This is a summary of some of the meditation practices and issues covered in an eight- week practice group led by Michael Liebenson Grady at the CIMC in the winter of 1997.
We can have a very committed spiritual practice, doing all the “right” things—sitting every day, getting in our annual retreats, reading and listening to Dharma, and even having moments of deep concentration and clarity of mind. And yet, at the same time, we can be living our lives actively avoiding our fears and keeping them at a distance.
Rilke said,”What is required of us is that we love the difficult and learn to deal with it. In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.” Understandably, fear is a difficult energy to love. The source of our difficulty with fear is tied up in two deeply conditioned responses to fear—aversion and identification. On a physical level, fear doesn’t feel good. It’s unpleasant. The energy of fear expresses itself in so many ways through the body: from very subtle sensations that often go unnoticed to very distinct sensations of contraction and tightening—constriction in the chest, stomach, face, throat. Our breathing and our heartbeat are affected. Even our skin and body temperature are affected (cold, clammy hands); couple these unpleasant physical sensations with the unpleasant mental sensations (thoughts of vulnerability, powerlessness, and separation) and we can begin to understand why we respond with so much aversion to the experience of fear.
Our aversion to fear—the judging and condemning, the avoiding and denial, the embarrassment and shame—are intensified by our identification with fear. There is a strong tendency to personalize fear, to take separateness and self judgment. The notion of self is not far from our experience of fear. It conditions the way we hold fear. It strengthens aversion and makes the experience of fear more threatening. Not only do we judge fear as a bad experience (aversion), but we judge ourselves for having the experience. Identification with fear gets in the way of looking at fear directly and prevents us from recognizing the true nature of fear.
It is this inability to see fear as an impersonal, conditioned response that creates so much suffering. One of the things that I appreciate about our discussions of fear in the practice group is that they facilitate a more open way of relating to fear. In many ways our discussions help take fear out of the closet of embarrassment. We can see that our fears are not necessarily as personal as we assume. Others share similar fears and relate to these fears in much the same way that we do. The recognition of this commonality helps dissolve the separation caused by our identification with fear and can give us the confidence to examine fear in a less reactive way. Through “noble friendship” and suitable conversation the mind can come into more balance, facilitating clarity and inner freedom. The challenge, in working with fear, is to learn how to soften the habitual reaction of aversion while letting go of the tight grip of identification. The practices of samatha-vipassanā can settle the heart and balance the mind. Samatha practices are particularly helpful in regaining balance and calm when we find ourselves reacting to or getting lost in the energy of fear. One samatha practice that we explored in this practice group was the mindfulness of “touchpoints” (contact of the body with the cushion, contact of feet or legs with the floor, hands touching). Whether experiencing fear on the cushion (it could be anxiety, worry, fear) or in other daily activities (i.e. walking past a stranger at night or facing some conflict in relationship), remembering the touchpoints in the moment of fear can help bring us into the present in a more connected way. Bringing attention to only one or all of the touchpoints can bring a steadiness of heart and mind that balances the reactivity and disconnection that often accompanies fear. We often leave our bodies behind when confronted by fear. Or, at least we want to, because of the aversion. Awareness of touchpoints brings us back into our bodies. But, because they tend to be neutral, attention to these sensations can have a calming effect, bringing us more into the present moment. This is unlike the common response of avoidance, which may bring immediate relief yet has a limiting effect of strengthening fear.
The Buddha taught mettā (loving kindness) practice to the monks and nuns as a compassionate response to their fears of practicing in the forest. Cultivating thoughts of lovingkindness strengthens one’s ability to meet experience with greater openness and less aversion. Mettā also encourages less identification with fear because it dissolves separation and nurtures connection. In using mettā in relationship to fear, choose a phrase or phrases that resonate with you. I use “May I be at ease” or “May I be at peace with what is”. Every time you become aware of fear, remember the phrase, saying it softly and silently to yourself. By remembering to use these samatha practices in working with fear, we nurture the serenity aspect of practice and begin to respond in a very different way. We can discover a refuge within that has nothing to do with avoiding or escaping the unpleasantness of fear but instead find a refuge that rests on our capacity to be in the present moment with balance and spaciousness. Without a certain degree of calm and steadiness, investigation of fear can lead to “spinning wheels” and a proliferation of thinking that arises out of aversion. When the mind becomes a bit more serene in the face of fear, we can look at fear more directly and with less reactivity. We can begin to investigate fear with the intention to learn rather than to get rid of. So much of our thinking about fear—the analyzing, the figuring out, the desire to be fearless comes out of reactivity and aversion. I remember quite clearly that one of my main motivations in beginning to practice was so that I could overcome fear.
Cultivating wisdom in working with fear requires gentle perseverance in being awake to what is. This is quite different from trying to conquer fear. The practice of vipassanā reveals directly the arising and passing away of all experience, including fear. Through this practice of moment to moment attention we begin to understand fear on deeper levels than the personal. A helpful investigative tool is “mental noting”. Making a soft mental note when experiencing fear can increase our ability to recognize and acknowledge the experience of fear. This is a big investigative step to take because so much of our experience of fear goes unacknowledged. It operates just below the conscious level, yet affects us in profound ways. Anxiety and worry are common forms of fear that often do not get recognized, yet they condition so much of our approach to life. The simple mental note that I often use is “fear, fear.” Mental noting is not meant to create distance from the experience of fear, but rather to bring us more into the present, while helping us to recognize fear as a conditioned process that is not me or mine. Seeing quite directly the impermanence of fear, as it arise and passes away, frees us gradually from the constrictive hold of identifying with it.
Last year, I spent a month at Maha Boowa’s forest monastery. It was a wonderful opportunity to have some contact with one of the last of the great forest meditation masters. Because of his age, Maha Boowa has limited much of his teaching, but I did work with his senior monk, Tan Panna, who had practiced with Maha Boowa for something like forty years. Though I wasn’t facing any fear of tigers (they have long disappeared), there were plenty of opportunities to investigate fear while practicing in my forest kuti (meditation hut) at night. Tan Panna was relentless in his instructions on working with fear. He encouraged me to bring sustained attention to the myriad of unpleasant body sensations that were arising because of the fear, while restraining my impulse to think about the fear. It took all of my perseverance to be willing to be attentive rather than to move away.
Formal meditation practice is extremely helpful in bringing balance to the mind when fear arises. But, it is essential to pay attention when fear arises in all our activities, and to use the tools that we have been strengthening in our formal practice. It is important to remember that, in meditation, we have been cultivating the capacity to love the difficult. The time to use that capacity is always now.