When we are in a fearless state, the edges that delineate us as individuals blur. We flow into the world comfortably, and the world flows into us without resistance or hesitation. This is the primal form of giving and receiving on which I think all beings are nurtured and sustained. It is not a state of excitement or of euphoric abandon, but of peace and of enduring joy. When this is our experience we respond easily to the movement of the world, without wondering if our responses are the “right” ones, and somehow they end up being good (rather than right) anyway, even if they trigger the unexpected. The unexpected is okay: the phoenix needs ashes from time to time, if it is to arise.
When we are in a fearful state, the edges that delineate us harden, and collapse. We contract. Something in the world appears to threaten our existence or well-being and in accepting this perception we instinctively move to protect ourselves. The protecting that we do cuts off the circulation of ourselves into the world, and the world into us, leaving us even more unsafe in our experience than we were before. We can end up isolated from the subtle tendrils of knowing that pass back and forth between ourselves and the heart of the world, without which we are left to our own devices.
With a smidge of reflection and honest self-appraisal, we recognize that our thoughts and feelings tend to feed off of one another. We discover that a sensation of well-being is accompanied by particular types of thoughts and feelings, and that the sensation of being fearful, or threatened, likewise is attended by a particular pattern of thoughts and feelings. Often in our initial review we attach our thoughts and feelings to worldly phenomena: I feel good when I imagine I will be successful or when I actually achieve some goal, and I feel poorly when I suspect I will be a failure or when I fail to achieve some goal. One of the most critical objectives of the spiritual path is to look more deeply at these cycles of thought and feeling, so that we may discover the underlying conditions that generate them.
In time we discover that our assignments of well-being and fear to phenomenal conditions was only an effort to project the realities of our inner life upon the symbols of the world; we discover the true causes for our sensations of well-being or of fear and threat are in fact only indirectly related to the world. The world is not the cause; rather, the world—or rather, our interpretation of the world—mirrors our innermost choices and beliefs. We respond to it based on our sense of well-being or fear, and these responses feed the cycle. Thus in looking at our responses to the world, and in looking carefully at our ideas about the world, we see what our own deepest beliefs really are.
At some point it becomes clear that a sense of well-being may be maintained in any set of circumstances—even if at first we are only capable of imagining this in others, like a teacher or a saint or a figure like Jesus or Buddha. Upon discovering this we fill with the desire to sustain this well-being indefinitely in ourselves, to make it the very ground of our living. We know that if we could do so, we would suffer no more. What disturbs this on an almost continual basis is our fear, which we ultimately discover is the product of various deeply held beliefs that contradict the nature of reality. When we believe in ideas that are in contradiction to the nature of reality, it places our hearts and minds into conflict. This is because our hearts don’t forget so easily, or rationalize things, so even though we may convince ourselves of something intellectually, if it isn’t in accord with our authentic nature at a very deep level, then we experience conflict. And when we are in conflict within, we are afraid.
The great paradox of a spiritual journey is that knowing all of this is not enough. Even though we recognize we must relinquish our fear, while we are afraid this is an act we are not remotely capable of completing. It is like having the world’s stickiest glue at the end of your finger, and you’re trying to shake it off, only it is motion-activated so the harder you shake the sticker it gets. Our efforts to relinquish the fear merely reinforce its existence. When our efforts fail, we feel that we have failed twice over.
At the same time, we will not be rescued. When we lament and pray for our fears to be removed, or appeal to some higher power in a similar way, it almost goes without saying that magic wands and silver bullets do not arrive. We are left with ourselves, and this in turn can lead to despair, too. We can’t shake it off and we aren’t going to be rescued. What are we to do?
One thing I’ve learned is that we too often miss the gift of silence that comes in answer to our desire to be rescued. We miss its real meaning. The first year I did a vision quest I thought if I was good and genuinely giving and as vulnerable as I could be in all of my preparations, that I would be rescued. I didn’t say it that way to myself, but that is what I thought. And then I stewed for the entire time in my own juices, and the difficulties inside me seemed only to magnify. I knew I couldn’t dispense with fear through intellectual slight of hand, and my effort to offer up everything I had fell on its face. But then I realized there was this silence given. What did it mean?
In our efforts to be fearless—to be worthy and loving and unified of mind and heart—our approach is almost always rooted in changing ourselves somehow. We live in a world where we believe we have the power to make and to change ourselves. We believe we have some say in our destiny. But this is not only false at the deepest level, changing ourselves is precisely what is not required. In fact, it is not possible, for we remain as we were created forever. Sure we change outwardly all the time: we develop skills, we pick up hobbies and interests, we are “changed” by our experiences, but this is not the level at which we are changeless. It is the level at which we are afraid.
The real difficulty is that we have attempted to be something we are not and can never be. We have attempted to assert a dominion that is invalid, a personhood that supersedes our point of origin. We think we can change what needs to be changed without yielding on this one false assertion we have made: that we know and define who we are. There is great difficulty in relinquishing our cherished notions of who we are, and this is why fear is so tenacious, and why miracles are so necessary. For miracles are the middle road between being rescued and being in charge. Miracles are flashes of the unity and relationship that are our authentic selfhood. Miracles are given naturally when we stop driving the bus and pining to be rescued.
Our authentic selfhood is a bit of an enigma to define, but we know it when we allow it to be. For suddenly our boundaries have blurred, and the world within and without is simultaneously known. There is a familiarity with the unknown itself, a comfort with its movement in our life, and an awareness that well-being is flowing in steady supply from each to each, and all to all. Our mind discovers the true nature of things and in doing so is no longer conflicted with the heart, and our fears dissolve.
Our part in this is really interesting. Our part is to stand amidst the evidence of our brokenness –our illnesses, our broken relationships, our failures as we perceive them, our shortcomings and inadequacies, our doubts—and allow them to be turned inside out. Rather than interpreting our circumstances as a meaningful reflection of who we truly are, we allow grace to provide the interpretation. And if we feel we must contribute something to the process, we can nurture a view that encompasses not only ourselves, but all beings, and looks so deeply upon them that their innate goodness emerges in our sight. This choice, which is not a choice about ourselves alone, but a choice about all beings, is powerful.
This is a choice we can make. And it will heal our misperceptions, and dissolve our fears in time.