The lesson of the retreat “Cultivating the Fearless Mind” was clear: We can transform fear by facing the fear straight on, right at it, replacing fear with trust, with confidence in our practice.
Sixty FCM members attending the retreat probed deeply into reflections about their fears and anxieties in the two-day online retreat last weekend led by Ken Lenington, Dharma leader from Asheville, NC (pictured below).
It was a hybrid of what retreat attendees have come to expect – a lingering and warm welcome of smiling faces on rectangular Zoom screens, noble silence, breaks for meals and mindful movements, chanting, Dharma talks and sharing, with much of it on the honor system at home. As FCM members have come to expect, the retreat left participants with practices to incorporate into their personal routines.
Ken based the content of the retreat on the Five Remembrances and the Three Fierce Mantras. They are shown below.
First, Ken asked retreat participants: What is the fear you want to work with today?
Second, What is the story underneath that fear? The second question disrobed the fear and left it standing bare and ephemeral – a mere image created by the mind.
Reflections on fear were deep, guided by many questions offered by Ken to help participants understand the nature of fear and the reasons it paralyzes us:
You have identified a fear you want to address. Where does this fear come from? Are there other feelings attached to it? Does it show up as anger? Loss? Sometimes anger is the first clue. Be with the fear and follow it. Where does it lead you? Can you find a source or sources? Be as open to the fear as you can. The closer you can get, the more you can see clearly where it comes from.
What desires may be present? What may be fueling the fear? Is there something you want to have happen? Is this fear realistic? Is there any real threat or danger here? If so, what’s the danger? When you look at the process that is labeled “this fear,” does it seem to be rational? Does it make sense based on your own experience?
Take a moment and explore whether this fear has any reality. Is there anything we can actually get hold of, other than passing thoughts that arise and leave? Does this fear exist anywhere outside my mind? Do you note any misperceptions – perhaps thinking something is permanent when it is not? Solid when it is not? Rational when it is not?
Ask yourselves: What am I resisting, even if you don’t feel you are resisting. What am I not accepting? What part of this event that is unfolding is unacceptable to me? What are the thoughts and stories that feed this fear, that perhaps help it grow? Identify them, give them names. Note if the fear is that you want things in your life to be different than they are. This might be a person, a thing or yourself.
Do I fear something that I hold dear will change or that I will lose it? Possessions? Job or income? Health? Love? Respect? Perhaps this fear is based on wanting to control what other people think of me, a fear of shame or embarrassment.
Looking as we have, can we see the truth of the situation a bit more clearly -- that all things in our lives are of the nature to change. Can we accept that we can’t control events or the other people in our lives, and when we try to control them, we become frustrated or angered by the responses that occur?
Are we beginning to clearly see that the grasping and clinging in our minds about how things ought to be causes suffering and unhappiness? Can we look and see that any sense of a solid and permanent self -- that which we call “me” -- is a fabrication in our minds, and nothing stays the same, even for a moment -- that we, too, are an appearance arising from the causes and conditions that make us appear us this way?
Look once again at the fear, the kernel at the center of it, the proposition around which it is formed, and ask, Is it true? “Is it true” is such a useful proposition. We’re not asking for an immediate answer. We want to relax into the question, into not knowing. It’s like a light.
Find the question at the heart of your fear: Is it true that I have too much to do? Is it true that I need other people to think that I am competent? Is it true that I would be devastated if I made a mistake and didn’t get things just right? That I need to be able to control what other people say and do and what they think about me? That I couldn’t handle it if I lost my job or my income? That I couldn’t handle it if I became seriously ill? That I couldn’t handle losing the love of my partner? That I need to be loved?
Who is it that thinks there is too much to do? Or thinks they couldn’t handle losing their job or income? Asking “Who is it?” is also shining a light. Relax into the question. If answer says, “It’s me,” relax into it. Who is it that needs to look competent? That needs to be liked? That needs to be loved? That doesn’t want things to change?
Let go of any answers.
Fears and anxieties that arise during this pandemic may seem different than ones we are used to, but they are not really different. The question ends up being the same as always: What should we do in the face of unexpected things? We watch. We watch the things that arise, the anger, the fears and anxieties. They change from day to day. You can make that your COVID-19 practice. Let yourself be there with them.
Ask yourself: Are these fears irrational?
One practice is when we look at our thoughts, there’s nothing there to hold on to. Let them be and let them move on. It’s not what arises that’s the problem. It’s hooking onto them. Just say, oh, “Fearful thought,” and let them go. They will leave.
The practice is that all of this is a dance, awareness that is coming and going, and you can trust in that. You can trust in the nature of yourselves, in deepening awareness, just this deepening interacting stream of being, dancing together, a part of each other, always changing and interchanging. If you see it that way, then fear dissipates.
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The Five Remembrances
- I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
- I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
- I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
- All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
- My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
~The Plum Village Chanting Book, Thich Nhat Hanh
Three Fierce Mantras
- Whatever has to happen, let it happen!
- Whatever the situation is, it’s fine!
- I don’t need anything whatsoever!