“Helping others helps me stay calm and not scared really” – a friend, who is a Psychiatrist, texted me and this is my mantra for the week.
How do we live with fear? Some people describe it as dread.
I am limiting my exposure to news, just the headlines in the evening, and looking for resources to help stay calm. I am seeking refuge in:
Buddham sharanam gatchami | I seek refuge in the Buddha
Sangam sharanam gatchami | I seek refuge in the Sangha
Dhammam sharanam gatchami | I seek refuge in the practice
I am turning to my teachers for guidance online. There are many options for sangha too, to reduce the isolation. Instead of meditating alone, I am joining groups online for my daily practice to be with the sangha. Teachers from Bodhi Tree Sangha, (8 of us are of Indian/Pakistani origin) are offering free daily guided-meditations, during this difficult period.
Fear can be seen from an evolutionary perspective, as one of the emotions that motivates survival. It is incredibly effective to bring mindfulness to fear and to see fear not just as a problem but worthy of our attention and care.
Buddhist psychology divides how we live into two categories: skillful and unskillful (healthy or unhealthy). Interestingly, fear is not categorized as unskillful. There is appropriate or healthy fear and there is debilitating fear. So having fear does not make us bad nor it is morally wrong, but it is a fact of being alive, like other living beings, including trees. Here is one fascinating fact I just learned. When a leaf is being eaten, it sends signals to the other leaves which produce insect repellent to defend themselves in response! Plants grow better in environments where people are talking or classical music is playing.
So fear is not the problem but how we react to fear is. Sometimes our strategy is to get angry and blame. Some avoid, like the ostrich who puts it head in the sand.
Our reactivity, the secondary judgments and thoughts that come out of fear, is the problem.
In mindfulness, the idea is to get to know our fear, to learn to live with fear, understand its wisdom and not let it limit us. Fear indicates that something is wrong. Sometimes the threat is real, and sometimes it is not. As a child in India, electric lights were rare and I was very scared of the dark. I had thoughts of all kinds of scary things lurking out there. I used to pray for the sun not to set – these supplications went unanswered. The fear ranged from creepy-crawlies (which were real and often showed up in the orphanage dorm) to ghosts (from stories that the students told– turned out to be unreal!).
To face the fear, talking about it with those we trust would be one way to start. This begins to normalize the experience. A lot of us are spending our time at home, sometimes alone. Perhaps we can spend time with others using zoom or facetime, where we can see the other, which is very helpful. We can start by talking about how we experience fear: in the body. How we react to fear. What exactly is the threat you feel? Your finances? Your health? Your life?
It is also good to dialogue with fear instead of being afraid of it. There you are Fear, I see you. Then hold fear with compassion and care. Fear is a wonderful thing to study. Buddhist psychology teaches the gift of fearlessness is a wonderful gift we can give others. Experiencing fearlessness is a gift that helps others relax and grasp what’s happening around them. We become a refuge for others, a pillar of safety and calm.
It’s been said that what you can’t communicate, controls you.
So fear is worthy of our attention, it has wisdom in it. It is better if we are relaxed and calm.
Layers of fear underneath, without shame, without criticism, hold it in the warmth of attention.
Pandemic –Lynn Ungar
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live