Freedom From Fear

Freedom From Fear

on Sep 13, 2011 in Spirit | 6 comments

"Ship Graveyard" by Rob Nunn -

The more you are motivated by love,
the more fearless and free your action will be.

~His Holiness the Dalai Lama

During my month-long sabbatical from The Liberated Life Project, I was in an intensive training period with the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program. One of the retreats was called “Charnel Ground Practice” with Buddhist teachers Sensei Fleet Maull and Roshi Joan Halifax – both of whom are pretty liberated beings in their own right.

In India and Tibet, charnel grounds were places where those without means to pay for a formal burial or cremation would leave the bodies of their loved ones out in the open air, to be taken care of by the elements (as well as beasts and birds).

Charnel grounds still exist in some places in Asia. In fact I visited a charnel ground with Roshi Joan on a 1999 pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash in Tibet. That experience has always stayed with me – even now I can clearly see bits of human bone and hair tucked between rocks on that sparse landscape, and I remember the feeling of rawness and realness that permeated that place.

In the Asian psyche, charnel grounds came to represent frightening places, populated by wild animals, thieves, demons, and ghosts. Because of this, they became a place for yogis to practice meditation and to work with their own fears.

Fleet explained to us that the symbolic meaning of a charnel ground is a place of intense suffering. This might be a federal prison (like the one that Fleet himself spent 14 years in), or a psychiatric hospital, or a poverty-stricken neighborhood.

But primarily, the charnel ground is what happens inside our own mind. It’s entirely possible to be in the midst of the most devastating situation and yet to be able to find strength and resilience within ourselves. Conversely, all external conditions can be extremely favorable – we may have lots of money and good health – and yet we are tortured by our thoughts and feelings.

Here’s the deal:

If we have not learned to make friends with our own fears and shadows,
we will be trapped no matter how good our life looks on the outside.

Throughout the retreat, we were invited to examine the roots of our actions. What I discovered was how easily we can deceive ourselves. For all our noble intentions, it’s often the case that our actions are based in fear, including fear of ourselves.

When we are willing to fully go into our own charnel grounds, we experience the truth that things are fundamentally whole and completely connected. And when our actions are rooted from that place, we emanate love and openness rather than fear.

Can you even begin to imagine the difference this might make in your life?

So how do we do this? How do we get to that place of openness? Here are three things I learned from this retreat about skillfull ways of working with our fear:

1) Return to “not knowing mind,” again and again.

This “not knowing mind” is a place where you can trust that everything is okay even if you don’t know the answers. This is not usually how we operate. Typically we insist on having all the information, or we need to experience ourselves as in control or an expert in something… and if we don’t, we are often scared out of our wits.

But this “not knowing” is learning how to trust that you don’t need to have the answers (and maybe there aren’t even any answers). It’s a place of boundless possibility, and it’s the ground of unconditional goodness. One of the very best ways to begin to make friends with this “not knowing mind” is the practice of meditation.

2) Practice leaning into your fear instead of turning away from it.

Ninety-nine percent of the problem with fear is that we don’t stick around long enough to mine the treasures it’s got to offer us. If we can learn how to stand firm in the face of the things we fear rather than running way, we’ll tap into a deep vein of wisdom and courage.

Here’s one way to start practicing this. Imagine your worst fear. Maybe this is losing your job and ending up homeless. Or maybe it’s losing your relationship and ending up alone. Or perhaps it’s dying a violent death, or losing your child. Whatever it is, take some time to imagine that this has come to pass in your life. Really feel what this is like for you. Take out a journal and begin to write about this experience – describe what the fear is, and then write in detail what it feels like to imagine that it has actually happened.

If you find yourself getting stuck in feelings of despair or overwhelm, see if you can return to the place of “not knowing mind” described above. Just keep breathing into this experience.

If you have a close friend whom you trust with your emotions, it might help to share this experience with them. Request that they listen to you deeply—there is no need to problem-solve here, only to witness what arises as you sit with the possibility of this situation that you have dreaded actually coming to pass.

When I did this exercise during the retreat, I saw that if that situation I feared actually did happen, there could be other ways to creatively deal with it rather than the script I had been playing out in my imagination (without realizing it). And I understood that I would survive it, and that it could even open some new doors for me. It was fascinating to watch my mind toggle between fear and liberation, hopelessness and possibility, as I grappled with this.

3) Learn how to resource yourself.

This is a term used by Dr. Laurie Leitch, another of the Upaya Chaplaincy faculty and founder of the Trauma Resource Institute. If you’re going to dive deep into your fears, you have to know how to support yourself as well, so that you don’t get drowned in overwhelm. To resource yourself means to learn how to access your sources of strength and resilience.

These resources might be internal – like simply returning to your breath, or remembering your capacity to survive and even thrive in other challenging situations in your life. Or they might be external, like spending some time curled up in bed with your dog or taking a walk in a beautiful park near your home.

Again, take out your journal and make a list of at least 10 resources you can think of that help you tap into your own inner strength. The next time you encounter a situation in your life or some aspect of your psyche that is frightening, bring this list out right away and use it to help you return to a place of strength.

There are also some excellent books that can also help you work with your fears. Here are three of the best that I know of:

• The Places that Scare You by Pema Chodron. The classic book on overcoming fear.

• Being With Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death by Roshi Joan Halifax.  Even though the focus in this book is on the dying process, it’s really a book about living our life to the fullest. Once we can face our fears around death, we are able to live wholeheartedly.

• Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel for Brilliance by Jonathan Fields. This one is brand new, but I’ve read a sample chapter and love Jonathan’s writing and perspective.

What’s your relationship with fear? How have you found ways to free yourself from its grip?


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  1. Beautiful. I love the advice on fear here, and on the mind of not-knowing. Really resonates – turning towards what we instinctively turn away from, as the key.
    Thank you

    Henry Shukman

    September 19, 2011

    • Henry!

      So nice to see you here… and look forward to running into you at Upaya again soon!

      Maia Duerr

      September 19, 2011

  2. Hello Maia. I got a lot from this post, especially about “not knowing mind.” And it’s fascinating to me that spiritual masters choose the charnel grounds to confront their fears. Thank you for sharing your experience.


    September 14, 2011

    • Narelle, so nice to meet you via this post! I just took a look at your blog and wow, there is so much there to appreciate… I look forward to reading more of your writing, and thanks so much for stopping by here!

      Maia Duerr

      September 14, 2011

  3. Maia,

    This guidance and the exercises you suggest are really powerful. Fear has been a major component in my life so I am eager to try out some of these ideas! I’ve already been befriending fear for awhile now and loving kindness practice has been my greatest companion in this regard. Love is the most powerful ally in the whole world in my humble opinion. You ideas accent it well. Thank you for this wonderful gift.

    Sandra / Always Well Within

    September 14, 2011

    • Sandra, thank you so much for mentioning loving kindness (metta) practice — that is a wonderful way to cultivate the kind of attitude that is so necessary for embracing fear from a wholesome place. Really, that’s at the root of it all. I appreciate you sharing that here.

      Maia Duerr

      September 14, 2011


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