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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The Exponential Nature of Compassion

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A friend on Facebook shared this quotation from Joel Osteen: “The greatest gift you can give someone is your time, your attention, your love, your concern.”

It makes me think about what I heard Thich Nhat Hanh say this past Saturday about compassionate listening. Being open to hearing what others are saying, what they are doing, their expressions and postures – without interruption, reaction, or judgment – makes us aware and mindful of their suffering. That awareness gives birth to compassion, which benefits both yourself and the person you are listening to.

Awareness of another’s suffering generates compassionate energy. It also makes us aware of our own suffering, generating further compassionate energy. That energy infuses your interactions with those around you and even with your own feelings and thoughts, giving birth to more compassionate energy in both others and yourself. Compassion spreads like wildfire.

This is the way in which the benefits of feeling and showing compassion to yourself and others blossoms exponentially. I truly believe that the greatest hope for the world is compassion and caring “going viral.”

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The Beat of Your Drum (and getting others to dance along)

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I stumbled across a photograph on Life magazine’s website, accompanied by a headline, “Is This the Happiest Photo Ever Made?” It is a photo by renowned photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt (one of my personal faves) and depicts a drum major from the University of Michigan in full stride, seemingly unaware that he has acquired a following.

This photo captures in-the-moment joy in a manner I’ve hardly seen elsewhere. The drum major’s attitude is clearly infectious, if his little band of followers is any indication.

Living a life of mindful compassion is infectious as well. You may not see your followers in a line behind you, but rest assured that they are out there mimicking your behavior with countless acts of compassion of their own.

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Thinking about Syria

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What am I to think about the developments in the U.S. regarding Syria? We appear to be slouching closer to some type of military action and I am personally distraught at the thought.

I abhor violence, plain and simple. I cannot condone any action that the U.S. may take in regard to Syria that involves violence. But…

How can I turn a blind eye to the plight of the Syrian people? More than 100,000 Syrians have died in this civil war. If a similar proportion of Americans died, we’d be talking about almost 1.5 million deaths. Think of the effect that losing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, has had on this country: What would happen to America if 500 times that many people died? That is what is happening in Syria.

Over 2 million Syrians have fled their homeland and are living as refugees in neighboring countries. That’s 9 percent of Syria’s total population, the proportional equivalent of nearly 30 million Americans. How can I stay deaf to the cries of these victims? My heart is troubled to the point of breaking for the Syrian people and compassion is pouring forth from my heart in torrents. It is a tragedy of epic scale and – even if peace broke out today – a calamity that the country will have a very difficult time recovering from.

I believe that the U.S. and other countries should do something, but is violence the best answer? The Dalai Lama has said that there is such a thing as a justifiable war, but that one cannot know if it was justified until afterwards. “War is violence and violence is unpredictable. Therefore, it is better to avoid it if possible, and never to presume that we know beforehand whether the outcome of a particular war will be beneficial or not.” He has also said, “Now the concept of violence, the concept of war, is outdated…Violence never seems now to produce positive results.”

That is where my heart lies, with the path of peace. But peace does not appear to be making sufficient headway to end the crisis in Syria. Is it possible to be more “forcibly peacful” without crossing a boundary into a realm of non-peace? I fear it is not. A violent reaction from the U.S. appears more and more likely, and I am heartbroken at the prospect.

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Why do I meditate?

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Why do we meditate? It’s a question raised in a recent column by Bruce Davis. The answer he received from Buddhist teacher James Baraz was, “Wow!” If you want to know what he meant, I encourage you to read the piece. I just want to use it as a leaping-off point for reflecting on why meditation is a part of my life.

I started meditating in my mid-20s when I was testing a calling to the priesthood. That testing had three parts: prayer, study, and action. I was praying for God to reveal the path I should take; I was studying what it meant to be a priest and spiritual guide; and I was getting first-hand experience with the work of a priest by accompanying my parish’s curate as he visited the sick and the shut-ins every Saturday. I did this for a year and, though I ultimately declined to accept the calling, the experience changed my life in many ways – not the least of which was starting my meditation practice.

As part of my studies, I began reading Thomas Merton, and subsequently Bede Griffiths and Basil Pennington, and was introduced to Eastern religious and spiritual practices. I learned to meditate and incorporated it into my Christian spirituality and I have been meditating ever since, more than 20 years later. Those books and initial meditation practice were a launching pad for a much deeper exploration of meditation, mindfulness, and Eastern religion that ultimately led me to become a Buddhist.

So, to answer the question why I meditate, I would have to say, “Because I need to.” It is as integral a part of my daily life as eating, as essential to starting my morning as getting dressed. Without meditation, I would hunger, and I would feel naked and unprepared to experience life. At least, that’s what I think I would feel like without meditation because, to be frank, I’m not sure I could truly imagine my life without meditation.

Meditation grounds me. Meditation clears away the detritus left by my emotions and thoughts. Meditation calms me. Meditation gives me the strength to handle stress and anxiety without crumpling into a fetal position. Meditation balances me. Meditation enables me to live mindfully and happily.

So you tell me: Why do you meditate?

More about Active Meditation

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If you thought my musings about meditating while shaving or snowshoeing odd, then you will truly be baffled by recent articles about meditating on the treadmill and while mowing the lawn.

Mowing may be the next form of meditation: “Researchers from the University of Queensland Brisbane discovered that a chemical released from a mowed lawn actually makes people feel happy and relaxed.”

I don’t know about the biochemical aspect of mowing the lawn, but I can personally attest to the meditative nature of lawn work in general, particularly the use of noisy equipment. Using something noisy may sound counterproductive to establishing a foundation for meditation. However, the noise of leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, and lawn mowers is kind of like a white noise – constant and enveloping, and in that way no different than wearing noise-cancelling headphones.

My condo association contracts for landscaping, but I used to look forward to autumn and blowing leaves when I owned a house and had to take care of such things myself. That sound would fill my ears, the vibration would spread from my hands, up my arms and into my torso, and I would enter a meditative state. Sometimes my mind would be mostly blank, other times my mind would grapple with arising thoughts and emotions, just like when I sit on my cushion.

Meditation made easy: How to train your brain on the treadmill: “This meditation will double the benefit of working out by connecting body and mind. It will inspire spiritual practice and keep your workouts from becoming another frenetic activity in an already busy life.”

I have no doubt that this can work as well, again from personal experience. I have done much the same thing on the elliptical machine many times. Be careful though: You don’t want to end up on a TV show when someone records you falling face-first on the treadmill when your attention wanders too far away.

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Tuning Our Mindfulness Dial

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Self-awareness is one of the primary objectives of meditation. Living  mindfully depends on our being aware of what is going on inside of and around us at each passing moment. Meditation sharpens and refocuses our awareness, both of self and surroundings. Debbie Gisonni talks about the importance of self-awareness in the Huffington Post. I wasn’t aware until reading her post that September is Self-Awareness Month. Our goal should be to make every day Self-Awareness Day, stringing them together to create a Self-Awareness Year and, ultimately, a Self-Awareness Life.

Meditation also reawakens us to the realization that self and surroundings are not separate but, rather, are inextricably linked. One way to define living mindfully is living in the awareness of that connection to all things at all times.

Awareness and mindfulness are kind of like an analog radio with a dial. Anyone remember what it used to be like to keep your radio on a particular station when you had to get the knob in the approximately correct position, before radio dials became LED number readouts? C’mon, don’t be shy, I know some of you are as old as I am. I won’t tell. Well, perhaps you saw one in a museum once…

During the day, awareness and mindfulness may ebb and flow, like the tuning on the radio drifting away from and then back toward the station you want to listen to. Meditation can be compared with adjusting the dial to reestablish our awareness and mindfulness so that our connection to the oneness of creation comes in loud and clear once again. Depending on how long it has been since our last “tuning,” meditation can be a very slight adjustment to the awareness dial or a more substantial twist of the knob.

Making little adjustments to our mindfulness throughout the day is a good way to keep from drifting too far away from awareness. But it is not always practical for us to practice our meditation during the day, while at work or school or traveling. One thing that I finds helps is to remind myself to breathe throughout the day; that is, to pause for just a minute to focus on breathing in and out deeply (or whatever breathing practice works best for you). I do this in two ways. First, I tacked a sign to the wall above my computer at work that simply reads, “Breathe.” Whenever I glance at it, I follow the one-word instruction. Second, I open my computer browser at the start of each workday and point it to the Washington Mindfulness Community’s Mindfulness Bell. I set it to ring every 15 minutes and, when it does, I take four long, deep breaths. But you can set the bell to ring as often or little as you like, even randomly, and can adjust the sound of the bell.

Whatever tools we use, it is important that we employ them to keep ourselves in tune throughout the day with ourselves, those around us, and the connection we share.

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Everyone Suffers

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We are apt to compare our suffering with that of others, and to think things like, “He’s in much better shape than I am. My problems are much worse.” And we somethings convince ourselves that some other people don’t suffer at all.

Everyone suffers, even the people who seem to have it made in the shade. We cannot see their suffering, so we do not, in fact, really know.

The Buddha taught that all people suffer, even those who appear to be very wealthy and healthy and happy. Those people suffer, for example, from fear and anxiety over losing those good things they have, to the point that they cannot even enjoy their blessings.

So treat everyone with compassion and, thereby, avoid exacerbating anyone’s suffering.

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Disconnecting to Reconnect

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When I was a kid, my dad called television “the boob tube.” Meaning, prolonged exposure to TV turned one into a brainless boob. The multitude of electronic distractions that we have now includes TV as only one of many, and probably down the list a ways.

There is a backlash of sorts occurring, with the aim of getting people to “unplug.” Not go wireless, mind you, but simply shut down the cell phone, computer, tablet, TV, and let your mind heal. Yes, I said heal, recover from the damage that too much “connectivity” does to our minds and spirits.

I suffer from this as much as anyone, so don’t think I’m casting stones. My glass house wouldn’t withstand a handful of pebbles. I just want to offer the suggestion that meditation is a viable alternative. We’re not talking a complete swap here — give up technology in favor of a life meditating in a secluded cave — just a relative handful of the moments that you might otherwise be using to text, chat, upload, download, pin, share, like, and so on. No one is asking for the technological equivalent of asceticism.

We have conned ourselves into thinking that we need all of our gizmos in order to connect, either because we forgot or never knew that we are naturally connected to all beings already. Meditation and mindfulness make us aware of that pervasive interconnectedness. Or, perhaps I should say, they allow us to shed the layers of interference — electronic and otherwise — that shield us from sensing our connection with the universe and benefitting from it.

Here’s a little meditation I stumbled across today about disconnecting from the TV. It’s equally applicable to other kinds of technology and media. Why not give it a try?

If you’re not already doing so, why not follow Dharma Beginner on Twitter, @dharmabeginner. I find lots of really interesting and relevant articles everyday and post links to them on Twitter. Okay, I realize the contradiction in encouraging you to unplug and then plugging my own Twitter account. But, if you’re going to be online anyway…

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Stuck in a Moment

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Man Sitting In Valley

A recent blog post by Wray Herbert describes sunk-cost bias as “the tendency to persist with an endeavor once we’ve made an investment of money or time or effort.” He paints it in a negative light, calling it an “irrational” behavior.

I get what he’s talking about. I can’t count the number of times I’ve put up with an unhappy situation as if there were no alternative. Part hopelessness, part fear of change (even if just about any change would be an improvement), part stubbornness (“No one’s going to make me do something against my will…”).

This may be an instance of painting with too broad a brush, though. Sometimes, even when we are suffering and a situation is far less than ideal, there are good reasons for remaining right where we are, continuing to do the exact same thing. We may know that things will get better soon. We may believe that the intolerable situation we’re experiencing is worth it to achieve a goal we consider important.

I’ll give you an example. My first marriage, for all practical purposes, was over after about a dozen years. It would be 18 years, though, before we divorced. Some of those intervening years were among the most painful of my life. If I had physically left the marriage after 12 years, though, I never would have experienced the final three years. During that time, we attended marriage counseling, where we discovered that, ultimately, we did not wish to save the marriage. In the process, though, we worked out most of the issues that had undermined our marriage. Consequently, as we worked through the particulars of the divorce and chafed at the shackles of trying to sell our home in the wake of the 2008 housing market collapse, we rediscovered the friendship that had brought us together in the first place. We also gave our daughter a lasting image of her parents as friends, rather than as mortal enemies and screaming lunatics. Tough as those years were, I wouldn’t go back and redo any of them.

Mr. Herbert points to mindfulness as the solution to the inertia of sunk-cost bias. I’d amplify that notion, though, to say that mindfulness allows us to discriminate between the moments when we are being irrationally anchored to a painful experience and the times when the best course is to stay put. Sticking out an unpleasant situation is not always inexplicable; it is sometimes the right thing for us and those around us.

The teachings I have received as a Buddhist also remind me that change is always occurring – in fact, change is an immutable part of existence. Which means that no situation is permanent, no specific form of suffering unending.

In dire times I remember the words of a Sufi poet, “This too shall pass,” as well as those of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” And then a song by U2, “Stuck in a Moment,” starts playing in my head. I sing along and the present situation seems less dark, less inevitable.

I’m not afraid of anything in this world
There’s nothing you can throw at me that I haven’t already heard
I’m just trying to find a decent melody
A song that I can sing in my own company

I never thought you were a fool
But darling, look at you. Ooh.
You gotta stand up straight, carry your own weight
‘Cause tears are going nowhere baby

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better
Now you’re stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it

I will not forsake the colors that you bring
The nights you filled with fireworks
They left you with nothing
I am still enchanted by the light you brought to me
I listen through your ears
Through your eyes I can see

You are such a fool to worry like you do.. Oh
I know it’s tough and you can never get enough
Of what you don’t really need now
My, oh my

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Oh love, look at you now
You’ve got yourself stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Oh lord look at you now
You’ve got yourself stuck in a moment  and you cant get out of it

I was unconscious, half asleep
The water is warm ’til you discover how deep
I wasn’t jumping, for me it was a fall
It’s a long way down to nothing at all

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better
Now you’re stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it

And if the night runs over
And if the day won’t last
And if your way should falter
Along this stony pass

It’s just a moment
This time will pass