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What does it mean
to smile at fear? To begin with, it means to relax with our fear, by
allowing ourselves to be fully with ourselves. One way to cultivate
this relaxation is through the practice of meditation. In the Buddhist
tradition, the practice of sitting meditation has two elements: simplicity,
or peacefulness, and insight, or clarity. The application of mindfulness
allows us to stop the world from spinning, by stopping the spinning
of our own minds. This is the essence of the simplicity or peacefulness
of shamatha. Then we can see the confusion. We can shine the
light of vipashyana, or clear seeing, on confusion, and that
brings the clarity of seeing things as they are. When we begin to see
the situation as it is, and when we begin to see our own minds clearly,
we defuse the panic.
From the experience
we have in meditation, we also may begin to see how we can relax on
the spot in the midst of the most difficult experiences in our lives.
We begin to see that it is possible to be there in a simple and open
way. What are we afraid of all the time? Often, it is the unknown. If
we are willing to simply witness what is there, although it might in
fact be devastating, it also turns out to be more benign, more manageable,
and more ordinary and transparent than we expected. In the emptiness
of our freak-out—which allows us to remain vulnerable—we begin to
discover the quality of freedom.
The Buddha himself
set the example for us. Here was an extreme human being if ever there
was one. Having left the comfort of his father’s palace and his own
regal life, he tried every method he encountered to achieve liberation.
Having practiced intense asceticism and arduous disciplines for a number
of years, he realized that struggle was not the path to enlightenment.
And this, I think, is when he began to smile at fear.
Make no mistake.
The closer the Buddha got to enlightenment, the more forceful and insistent
were the obstacles he encountered. We sometimes seem to approach the
experience of enlightenment as though it were like a long drowsy soak
in a warm perfumed bath. After our nap, we will arise as the Awakened
One. The stories of the Buddha’s enlightenment instead describe how
the greatest obstacles, or maras, appeared to the Buddha the
night before he attained enlightenment. Meeting their challenge required
vigilance, or openness, rather than somnolence. As the Buddha sat in
meditation beneath the bodhi tree, Mara sent his daughters in the guise
of beautiful women to seduce the Buddha; he sent his troops of warriors
to attack the Buddha. The Buddha manifested as the victorious one,
vijaya, or the fearless one, the warrior of nonaggression. He remained
unmoved by passion and aggression. He chose instead to be awake. Mara’s
arrows then became a rain of flowers.
In our own lives,
it is difficult to be open yet unmoved by extreme situations, but we
too, like the Buddha, have the choice to be wakeful. Whether it is the
crash of the financial markets, the death of a loved one, the experience
of chemotherapy, the failure of a relationship, or the violence of an
angry mob—whatever the difficulties, they can be the bearers of good
news, or at the very least, real news. That’s quite an outrageous
thing to say, but it is truly the message of people like the Kagyu lineage
forefathers, who lived in the ground of reality beyond pain and pleasure,
good and bad. This is not suggesting that the worse things get, the
better it is; nor that we shouldn’t have sympathy and feel compassion
for our own and others’ difficulties. However, unless we can make
friends with what occurs in our life, we are simply subject to circumstances
and controlled by them. Often, the worst—whatever it is—has already
happened by the time we realize the need to apply these teachings. In
that sense, we have no choice. We can’t take our life back. It is
not a rehearsal.
bring our emotions to a sharp point, at that point both confusion and
wakefulness emerge from the same ground. If we are willing to practice
in that groundless ground, that too is smiling at our fear. In the Kagyu
tradition, this is also called practicing in the place where rock meets
bone. I always thought this phrase referred to the meditator’s bony
behind sitting on the bare rock of a meditation cave, but I learned
recently that it refers to crushing bones for soup with a heavy rock
mallet. That sense of crushing or breaking through our confusion and
hesitation is also an expression of opening everything up, letting everything
go, exposing the innermost marrow of the situation. It is about our
I can’t offer
you a finite list of things for you to do, nor can I tell you exactly
how you can smile at fear. I’m working with turning up the
edges of my mouth when I feel anxious. The advice I give myself is:
Don’t avoid the opportunity to grin back at fear. And if you
can dive into that empty feeling in the pit of your stomach, well, that
would be excellent! We each have to find our own inner grin.
The time where
rock meets bone turns out to be the time we are always living in, although
we don’t always acknowledge that raw mark of our existence. To do
so is to meet the moment where neither past nor future exist and where
we cannot hold on to the present for security. In that moment, the closing
bell of the stock market is no different from the bell that calls us
to the shrine room. In that moment, our dharmic ancestors will all applaud
our fearless smile.
From the March 2009 issue of the Shambhala Sun.
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