~ a talk by Tara Brach presented on May 8, 2016
Listen and watch: tarabrach.com/fear-pathway-loving-presence/
Even if you feel like your mind has been wondering all over the place, being in this kind of space where there is a intention to be noticing what’s going on we become more intimate with what’s actually happening, we notice more, and I know from the groups that there’s so much of the increasing capacity to sense something and saying, “Yeah, under that I can feel, hmmm, there’s sadness,” or feeling one thing and going, “Yeah, and I feel shame about that,” you know, there is this growing capacity to notice what’s happening.
And one of the things that we start discovering as we begin to be more here with – you know, underneath the thoughts, when we stop leaving – for most of us is that whatever is occurring it’s often… laced in with some fear; that if we are not feeling directly fearful – if there is another strong energy – usually there is some sense of, “Oh, this is a problem,” and some fear about it. That’s the second arrow, that “Something is wrong.”
Often, though, it is quite in the foreground. I know for myself that many moments, if I just randomly check in through the day and sense, “Okay, so what’s going on inside me?” I’ll find a kind of it’s not agitation but a kind of edgy sense of… it’s kind of a static feeling of just… it kind of feels like existential anxiety, it’s just that something around the corner could go wrong. And I find when I check in with others, it’s there for most people. And if we really investigate, there’s an apprehension of loss that we all live with, a feeling of knowing the pain of separation and fearing separation, fearing disconnection, it’s always about loss: loss of our own body-mind, loss of someone else we love, loss of a sense of esteem or power or respect or whatever it is – but it’s loss. And deep down it’s a kind of… on some level it’s a dying, we are afraid of dying, holding on to this selfness and afraid of dying.
Okay, so this is one of these catholic priest, minister and rabbi stories. Get ready. A catholic priest, a minister and a rabbi are discussing what they would like people to say when they die and when their bodies are on display in an open cascade. The priest says, “Well, I want someone to say he was a righteous man, honest man, very generous.” The minister says, “Well, I would like someone to say she was very kind and fair and she was good to her parishioners.” And the rabbi said, “I would want someone to say ‘Oh look, he is moving!’”
We want to live, you know. I’m right now at the kind of homestretch of an online course called “Awakening Your Fearless Heart.” And I love the title because the basic teaching which is a really perennial teaching you’ll find in all the different traditions is that if we, instead of pulling away from our fear, if we let fear be a portal it carries us to what you might call the fearless heart or bodhicitta, the awakened heart, but it’s through opening to and not resisting the fear that’s here that we actually find a refuge in a vastness and a tenderness and a wakefulness that’s our true nature.
And so that understanding is that everyone – everyone that’s on this planet – has a nervous system with fear in it and so that we are in it together. The metaphor I like – one of my favorite ones – of this pathway through fear to the fearless heart, bodhicitta, it comes from the Tibetan tradition and in Tibetan Buddhism the challenging energies that Pat talked about so beautifully last night that the attitude towards them is not one of, “This is the enemy, this is wrong” but rather it’s the understanding that every emotion has its intelligence, that every challenging energy is really an expression of awakened heart-mind but it’s in some way torque and it’s by bringing our presence and attention to it that un-torques it so that our natural free heart and awareness can flow in a complete and whole way. So it’s by going and engaging with the energies that that happens. And the way they’re depicted – and this is what I like so much – they’re… If you look on the thankas – which are the mandalas from Tibetan art – or if you look at the temples, at the entrance to the temples and the surroundings on the borders of the thankas you’ll find these goddesses, these animal-headed goddesses, they are ferocious and fierce and passionate and filled… they’re fearsome and they’re filled with craving and they’re all the energies that are naturally arising in these body-minds that, should we be willing to engage with, we then we are able to enter sacred space. So I really think that’s quite beautiful that what we’re encountering – Pat described them as limbic loves – they’re this aliveness that wants to be alive and yet it expresses itself in different torque ways sometimes that we’re freeing up as we engage.
And the piece that we are doing it together. This is Rumi. Rumi speaks of night travelers who turn towards the darkness are willing to know their own fear. He writes this, he says, “Life’s water flows from darkness. Search the darkness, don’t run from it. Night travelers are full of light and you are too. Don’t leave this companionship.”
So in a way I feel like that’s what we are doing together. We’re in this sangha companionship where we’re choosing to be with reality, with the energies that are moving through us, and in that being with we actually discover the fullness of who we are.
I think in an evolutionary way the shift in how we relate to fear is absolutely the key to waking up. So we’re shifting from being the self that is possessed by fear, scared of fear, is fighting fear to the awareness that’s relating to fear. From fight-flight-freeze to attend and befriend.
So this is what we are going to be exploring tonight. We are continuing… Pat said the groundwork so beautifully for how we pay attention to these energies. I’d like to deepen it with how we as night travelers can work with fears that are here, that naturally arise, and discover bodhicitta, the fearless heart. We’ll do it by examining how we get identified with what’s called “the fear-body” and then the practice is that loosen that up.
So it’s part of emerging in to form that we perceive ourselves as separate. The brain is designed to perceive separation. And then we attach to these vulnerable body-minds. And then there is this fear of whatever threatens our survival. And we’re endowed with that negativity-bias that has us fixate on danger. So any of you today that were – came up in both of my groups – that tendency to think something is a problem that’s… we come by that honestly, that’s part of our genetic inheritance, you know, if you have a hundred dog encounters and ninety-nine of them are friendly, fun ones but then there is one where a dog bites you that’s the one you’ll remember forever, you know. I think it takes eight compliments or positive feedback to undo one criticism. That’s just the way we are. The limbic system’s reaction is to fixate on what’s wrong and that’s our fear response. And here is nature’s protector: If you didn’t have fear, you’d be brain dead really. We need it. We need it to alert us to where there is danger so that we can respond. It lets us know. There are five types of fear: terror, panic, seeing the message “Username or password is incorrect,” your partner saying, “We need to talk” and fourteen missed calls from mom. I’ve added a sixth which is the “spinning rainbow wheel of death” on my Mac computer, that’s Jonathan’s label for it. But as indicated in this, the challenge is not that we have fear but that our fear-response gets jammed, the on-button gets jammed, and so that what happens is, rather than it being just a predator that is stalking us in the jungle or we being cut off on the beltway and having that alarm, it’s not just that, it’s so many parts of our life and it’s usually very psychological evoked fear.
And, you know, I am thinking right now of one man in a recent workshop. He described growing up his father was pretty distant and pretty critical. And he got a lot of kudos when he did well in school or did well in sports but that was the only access to positive feedback. And so as an adult now every time he doesn’t feel like he is meeting a certain standard in almost anything – you know, the way he dresses, the way he plays his tennis game, the way he is doing at work, – there’s… it goes down to a very deep place of “I don’t belong, I am going to be rejected.” It goes from anxiety to the belief “I am a failure” to “I am going to be rejected.” Our fear generalizes. And in a very painful way. So we develop what is called over time “the body of fear.” This is when the fear-button is jammed on. And I would say for all of us if we are suffering at all it means we’ve got a slightly at least jammed fear-button where it’s not just… we’re not just registering valuable input that, you know, there’s a threat to us but we are caught in an associative loop where we’ve turned a much broader swathe of our life into a danger.
The fear-body is… Fear takes root in our tissues, you know, “Your issues are in your tissues,” it takes root in our thought forms, takes root in the emotions that are here, in our behaviors. And that’s the fear-body. And when we get identified with it – in other words when we are triggered and we’re living inside the thoughts and feelings of our fear – in those moments we are in a trance that has cut us off from our capacity… It’s interesting: We can’t learn when we are in fear, really learn, when we’re anxious we are not able to learn, we are not able to be creative, we’re certainly not open-hearted, all our energy is, you know, zooming out to our legs and arms so we can run. Fight or flight. It cuts us off from our hearts.
So what I’d like to do is to kind of shine a light on the trance. We’ll just look at the fear-body. I’m going to invite you just to sense for yourself what you notice how your fear-body manifests, we all have one, just to listen with that lense because the more you shine a light on the trance the more quickly you are alerted to when it is taking over and then you can begin the practices that we’ll explore which are you’ve already been exploring here to wake up out of it.
So one level of our fear-body is that our body contracts. And you might have noticed here as you’ve been sitting that you start noticing how there are habitual areas of tightness or tension that are very hard to loosen. I certainly know them very well in my shoulders. To have my shoulders go back and down, to have my chest out, to have my posture correct after all these decades it takes a lot of work because the fear-body has the shoulders go up and forward, this chest sinks, you’re protecting your torso. Does that make sense? So this is the musculature. And what happens is that it becomes like a permanent suit of armor that is so familiar we don’t notice it in daily life, which is why we get here, and we start being mindful of our body and we start noticing the contractions. Chogyam Trungpa – Tibetan teacher – says, “It’s like we’re a bundle of tense muscles defending our existence.”
Then there is the mind which gets when we are in a fear-state we have got these neuropath ways of repeating fear-thoughts about what’s going wrong, what’s going to go wrong, comes out in judging and obsession, figuring things out. Have you noticed how many moments you’re trying to figure something out? You know. When we don’t have to be figuring things out? From the old days, decades ago, one of the first jokes I remember my father telling us was, “A woman sends her son a telegram” – this is how long ago it was – “and the one liner: ‘Start worrying. Details to follow.’” You know, and it’s like that, it’s like we’re anxiety ready to hitch itself to something.
And then there are the emotions that loop around with the fear-body. We’re afraid and then there can be depression which is trying to push down the fear or jealousy or anger, there’s a lot of emotions. But the interesting thing is that you have to keep having fear-thoughts to have the emotions lock in. So if you’ve noticed an emotion has set in here, it’s because there have been thoughts to keep it going. An emotion left to its own devices takes 1.5 minutes to come and go. But it’s the fear thinking that keeps fueling it. So those emotions and thoughts go together.
And then there are our behaviors, our fear-management strategies that I usually refer to as “false refuges” which are ways we are just trying to feel better. And they can be very mild seeming like just the daydreaming kind of things where we are just trying to find our way to more pleasant territory. For many of you we’ve talked today about sleep how you can come here and be sleepy because you’re really, really exhausted. We can also be sleepy because there’s something in us that doesn’t want to deal with some rawness that’s there. So sleep can be a management-behavior. And then probably the addictive behaviors, the consuming is one of the biggest – that when we’re very young, preverbal, and there is anxiety that’s been handed down to us or that’s right around us or in our culture the quickest control-strategy we have to self-soothe is eating. That’s why such a huge portion of the population has eating disorders. Fear-management strategy. And of course there is different ways we use drugs and other medications. I personally feel like there are many medications that can be used skillfully and many that can be abused. So I’m not weighing in on that. But I will tell you about one poster at a conference on PTSD. And it had the question, “If there was Prozac back then” – with a question mark – and then it has a few examples of what might have been different, it has Carl Marx saying, “Sure we can fix capitalism if we tweak it a bit” and then it has Edgar Alan Poe and he is looking out the window and he goes, “Hello birdy.” A really big fear-management strategy is speeding up, staying busy, moving fast. It’s like we are on this bicycle, paddling fast to get away from the present moment where there is fear.
Another fear-management strategy is rationalizing things to ourselves and trying to make things okay to ourselves, we are misrepresenting the truth. You know, how many children grow up with the fear of punishment for telling the truth? So there is a really good reason that we present things so we look good and so we don’t look bad. And since I’m on this thing about rabbis, ministers and priests. They are playing poker when the police rate the game. Turning to the priest the police officer says, “Father Murphy, were you gambling?” Turning his eyes to heaven the priest whispered, “Lord, forgive me for what I’m about to do” and to the police officer he then said, “No, officer, I was not gambling.” The officer then asks the minister, “Pastor Johnson, were you gambling?” Again an appeal to heaven and the minister replies, “No, officer, I wasn’t gambling.” Turns to the rabbi and the officer says again, “Rabbi Goldstein, were you gambling?” Shrugging his shoulders the rabbi replied, “With whom could I be gambling?” you know. Okay, so misrepresenting things.
And then there is how we perpetually try to control others. When there is fear we have to take control. So we try to control others, we try to control ourselves. And then the last one I’ll mention is aggression. And when we are afraid we aggress against ourselves by means of judgment. We get very, very harsh towards ourselves. And when we’re afraid we aggress towards others – again, lashing out, judgment and more physical aggression. Rumi writes… which reminds me of the mother who tells her child, “When you’re walking through the graveyard at nighttime and you see a bogeyman run at it and it will go away.” “But what,” replies the child, “if the bogeyman’s mother has told it to do the same thing? Bogeymen have mothers to.” So there’s aggression.
Then we see the trance of fear in a societal way of course with the addictive consuming that we do as a society and the way we deplete the earth of its resources we see the damage that’s done there with unfaced fears. You see the deception on a societal level because we can’t believe anything that’s reported, everything is a spin. And we see most vividly how the trance of fear turns us into aggressors against others that seem like “unreal others” that are different in some way. And so we have the fear of others, we need to control them, we need to exploit them. And then you see racism, you see sexism and you see all the violations and the circles of violence that are going on and on, the repeating ones. And I have been thinking a lot about generational trauma because, you know, we think, “Okay, some group attacks another group and then that’s that” but it gets handed, I mean, research is showing how it gets handed down through the genes, that fear is genetically transmitted, it affects the DNA in sperms, it affects the brain, and it affects behavior on future generations. So generations back those in this country, dominant culture, kidnapped and bring in slave Africans here, continued oppression through the last generations and it gets handed down – the fear and the fear response – which leads of course to addiction, aggression, and aggression and everything we know including self-aversion we see it in the first nation people what’s happening when fear is handed down generation to generation. Faulkner writes, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.”
And so it is with us that each of us grew up in a culture that has a huge amount of fear and with parents with their own fears and yet somehow or other we feel our fears and take them very personally and we feel bad about ourselves for them and feel bad about the fear body. We don’t like the way we get tense and we don’t like the way our thoughts go and we don’t like the way we behave. And yet it’s conditioned. And it’s not our fault.
So in order to loosen the fear body we begin to pay attention to these different layers. And it’s important to see them all because if you catch the fear in your body but you don’t sense the thoughts that keep on fueling it then you still identify. And if you catch the fear thinking – the worrying – but you don’t feel it in your body you are still identified. And if you catch the fear but you don’t realize this shame that you have layer over it you stay identified.
I’d like to pause here. We’ll just do a brief reflection together. I invite you to kind of just check out what you notice about yourself. And as you kind of set yourself for reflecting you might just sense that there’re different degrees of being identified with the fear body. When we are really suffering we are very identified, we are very cut off. When we are in the fear body we are cut off from the whole; that’s the nature of fear: feeling separate, cut off. Trauma is the most extreme, that’s the most major dissociation where we’re really cut off from our sense of wholeness. But there are different degrees. And in order to be free we need to see the way that cutting off is affecting our body, our mind, our behaviors.
So as you reflect on this I’d like to invite you to sense yourself as a witness that’s friendly and interested with the intention of growing, of waking up. You might bring to mind a situation that arouses moderate fear, not trauma. It might be something around the corner that’s coming up that you’re anxious about, it might be a situation with another person, a difficult conversation or conflict or something that triggers off fear and anxiety, something at work, something to do with finances. Let yourself get close in enough to the situation that you can feel what it’s like when your system starts registering fear. You might imagine the situation visually, if another person is involved what they might be saying… Notice how the fear body expresses itself in your physical body. Where do you feel fear? Sometimes if you’re experimental you can even exaggerate it a bit and exaggerate your body posture and the facial expression if you really want to get in touch with the fear body you actually let it… a facial expression that you sense has got fear to it and it’ll help you get in touch with the feelings in your body. Getting familiar is actually helpful. When you’re feeling fear in this situation what are you believing? What do you believing is going to go wrong? What do you believing about yourself? About the world? What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? It might be easy to sense the belief; it might not be, if it’s not just drop it. It’s good to check in and see if you notice the belief. Is it that I am going to fail? That I am going to be rejected? That something is fundamentally wrong with me? There may be related fear thinking that you’re aware of when you’re in the body of fear. You might notice as the fear thoughts and beliefs are there what the whole felt sense is in your body, your heart. What behaviors come out of it? What are your particular fear management strategies relating to this situation: to try to ignore, to try to fix or control or plan or rehearse? More generally, do you know your false refuges, your fear management strategies? And please now check and sense: Are you still witnessing or is there some layer now of judging the fear body? And if there is, with gentleness just note that because if you’re aware of it you won’t get so caught by it. Okay, you might take a few full breaths and open your eyes.
Evolving or waking up from the trance of fear. The first piece is really just the aspiration that there is something in us that intuits this possibility relating to the fear body, not being caught in it, of living in a fearless heart, that heart-space that can include. One teacher calls it “a heart that is ready for anything.” I like that expression. You’re not having to spending your time defending.
So we’re going to explore two domains of practice that then get integrated that really are bringing mindfulness and heartfulness to the fear in a way that we can engage with the deities, you know, have tea with Mara, and wake up through it. And the language we use for one domain is… we call it “resourcing.” It’s really on purpose finding your way to some sense of connection, some at least basic level of safety so that you can say “Enough” to engage, okay? So that’s resourcing. And then the other domain is an unconditional and full presence.
And generally when we’re really caught in fear we need to do some resourcing first. In other words: We need to soothe our nervous system some. Keep in mind that when we are fearful we are disconnected, we need some sense of connection. And I think one of the most useful ways to understand resourcing and how resourcing makes it possible to then work with fear comes from Dan Siegel – psychiatrist and author – and he has a hand model of the brain that I know some of you are familiar with. It is useful for us all just to kind of have it in the room I think. Which is that he… You might raise your hand for a moment, all of you, if you will. Put your thumb in the middle of your palm and your four fingers over the top. And this is the model of the brain. Okay? This is your brain right here. And if you open it again, the wrist is the spinal cord, okay, and then the lower palm is the brain stem – and this is the limbic area right here, okay? And the limbic area regulates arousal, emotions, fight-flight-freeze, that’s what’s involved with all of that, right? – now roll your fingers over again. This is the frontal cortex here, this is the higher part of the brain, and this is what allows us to think and to reason, when information comes up through the brain stem that says, “Oh, oh! Danger, danger!” you know, it’s the frontal cortex that says, “Yes, it feels dangerous but you have been through this one before and you are really okay and here is how you can deal with it… Plus, you poor dear, you really are a good person!” Empathy, compassion, it’s all in the frontal cortex, right, that’s where it’s at least correlated with the parts that are there. Now here is what happens: When we are stressed or when we are triggered and when this frontal cortex isn’t fully online – and by online I mean really integrated – and, by the way, mindfulness practice is what integrates this frontal cortex, the information comes up but when this part isn’t activated and it’s a strong rush we flip our lid, okay, which means that in those moments we are being dominated by the limbic – these kind of more primitive parts of our brain – and we don’t have access to mindfulness, to perspective, to humor, to compassion, okay? So the whole job at that point is what will help us to reconnect? We need some reconnecting, some reactivating, so that we can begin to begin to be present with the fears in a way that doesn’t re-traumatize. How many of you find this model of the brain helpful? Okay. Because I find it so useful just to consider it that way.
So resourcing. There are many different strategies that help to strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system, which actually allows us to relax and subdue a bit the sympathetic. One of the ways I sometimes like to talk about this resourcing. Jonathan and I do a lot of kayaking. And one of the things with kayaking is that either you are going upriver or downriver but if the currents are really strong and you are either getting exhausted or things are going too fast you can tok behind a rock – just get out of the currents – and when you are behind the rock you can resource, you can look at the river and plan your strategy, you can catch your breath and can relax yourself, you can talk to… for me talk to Jonathan and whatever it is – but you can resource yourself so you reassess with your strength, your resilience, your capacity to navigate. Okay, and that’s what it’s like when it’s like this and we’re all dominated by the limbic that’s the time to pause, take a break and say, “Okay, need to do some resourcing here.” So what does resourcing look like? One of the strategies – the most simple – is just to name what’s going on, just to mentally whisper, “Okay, a lot of fear,” just in those moments you’re beginning to reactivate and reconnect with the frontal cortex.
Again, this is all… There is a lot of research on this. When there’s a lot of trauma, a lot of disconnection, grounding is one of the best things. It’s right now if you want to ground what you do is close your eyes, you feel the weight of your bottom on the cushion or the chair, you feel the pressure and warmth of your feet on the floor, and you sense gravity, you sense that this body is belonging to here, that you are here, on the earth, on the ground. To further resource or a different kind of approach is conscious breathing. One of the simplest is a long, slow, deep, full in breath, a long, slow outbreath, equal length, a total of maybe six seconds, count to four, no pause in between. That’s described as coherence breathing and it helps to calm the sympathetic nervous system. Just doing that for a couple of minutes.
Or as one person described today – and this for many has been helpful – if you are just following the breath – in breath, outbreath – notice the gap after the outbreath and just let go and relax and just be in that stillness and then the in breath will come naturally, but just finding the gap after the outbreath can be helpful for some. A whole other way of resourcing is to visualize a place that feels safe. And probably the most effective has to do with visualizing and sensing the presence of another person or a deity or some energetic being that in some way helps you feel connected. And in doing that you can see the being’s face and seeing the eyes looking at you and the felt sense of it and perhaps there are words that are offered. That can be very powerful because, again, fear has to do with disconnection. Anything that begins to establish a sense of connection including talking to the fear and listening to the fear begins to bring online again the frontal cortex. You can walk, you can move, you can have tea – things that bring you back into your body and into activity in a connecting way. And then communicating with others. That night travelers talk with each other. And there is again so much research on… If somebody is scared and they hold the hand of a loved one the fear level goes down.
When we introduce RAIN we begin with Recognizing and Allowing and then it goes right into investigating, you know, feeling the fear words here, what I’m describing tonight actually you’d do before you begin to really contact the fear, you’ve already noticed it, you’ve already felt you’re caught in the currents, this is actually, instead of going right into investigating and contacting, you do some resourcing that’ll actually enable you to be more available for the next step which is full presence, having tea with Mara or tea with the deities – however you want to think of it.
So I wanted to give you an example tonight of a process of resourcing and being present with fear that I have found incredibly instructive in my own understanding. And it starts with a story that a woman wrote that was about her own healing. And she wrote it in the process of us doing therapy. So I’m going to read you the story and then tell you how she worked with her fear. Okay. It’s called “The Fairy Story.” In it she is… Just by way of context, she is seven years old; she is hiding in a closet terrified after an unexpected attack by her drunk and enraged father. And the little girl is praying. She is saying, “Help! I can’t take it any more!” And she opens her eyes to see a fairy in a haze of blue with a glittering wand. She lets the fairy know how her father has been beating her and her mother doesn’t help and how she feels like they both wish she were dead. And the fairy listens with tears in her eyes and then tells her that, while she can’t make all the pain and fear disappear, she can help get her through this time, she can help her forget and then remember later when she is able to handle it. With the wave of the wand the good fairy said, “I’m going to send things into different parts of your body and they are going to hold them for you until you feel strong enough to let them move freely again.” And she explains she is going to tighten and dull her pelvis and her belly, she is going to constrict her heart and throat some to protect her from feeling the raw intensity of her hurt and fear and broken-heartedness. I’m reading the rest of it from what she wrote, “You will have trouble feeling and being close to people but it’ll be your way of surviving. At those times that the pain erupts you’ll find your own ways to control it, though it may not look good to the world, but will be of temporary comfort. And you, my darling, will be a fairly functional human being in spite of all this because you have a strong mind and you can hold all this in. And I’ll be helping you.” The child looked directly into the fairy’s eyes and asked, ‘How will you help me? You come back to see me?’ ‘You’ll not forget everything. I will leave a voice inside you that will urge you to reconnect with your whole self. It may be a very long process but in time you’ll feel an urge and calling to step out of imprisoning beliefs, to unwind your body and release what it’s been holding all these years. You’ll learn the art of sacred presence. There will be physical and emotional pain as you open but you’ll have what you need – the compassion and wisdom and support of loving others – to be a whole person, spiritually awake but still the same. This is because your soul has always been there just hidden by the scarce of this life-time.’ The good fairy put her arm around the child’s shoulders and gently lead her to bed. She waved her wand and stood by the little girl as she finally relaxed into a deep sleep. She gazed tenderly at the small, innocent face and then whispered her goodbye. ‘When you wake up you’ll forget I was here and you’ll forget that you asked for help. You’ll forget the sharpness of your daily pain. This is the only way I know to get you through this. You’re a beautiful child. I love you and, in fact, your parents love you, although they’re incapable of showing it to you. You’ll have to love yourself enough to heal so that one day when you are older your life will be powerful, full and free. One day you’ll know who you really are. You’ll trust your goodness and know you’re belonging. Until then, and for always, I love you.’”
When I first shared this story – it was at a Wednesday night, my Wednesday night class in Bethesda, probably around fifteen years ago – and many people came up to talk afterwards and said that what most affected them was the realization that, you know, that their fear had been pushed away, they weren’t living in terror all the time but they had all these habits that looked ugly to them of over-eating, of being defensive or whatever it is, and that hearing this – hearing how it’s actually part of the design almost to be able to deal with fear – it was like they started seeing the second arrow and realizing it wasn’t their fault. Because when fear is really strong and we’re young, we don’t have a way to be with it, we don’t have RAIN, we don’t have a capacity to recognize it and hold it and be with it, so we have to disconnect from our body some and we have to use pain-management strategies. And the way to free ourselves includes being profoundly forgiving of that, profoundly forgiving of any strategies that we use to defend ourselves, to control things, because it’s not our fault.
So that for this woman was in writing and telling the story there was a really deep sense of a forgiving. She had to resource. Her resource was a sense of for her the good fairy became more a kind of the divine feminine, that sense of just energetically a kind of a benevolence, a warmth and a loving energy that she would call on and she called on again and again. So whenever she was afraid she’d call on that and, you know, it would work some but she practiced a lot when she wasn’t afraid and that’s really critical to be practicing resourcing when we are not in the midst helps to build the pathway to our resources. And so finally the time that she most directly encountered the rawness it was not during the therapy session. She had done a lot of resourcing. And she was on her own. And it was then that she felt like this sense of being more shook than she ever had, she could feel like… her whole nervous system was rattled and she was feeling into the memories of being in the closet and the enormity of the fear. So she called on that energy. But then she started saying, “Okay, what is this like really? What does it feel like?” And then that’s when she was beginning RAIN. She had recognized and allowed. She was investigating. She was contacting. She was being with. She was being with it. And she said it was like broken glass, you know, ripping through her, it was very, very difficult. And then she just put her hand on her heart and just kept calling – calling on, that’s the nourishing – and what played out was that she felt broken apart and then described it like she had finally discovered the space inside and around her that could handle all that fear. Her language wasn’t the fearless heart, but she felt this loving, vast presence that really was her own heart that could hold the fear. Many, many rounds of coming circling back when fear arose, it wasn’t a one-shot, and it wasn’t one wagon, now I know how to find bodhicitta, many, many rounds. And this is the way it goes that when we’re working with decades and decades of fear-body that has all of its patterning, all of its neural wiring, it takes many rounds to rewire.
And yet I love the metaphor I first heard through Jonathan of how indigo cloth gets dyed, that there is a vat of the dye, and you take a white cloth and you dip it in and you pull it out and you see the indigo color – that brilliant, radiant blue – but it fades right away to little bit off white, dip it in again, pull it out, fades again but not quite so much, and each time you dip the cloth into this incredible, brilliant luminous blue it holds it a little more. And so it is when each time you feel fear there’s a willingness to be with yourself, to name it, to feel it, to hold it – each time you engage with the deities you become more and more familiar with the tenderness and space that has room for fear. Your identity shifts. You’re less and less identified with the fear body, the self that feels oppressed and unprepared and anxious and so on. And more and more of you are resting in that openness and that tenderness.
There is many different ways that people find their way to a fearless heart through resourcing. One vet with PTSD would see images, war images, have feelings of panic and his mantra was just, “May I be held in God’s love, may I feel protected, may I touch peace.” He’d just say it over and over again. One woman today in a group gave me permission to share described being six years old in Iran, her mother had already immigrated and the secret police came to the house and the fear, and this was one of the first time she had let herself feel the fear of that. And when she asked herself what that fear needed it was some sense of a mother’s embrace, but not some amorphous deity, a real sense of a body holding her and that was her resourcing to practice again and again feeling that holding of a real body and the warmth that came with that. One high school student with social anxiety, for him he was impacted by Thich Nhat Hanh, so he had an image of a mountain, he felt himself as a mountain, whenever the anxiety would come he would feel himself as a mountain and feel the strength and the steadiness in the midst of storms and just say, “It’s okay.”
One last example I’ll share with you because it came again from here a couple of years ago. One woman was waiting for a biopsy and was feeling that grip of uncertainty and not knowing. We were sitting in a group in our circle and she named that and others named what was going on for them. One woman who was… Or one man actually was really scared for his son who was addicted to heroine and not in treatment. Another woman was describing her husband with Alzheimer’s. Another person’s job threatened. And they became light night travelers because each of them in their own way was being with something and when we met again at the end she described during the sittings that when she felt really afraid that sense of “others feel this too.” Because if we remember that we’re beginning to reconnect, we’re beginning to get online again with the frontal cortex, we’re beginning to become more integral. In the deepest way when we are disconnected and we start to reconnect we are evolving past an old identity. But it requires a kind of dying to that old identity. So when you begin to face fear, it’s a kind of dying because to face fear you’re going against all your normal egoic strategies. And one way to understand it is that because I started with this whole talk with that fear is about that fear of loss and disconnection and death, there is a deep relationship between opening to fear and love. And it’s really that we’re not free to love, really free to love from our wholeness, until we’ve faced fear and faced death. As long as there is any part of us that’s defending from an egoic stands against what’s going to go wrong, that defendedness will stop us from sensing our full belonging. So we have to die in a way. And opening to fear is a way of kind of dying. And yet when we do, then there is a capacity to cherish what’s here in an entirely new way.
I want to share as part of closing a story Thich Nhat Hanh describes. He talked about how his mother’s death was one of the great misfortunes of his life. And I could really relate when I first heard this story. I could really relate because the first fear I remember in my life was being afraid of my mother dying. And I remember being very young and telling her it and her reassuring me – I have no idea how she reassured me – but just being able to tell her. Remember if you say something and communicate you’re beginning to reconnect – soothed me. And I did it a lot of times. I told her a lot of times that I was afraid of her dying. And as it happens, as she got old I already so in touch with the grieving and the loss and so open to the realness of her dying that the love became incredibly strong and I’m thinking about her a lot today because she was here at this retreat three years ago, and she would always sit right in that corner over there, I realized that I thought of her I felt all the depth of sorrow but so much a kind of love that was timeless. And it came from absolutely opening to the fear and underneath that the grief about her going.
So Thich Nhat Hanh describes his mother’s dying and his grief. And he says he grieved for her for more than a year and then she appeared to him in a dream. And in that they’re having a wonderful talk and she is young and beautiful. And he wakes up in the middle of the night and has this distinct impression that he has never lost his mother because she is alive in him. He says when he stepped out outside his monastery hut and began walking among the tea leafs he still felt her presence by his side. He says, “She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tender, very sweet.” And continuing to walk he sensed that his body was a living continuation of all his ancestors and that together he and his mother were leaving footprints in the damp sand. It takes opening to the fear of loss, the fear of personal loss, to discover that which is eternal. As long as we are defending against the loss of tis body, this life, we really aren’t able to open to a loving that’s always and already here. And Thich Nhat Hanh says, “All I had to do was look at the palm of my hand and feel the breeze in my face or the earth under my feet to remember that my mother is always with me available at any time.”
So I’d like to have us end with a brief reflection together just bringing our hearts and awareness to wherever there might be a sense of the fear body right now knowing that this is just a very brief reflection, it’s something you can explore on your own as you have more time. One of the ways that we sometimes think of the spiritual path is transcending and getting beyond but an alternate and more true understanding is that we are going in and in and in, it’s like we might sense ourselves as separate wells but as we go in and in and in we discover the waters of a timeless undying love. We go in and in and in. So you might if you’d like bring your attention right to your body here and your heart right here and your mind right here. And as you sit and as you breathe and pay attention just notice if there’s any expression of the fear body that you are aware of. And there may be or there may not be. Just notice what’s here. With whatever you are aware of – whether it’s quality of openness, presence, tenderness, sadness, fear – just explore this going in and in. You are recognizing and allowing how it is right now. Investigating by deepening your attention. Perhaps feeling from the inside out wherever there is the strongest sensations or emotions in your body.
Poet Danna Faulds writes, “Go in and in. Be the space between the cells, the vast, resounding silence in which spirit dwells. Dive in and in as deep as you can dive.” So investigating. Feeling what’s here. And then exploring whatever brings a sense of warmth and connection, you might put your hand on your heart and sense that you are offering very tender, sweet care for what’s here. And you might sense that that loving, caring energy is flowing through you from beyond, from the heart of the universe, from some spiritual figure or through others that you know. See if you can let in. Just explore that. Go in and in, letting in. She writes, “Go in and in and turn away from nothing that you find. And sensing whatever you’re contacting can flow, unfold, be held in a very vast and tender space.”
~ for more talks & meditations from Tara Brach, please visit tarabrach.com.