“The need for the Dharma is stronger than ever. We can choose to live in our fears, confusion, and worries; or to stay in the essence of our practice, center ourselves, and be the ones on this beautiful boat of the earth that demonstrate patience, compassion, mindfulness, and mutual care.” – Jack Kornfield
The dictionary defines “fear” as: a feeling of anxiety concerning the outcome of something or the safety and well-being of someone. No one would deny that we are living in a time of uncertainty and causes for concern. We can choose to view the world and current events exclusively from a place of fear, doubt, and worriment, or we can choose to view it from a place of “faith” as we feel both the strength and fragility of our “interdependence and interconnectedness”.
As some of you reading this may know, nearly twenty-four months ago I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. (I continue the “good fight” to defeat the cancer in my body to this day.) Needless to say my immediate emotional response was one of fear. Over the past twenty-four months I relied on my forty-five years of practice and training in Zen and my “faith,” and found “refuge” in the Dharma and made a conscious choice to come from a place of faith rather than my fears.
Recently I presented a two hour talk on “Working With Our Emotions”. During that talk I reminded people that, “We are not our feelings or our emotions.” We have feelings, and we have emotions, but “we” are much larger than any feeling or emotion we may be experiencing at anytime. History is full of so many examples of how both individuals as well as small and large groups of people transcended their feelings and emotions to meet the current challenges and to bring about great change in their lives, the lives of others, and to our planet.
In times, such as these, of uncertainty and good cause for concern and vigilance, we need to remember that, “We’ve been here before.” Perhaps some of you reading this have not lived long enough to experience what I mean as a nation or a community, but certainly each of us I am confident, if we took the time to contemplate this moment, can remember other times in our lives when fear dominated our experience and despite its presence we made it through and overcame our reasons for fear.
I will admit that my cancer and the chemotherapy I am receiving are cause for fear to visit me every day. It would be foolish, deceptive, and unrealistic to suggest that that should be different just because I am a Zen monk and live a spiritual life. The First Noble Truth applies to everyone, even the Buddha, Christ, and the Prophets.
So what’s a monk or anyone else for that matter to do?
First, “Do Not Panic.” Educate yourself and “do what is necessary”. Listen to your doctor or other “experts”.
Next, when fear surfaces we are to expect it, while at the same time not “fear” it. (It was Franklin Roosevelt during the some of the darkest days on the planet, WWII, who said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Meaning we need to have an appropriate relationship with this sometimes quite powerful emotion. (Here, “appropriate” means “one that works” to support us and get us through the storm.)
Fear is a normal systemic anatomical reaction to both real and perceived threats. Sometimes our fear is a function of our “perception of the moment” or of what’s going on in the world. We need the wisdom to discern the difference between “real threats” and “perceived threats”. We need to remind ourselves that we possess the knowledge and the courage to do whatever is necessary to meet the challenge both real or perceived.
Next, whenever we experience fear or anxiety real or which is part of your perception of what’s happening, stop and take a breath. Find that still place within yourself and try to “bear witness” to your experience and to the narrative which is creating your experience. Continue to breath slowly and deeply until you find yourself coming to a more calm and rational state of awareness. As I mentioned earlier, every morning I am greeted by fear and when I am in a “chemo-week,” most of my day feels fearful and uncertain. Now you need to know that there are times when the experience is overwhelming. Whether or not, my training has taught me to find refuge in both my breath and bearing witness. The feeling or emotion may not go away immediately or for some time but, I do not allow the feeling or emotion to define me or who I choose or need to be in the moment. This is my “act of faith”. My choice to believe that no matter what is happening in my world or the world around me, “In the final reckoning all will be well.”
Next, this is what “living spiritually” is about. We all, both monks and laypersons, need to regularly pray, meditate, contemplate, and choose to “be the ones on this beautiful boat of the earth that demonstrate patience, compassion, mindfulness, and mutual care.” For ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and fellow brothers and sisters, and for the entire world.
I would also like to suggest that you strongly limit exposure to both social media and cable news. Remember, we live in a “culture of fear,” and it is the business of both these medias to report current events from a place of suspicion and yes – fear. Be very “selfish” about what you allow to enter your sphere of consciousness. I am not suggesting no exposure, but perhaps a real “diet” is in order here.
These may be “The times which try men’s souls.” They are also times for men and women of real faith, real spirituality, to rise up as our ancestors did so often and, be what the world needs now.
So slow down. Trust yourself. Trust your family and friends. Trust the Dharma. Wash your hands. Learn to gassho (prayer hands) and bow instead of shaking hands and hugging. And always remember, “Everything is of the nature of impermanence, this too shall pass”. And when it does, I’ll be waiting to give you one big hug!
I Love You,