Ray Buckner shares how Buddhist practice can help us diminish fear by facing it directly with honesty, clarity, and compassion.
It’s not easy to open our hearts when we feel utter aversion toward what’s arising, especially feelings of shame or loneliness or sorrow. It’s not easy to sit and be with ourselves, especially in moments when we don’t like ourselves very much.
Instead of connecting with our hearts when they’re tender, we often cut ourselves off from any vulnerability and pain, armoring ourselves with numbness and rigidity.
In his book Smile at Fear, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche describes the reasons we harden our hearts. He writes,
Sometimes people find that being tender and raw is threatening and seemingly exhausting. …Vulnerability can sometimes make you nervous. It is uncomfortable to feel so real, so you want to numb yourself. You look for some kind of anesthetic, anything that will provide you with entertainment. Then you can forget the discomfort of reality.
Hardening against grief
Such has been my unintentional habit the last couple of months: when some kind of major experience of rejection takes place, I respond first by trying to numb my grief—eschewing people, experiences, and even thoughts and dreams.
I see this clearly now as, for example, I prepare to apply to graduate school. Rejected the first time around, a part of me no longer even wishes to attend. I feel that the process of reapplying is too much to bear for I fear that no school would want or accept me. My hopes are now tainted by layers of disappointment, shame, and fear.
My process of avoidance only causes increased suffering. What to do?
Instead of turning toward these emotions, I try to avoid them by simply killing all aspirations, all desires. This aversion keeps me stuck, numb and aimless, as if I’m at a crossroads and unable to move in any direction.
I also see something similar when it comes to matters of love. I know acutely that I yearn to find a partner; someone I can confide in, talk endlessly with, make love with, smile with. But sometimes, after getting excited about the idea, something shifts, and I turn sad and hopeless. I start thinking about my past relationships: how much pain there was, how badly things went astray. I start to believe there is “no one out there for me.” Becoming overwhelmed with doubt and fear, the desire living in my eyes, body, and mind turns cold and numb. The original yearning —for love and real partnership — is all but gone.
But my pain lives deep. So I try to escape in the ways Trungpa Rinpoche describes: I switch on Rachel Maddow, I mindlessly scroll Facebook and Twitter, and swipe my way through OKCupid. After all turns quiet, my emotions shoot back up. Emotionally exhausted, crying myself to sleep, I feel no closer, and perhaps further, from resolving my heart’s pain.
Unfortunately, this process of avoidance causes increased suffering as it traps me further into a state of samsara. What to do?
Opening to fear through meditation
The answer lies, in part, in looking deeply into my fear, and placing a loving and inquiring hand on my wounds.
Trungpa Rinpoche believed that we have to be able to face our fears by looking at ourselves with honesty, gentleness, and clarity:
Many people try to find a spiritual path where they do not have to face themselves but where they can still liberate themselves—liberate themselves from themselves, in fact. In truth, that is impossible. We cannot do that. We have to be honest with ourselves. We have to see our gut, our real shit, our most undesirable parts. We have to see that…We have to face our fear; we have to look at it, study it, work with it, and practice meditation with it.
One way to look at ourselves is through meditation. Meditation allows space for us to look deeply into our fear, sit with our discomfort and self-hate, and be honest about where we resist and try to pull away. In meditation, the invitation is to sit and breathe. As we sit and breathe, thoughts arise. As thoughts arise, we gently label this “thinking,” and continue breathing.
Importantly, releasing the thought does not mean letting go of the energy undergirding it. According to Pema Chödrön, “our practice is to stay with it, to experience it, to leave it as it is.”
Rather than repress our emotions in the ways we’ve been doing, we are invited to tenderly open to them.
I am learning how to do this: to stay with the hatred, anxiety, judgement, and fear that pulse through me.
During my latest visit to the Insight Meditation Community of Berkeley, our teacher, Kate Munding, delivered a dharma talk on nature and led us through a meditation on touching the Earth, calling on us to each place a hand on the ground – as the Buddha did when he first experienced enlightenment – and ask the Earth to bear witness to our existence. It’s a gesture that reinforces our sense not just of how we are connected to the Earth but how we are, in fact, Earth itself.
As I placed my hand on the ground, a rush of pain and doubt shot up: “I’m not a fitting part of this Earth”; “I’m not like the Buddha”; “I’m not someone the Earth meant to cultivate”; “I’m not a being who can sit and thrive like all other beings.”
It was difficult. But really being with these sensations was so helpful: using mindfulness, I had the patience to stay with feelings of worthlessness, aloneness, and despair. I also had the capacity to inquire into my thoughts. Where are these thoughts coming from? Why are they arising? What are they wrapped up in?
Insight through meditation
Engaging into such inquiry, naturally, led me to better understand my recurring numbness: when I was rejected by schools, when I lost my last partner, when I was filled with desire and in some way told “no,” I of course felt pain, disappointment, and loneliness. But that was just a first wave. A second wave of difficult thoughts would come, too: “I’m never going to find love again”; “I’m never going to find a job I feel passionate about”; “I’m not wanted or loveable”; “I’m sorry for who I am.” I had never before been truly aware of this second wave and its power.
The more I meditate, the clearer I can see how my present doubts stem from life-long struggles with traumatic, fundamental beliefs about my basic goodness, or lack thereof. Listening to my body and thoughts with a raw, kind attention, I can see with clearer precision the hatred toward who I am; the anger and judgement toward my body and mind; regret about the life I’ve lived and doubt about my capacity to embody a confident and full heart in the future.
Ultimately, by opening to my fear and self-hate with honesty, clarity, and compassion, their power lessens. No longer covered by layers of dread and anguish, I can now touch into the experience of my heart, body, and mind from a place of kindness and inquiry, rather than judgment and fear. This process helps us see – and love – ourselves better.