By Tammy T. Stone
Confess your hidden faults.
Approach what you find repulsive.
Help those you think you cannot help.
Anything you are attached to, give that.
Go to the places that scare you.
~ Machig Labdrön
When I think of freedom, two things can happen.
One: I’m at the bottom-most depths of the ocean, but I can breathe, floating in blissful peace, burdened neither by gravity nor any worldly concern. Two: I’m hurtling into outer space where, also gravity-free, I can look at our tiny marble of a planet sullied with the fiery tornado of my emotional refuse, now tinier than a speck of sand.
In neither of these cases do I locate freedom in my actual body on actual ground—the here and now necessary for dealing with my stuff, to say nothing of transcending it.
So stuff periodically comes to slap me in the face. One recent morning, I wake up literally gripped with fear. It feels like wizened, bony fingers clawing into my chest, squeezing all life out of my heart and lungs to a totally deranged beat. Its persistence leaves me gasping for air. It doesn’t let up so that I can see my fear. All I can do is fall under its electrified weight.
Fear, until we deal with its root causes, can linger like an unnamed, unwanted and omnipresent sidekick.
Fear keeps us locked in a world of separation, which prevents us from being able to truly connect compassionately with other people in their suffering. Trapped in a state of constant, low-grade fear, circumstances easily come along to trigger it to rise like a volcanic beast. This time, the trigger comes in the form of bureaucracy and a major life change: my husband and I are starting the process of applying for his permanent residency in Canada, where I’m from.
It was exciting, among a zillion other things, to realize that after years of a more nomadic existence, we are ready for and really want to make the move and a home. Far less exciting is the preliminary research: finding forms, forms for forms, and forms that lead to instructions on how to fill out the forms. Acronyms and numbers swim on my screen determined to paralyze me, and before I can say the word “mindfulness,” my sanity has flown out the window.
I’m scared I’ll miss a document. I’m scared of my logistical incompetence. I’m scared that one spelling mistake will cast me into permanent exile. On a deeper level, I’m scared of having to examine the minutia of my life to date: has it been enough to make the grade? Are we/am I enough?
It’s hard not to leap from fact-recording to existential rumination as our love story is turned into a number of points on a checklist.
In addition to fear, I feel an incipient, directionless anger and defensiveness boiling inside. I feel horribly guilty for being consumed by fears of this nature when people are being brutally, unjustly murdered and uprooted from their homes all over the world. Everything we’ve done has been our happy choice. I feel helpless about everyone and everything, and powerless and petty and small.
I’m desperately wishing for a better world for all, one free of collective fear and its causes.
I want to meditate. I know I need to, but I can’t right now. What I can do is walk over to my bookshelf and reach for my worn copy of Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart. Because even though we are about to embark on a great new chapter of our life journey, that’s exactly how it feels.
Of course, nothing at all has fallen apart, except for my emotional state. My fear in this case is entirely based on various imagined futures: we dissolve like the Wicked Witch of the West in a puddle of forms and receipts, never to be heard from again. We’re rejected. We’re accepted.
None of this is happening now. So why has this broken me? My Buddhist training allows me to know why—I’m not living in the present moment, even though there’s nowhere else to live; I have allowed my mind to have its cunning way with me instead of stepping back and observing my fear. I know this, but I still can’t get past it. I flip through the pages and my eyes rest of this:
“If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. This is the first step on the path.”
Pema. Thank you.
You’d think uprooting myself from my home country—that I love—for six years of travel, meeting the love of my life along the way, and taking up residency on the other side of the globe for awhile would presuppose comfort in groundlessness. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. I spend more time than I’d like to admit hoping to exterminate insecurity, even as I paradoxically revel in adventure and the unknown. The truth is I often take comfort picturing a fantastical future where things are exactly as I’ve dictated. My comfort comes less from groundlessness, more from a fabled world when I’m in perfect control.
I do want to be more comfortable with groundlessness and non-attachment to outcome. I want to love each present moment as it comes. I know this is the path to freedom.
It’s imperative that I go to that place that scares me and learn what my fear is trying to teach me. There is no shortcut past the fear. I don’t want a bony hand squeezing the life out of my chest. I can be flippant and say that the Canadian government is making me confront myself when I’d rather be soaking in the summer rays, but the truth is that there will always be circumstances generating fear as long as we live a fear-based life, and we will always live a fear-based life as long as we can’t observe what is going on and surrender to our fear in its varied manifestations.
Fearful situations are a great kick in pants to get down and dirty in the beautiful mess of uncharted territory, to open with compassion to the fear that unites us all and excavate the freedom within. Free mind, free world. So the hope goes.
Pema, thank you, again:
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life.”
Editor: Alicia Wozniak