It’s early morning, and I’m poking around the kitchen as dawn creeps in, doing all those “first things” I love to do. Check the weather, snuggle with the dog, make coffee, and plunk down in a cozy chair with my day books, slowly sipping my morning brew as I read and ponder. Sometimes the words are soft and reassuring, and sometimes, like this morning, they feel more I’ve been whacked with a baseball bat. Here’s this morning’s “grand slam” entry:
“Fear is the belief that the future may in some way duplicate the past.” (Hugh Prather)
Wham! I had not realized that fear was lurking, yet there is was, its mask ripped away with a few short words. Repeating those words now, an hour or so later, they seem rather benign; no grand new thought, actually. And yet.
In the moment, it was a huge “aha!”, perhaps because I am in a healthy enough frame of mind to be able to take it in and digest its profound truth. We frail, vulnerable human beings find countless ways to disguise our real thoughts, veil our agendas, blithely imagining that our plans are “rational,” helpful, pragmatic, etc. This can be a healthy coping strategy, keeping us glued together when the circumstances around us are overwhelming.
In the bigger picture, when we are not embroiled in an immediate crisis or trauma, we need to realize that a significant percentage of our grand schemes are, if considered objectively, spot-on examples of sophisticated avoidance, hedging, born of, yup, you guessed it, plain old fear that something negative from the past is going to come and bite us again… if not today, maybe tomorrow, but surely, sometime. Best to be steeled for the blow, lest it destroy us! And so we brace ourselves, conceive all manner of plans to avoid the pain that we imagine will repeat itself. (Interesting to note that just by being here, obviously the first experience, however painful it was, did not do us in!)
The Big Beast of Fear that stalks me – to be painfully honest – is Grief… the specter that there will be a repeat experience of the unutterable pain I experienced when I lost someone I loved, fear that I could face once again the burden of figuring out how to live life without the very “sunshine” that illuminated my days, making them not only possible but joyful. I figured it out once – proof that I can! – but somehow there is an unconscious part of me that, even now, seems to forget that, fixating instead, apparently, on that dreaded specter. Instead of focusing on the reality of restored equanimity, the potential of experiencing some yet unforeseen unbearable pain stalks my psyche, powerfully, just under the surface. It brings me up short to realize that all this is going on somewhere inside, beyond my awareness and control. I had no idea that such a thought might be at work at this point. It seems no matter how far we progress, the growth process is never complete.
This is the point where I’m supposed to have some Great Illumination, some Silver Bullet that magically – ta da! – reveals how to avoid this pitfall. Sorry. I know of none.
And yet . . . there is an antidote, of sorts, to the fear that Prather describes. Over and over again, the wise advise us to “Stay in NOW.” We cannot know the future. We cannot know what it will be, for good or for ill. There is no reason to assume that one instance of any past Cataclysmic Event automatically triggers another, similar event. Things will change, of that we can be sure – but if my track record is any example of the norm, most of what we imagine will happen, won’t – and many things we could not have imagined, both good and bad, will. Odd, in a way, that we hang on to our stories so tightly in spite of knowing their unpredictable, ephemeral nature.
What to do? We need to view our fears with the same compassion we would extend to a frightened little child, for that’s who they are, really. Frightened children, wondering how they will manage. We help those “frightened children” manage simply by recognizing them, holding them gently, loving them, encouraging them to feel what they feel, and reminding them that somehow they will be able to manage. We are not given that which we cannot bear, and everything sent to us is part of our “assignment,” something we are meant to learn from.
Berating ourselves won’t help. Neither will expecting to understand everything. Likewise to the “I can control and overcome this” scenario. Bear, only gently bear, whatever is, whatever you are truly feeling now. Do not sink into the temptation to relive yesterday; do not imagine tomorrow. Stay present, stay compassionate, starting with yourself. Now is the only thing that exists, that is real. And fear does not live in “now.” It is always either a memory of the past or a projection into the future.
The Buddhist loving kindness meditation seems the perfect benediction to thoughts about leaving fear aside: May we be well, may we be happy, may we be free from suffering.