Monday, June 12, 2006

Pema Chodron: Getting to Know Fear

[image source]

We cannot be in the present moment and run our story lines at the same time. Experiment with this for yourself, and watch how it changes you. Impermanence becomes vivid in the present moment; so do compassion and wonder and courage. And so does fear. In fact, anyone who stands on the edge of the unknown, fully in the present, without a reference point, experiences groundlessness. That's when our understanding goes deeper, when we find that the present moment is a pretty vulnerable place and that this can be completely unnerving and completely tender at the same time.

What we're talking about is getting to know fear, becoming familiar with fear, looking it right in the eye -- not as a way to solve problems, but as a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and thinking. The truth is that when we really begin to do this, we're going to be continually humbled. Fear is a natural reaction of moving closer to the truth. If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there in nowhere to escape.

~ Comfortable With Uncertainty
This is the path, isn't it? Every time we challenge our fragile egos, we experience fear. Whether or not we can grow from the experience will depend on whether or not we can stand within the fear and let it undo us.

I think it deserves mention here that we can seek out fear in the physical world by doing things that threaten us with injury or death. We can free climb a rock wall, or bungee jump, or sky dive. Many people seek these activies as ways to conquer fear. But that is a very low level form of working with fear, probably from the Beige through Red memes. This is not going to help us grow in the same way as facing our fears around vulnerability in an intimate relationship, or by surrending ego in meditation.

There's no doubt that many people find physical death frightening, and for those people that may be the cutting edge of growth, but as we move higher along the Spiral, the fear becomes more subtle. For many, failure and embarrassment present a different kind of fear than sky diving. It feels unbearable, but even here, standing within the fear can result in growth.

Ego dissolution becomes the greatest fear as our growth deepens. We cannot give up the sense of an individual self, of an unique personal identity -- the I from which we know the world. But this is exactly what we seek as Buddhists.

I bump up against all these forms of fear on a regular basis. Each of our levels of development has its own collection of fears. We transcend but include them as we grow. I still fear heights as a result of childhood experiences. I still fear public speaking as a result of teenage experiences. I still fear intimacy as a result of adult experiences. And I still fear the loss of ego as I sit on the cushion and try to lose my ego.

I have mostly conquered the fear of heights by staying with the fear as I experience it. I am still working on the public speaking thing. I have mostly worked through the fears of intimacy, although that is an on-going process. And as I make progress toward transcending ego, and have tastes of what that feels like, I begin to fear it less and seek it more.

The fear of ego loss is tricky. Ego doesn't like to admit fear, so it says it's strong and doesn't fear being transcended. It can handle it. But when I am sitting, it doesn't want to let go -- it keeps its story line about being tough and in control running through my head. Getting it to be quiet is a challenge, but by sitting over and over again, it slowly surrenders.

This is the path I have chosen.

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Mike said...

This is a great post, Bill. We are slaves to our storyline. Over the years of our lives, we've built up this story of who we are, what we are. And we live out that story, filtering our experience through that story so that, for the most part, our experiences confirm that very storyline. True practice allows us to remain open to experiences and limit the filtering process, so that we are always open to new wisdom that may arise.

faye said...

lovely. found you through a rabbit hole today as I was looking for something on Pema; your words are inspired, wonderful.