On Fear

I managed to hurt not one, but two, of my friends’ feelings this week, in separate situations, with things I said, and things I did. I’m feeling afraid, now, of what my words and actions have done, of what the ramifications might be down the line. Unlike many times in my life, these words and actions were not harsh or even ill-thought-out, but they were, nevertheless, potentially damaging. Good intentions only get me so far. I want to write this because I have been reflecting on fear. This is not a new topic for me (or any of us, of course), but it seems important for me to reflect on it again now.

In my early days with Zen, it often struck me as strange that, in Buddhist doctrine, when the three poisons are described, fear was not among them. For many years I sat Zen simply to cope with my fear. That fear was not a foundational poison was hard for me to understand.

The three poisons: greed, anger, and ignorance. I don’t remember where I first read it, but there is a teaching somewhere that shows how each of these is mirrored by compassion, wisdom, and liberation. The teaching suggested, or what I took from it, was that compassion is truly just the blossoming and making whole of greed – that those desires in us that clutch after the world, that want to hold it steady, that want to make it ours and unchanging, can, when they soften, expand out gently becoming an open palm holding the world. The hand that grasps and clutches to own and control, when relaxed and opened, becomes a safe and strong palm capable of holding gently, embracing. So too with ignorance – to be ignorant is to not know something… but what more is liberation than waking up to the reality of “don’t know!”? Samsara’s delusion becomes Nirvana’s enlightenment with a simple blinked eye open, waking to the unmistakable reality that this whole wide world and the great currents and flows of our experience, the confusions and disappointments and laughter and triumphs are all expressions of “just right here”, the this-very-moment-ness of liberation itself, the absolute made up in its finest details out of the piece-by-piece of the relative, with all ideas, concepts, and judgements fallen away. With no ideas, concepts, judgements, what could one ‘know’? Let go of knowing, and suddenly the whole expansive world opens up, fresh before us. And so too, then, anger, when we step past the notion of a single, limited “ego” self, when we step past the fundamental delusion of our separateness one from another, can be transformed to wisdom, to understanding, to clarity. The sharp eye of anger that sees the world in fine detail, ready to look for openings to strike, suddenly recognizes itself-as-the-whole-world in every glance, and the clarity of the vision that anger has brought becomes a deep understanding of where suffering arises, where delusion obscures, seeing the cracks and crevices of hurt and pain and violence, knowing them as openings in need of great compassion.

I left anger for last, because for me, this is where fear enters the picture. For me, my relationship with fear is such that I no longer see it as an emotion distinct from anger. It has all the same energy, all the same vehemence, all the same capacity to recognize details that might otherwise be lost. Fear is only anger moving in a different direction, pouring inward, rather than raging outward, finding all the spaces that can be hurt inside, looking at all of the fine detail of our own makeup, and knowing where and how to hurt it, to take it apart, to destroy it. For many this is an old insight – my oldest friend reflected on this intertwining to me when we were still teenagers. And I saw it then, certainly, knew he was right. But it has taken me a very long time to know how to recognize it at play in the moment of anger, or to recognize the anger in the moment of terror, and let them just be there in my experience without giving them reign over my behavior, or trying to run from them, hide them, or press them down and away.

And so tonight, right now, I have fear in me. I am afraid, if quietly and not abjectly, of what my actions and words may have unwittingly done. But it occurs to me that I have never been furious where I was not also terrified, inasmuch as I have never been angry when I was not holding on to something, some idea or wish about myself or another, that I wanted to protect, to hold steady, to not allow to change. It is greed – the desire to hold things still, to have firm ground upon which we can stand and build an solid sense of self, a notion of self divided from other – that springs up in those moments, it is greed that turns us inward, curling in toward ourselves, and in so doing, allows anger to pour down into us, watching its destructive energy wash over the whole of our landscape of thought and emotion and word and sound and perception and memory, until we know just how we are unmade. That desire to be something solid, that greed, generates anger, and when our fear becomes overwhelming as it courses through us, it finds momentum and swings back in and around, and rushes out, and in changing direction, becomes fury and vehemence and rage and violence.

I’m afraid I’m not enough, that who I am – this utterly false ‘solid’ self that has space in this consciousness – is shaken by my mistakes, that I will have to let go and become something else. And I can recognize it and I know the fear and doubt to be unnecessary, but I still feel them. But if I am never other than the whole world, then this emotion is not my own, but rather an emotion that runs more broadly, an experience that if “I” am having, then “we all” are having. Which makes me not alone. There is never a separate me to be alone. And so I can look toward making right the harm without further fear, without a need to make myself ‘right’, without a need to find distance from the result of my action. I cannot be alone, I cannot be unmade, there was never a me separate from any other to be alone, to be unmade, and so no one separate to hold a grudge or judge and find me wanting. Only all of us at the same moment as I say that I am sorry, that I am committed to making right, that I atone and will atone for the harm I have caused. As I have said to one friend and will say to another when there is the right moment.