Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Befriending Fear

I was meditating before dawn many years ago, when I was suddenly overcome with a wave of fear. It may have been related to something specific that was happening in my life at that moment, or it may have been just a general sense of anxiety, but whatever it was, it was powerful. I felt my body begin to shake, and it took all of my will to remain sitting on the cushion with my eyes closed.

I remember thinking that this feeling felt very familiar. Fear had been a part of my life since my earliest childhood memories. Recently discovered evidence indicates that we may even receive fight-or-flight chemicals, such as cortisol and adrenalin, while still in utero. Indeed, my mother used to tell me about how anxious she was while she was pregnant with me. My father was briefly unemployed at that time, and they had just moved to a new house in the suburbs of Kansas City.

So here was that familiar feeling of fear again. I decided to face this demon once and for all, and see just what it was made of. I allowed the feelings to move through me, and I felt them as fully as I could. The sensations presented themselves as waves of heat, momentary bouts of nausea, ringing ears, pounding chest, and sweaty hands and feet. Fear had a hold of me, all right.

I remember a sense of turning inward, toward the direction that the feeling was coming from. I called out inwardly, "Okay, fear! Let's see you! Give me your best shot and show me what you've got!" Out of the darkness, a face began to appear. It was a cartoonishly grotesque-looking thing, whose lips were turned back in a snarl exposing crooked, pointy teeth. Its eyes were bulging, its cheeks were red and puffed up, and it hissed at me very loudly. 

My reaction to this display of mind was surprising. I actually laughed. "That's the best you can do?" I asked sarcastically. The fear face changed expression abruptly, and then just kind of slunk away into the darkness. I remember that it even let out a small whimper as it went away. Instantly, I felt the unpleasant sensations diminish and eventually disappear completely. I was left with a very pleasant feeling of space and peace.

Fear continues to be a traveling companion throughout much of my daily life, but now we have a better understanding of each other. It now knows that I'm the stronger one, and it rarely pushes things to the point where it has me completely overpowered. When it appears during my meditation practice, I now greet it jovially and with genuine affection, inviting it to sit with me for awhile. I will always honor fear as a great teacher for coming to me on that morning long ago, and I will always consider it one of my lifelong companions on this path of life.

Your Mother and My Mother, by Hafiz (translation by Daniel Ladinsky):
Fear is the cheapest room in the house.
I would like to see you living
In better conditions,
For your mother and my mother
Were friends.
I know the Innkeeper
In this part of the universe.
Get some rest tonight,
Come to my verse again tomorrow.
We'll go speak to the Friend together.
I should not make any promises right now,
But I know if you
Somewhere in this world -
Something good will happen.
The Divine Mother wants to see
More love and playfulness in your eyes
For that is your greatest witness to Her.
Your soul and my soul
Once sat together in the Beloved's womb
Playing footsie.
Your heart and my heart
Are very, very old

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