Facing Fear

Watering Seeds of Peace

Seeds of peace grow peace, which plants seeds of peace.Ben Connelly

Getting Real About Spirituality and Facing Fear

“Many people try to find a spiritual path where they do not have to face themselves but… we have to be honest with ourselves. We have to see… our most undesirable parts… That is the foundation of… conquering fear. We have to face our fear; we have to look at it, study it, work with it, and practice meditation with it.”
Chögyam Trungpa, Smile at Fear: Awakening the True Heart of Bravery

Once, long, long ago, a group of the Buddha’s monks settled down for the three-month rainy- season retreat in a beautiful forest in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The monks picked the grove they did because it’s trees were lush and evenly spaced. And the floor of the grove was level and sandy.  Also, there was a cool, freshwater spring in the grove. So the whole set up supported friendly villagers willing to give alms.  It seemed like the perfect place to stay for the 90-day retreat.

However, as the story goes, the monks did not know that a vast host of testy deities lived in the treetops in that forest. And for reasons unknown, the deities soon felt pressed, put-upon, and frustrated just by the sight of monks.

So, intent on driving them off, the deities tormented the monks with horrific nightmares. They scuttled monk slumbers with ear piercing screams and wails of despair.  Worst of all,  during the day the deities haunted the monks’ meditations with swirls of thought-filled agitation. Meditation became impossible, even for the most seasoned practitioner.

Soon the exhausted,  terrified, complaint filled, brokenhearted monks fled the forest. Seeking consolation and advice on what to do next, they lit out for the city of Savatthi where the Buddha himself was residing.

It’s Not Wise to Run From Your Suffering

Of course, this parable is an illustration of where most of us begin on the path of meditation.  I know it illustrates where I began.  I hoped meditation would somehow be an escape from life’s difficulties, irritations, and pain.  I was looking for a way to shut off or abandon all those parts of myself that I found disagreeable or embarrassing or shameful.

Yet true spirituality, like the path of meditation, invites us to face everything we are, our light and our shadow, so we can fearlessly befriend everything we are.  Without taking that step, we cannot truly befriend anyone or anything else.

Why can’t we just flee?  Well, perhaps some of us can. Yet  I’ve found that when I’ve tried to suppress, deny, or flee my own hurt, anger, sadness, and fear I’ve always missed an opportunity to grow and learn and become more gentle, understanding and skillful.

To deny my sadness, for example, requires that I deaden my heart or ignore some truth about the way others are treating me, or about the way I’ve treated myself.  Dulling and denying my feelings or blinding myself to what I see as true seems to always involve me in some kind of aggressive and judgmental stance toward myself. This is not a pathway to maturity or to skillfully dealing with life.

When the monks of our parable met the Buddha, he was deeply sympathetic.  He reassured them and consoled them. Yet, despite their fear and despair, he sent them straight back to the forest grove.  However, this time he supplied the monks with perhaps the most renowned meditation instructions on love and kindness in the Buddhist canon.

We Can Practice Like This

The Buddha taught the monks not to abandon or avoid their purpose.  He also taught them to face their fears along with the inner shadows and outer challenges that haunted their time in the forest.  And he instructed them to return to their place of retreat and harassment with hearts and minds filled with the following life befriending wish:

“May all beings be at ease.  Let none deceive another, or despise a being in any state.  Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another.  Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world, spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths; outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will.”
~~~Gautama Buddha,  Metta Sutta

We can practice like this. We can fill our hearts with compassion for our own shadows and suffering.  Let’s drop our aggression and meet every bit or ourselves with understanding affection.  We can meet everything in our world this way, too. It does take practice. But when you think about it, right now we and our world need all the friends we and it can get.

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