Fear is a gatekeeper to our comfort zone. Like a scout who brings intelligence from the territory ahead, fear lets us know that we are about to enter unfamiliar ground and could be taking a risk. Fear gives us a “heads-up.” In this light, fear is no longer an enemy but rather an ally in our search for freedom of the mind.
James Thurber, the great social critic, once said, “All men should try to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.” Though it may sound difficult, when facing our fears we only make progress when, like a turtle, we stick our necks out. Awareness and clear seeing are both necessary ingredients to freedom.
I have worked on fear through the ancient Vajrayana practice of Chöd. This awesome inner exercise has gotten me in shape to face my greatest fears, which obviously extend backwards in time, beyond myself and my own individual life-time. Chöd is based on the simple premise that facing our fears is the best and most direct way through them and beyond them. As it is said, “The demon we know is better than the god we don’t.” Chöd—which literally means “cutting through dualism”—is about cutting through our self-clinging and all our notions of good and bad, desirable and undesirable. Trungpa Rinpoche said that Chöd meant the “severing of the aorta of duality.” Chöd training helps us to see that discriminations based on “desirable” and “undesirable” are largely, if not entirely, subjective and that ego is actually the main demon and the sole culprit we have to fear.
The practice of Chöd comes down to us from the siddhas of India via Padmapa Sangyay and his Tibetan disciple, the eleventh-century female master and yogini Machik Labron. Following this great yogini’s instructions, a Chöd practitioner goes to the most terrifying place he or she can find—a cremation site or charnel ground, slaughterhouse, hospital cancer ward or battlefield. In short, wherever one can experience one’s deepest fears. Then, instead of fleeing or meditating these fears away by practicing pure mindfulness or tranquilizing concentration exercises, one plunges directly into the maelstrom of psychic danger by visualizing, for instance, terrifying demons, ghoulish ghosts, goblins, vampires, man-eaters, jackals, hyenas, wolves, vultures, rats, leeches, mosquitoes and voracious vermin. Rather than turning away from these images or giving in to any self-protective reflexes, the practitioner invites them to join the meditation.
The practitioner then goes one step further—through creative visualization and soulful liturgical incantation—by chopping oneself into little pieces and offering up to the assemblage of dark forces one’s very own body: flesh, bones, blood, brains, organs, heart and soul. We exhort the fearsome beings to eat, drink and be satisfied; to experience peace and fulfillment themselves. It is this noble-hearted, selfless intention that helps us transform our deepest fears into the elixir of enlightenment.
I learned this tantric practice in the mid-1970s from my wise and learned lama, Kalu Rinpoche, at his monastery in Darjeeling. As a Jewish kid from Long Island I thought that this was the most outrageous spiritual practice I had ever heard of and never imagined I would actually do much of it. But how naive I was!
A few years later, in the middle of a dark, moonless night, long after everyone was gone, I snuck up to a water buffalo slaughterhouse in India. Thousands of buffalo bones were piled high in macabre pyramids. I sat down and began to pray and chant like a good yogi, ready to foul my maroon pants at any moment. Suddenly, the bones began to shift, move and rattle. I doubted it was a real ghost or demon, but I did manage to scare myself by imagining that some kind of huge rat or snake was making its way through the immense pile, smelling my fresh kosher meat and blood. Somehow I managed to get through the night. The practice helped me see through the darkness into the dawn, although I still remember the sharp bite of my fear and just how hard it was to truly be with the immense sensation of terror.
In my own life, Chöd practice has allowed me to realize that fears are nothing but attachments or illusions inflated into bogeymen. Small fears, like having my wisdom teeth pulled or being treated for serious illnesses in foreign countries, turned out not to be as bad as I had imagined. Larger, more overarching fears—such as my fear of getting older—become fertile fields for spiritual inquiry, inner growth and transformation. With the Chöd practice, I learn to relax, trust and let go of who I used to be, permitting myself to become who I genuinely am. Many of our fears are simply outdated residues of former dangers that can no longer touch us, yet a habitual, reactive content remains imprinted in our stream of being. That is why if we step through the wall of our fear, we find the end of that fear.
For modern-day practice, all one really has to do is conjure up and face one’s greatest fears, whether it be of a person, a situation, embarrassment, pain, death or public speaking. Emerson said: “He has not learned the lesson of life who does not every day surmount a fear.” So we might well ask ourselves: What am I afraid of? Be honest with yourself. What is your greatest fear? What would you most hate to experience or have happen? Then, bring this one large fear to mind in a conscious, self-scrutinizing way. See how it feels. For example, where do you feel the fear in your body? See if you can break it down into parts. Ask if it is current or outdated, real or unreal, likely or almost entirely impossible. Analyze it. Next, really experience your fear. Blow it up and exaggerate it into a worst-case scenario and see how that feels. What results from that tragedy happening? Check it out, without running away. Lean into it; face the fear. Hang in there with it a few moments longer, even when your gut reaction is to turn and run away. And lastly, be willing to change and let go, opening to the possibility that this experience too may change, this too is unreal, irrational, fabricated, mere mind-stuff. Even death looks quite different when we are around it and become more familiar with it. Almost all fears are fears of the unknown; familiarization is a potent antidote.
Left unattended, our suppressed and repressed fears fester in our psyche and make us ill one way or another. However, behind every wall created by fear lies a great gift for those intrepid enough to claim it. Like a pirate’s treasure map, where fear is the big “X” marking the spot, dig there, and through self-inquiry and honest introspection, you will find buried treasure.