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Facing Fear

Tangled Mind © Jonathan Prescott, 2016
Tangled Mind © Jonathan Prescott, 2016

I quit my job yesterday. 

Walking away from that final meeting with my supervisor, I realized that I left more than a job – I left an identity.  I’ve been training for, reading about, studying, practicing and teaching health care chaplaincy for 11 years, and as I exited my supervisor’s door I stepped into a world that no longer included daily contact with those skills and with the people I served.  I was suddenly full of questions:  Without meeting my patient’s suffering, who am I?  Without the moment to moment practice of allowing uncertainty, will I lose touch?  Without the Hospice structure of patient visits, charting, phone calls, team meetings and supportive colleagues, will I drift aimlessly?

My companion upon leaving the supervisor’s office was fear.

I’m no stranger to fear.  But I used to be.  Back in the early days of my Buddhist practice, I remember sitting in a discussion group talking about our fears.  I said, quite honestly, ‘I can’t relate to what you’re all talking about.  I don’t feel fear.’  That wasn’t a lie.  My self image didn’t allow me to be fearful because fear hinted at weakness.  It’s not that fear wasn’t there.  It’s just that I wasn’t aware of it.  My actions and behaviors probably made my fear obvious to everyone else, but I chose ignorance over awareness to protect my fragile self image.

Avoiding reality in this way is a common human experience, in our time and in the time of the Buddha.  The Buddha realized that we careen between grasping and aversion in an effort to assert control.  We demand what we want and defend against what we don’t in order to make ourselves happier and free ourselves from fear, not realizing that to mindlessly pursue these preferences is to deepen our unhappiness. 

But how do we cope with these constant fearful companions, greed and hatred?  One response is to shoot for the moon and try to eradicate them.  In Zen, we chant: ‘Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly.  I vow to abandon them.’  We summon the strength of the warrior and promise that as long as these troublesome human qualities emerge, we will do our best not to give in to them. 

While it is useful to have a noble and ever-receding goal to direct our energies, it’s also helpful to have concrete steps to address these forces in the here and now.  Rather than trying to abandon these enormous tidal forces of desire and aversion, maybe it’s best to get to know them as intimately as possible within the particulars of our own lives.  Instead, we could chant: ‘Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly.  I vow to understand them.’

My intention to understand the greed and defensiveness in my own mind has revealed that fear and aversion always walk hand in hand.  When I judge, push away or condemn something, fear is hiding nearby.  When I deflect perceived threats to my self-image, my plans, or my illusions of security, it’s because I’m afraid. 

And looking even more deeply, I see that I’m afraid of these ‘threats’ because I’ve forgotten that I am not a separate self.  When I remember my essential connection to all things, I breathe a sigh of relief and recognize that there is no separate ‘me’ that gains or loses.  I am just one of many cells in an indescribably vast body, ebbing and flowing in harmony.  That’s not to say that this remembering prevents preferences and aversions from arising in me.  They do.  But remembering my true nature deprives them of their threatening energy. 

So how am I applying this to the fear of leaving my job?  In a word: Tenderly.  As the fear of being useless arises, I turn toward it rather than push it away.  I notice that fear churns within my stomach and makes my legs restless.  I notice that it stirs my mind and demands I ruminate on past hurts, find someone to blame or grasp after activities to restore my sense of purpose.  When I notice these things I neither push them away nor feed them with added attention.  They are here and so I watch, noticing that they arise, remain and eventually pass away. 

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that to understand is to love.  When we pay such close attention to something that we understand it, we can’t help but love it.  We see it so intimately that it loses its other-ness and becomes ourself.  This recognition that there is nowhere to push something away, that there is no non-self place for it to go, is the basis for regarding my fear with tenderness.  I can’t prevent desire, aversion and fear from arising, but I can greet them with tenderness.  I can welcome them.  And like I’ve done so many times with my patients, I can come back to my breath, pull up a chair and invite them to tell me their stories.

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