Mindfully Facing Fear, Despair, and Fatigue: Turning Lead into Gold
Our Path to Courageous Energy and Wise Action
I have been writing and thinking about the following essay on and off for some time now, and I have gradually realized that the question I have been addressing––the one I have been hearing from all of you and from the world at large––is, in fact, the Buddha’s question, the very one he lived and practiced into an answer. How do we live in a world that is woven through with dukkha, a word he defines as “that which we cannot bear.” Mindfully facing fear and fatigue, as well as desire for our chosen outcomes, restlessness, worry, and quivering doubt––modern day variations of the five classical hindrances––is the whole of the work of the Buddha Dharma, as are mindfully facing disease and death; mindfully facing climate change; mindfully facing racism; mindfully facing activism; mindfully facing emptiness, and so on. The key, of course, is in the “mindfully facing.” The key transforms us and in so doing unlocks our lives and liberates our hearts.
The basic answer to the question is given in the first instruction we ever had as meditators, which was, in one version or another,
Stop the flow of your busy-ness and sit down for a moment.
Quiet your body, quiet your mind, and pay attention.
Be curious about what you experience.
Don’t hate any of it or resist any of it. Notice everything.
All subsequent Buddhist practices, formal and informal, help us with this very challenging project of waking up to the way things are. It is a slow process. Views and perspectives of our culture challenge us, as do the strong perspectives and emotional reactions of our very humanness. Nonetheless, as Susan Taylor, former editor of Essence, assures us, “Anything that is knowable can be known”––directly and with fresh eyes. Bhikkhu Analayo points us to a tool to use for re-knowing our world with greater clarity: “Mindfulness is the ingenious method of turning an obstacle to our path [fear, sadness, fatigue, etc.] into an object that can be known”––increasingly free from bias and prejudgment.
To do this kind of re-visioning, often we first have to let go of what we think we already know. This is where connection with others on this path of inquiry becomes very important, and it is why the Buddha once said that fellow practitioners can be thought of as the whole of the path. Both sharing silence and talking with others who are using these teachings to investigate their lives can be invaluable in our own shifts in perception.
You are not alone as you change your relationship to fear, fatigue, and other difficult emotions. Ours is not a solitary path of transformation. It is internal and external, personal, interpersonal, and global. Please reach out to one of the many opportunities for connecting with the VIMS community as we move along through these challenging times. One such new VIMS offering begins on Monday morning, November 2nd. We will open the VIMS Dharma Hall at 7:30 a.m. for a half hour for those who would like to share in a teacher-led time of going for refuge and taking the precepts together. Please see more specific information elsewhere in the October 2020 newsletter and on this website.
The Reverend Robert Thompson, a minister from Exeter and President of the Black Heritage Trails of New Hampshire, gave a brief talk at the end of the first day of the 2020 Black New England Conference. The conference was an empowering event which offered lasting insights from the long fruitful work of African Americans in our New England region. Reverend Thompson spoke of our being appropriately tired at the end of a long day of conference meetings and of how very tired many of us are feeling these days in general. He has officiated at a number of recent Black Lives Matter protests and rallies, and he told us that even the young people are saying how tired they are. I hear it, too, from my friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues. So many of us are tired, sad, and afraid, too, of what the future holds in store. Given the rapidly changing and unsettling events of our days, of course we will experience fatigue, fear, and even despair at times. It is essential that we pause to acknowledge these uncomfortable feelings. They pave the way to courage and wisdom.
“The most important thing is to not look away.” –– Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams (On Being, 8/20)
In order to restore calm and clear thinking, we must linger with such unwanted feelings and experience their effects in our bodies, hearts, and minds, and be curious. We want to know in what ways they differ from the open-hearted, spacious perspective we so highly value in our meditation experiences and in our best moments in daily life. If we don’t fully understand how they cloud our perspectives, then our perspectives will remain clouded, and our actions will be weakened and ineffectual. Our habitual, contractive, visceral shrinking states of fear and fatigue may go unnoticed in the busy momentum of life, but always they obscure our understanding of what is beneficial to ourselves and to others. Unrecognized, they preclude any possibility of “not making things worse.”
Pause. Be curious. Linger for a moment. This is the way to practice towards freedom.
HERE ARE SOME PRACTICES THAT MAY BE OF SUPPORT TO YOUR PROCESS
Pay attention with a calm abiding interest. Allow the feeling, perhaps even acknowledging to yourself that “this is a difficult moment.” You may not feel this way all the time, but you do now and with good reason. Gently name what you are feeling. Let your body and heart relax to it. Maybe you will want to talk with a trusted friend about it––someone who will listen and not judge.
The simple act of noticing is most always freeing and can at times be powerfully liberating. The late Congressman John Lewis learned this when he faced the very high probability of dying while he was being beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1963. Listen for the mindful awareness with its break from the momentum of terror:
“The line of troopers walked forward, billy clubs out. They knocked Lewis to the ground and struck him on his head. He tried to get up; they hit him again with the billy club. His skull was fractured. . . .
“I thought I was going to die,” said Lewis in 2010. “I thought I saw death . . . and I knew in that moment I wasn’t afraid of death. . . . When you lose your fear, you are free!”
Reflecting on Wise View. In a recent talk at Dartmouth’s Institute of Cross-Cultural Engagement, titled “The Quiet Mind: Science, Culture, and Contemplation in a Post-pandemic World”, Matthew Nisbet listed some important concepts from Buddhist teachings. Reflecting on them can help us reset our attitudes.
1) These adverse outward events and inner reactions (fear, despair outrage, fatigue) happen.
2) They arise due to a myriad of causes/conditions––some of which we can know, some we can’t.
3) Turning towards them––pausing and clear seeing (and feeling) are important.
4) They are of a transitory nature; they are impermanent and will change.
5) Our perception is cloudy––delusions worsen under pressure.
6) Confused thinking can be managed by continued self-reflection, self-mastery, and self-restraint. Our daily meditation practice helps create the awareness and stability for this to happen––as do moments of intentional “pausing,” built into our days.
A Classical Approach to the Hindrances Encourages the Monitoring Aspect of Mindfulness. Formal inquiry emphasizes the importance of noticing and being curious about the moments when a hindrance such as fear or sadness is NOT present. Investigate the moment. Is there any fatigue or restlessness present? Go further with your research. What conditions seem to fuel its arising? What helps it to pass or ease up? What seems to stabilize its absence?
In order to proceed on the path, we first need to know
how to work skillfully with what impedes our journey.
– Joseph Goldstein, Mindfulness
Some Other Helpful Contemplations
1) Gratitude. Many of us have a gratitude practice. Taking time daily to remember and write down what we are grateful for can help “cheer the heart withered by pain.” Pause for a moment with each item you write and linger with any feelings that emerge. Is it a softening that you feel as you relax and allow yourself a moment of savoring? Or, is there a clinging, restricted feeling? You might sometimes even feel some guilt arising as you recognize your own good fortune in a world there is so much sorrow. There is no right way to feel with this gratitude exercise. Remember our main practice is in the curiosity, the interest in knowing and accepting whatever arises. The quality of our awareness becomes the focus of our attention. It is always important that we monitor the effects of our practice. These things will tell us whether what we are doing is helping us to be present with what is, or hindering us.
2) Death. Counter to what we may first believe, reflecting on one’s own death can be liberating. Not thinking about death does not mean it is not coloring most all of our reactions to challenging events. It always is. As sentient beings, we fear and dread death for ourselves and sometimes, more especially so, for our loved ones––especially the younger ones. A gentle, simple, and nonthreatening way to reflect on death is to focus attention on the in-breath and on the out-breath, each with its beginning, middle, and end. While breathing in, know: “This could be my last breath”; while breathing out, practice “letting-go.” Another simple practice is simply to pause when you see a dead animal by the side of the road or a dead bird: simply pause, relax, and linger for a moment.
The present moment is the only moment we can fully live. –– Analayo
Be realistic. The covid-19 pandemic has radically changed the options open to us in relation to our usual coping strategies, severely challenging our personal and collective resilience. In the midst of this undeniable vulnerability, we of all races and ethnicities are faced daily with the relentless exposure to racial oppression and outright cruelty towards the people of color among us, which––to make matters worse––is being perpetuated by our nation’s designated authorities. The barrage to our senses continues. We are witnessing raging forest fires destroying vegetation, along with vast amounts of animal and human lives. Death tolls from the virus are increasing again. We see a growing wealth inequality and some evidence of economic collapse. There is a contentious and important election looming. At the same time, we cannot forget all that we have to be grateful for, nor should we. Collectively, we can deny neither our vulnerability nor, when it is there, our privilege. All of this is confusing––unbearable at times. Of course, we often feel tired, discouraged and afraid.
To live confidently, with wisdom and a courageous energy, we must know the fatigue, fear, despair, and other states which obscure these joyful states. As we become directly aware of the presence and the absence of these “hindrances” to our clear seeing, they transform into mindfulness bells. Practicing with them liberates both them and us. When seen and experienced, these states don’t persist and they don’t hinder the path. Faced mindfully, they point to the way, to the path to liberation.
The first weekend retreat that VIMS offered was in the mid 1990s. It was led by Taraniya Gloria Ambrosia and titled “Faith.” I was excited to be focusing on this subject because my biggest hindrance at the time was doubt. I thought the retreat would be teaching me how to have faith. Surprisingly, all the dharma talks were about doubt––not faith. Equally surprising was the fact that I left the retreat feeling much more faith and confidence. In a similar manner, may this loose collection of my reflections on working with fear and fatigue––and the other obstructive emotions rising in reaction to the current challenges in all our lives––bring you more access to wakeful, courageous energy and to a wise, patient, compassionate kindness, always kindness.
Addendum: While living with this essay topic, I came across a Dharma Reflection of mine from 10/15/2011 called “Buddhism and Activism.” Below are a few quotations from me and others that I’d like to share as a postscript to this month’s essay. The fact that it was written ten years ago can remind us that training in these Dharma practices is an ongoing way of life; and, to be clear, it is not one that can ever do away with the arising of “that which we cannot bear.” It can only continuously help us in the human endeavor of bearing the unbearable––for ourselves and for others. As Bhikkhu Bodhi has said, the path and its fruition are the same.
From Doreen: “Election campaigns are underway in this country. Next year we vote for a president, ideally a relatively wise, informed leader to guide us. We all know personally the heat and undeniable stress of anger and fear in this process. What shall we do?”
From an article, “The Buddha taught Nonviolence––Not Pacificism” by Dharma teacher (and psychiatrist) Paul Fleischman.These words have an abiding meaning in my understanding of practice:
“Dhamma encourages wakeful, thoughtful, personal choices out of which we build our own and our society’s future. We can use Dhamma as our global positioning system, our self-reflecting mirror and guide on our somber and creative human trek. At the applied level, the Vipassana meditation that the Buddha taught leads to direct contact with the vibrations at the subatomic matrix of the changing world––the vibrations of love and compassion, the vibrations of ignorance, hate, and fear. To fully walk the Path, we must jettison our clinging to views, our textual search for soothing answers, and plunge into . . . direct awareness of reality beneath transient forms. . . .
“When we will learn perfect attunement to it, we will walk the Path as the Buddha did, vigorously nonviolent, relentlessly compassionate, palpably relevant to our times and to all times, and aware that we will still leave behind us the ongoing sorrows of the world.”
Sharon Salzberg is purported to have said, in relation to some past political turmoil: “This is samsara [i.e., a world fueled by greed, hatred and delusion]; it is not to supposed to work. . . .”
Sylvia Boorstein reminds us of a sign she once saw, posted on the wall of a retreat center: “Life is so difficult, how can we be anything but kind.”
Doreen: May we all find our way to this depth of kindness, towards ourselves as well as towards others, while at the same time working wisely, wholeheartedly, and steadfastly in the service of the lives of all beings.
Gandhi: “I don’t have a message. My message is my life.”
Buddha’s last words: “Continue with care.”