from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

the teachings of fear

When we were growing up, my father used to say that fear was the root of all other negative emotions – or words to that effect.

As I've aged, I've realised over and over just how true that is. Anger? Look for the fear underneath. Hate? Ditto. Shame? Blame? Self-righteousness? Territory wars? Theft? Envy? Jealousy? Deceit? Lies? Betrayal? Ditto, etc.

What a useful lesson it is.

It's normal (whatever that means), natural, to fear the new, the unknown, the not-yet-comprehended. (I maintain it's natural, too, to fear the unnatural – I justify my fear of flying by asking myself just how natural is it to have simply a sardine can and two internal combustion engines between me and oblivion at 15,000 feet; though actually, truthfully, it's not so much the fear that makes me reluctant to fly these days as environmental concerns; but that also gives me a great, and virtuous, excuse not to face the fear. But if I do fly I can usually overcome the fear enough as to enjoy it.)

Someone once said to me: 'Fear is excitement without the breathing.' That's useful, too. If we can recognise the adrenalin-rush as something that can help us meet what we fear, if we can remember to breathe and stare the fear-provoking Thing in the face, we can see through it and find a sense of – what, adventure? Anticipation? 'Feel the fear and do it anyway' may be a cliché, but the book of the same title by Susan Jeffers was very valuable to me when I first read it.

In it, she makes the obvious but oft-overlooked point that true courage doesn't reside in not feeling fear, but in recognising our fear – and choosing not to let it set our limits.

Obviously, I'm not talking about dismissing a very real instinctual fear when we're facing real danger, when our life or wellbeing or that of someone we love or are simply witnessing are being seriously threatened. It might indeed be crucial to read that fear-prompt correctly; to listen to our instincts and our intuition. But that might be where the role of fear stops.

I'm talking more about coming up against our habitual limits when faced with a new situation, and the way, if we're not careful, we can be hijacked by our emotional reactions which render us incapable of maintaining an inner stillness and calm, both of which might be not just helpful but also essential in meeting the new.

The problem, as I've mentioned here before, is that we so easily fall into identifying our self with our emotional reactions. In a balanced state (and this is a spin-off and bonus from meditation), we can sit at the hub of the wheel and allow ourselves to notice our reactive responses, our chaotic emotional ephemera, as they spin around on the perimeter, without mistaking them for essential nature.

I'm reminded of all this because this morning I had some correspondence from someone in which the fear was so palpable it infected me immediately, until I stepped back and took a breath. What was harder was that I was copping the blame for a choice that person had freely made.

My own immediate response was fear and anxiety that I experienced physically: the clenched stomach, the thumping heart. My mind kicked in and I ran an old pattern, as they say, which suggested that, maybe, I was, in fact, culpable for the blame and perceived attack (good old ex-Catholic child's introjected critic). A moment's clarity immediately resolved that for me – I had no responsibility for the situation. Then I was angry at the anger misdirected my way.

Simultaneously with all this – and this is the benefit of cultivating mindfulness; even ten years ago I wouldn't have been able to notice all my reactions and choose whether or how to respond – my heart was telling me to relate to the fear underneath the correspondence, not its manifestations. There was panic for the person concerned in relation to a pending new experience. That way, I understood; and reminded myself that I know well what it is to be whirled around on the perimeter of the bicycle wheel, and that some people, and I too am one of them at times – respond to that by hitting out. I didn't need to hit back.

And – and what a relief this is – I could choose to carry on sitting at the hub of the wheel myself, and respond kindly but firmly by putting responsibility back where it belonged – with the person concerned.

In every minute, we have that choice. Of course, easy to say – and of course I fall out of the hub frequently.

But how good it feels when I don't.

Buddhism reminds us of the dangers of going off on one: whether it's a craving or an aversion; neither is truth.

In timely fashion this email from Tricycle Buddhist journal arrived in my inbox:

'Like a forest fire, anger tends to burn up its own support. If we jump down into the middle of such a fire, we will have little chance of putting it out, but if we create a clearing around the edges, the fire can burn itself out. This is the role of meditation: creating a clearing around the margins of anger.'
~ Mark Epstein, “I've Been Meditating for Ten Years, and I'’m Still Angry. What's the Matter with Me?”)

That's a good way of putting it. I've had a big lesson in that in the not-too-distant past, too.

So we can see fear, if we want (and I'm sorry to sound so Pollyanna-ish, as the Americans say), as an opportunity to peer into the nature of reality; to learn a smidgen more about ourselves and the world, to grow, albeit minutely, beyond our current limits. We don't learn from safety, but from uncertainty and insecurity.

Rumi (in Coleman Bark's translation) says:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in...


  1. Oh dear, oh dear! something else I've been doing wrong. So apt, so clever. Especially after the book title- I've been meditating for 9 months and wondered why I was still me! I've got to smile. Thanks once again and love. xx

  2. Well, I guess we'll all always (also) probably be 'me' - but maybe not just 'me'! Doing it wrong?? Not possible. Doing the best we can, each of us, given our own karmic burden, tasks and circumstances, I think... With love x

  3. Another me, responding to this timely reminder.
    Today I was subject to what I perceived as a forceful, furious tirade, directed at me by someone with whom I have an uneasy friendship; though I had thought that – after the Buddhist meditation course I went to almost 10 years ago helped me to understand her differently – we'd reached a more comfortable stage of friendship. Instead I felt under attack, being told things I could've told her years ago, generally patronised and misunderstood. My heart also thumped, I wanted to shake her into listening, not telling and I knew what I was doing but couldn't step back. Not until I'd read your 'teachings of fear', here. And only an hour after returning home in a frustrated angry state. Synchronicity or what?!
    I think she's terrified, wound up with her own problems, maybe trying to mend herself, telling herself by telling me how she should be. And now, all anger gone, I can feel compassion for her and glad to have been reminded by you.
    And as you say, falling off the hub will always happen but at least we can be aware of it and know what to do. And we've always another chance; it's never too late.

    Thanks again, Roselle,
    love, Miriam xx

  4. Miriam, SO many people seem to have had such experiences recently. I know we all do frequently anyway; but more than I'd imagine as an average (I've had similar stories to y/ours by email and on facebook since this posting).

    I laugh at myself for saying 'it's the stars', as you know; but actually there are difficult transits at the moment between planets associated with recalcitrance, anger and deep furious warfare - all, of course, about transformation, too...

    And so we carry on, knowing we're not alone.

    Love, Rx


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