Can we learn to laugh in the face of fear?
Sorry about that. I decided a couple of months ago to write a book rather than focusing on my blog, and the blog fell a bit by the wayside. The book isn’t very far along—it’s mostly ideas. There’s a part of me that feels like writing a book is an exercise in vanity—there are so many books out there about awakening, so why would my book be helpful.
This morning I had a moment of inspiration about that, and wrote a new forward to the book (it’s not the first). I’m sharing it here because I actually miss writing in this blog, and I think that I need to figure out a way to combine these supposedly competing goals rather than choosing one and abandoning the other.
Here it is:
Why a book about awakening? Why now?
My answer to this question is that I see a lot of people who are very worried about the state of the world today, who genuinely want things to be better, and who seem trapped, unable to act on that wish.
What if it were the case that the way to heal the world, the way to make the world work for as many of the people who live on it as possible, and not just the few for whom things aren’t going catastrophically bad right at this moment, were not some terrible sacrifice, but actually the thing that would make us most happy?
I think that this is the truth. This is how it is. The way to heal the world is to heal ourselves. Just to be clear, I do not mean that the way to heal the world is to retreat back into our little bubble and protect ourselves from all the horrors that are going on around us.
Let’s talk about those well-meaning people who are worried about the state of the world. You see them everywhere. You probably are one of them. I am too. In our world, we hear all kinds of messages about how to heal the world. Most of these messages are serving a different purpose: they are mollifying us. They are putting us to sleep. They are saying “look, do this thing that you can do, that you can see yourself doing, and then you can stop worrying, because you have done your part.”
You’ve probably heard these messages. You probably know, deep down, what I am talking about. But it’s hard to even admit at a conscious level that these messages are wrong, because if they are wrong, then I haven’t done my part. Things aren’t okay. That thing that I fear, whatever it is, is going to happen, and I’m not doing anything about it.
This is a feeling we really don’t like to have, and so we pretend. We accept the mollifying messages, the putting-us-to-sleep messages, because if we don’t, then we have to wake up and see how things are. And quite frankly, things are a bit difficult right now. Seeing how they are is not comfortable.
So maybe what I just said is nonsense. Maybe it’s not true. But suppose for a moment that it is. Suppose that voice that’s telling you it’s not is the voice that wants to be mollified, that wants to feel like it’s done its part. Suppose you’re willing to take this idea seriously. Suppose, if you investigated it, you would see that it is true, but you don’t want to investigate it?
If that’s the case, then really the thing that is most dangerous to us, to the people we love, to the world we live on, is not some great catastrophe that we see looming on the horizon, but rather the pain we feel when see things, to the degree we can, as they really are. The feeling of being alone, small, powerless, in an immense world full of problems too large for one person to face.
Do you already see what I am pointing to here? The problem we have is that we are alone. Even if we have community, they are all in the same boat. They all have the little voice inside that wants to be mollified, to say “I’ve done my part.” We can spend time with each other, but we never really feel comforted, because as we spend time together, we are carefully not saying the things that would frighten us. The last thing we want is for our friend over there to say “yeah, we really are in trouble, and we really aren’t doing what we need to do about it.”
This book isn’t about learning to face fear. Of course, sometimes we have to do that. But really, most of what we fear are just stories we tell ourselves. We live in, to use a biblical term, the valley of the shadow of death. There is never a moment in our lives when we aren’t aware on some deep level that all of this is temporary. There is never a time in anyone’s life when things are okay in the sense that that little voice wants to tell us they are.
Living in this world, in this vale of tears, truly living in it, requires us not so much to face our fears as to laugh at them, to see them for the small things that they are. To become fearless.
This doesn’t mean becoming blind. You can be fearless because the little voice becomes so loud that you just don’t see the problems before you. You can be the guy who, like a dear friend of mind, takes a corner on their Kawasaki Z-1000 at well above the safe speed, slides off the edge, and falls off a cliff to his death. I miss him, but that kind of fearlessness is not what I’m talking about.
There’s a story in the Buddhist canon that I find really helpful for thinking about this. It’s told many ways, with many different punchlines, but I like the simple version. A man is fleeing from a tiger, which is right on his heels, about to catch him. He comes to a cliff. With the tiger at his back, he has no choice: without looking, he jumps.
On the way down, a tree growing out of the face of the cliff breaks his fall, and he grabs onto it. Saved, he rests for a moment, then looks down at the bottom of the cliff, where another tiger paces, eyeing him hungrily.
On the face of the cliff, near the root of the tree, there is a strawberry plant. On it grows a single red strawberry. He picks the strawberry and eats it. It tastes wonderful.
That’s the end of the story. I’m not going to tell you what the story means. It’s a nice question to meditate on. But ask yourself this: would the strawberry have tasted better if the man had been afraid?