A great dharma talk on opening to fear and anxiety and how to work with it in meditation practice.
You can remind yourself of the noble persons who have walked this path before you. This path is no dusty byway. Buddhas from time immemorial, the silent Buddhas, the great disciples, the arahants, all the rest of the noble ones, all have walked here. If you want to share this distinguished path, fortify yourself with dignity and be diligent. No room for cowards or the lazy; this is a road for heroes and heroines.
You might say to yourself: “People of distinction have walked this path, and I must try to live up to their company. I can’t be sloppy here. I shall walk with as much care as possible, fearlessly. I have this chance to belong to a great family, the group of distinguished people who walk on this noble path. I should congratulate myself for having the opportunity to do this. People like me have walked on this path and attained the various stages of enlightenment. So I, too, will be able to reach the same attainment”
Through such reflection, effort can arise and lead you to the goal of nibbana (freedom).
~Sayadaw U Pandita
The Dhamma is the most precious thing in the entire world,
Practicing it leads to freedom and the end of psychological suffering and stress.
Remembering this, I practice with my whole heart,
And skillfully transform and train this mind.
The path of Dharma practice is the path of opening. It’s the path of opening our bodies. And we start in our practice as often the sense of the solidity of the body. The density of it. Through the power of observation, we begin to see more specific kinds of sensations. Begin to discriminate and articulate different kinds of feelings in the body. As the observing power becomes stronger, often there’s a disillusion of the form. So we can be sitting and feeling the body, but without any sense of shape or form, as we go deeper, we begin to feel it as a flow of energy. The energy becomes more refined and more subtle.
So the path of our practice is an opening to these physical energies in deeper and clearer ways. It’s also a path of opening our sense ___. ___ perceptions become clearer, how we see and how we hear. You may have noticed the times you might be sitting quite still. And there’s a sound. And the sound feels as if it impacts the body in such an intense way. There’s a perception of hearing that’s become so acute.
It’s a path of opening our emotions or as we proceed in practice, often, there is uncovering of deeper and more intense emotional states. Sometimes, they’re very beautiful. The feelings of love and compassion. In a way that’s very sweet. Very refined. And sometimes, it’s the uncovering of very unpleasant emotions. Maybe there’s an ___ of huge amount of rage or anger, or sadness, or grief. It’s all part of this uncovering process.
It’s a path of opening to deeper level of silence. In the couple of months that you’ve been here, I think you’ve observed that times—different kinds of silence. And then at first, our mind is simply lost in thought most of the time. And as we practice, we may still be thinking most of the time, but there’s some ___ of awareness, we know that that’s happening.
And as practice goes on, maybe we’re a little more with the breath, and thought some more in the background. Then the background thought gets more subtle. Maybe for a moment or two, they actually stop, and you really experience a silence of mind.
The practice of Dharma is not a reaching out for anything. It’s not a process of acquisition. Rather, it’s a settling back and an opening to what is there. An opening to what is true. So realization of our essential nature of what is always there. What keeps us closed in this process of opening or keeps us closed to this experience of the Dharma, are deeply conditioned fears or certain kinds of fear in the mind, which are very strongly habituated. We have fear of pain. This is a strong habit for us. We have of certain emotional or psychological state. There’s often fear of impermanence in some very basic level. Mind is afraid of change or afraid of the unknown. This fear of death.
The problem for us is that all of these things are actually part of who we are– pain and difficult emotions, and impermanence, and the unknown, and death. This is part of what is true. And so as long as there is fear of these things, we stay fragmented. We stay cut-off a part of ourselves. On this journey of opening, what happens is that we come to boundaries. We come to the edges of what we’re willing to be with. Of what we’re comfortable with. And it’s just at these edges, these boundaries that these deep-rooted fears begin to reveal themselves.
Working with the fear at this point in our practice is an essential part of the work that we do. The essential part of this opening. We begin to see very clearly what it is that limits us. We begin to see the possibility of going beyond our limits. We begin to look very directly and very closely at the nature of fear itself. So that we understand it. The Dharma is the totality of ourselves. The totality of who we are. And there’s one profound implication of this understanding—which is that everything is workable. Every situation, every experience is workable. Nothing is outside of the practice.
When we come to these boundaries, or places of limitation, or come to the edges of what we’re willing to be with, and different fears begin to manifest. And we look at the fear. Begin to see that fear is rooted in aversion. As we’ve mentioned before, aversion has two kinds, two types—it’s the aggressive form of aversion, which is anger. And then there’s the retreating form of aversion, which is fear. This fear is a contraction. It’s a pulling back. It’s a withdrawal. It’s a collapsing inwards.
We also begin to see that fear conditions other unwholesome mind states. Fear of losing what we have, of losing what we like, conditions attachment. Fear of experiencing what we don’t want, conditions resistance in the mind. ___, the ancient ___, said ‘little fears cause anxiety, and big fears cause panic.’ We can see how this is operating in our minds.
So what are some of the things, what are the areas, in which fear is strongly conditioned? Some way, the most obvious, the most present domain of experience where fear begins to show itself is fear of pain, fear of discomfort. The mind has been strongly conditioned to avoid unpleasantness. We don’t like feeling painful sensations. There’s often an unwillingness to be uncomfortable.
It’s interesting to observe what a strong limitation this is in our lives. When we begin making life choices, using comfort as a measure. The tremendous limit on what we can do. For a long time before, I went to practice in Bhurma. I’ve been hearing all these gruesome stories, and there was a real fear in my mind about what the conditions were going to be like, and the level of discomfort involved. And I actually postponed going for years.
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Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]
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