(From the April 2016 Newsletter)
By Rev. Leon
As I look at my own mind, and what others seem to be going through during this time of significant change both at the Priory and in the wider world, it seems good to say a few things about training with the arising of fear in its various forms. Training with fear has many facets and I will try to take them up as they come to mind over the next while. In this article, I talk a little about how I work with fear in terms of meditation practice.
As I embark on this new project of being Prior here in Portland, I mostly feel quietly confident and optimistic. On occasion, though, I see my mind wander over into anxiety and worry about various things: will they like me? Will I be able to meet the needs of the temple? Will my health limitations get in the way? Will my inexperience put people off? Will they like me? Will I be enlightened enough? Will they like me?
At the risk of over-sharing, I thought it might be useful to go through, in some detail, an example of how I train with this. The other day I was feeling particularly out of sorts, all anxious in a buzzy kind of way and not quite able to settle. Throughout the day, I just kept trying to bring my mind back to what needed to be done and doing what seemed to need doing; by the end of the day, the feelings had not yet dissolved, although I had learned a little more about how acting out of fear doesn’t really work so well. The next morning when I woke up, I noticed the anxiety again.
(As an aside, there is an interesting thing of importance that I have noticed over the years, about that brief twilight period just as I am waking up. I have often observed a mind state move in like a cloud bank and settle in, in a way, like what I am going to be dealing with that day has arrived and I get the opportunity to work on sitting still with it, and sometimes below it, and I get to work on keeping myself from getting tangled up in it right at the very start of the day.)
So, this anxiety arrives and I notice it, and I work up a little resolve to sit still right in the middle of it. I work on that right through my morning activities and meditation, putting a little extra effort (gentle effort) into being still (by being still, I mean not doing anything with the fear, not trying to get rid of it, just accepting it, just feeling it). From this resolve and effort to sit still and feel that fear and let it go, I sort of get to a place in myself where this little nugget of holding on appears: I want things to go well so that people will like me and from this liking me, I can get a little more evidence that really, I am ok. And so, we get to the heart of the matter, the question “am I really ok?” and the fear that somehow, all my weaknesses and limitations mean that I am not ok, I am not part of The Great Buddha.
And there is the fear that if I let this go, let go of my attempts to grasp after various ways of proving externally that I am ok, I’ll discover something terrible. (The irony is that though I can spend a lot of energy trying to avoid the terrible, it is only knowing what the truth about myself is, no matter how terrible it might be, that enables me to take steps to change myself, if necessary: so I say to myself “let’s find out the truth”.)
From the outside, I know that this whole situation is based on a couple of mistakes: the Dharma, our practice and the teachers teach that we are fundamentally Buddha, we are fundamentally ok, fundamentally not separate, even while we have faults, weaknesses and shortcomings which call out to be trained. Knowing this is a little helpful at the point of being confronted by letting go of something we are familiar with and stepping into the unknown. This knowledge about the teaching can help me to generate the courage to take the next step. Really, the thing that needs to be done is to sit still, look up and let go. For me, in this case, it means sort of saying, “ok, I am willing to not be liked, to be embarrassed, to die, even, but I am going to let this go, give it up to the Buddha.”
Interestingly, when I do this, and this happened in the case I am talking about, the fear dissolves and I return to a more normal state of mind. The process I have described above is one aspect of what we call converting karma and the process is the same whatever the fear or confusion or misunderstanding that underlies our present feeling is. For me, in this case, it is the fear that if I look to closely, I will finally discover the proof that there is something fundamentally wrong with me. For each of us, it will be something slightly different and we discover it for ourselves by doing the process of practice.
The process is to notice and be aware of the feeling, take responsibility for it (notice how I didn’t get all wrapped up in thinking that it’s everybody else’s fault that they don’t like me or whatever, it is just a feeling that arises in my mind that is probably produced by me), try to be still in it and feel it, allow it to arise and pass away. Be still with patience and kindness until I see it clearly and let go of the cause of the thing or until it dissipates on its own.
I recognize that this is the thing that we are doing, with “gentle kindness and friendliness”, together, each in our own way, and whether I am liked or disliked, or adequate to the task or not, I am fundamentally ok and the practice is a sound refuge.
At the heart of the thing, helping people find this fundamental ok-ness is what the temple and my job are all about and I can and will do that.