Category Archives: Fear

Been gone, been down, still am

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It has been a while since I last posted on this blog. I have not been active on my Facebook page either. Why? I think because I am having trouble making sense of the world right now. I simply do not understand the hate and violence that are so pervasive at this moment.

I used to think I understood people who express their anger demonstrably, because I used to manage my own anger so poorly. I thought I had some insight, based on my own struggles as a young man, when it was so easy for rage to rise up inside of me and spill forth. Maybe I did, but I don’t feel like I do anymore.

I don’t understand most of the anger I witness on social media and on TV. On my worst days, when anger overwhelmed me completely, when I literally shook from the negative energy boiling up from deep inside, I never displayed such naked aggression, never verbally savaged another being, never even considered doing either. So I try to imagine what torment these angry people must be suffering, I try to put myself in their place, to contemplate their plight, to fathom what could possibly propel them to these states of frothing, thrashing, tearing, unbridled fury. But I fail repeatedly, fully unenlightened.

I am left distraught by my confusion, by my utter inability to grasp what is happening in the world, in this country, in my own backyard. I cannot comprehend the acts of violence that take place every day, many times a day. I am even more confounded by the eagerness of so many people to act on their violent impulses, by their hair-trigger readiness to lash out with deadly force.

I fear that I am despairing, losing sight of humanity’s inherent goodness, losing touch with creation’s core of love. I do not love my fellow beings any less, but I admit I sometimes wonder what good it does. Am I helping at all? Am I contributing, in any way, to stemming the angry tide? Could it possibly be any worse if I weren’t here at all?

The sadness I feel is nearly unbearable. My heart aches for the beloved of the brutally murdered. Compassion continues to swell up even for the perpetrators, even though I don’t understand them, even though I believed that well had run dry, even though their acts are so repugnant and inexplicable that I begin to fear that my own loved ones are no longer safe.

Today and yesterday and the day before, each brought more unwelcome news, more tragedy, more devastation. Unremitting, incessant, unflagging, unstoppable. At least it seems that way. Though I hope, I do, I really hope. And I do what for a Buddhist passes for prayer, and I cling to the possibility that the storm will be a little less fierce at dawn, and I focus on the inevitability of the sun rising, and I remind myself that the powerful, unquenchable power that fuels creation is still there. Love remains and, if we can manage to get out of its way, will prevail.

I believe that, I honestly do, even now, even when it is so terribly difficult to make sense from any of it.

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Is there a mindful response to terrorism?

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Is there a mindful response to terrorism?

My daughter spent the fall of 2014 attending college in Paris, which gave me the opportunity to reignite my love affair with the City of Lights. Shortly after she returned home, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo occurred. My thoughts and emotions were a welter of relief that my daughter was here and not there, and heartbreak for the people of Paris. Learning the news last night of the most recent terrorist attacks in Paris brought all of those feelings back in a rush and by a factor of at least 10.

Is there a mindful way to respond to acts of terrorism? I can hardly believe I need to ask that question. It is so much simpler to contemplate mindful responses to hunger, fatigue, stress, rude people, etc. Everyday things we all have to deal with. It is sad beyond description that terrorism is common enough that it requires specific consideration with regard to mindfulness. But it is a fact, and needs to be dealt with.

The aim of terrorism is not the act itself – as terror-filled as the act may be – but rather to inspire lingering terror. Nations spend untold billions of dollars protecting “high-profile targets” such as government buildings and cultural sites. The most successful terrorist acts, though, are perpetrated in much more mundane and commonplace locations – on buses, in a concert hall, at a corner cafe. It is these acts of terror that resonate and that are the most effective from the terrorist’s perspective, because each of us can imagine ourselves on that bus, or attending the concert, or eating dinner with friends.

Terror and fear are not consonant with mindfulness because they innately focus on the future, on what may happen, rather than on the present moment. More human suffering is caused by the fear what might happen to us than is caused by the things that actually are happening to us. Mindfulness teaches us to open our eyes to our present circumstances, to tear away the veil of unreality that comes in the form of fear of what might happen, so that we can focus on what truly is.

Our minds and lives are most balanced and healthy when we mindfully live in the present moment. The insidiousness of terrorism extends far beyond the immediate physical destruction it causes – it shatters our mindfulness and continues to prevent us from regaining balance. We cannot live fully in the moment when our minds are focused on what terrors might lurk around the corner. When we turn that corner and see that our fears were unfounded, we are not relieved – instead, we shift our fears to the next corner, and the corner after that.

It takes considerable effort to focus on what is happening around us right now when our fears bombard us with nightmare visions of what could happen next. I won’t suggest otherwise. But it is a necessary effort if we are going to recover our balance and re-center our lives.

Should we ignore the possibility of more terrorism to come? Of course not. Precautions should be taken. Protections should be put in place. That is undeniably prudent. Nations should work together to fight groups that wield terror as a weapon. But it will not be enough to completely defeat terrorism. As is so often pointed out, when one terrorist is eliminated, another jumps up to wield the weapon in his place.

The only lasting approach to defeating terrorism, in my opinion, is to rob it of its power by living in the present moment. Terrorism persists because it continues to be an effective weapon. The effectiveness of terrorism derives not from the guns or bombs the terrorists use to attach, but in the lingering fear the attacks inspire. If we do not let the fear of terrorism master us, if we live in the here and now with compassion for all beings, then terrorism will lose its power. This I firmly believe to be true.

Fearlessness Is Not the Absence of Fear

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I just read a column by Laura Huckabee-Jennings titled, “Mindful Leadership Is Fearless Leadership.” It got me thinking about the following question: Is it counterintuitive that the route to fearlessness is to open yourself up to fear?

At the risk of giving away the punchline, I think the answer is no. I understand how one might ask, “Isn’t fearlessness a state of being free of fear? If you open yourself up to fear, how can you be free of it?” My view, however, is that freedom from fear is not the same thing as not having any fear. It matters not what we do, we will always have fear. It is a normal and inescapable human emotion, intricately wrapped up in our awareness that all things change and that our lives are finite and, all things considered, startlingly brief.

My definition of fearlessness is “not controlled by fear.” I believe, therefore, that the path to fearlessness does not lead away from our fears but, rather, directly toward them. Instead of fleeing our fears, we need to take them on and embrace them.

The first step toward fearlessness, in this view, is acknowledging that you have fears. Everyone has fears, but not everyone is afraid. Fear is normal; living in fear is not. Because fear is a natural part of being human, there is no way to rid yourself of it. so be mindful that there is nothing wrong with feeling fear. It is no better or worse than any other emotion.

Thus, the second step: treat yourself with compassion. Feeling fear does not make you defective.

Third step: open yourself up to your fears, be mindful of them, and allow yourself to consider them as dispassionately as you can. Like other emotions – and perhaps even more, because it is so vivid and visceral – fear has a way of floating to the surface when you meditate. Don’t force it away! (At least, not right away.) Try to sit with it for a while, focusing on how fear makes you feel, how it affects you physically. Is your pulse quickening? Breath becoming shallower? Sweat breaking out on your forehead? Face flushing and heating up? True, those are not “pleasant” physical feelings, but they are normal. Your meditation practice can help you cope with them so that you can examine the fear itself: Where does it come from? Is the source of the fear real or imagined? In other words, is something else going on under the surface that is the actual source of these feelings, masquerading as something else?

Treat this exercise like getting into a cold lake – dip your toe in first if you’d prefer, rather than diving in headfirst. The first time, maybe just sit with the fear for a minute and then move on. Next time, maybe sit with it a little longer. In this manner, you arrive at a time when you can face the fear head-on without the urge to flee. 

That is fearlessness. It is not the absence of fear, or freedom of fear. Fearlessness is freedom from fear.

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I Didn’t Seek It, But I’ll Take It

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About a year ago I began this blog as one way to actively think about the path I was walking. For over 40 years I had walked a spiritually fulfilling path as a Christian, until realizing a couple of years ago that, somewhere along the line, I had stopped being a Christian and had become a Buddhist. Now I was walking an even more spiritually fulfilling path, though one far less familiar to me.

A lot of questions presented themselves to me and it seemed at times like I was feeling my way around in the dark. So I started blogging as part of my attempt to seek answers. It also occurred to me that I was probably not the only person seeking to answer those same questions. There might be a few people out there who would benefit from reading what I’m thinking, and it would be great to connect with those people and walk the path together.

Not long afterwards, I decided to create a page on Facebook with the same name, Dharma Beginner, as an extension of the blog and, primarily, to publicize its availability. My intention had been to post notices when new material was available on the blog, and perhaps the occasional quotation or link to a relevant online article. What happened next was wholly unexpected.

As of today, the Dharma Beginner page has 18,592 likes. That’s roughly 18,500 more likes that I would have predicted. So, an error of just 20109 percent, or slightly better than the accuracy of my NCAA basketball bracket.

This was not what I bargained for. This page has taken on a life of its own. In fact, I have been blogging only about once a month on average, but I am posting just about every day on the Facebook page. The regular visitors to the page seem to enjoy my blog but are obviously returning for other reasons given the infrequency of my blogging.

The regular visitors formed a beautiful little community right under my nose and without me noticing at first. Our virtual sangha, as I like to call it, has the same cast of characters as any in-person community. There are the gurus, as I think of them, the really experienced and knowledgeable people who can always be counted on to offer the perfectly apt quotation or to answer a baffling question. Thank goodness someone at the page knows something, because it’s not me!

There are the wallflowers who keep coming back but lurk in the corners, soaking up the experience while they shyly remain silent except for the occasional peep. Keep coming guys and gals and don’t feel pressured to speak up if you don’t want to. Just be there, because I love knowing that the page feeds you.

There are the hurt, those whose past experiences with organized religion have left them scarred and hypersensitive. My heart breaks for them and my compassion kicks into overdrive. I hope that they find some solace when they visit the page and are helped to recognize that happiness is within their grasp.

There are the debaters, ready to pounce on a point and beat it to a bloody pulp. I don’t know what I’d do without them, because they remind me that mine is not the only point of view and, quite often, their knowledge and passion puts me back in my place.

What there are, more than anything, are myriad people grateful for what they find at the page—which is amazing to me because I feel grateful for their presence. I am enriched by their many different voices and their common search for peace and happiness. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without them.

And this brought me up short recently. It began to dawn on me that I had a responsibility to the visitors to the page. I had been continuing my very low-key, minimally-responsible approach, posting the occasional quotation or article. But what happens when I go away, or simply am too busy to post? It doesn’t go unnoticed. People get worried about me. More importantly, people come looking for inspiration, a good word or two, encouragement, and see nothing new. I have given them a reason to expect such things, and sometimes I don’t deliver. Maybe they go away disappointed and never come back. Gosh, I hope not.

It occurs to me that, even though I can’t see the members of this community, it is a community nonetheless. One that I created and, therefore, am responsible for and to. If taking the Bodhisattva vows means that I have dedicated my life to aiding others in their search for enlightenment (and it does), then this is clearly one of the ways I have chosen to do so. Do I feel like I am upholding my vow in this regard? Not so much.

The issue has to do with much more than providing for new posts while I’m away on business or vacation, though. It has to do with taking risks, putting myself out there, and opening myself up to whatever may come. Just posting quotations and links to articles incurs very little risk. (Though, every time I refer to Chogyam Trungpa or Mother Theresa I set off a maelstrom! Can you say “polarizing individuals”?). My approach has been quite safe from criticism, quite safe from someone disagreeing or saying that I’m flat out wrong, quite safe from steering someone wrong and living with the consequences.

But more and more I find people reaching out for help publicly on the page and directly to me in private. Am I not responsible for helping them find an answer? I believe that, as the creator and maintainer of the page, I am. It is not a responsibility I sought, but I find that I am grateful for it and willing to embrace it.

I once heard one of my personal heroes and mentors, Bishop Walter Dennis, address a group of layreaders—people who read the Bible lessons to the congregation during church services. He emphasized the importance of preparation and taking the task of the layreader seriously by saying, “When you read the lessons, it may be the first time that someone has ever heard the scriptures, or it may be the last time they ever hear them because they will enter heaven before attending church again.” What an awesome responsibility! When it comes to this Facebook page, is it really any different? It could be the first time a visitor has ever read the Dharma or it could be the last time. Do I not owe it to them to provide something worthy of such occasions? I believe I do.

The denizens of Dharma Beginner may have noticed recently that my offering of quotations has come with some additional thoughts attached. That is me putting myself out there, expressing what the quotation says to me. That is me taking a little risk by exposing what I know and—more often—what I don’t know, opening myself up to disagreement, to the possibility that I will offend, to the chance that someone will read what I wrote and “unlike” the page, never to return. That would pain me indescribably, but I believe the potential gain, for the visitors and for me, to be far greater.

For a time now, I have been talking with my therapist about feeling called to do something different with my life, to set aside what I do now professionally in order to pursue a career helping other people spiritually. It’s a scary proposition: I’m very good at what I do now (as a researcher and author on government finance), I’m respected and well-known nationally within my particular industry, and I make a decent living. I have no idea if I’d be any good at being an author and speaker on spiritual matters, or whether I could support myself and my family doing so. So I’ve decided to take a small step in that direction, a toe dipped in the water, and the Dharma Beginner page is the base of operations from which I’m going to start doing that. I’ve been using the Twitter account associated with the page (@dharmabeginner) more often. I’m thinking about writing some things to submit to other web pages and magazines. I hope you’ll stick with me and continue to lend me your thoughts and opinions and support and friendship. Because it means so very much to me, and because I am so very grateful for it. Thank you.

Fear of the unknown

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“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

A recent sports story involving Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel intrigues me. The key parts of the story are, as I understand them:

  1. he was notified a year ago that some of his players, including the team’s star quarterback. may have violated NCAA rules by selling their team-related memorabilia
  2. he chose at that time not to report what he had been told or to otherwise act on it, perhaps because he feared the players would be suspended, undermining a season in which many were predicting Ohio State would win the national title
  3. the possible violations were ultimately revealed and the players were suspended for several games, at which time he claimed not to have been previously aware of the situation, and
  4. more recently the whole story came to light, Tressel was fined and suspended by Ohio State, and likely faces additional fines and suspension from the NCAA.

I don’t pretend to understand why Jim Tressel chose not to pass that initial tip along to Ohio State’s compliance officer right away, but the situation has the ring of familiarity. Who knows what the effect on the team’s chances might have been if Tressel had reported what he knew right away? It is certain, however, that the ramifications would have been far less than they will ultimately be—a multi-game suspension and $250,000 fine for Tressel, both of which will likely be augmented by the NCAA, and possibly sanctions for the university itself (voided wins, lost scholarships, and so on). The delusion that this potentially bad situation would simply disappear if he ignored it has already cost Tressel over a quarter of a million dollars of his own money (when you factor in lost salary during the suspension) and his reputation.

How many times do we choose to ignore potentially bad news because we are afraid of what we may find out if we acknowledge it? The simple answer, I think, is “a lot.” Maybe everyday.

Warning signs flash all around us—a rattling in our car, a pain in a limb, constant fatigue, a child’s declining grades. All too often, my inclination is to look away and hope that, when my attention drifts back in that direction, the offending omens will have vanished. But they almost never do. The rattling becomes a seized engine. The pain becomes a heart attack. The fatigue becomes metastatic cancer. The falling grades become an arrest for under-age drinking.

I knew someone who, for years and years, hardly ever went to the doctor. He had a relatively minor ailment that he was scared was something very serious, and refused to discuss it with his doctor. Then he was rushed to the hospital in pain and, in the span of one weekend, he was gone. Turns out, had he received treatment for the ailment any time in the last few years, he would still be alive. He feared that he might be seriously ill, and in fear he tried to hide from his imagined illness.

Worse yet, I think I had an inkling that he was ill, and said nothing. Maybe I was hoping it would just go away, afraid to find out that he might be sick; that if I asked, then he might tell me he was dying.

Pema Chödrön is so wonderfully reassuring on this topic, her most recent book being Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. As did her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Pema speaks of awakening bodhicitta and becoming “warriors of nonaggression who hear the cries of the world.” Bodhicitta (or bodhichitta), as I understand it, is tantamount to our inherent ability to love, our deep-seated need to love in order to realize our Buddha nature, our overpowering compassion for all living beings. Bodhicitta is at the heart of the bodhisattva way of life, a life devoted to achieving enlightenment in order to ease the suffering of others.

In Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion, Pema writes: “A warrior accepts that we can never know what will happen to us next. We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty.”

In other words, hiding is a delusion; it is not actually possible. When we try to hide, we do not manage to avoid contact with illness, accidents, discomfort, painful emotions, or unpleasant situations.

The only things we actually avoid—in the process of trying to hide from our fear—are opportunities to show love and compassion to others, the kind of contact we most desperately need.