Jess and I are at Muir Beach in the cold. We’re nestled into the scattered boulders. We walked here from Green Gulch Farm, where Jess is doing practice period and I am visiting my parents. Green Gulch is one of my homes; my parents are Dharma teachers at the San Francisco Zen Center, and I grew up among the center’s three practice places—City Center, Green Gulch and Tassajara.
Jess and I are talking about the earthquake that shook the Bay Area a few days before, and Jess asks, “Do you remember the ’89 earthquake? Where were you for that one?”
“I was eight years old, in the car with my mom in San Francisco,” I told him. “It was like we suddenly had four flat tires, like we were a ship in a storm and the buildings were swaying towards us. After it stopped shaking I was so scared I couldn’t really feel my legs. I remember that, like, they went all weak. My mom said, ‘Follow your breath.’ We sang this song together about breathing and being here in this present moment.”
“Did it work?”
“Yeah. I mean—I don’t know—I remember breathing and thinking ‘It’s okay right now.’ The song says ‘Present moment, wonderful moment.’ That’s what I did if I felt scared: I came back to my breath.”
Breath. Did it work? I don’t know. I was still scared. But maybe it’s not about erasing fear but about learning how to withstand your fear.
Fifteen years later I worked as an international “accompanier” for the protection of human rights in Colombia. I lived there for three years, mostly with a rural peace community of campesinos who valiantly refuse to cooperate with either corrupt side of the civil war and thus are attacked by both sides, government and guerrillas.
People always ask me about Colombia, “Weren’t you scared?” First I tell them about the political dynamic—that I wasn’t targeted by either side, that accompaniers are relatively safe, and that that’s why accompaniment works.
I want to tell them, though, that I was scared even so. There’s a war going on there. The war is a patch of blood on the grass where someone was shot. It is young men with huge guns. It is being up all night because the dogs are barking and you just don’t know when the camouflaged men might come back. The war is also the coming of the morning and the tense calm that settles again in the village. There is life there too, and it goes on as always, but the fear is just beneath the surface. Of course I was scared—that was just how it felt to be alive.
When people ask, I want them to know that my own life was not in danger. That’s the shape of the war in Colombia—that I was safe while the local people I loved were not. My life wasn’t in danger, but my heart was.
People are not safe anywhere, I know. I’ve been taught about impermanence, old age, sickness and death as far back as I can remember. But since Colombia is at war, these things are more obvious there. People die. Not later, when they get sick. People are being killed right now.
I try to follow my breath, but this fear for the people in Colombia shakes me deeper than any earthquake.
And there is something else I’m scared of here in the beauty-quiet of the Muir Beach boulders, of the Green Gulch zendo: I am afraid that I will get comfortable up north, far away. I’m afraid I’ll forget what it’s really like living that close to death, and that close to life. I’m afraid I’ll abandon those I love.
Can I follow my breath through this fear?