Summary: Upon investigating fear, I realize that I’m afraid of being afraid, which creates a situation like an audio feedback loop. Looking into it deeper, I see that sitting with the fear can lead to wisdom.
Application: The next time you observe difficult or disturbing emotions arising, try telling yourself it’s ok to be afraid (or anxious, or jealous) and see what happens.
In last week’s post, I mentioned how I was thrown into intense questioning as a result of my attempts to baby proof the house. I spoke about confusion relating to food and housing, but these were actually symptoms of a deeper confusion about my life path and goals.
Do you ever go through periods where you can’t seem to stop asking yourself, what am I doing? Where is my life going?
These thoughts have stalked me for the last few weeks. They set up camp in my head and hung over every activity and spare moment like a gloomy overcast sky. I become frozen, paralyzed, and disenchanted, unable to take pleasure in my normal activities.
One day, I sat in front of a blank computer screen and what came to me was a list of all the things that I felt like were blocking me from living with passion, drive, and purpose. It didn’t take long for me to see that almost all of these inner obstacles were, at some level, related to fear.
For example, underneath the feeling of not knowing the best ethical decisions is the fear that I’m not living my life in the “right” way. If I could just expand my perception to see all the consequences of each decision, then I’d know which path to take! That seems like quite a tall order, and about as likely to happen as altering the strength of gravity.
On a deeper level, I observed the fear that I’m not “pleasing God” (or living up to the promise of my Buddha-nature) by being so caught up in this type of fear. The initial fear opened up a door for other fears to arise.
I suppose it’s a bit like an audio feedback loop, where the microphone (input) and the speaker (output) are too close to one another. The sound amplifies itself, sprilling out of control, producing ear-slipping sounds that send everyone rushing to cover their ears.
I had always assumed that feedback was something that musicians and technicians sought to avoid. I was surprised to find that feedback is not necessarily a bad thing. Artists like The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and The Who all manipulated feedback to enhance their music. As farmers transform manure and weeds into fertilizer, musicians sometimes use undesirable auditory obstacles as raw material.
Could I do the same? Can the basic energy of confusion and fear lead to wisdom?
Nietzsche once wrote, “Be careful, lest in casting out your demon you exorcise the best thing in you.” Fear, like all afflictive emotions, is a powerful teacher. To benefit from it, however, we have to overcome our initial resistance and open up to what it can teach us.
In this case, my fear reveals that I’m still attached in some way to wanting things to be different. It’s a symptom of refusing to accept what is: that I am not in control, that my perspective will always be limited and I can never know the consequences of my actions.
If I can just sit with the discomfort that this initial ‘squeal’ produces, it doesn’t have to amplify itself and get out of control. It’s ok to be afraid; with practice, I don’t have to add layers of being afraid of my fear.
I wouldn’t go as far as to Hendrix’ example and deliberately hold guitars close to the amps. I’m not sure I’d want to intentionally generate unpleasant mental states (truth be told, I’ve got enough of those arising naturally). I’m still learning how to accept anything that arises in the mind as an expression of Pure Awareness, as the Dzogchen school of Buddhism teaches. It’s the work of a lifetime to apply what Krishna teaches in the Bhagavad Gita, that I must go out and act despite not knowing what will result.
Part of what helps me to do this is to share. When I open up with my struggles to others, it gives them permission to do the same. I realize that many people experience the same type of fear and confusion as I do, which makes me feel less alone and less afraid. Once one person drops the pretense of strength and the hubris of thinking s/he knows, it creates another type of feedback loop, where honesty leads to more honesty.
And by embracing our limitations and inviting our demons in for tea, we help each other to become who we truly are.