A little over three years ago, my teacher Michael Stone shared the Fear and Dread sutta from the Middle Discourses with me. I was struggling with fear during my solo retreats in the woods. As I walked those same woods this week, the dread that has settled over our lives reminded me of that teaching. I’m also spending time with Michael through his book, The World Comes to You, which inspired me with:
“To live in accordance with how things really are means carving a life
out of what is changing, what is unreliable, what will fail us.”
The unreliable changing nature of life underlies each moment, and yet perhaps we are contacting it in a way few of us are used to these days. Fear and dread easily arise, destabilizing us. They make it harder to take care of others and our own hearts. Make it hard to sense into what we’re feeling separate from what the news and politicians and social media feel. Make it hard to respond appropriately, or even to know what that might mean. How do we carve our lives in these times?
One of our first tools as yogis, as meditators, as practitioners of the dharma, is to find ourselves right in the middle of the groundless ground. It’s too easy to separate from our bodies as we sit in front of computers and TVs inside for far longer than we would have just a week ago. Keeping practice at the center of our lives, taking time to connect to the breath, to feel the entire body with the legs and feet grounded to the earth, can stabilize our hearts and minds in the midst of uncertainty and fear. I’ll be experimenting with Zoom yoga and meditation classes, and there are tons of free fitness, yoga, and meditation materials on the web.
While this tool is shared by yogis and psychologists alike, what’s unique about the dharma’s approach to working with fear is its grounding in ethics. In the Fear and Dread Sutta, the Buddha lists several different practices that enable one to skillfully work with fear; ethical conduct, appropriate livelihood, working with the kleshas, and concentrative meditation. In future posts, I’ll explore how each one could relate to our current lives and help us find groundedness. For now, begin to consider the place they have in your life.
The sutta goes on to describe, in modern psychological terms, how the Buddha engaged in exposure practice to approach fear and dread. While exposure is a comparatively recent concept of working with fear and anxiety, and has a somewhat controversial reputation, being fully present with every aspect of human experience is one of the oldest dharma practices. From Michael’s book again:
“Whatever mess you find yourself in is just another site of practice. Nothing about this is average. Look, the blooming lotus flower. Look, the hardened heart. Look, the pain in my chest when I inhale into that old image of my lover dying, my father getting ill, the job I didn’t get. Practice says yes, I can be intimate with that.”
Can we be intimate with fear, dread and anxiety? It’s important to note that in the sutta, this practice comes after becoming established in the breath and body and in an introspective and values-based way of being in the world. Michael would often describe our breath as our best friend, and that when going into a rough neighborhood, we always want to bring a friend along. We live in rough times, can we commit to cultivating more intimacy with our breath, bodies and hearts?
Further reading: Tricycle magazine has several great articles by Buddhist teachers on practicing during coronavirus