrote:

Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives --
tried to imagine what the crisp fringes, full of honey, hanging
from the branches of the young locust trees, in early morning, feel like?

Do you think this world was only an entertainment for you?

Never to enter the sea and notice how the water divides
with perfect courtesy, to let you in!
Never to lie down on the grass, as though you were the grass!
Never to leap to the air as you open your wings over the dark acorn of your heart!

No wonder we hear, in your mournful voice, the complaint
that something is missing from your life!

Who can open the door who does not reach for the latch?
Who can travel the miles who does not put one foot
in front of the other, all attentive to what presents itself
Who will behold the inner chamber who has not observed
with admiration, even with rapture, the outer stone?

Well, there is time left --
fields everywhere invite you into them.

And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away
from wherever you are, to look for your soul?

Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!

To put one's foot into the door of the grass, which is
the mystery, which is death as well as life, and
not be afraid!

To set one's foot in the door of death, and be overcome
with amazement!

To sit down in front of the weeds, and imagine
god the ten-fingered, sailing out of his house of straw,
nodding this way and that way, to the flowers of the
present hour,
to the song falling out of the mockingbird's pink mouth,
to the tippets of the honeysuckle, that have opened

in the night

To sit down, like a weed among weeds, and rustle in the wind!

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

While the soul, after all, is only a window,

and the opening of the window no more difficult
than the wakening from a little sleep.

Only last week I went out among the thorns and said
to the wild roses:
deny me not,
but suffer my devotion.
Then, all afternoon, I sat among them. Maybe

I even heard a curl or tow of music, damp and rouge red,
hurrying from their stubby buds, from their delicate watery bodies.

For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?
Fall in! Fall in!

A woman standing in the weeds.
A small boat flounders in the deep waves, and what's coming next
is coming with its own heave and grace.

Meanwhile, once in a while, I have chanced, among the quick things,
upon the immutable.
What more could one ask?

And I would touch the faces of the daises,
and I would bow down
to think about it.

That was then, which hasn't ended yet.

Now the sun begins to swing down. Under the peach-light,
I cross the fields and the dunes, I follow the ocean's edge.

I climb, I backtrack.
I float.
I ramble my way home.

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thank you

thank you so much for this post... really helpful thoughts and quotes for a time that is a terrifying crossroads here, too. Good luck with whatever it is you are undertaking. :)

i agree that risk-taking behaviour can be a distraction from facing the rawness of real fear and questions in one's life, as you said. 

that Mary Oliver poem is beautiful.


Thanks for making the practice of mindfulness real for me.



Thank you for taking the time to think through and post this reflection.  At a time when I am thrashing in my own life, circling around fear and trying to find the courage to face it, your words are much appreciated.  Wishing you all the best with whatever fear you face.

Facing fear

Thank you for another honest post. I could argue that you already conquered some fears by sharing these intimate reflections on your practice, but that's for another conversation.

I disagree with one thing here: Pema Chodron's assertion that we are not encouraged to face our fears. Quite the contrary, there is a great deal of emphasis on facing our fears in our society. I don't disagree that there is also a side of it that would rather we hide away and shut up, but ours is largely a risk-taking culture that encourages going straight into the heart of our fear. We generously reward those who do, and we have modeled ourselves on people who defy odds, do the impossible, put it on the line, and show grace under pressure, in other words, face their fear.

At any rate, enjoy your fear. There is truth in there.

thank you

i appreciate your comments and kind words. i would argue, and I suspect that Pema would agree, that risk-taking is not the same as truly facing your fears. Facing your aloneness, the certainty of death, the fact that no one out there will save you. The willingness to give up knowing how the world works. Skydiving or even standing up to an oppressor can be a way to distract oneself from these fundamental fears. Some of us have that tendency, to go that way for distraction. For example, I have often talked about fighting in a full on amateur MMA match. While there's value to the training and the willingness to push beyond my boundaries, I am personally careful about using that training to distract myself from the real questions of my life. Even though getting repeatedly punched in the face is kinda scary.

Thanks again.

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