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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.

When circumstances 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 ultimate vulnerability.

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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