When we give up the hope of doing it right and the fear of getting it wrong, we realize that winning and losing are both acceptable. In either case, we have nothing to hang on to. Moment by moment we are traveling to the other shore. –Pema Chodron, The Places that Scare You
Right on schedule, it is summer here in the North Carolina Piedmont. I seem always to have lived in places where the seasons do not arrive and depart with any particular regularity; but here, they seem to: we always have a short, seldom-really-cold Winter, a long, cool, reasonably dry (where humidity is concerned, that is) Spring, and right on schedule, June 1, the humidity and heat slouch in. Bona fide thunderstorms, with lightening and heavy rain are regular occurrences, and I, at least, have little desire to live outdoors again until September 1, when the weather tends to start to cool off again. I find the climate here mostly acceptable, except for those summers: I do not enjoy humidity, and having lived in Alaska, I am even more adamant about my expectations for the Weather Goddess than I was before I lived in a place with no humidity and no fleas, although abundant with mosquitos the size of Buicks.
But here we are: it is now early June, and the view from my office window is now blocked by trees heavy with foliage; and thick undergrowth, blocking the pretty barn, rail fences and pasture that were visible during the rest of the year. This has its own beauty: the lethargic, still majesty, as the limbs of the trees move lazily with the breeze, simply seeming to be. The air, when we sit on the porch, is thick and fuggy , and we do not much like it. I remember when I was a child, prior to central air conditioning, we lived with such weather and viewed it as our lot in life. I can remember tearing off on my bicycle during the early mornings when it seemed cooler, without a thought for the heat. But I also remember, when my parents built on a room for themselves with a wall air conditioner, thinking the atmosphere therein was heaven. We, as humanoids, seem to keep battling with nature, trying to tame it to our satisfaction, and somehow this reminds me of my own inner battle, which I have been observing this morning.
Fear. I suppose it is something different for all of us, and for me, it is, simply, that I will never be able to meet my expectations of myself. I am the classic perfectionist, and I often defeat myself, or at least hold myself back, by the deeply entrenched belief that I will never get it right. As a student of psychology, I can remind myself of the usual explanations of this: that I internalized a parent of my own making, since my own parents were too caught up in their battles with their own devils to pay much attention to me, and I had little competent parenting. To a child, or at least to a child like me, what this means is that, a parent being necessary, I had to create one with the aid of my own childlike knowledge of the world and internalize it in my own psyche. That parent was like a policeman, and it judged and ordered my life mercilessly. I also learned to accept and absorb the universal, amorphous guilt for all things, beginning with my parents’ compulsions to project their own hatred of themselves onto me. Thus, I suppose I’m speaking not just of fear, here, but of compulsive, crippling guilt, also. But I do think that, while these issues can be explained by such transient occurrences, they are but shadows of larger, planetary ones that emerge as life lives itself endlessly.
So here I was, this morning, settling down to practice, when I became aware of that physical, fluttering, inescapable sensation of fear that paralyzes me so often, particularly when I am alone. I am in the habit of running from it in my psyche, which only makes it loom larger and draw closer, and I decided, as I have been taught, to face it bravely, with a spirit of inquiry, refusing to run, and see if that helped, as it does when I am able to stay present to it. And, of course, when I am able to do that, it immediately begins to deflate, like a tired balloon, and quickly becomes of a size appropriate to inquiry. We humans tend to activate that “fight or flight” response so unthinkingly, so quickly, in such situations, no doubt because of the primordial need to do so when the world was young and so were we; and that very response has, perhaps, morphed itself into one concerned with inner processes, as our physical safety, as humans, has grown over time.
As I began to breathe more easily, and to consider my fear dispassionately, I noticed that, for me, fear is grounded in my panic at the thought of not being perfect, of not being thought perfect; that not everyone will love me, that I might say or do the wrong things or fail to do the right ones. It is, of course, a deep fear of failure. I think it is a fairly human tendency, although some of us are more able to accept ourselves then others, but it is one that I feel is a central life task for me, in the overcoming of it. This is one reason why Buddhist philosophy has been particularly helpful to me, being a product of this Judeo-Christian cosmology that forces Original Sin on humans from the get-go.
Recently, I read an anecdote about the Dalai Lama who, in addressing an audience, was asked about guilt. Evidently, he had a long conversation with his interpreter about this, because he didn’t understand what guilt is! There is, evidently, no like concept in the East for that painful emotion that drives us Westerners so mercilessly. There is a difference between remorse, a feeling of regret for not having done the right thing, and guilt; perhaps it is the difference between a sort of musing self-examination and a clear indictment, which I am prone to. The Dalai Lama, and other Buddhist teachers, remind us that there is a middle way to psychological health, wherein we pause to be fully present to emotions that cause us pain, and consider the true nature of mind, flawless, innocent and pure. Perhaps it is a process of separating the eternal from the transient. I have heard it said that the dharma has moved from the East to the West, and while I think such terms are open to much interpretation, I can see, intuitively, how this may be entirely appropriate, given the preeminence of spiritual endeavor in the East, compared to that of worldly pursuits here. It seems to me that to be human is, at its core, a very similar experience across cultures, but we all seem to have our particular “assignments;” and perhaps, when things get out of balance, we have the opportunity to bring things into balance again, by sharing what we have learned.
In this culture, we speak of faith as an antidote to fear. Inayat Khan said that the true meaning of faith is self-confidence. I am currently reading a book by Lenore Friedman, called Meetings with Remarkable Women. It contains pieces about female Buddhist teachers who have been influential in illuminating Buddhism for this culture. She quotes Roshi Jiyu Kennett:
There is no savior in Buddhism. You have to do it for yourself. No one else will meditate for you. At the time of death you will judge yourself. The lord of the House will never judge you. That Which Is, simply is. The ability to die in peace means the ability to live in peace. The Cosmic Buddha has no hell to hold over us. We make our own hell. The only judging that is done is done by ourselves–and thus we hide ourselves from the Cosmic Buddha. Everyone possesses Buddha nature (or, as the Christians call it, the soul). It is only hidden from our view because of our opinions of ourselves. . . . The art of meditation removes that separation, so that we can return to our basic nature and truly know it. Meditation has nothing whatever to do with self-improvement. It is an extraordinarily deep, prayerful experience, and its purpose is to become one with the Cosmic Buddha–or, if you like, have an experience of God. –Roshi Jiyu Kennett
It occurs to me that, if I am to be my own judge, I’d better relinquish this created, harsh, mean judge who rides on my shoulders and in my psyche, weighing me down to the extent that I allow it to. Those of us who practice some form of contemplation learn very quickly that, despite our mind’s tendency to attempt to maintain control, there is a peace that surpasseth understanding that is available, that escorts us into the high realms of the psyche and reveals a reality that heals and nourishes and furthers the unfoldment of all life.