Sitting with fear and your vulnerable self
April 7, 2016 § 3 Comments
The Buddhist teacher, author, nun and mother, Pema Chodron tells us that if we follow fear down to the core of our being we will ultimately find that it represents a fear of self; a fear of self’s innate vulnerability. She calls this the ‘soft spot’.
The soft spot reminds me of the Sacred Heart of Christ that is described, in part, as pierced by a lance-wound, encircled by a crown of thorns and bleeding. Christian dogma tends to the interpretation that Christ’s heart bleeds because of our sins, which suggests a connection to the concept of original sin. I mention this because it parallels the experience of the soft spot as a place of suffering that we wish to avoid, and as some fundamental flaw in our nature that we wish to correct.
The approach to the soft spot requires care for in it we find our deepest fears. Serious psychological damage can occur if the undisciplined or weak mind enters the soft spot. It is therefore important to strengthen the mind through meditation where, in its early stages, we learn not to follow thought but remain focused upon a single object.
When the mind has reached a certain level of discipline the attention can be trained on the soft spot. The strategies employed to protect this weakest and most vulnerable area then start to show. We may see, for example, how status or a sense of humor is used to cover deep feelings of fear, shame or guilt. The strategy most used, and which underlies all strategies, is denial. Over the years we have trained ourselves not to look at our soft spot because of the deep discomfort and fear that lay there.
As we learn to drop our strategies, we invariably feel the discomfort of the soft spot ever more keenly. We feel the fear of being vulnerable to illness, injury, disapproval or loneliness. We feel the shame or guilt over believing that it is somehow our fault that we feel this way. “Other people,” we think, “aren’t like this. So it must be me!”
As uncomfortable as these feelings are it is necessary to stay with them. Yet, at times when the feelings become too intense, it may be necessary to walk away for a while. You must use your own wisdom in this regard. But each effort puts us a little closer to being able to sit with our fear and neither come under its influence nor push it away.
As we hold this soft spot gently in the awareness we join Zen master Hakuin Ekaku who sat with his terror of falling into hell. We sit with Jesus as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. We sit with the Buddha in those final hours before his great enlightenment when Mara conjured up hosts of terrifying demons, throwing spears, firing arrows and trying to burn him with fire.
If you do not turn from your suffering but, as Mumon wrote in the koan Joshu’s Dog, “enter this MU and there is no discontinuation, your attainment will be as a candle burning and illuminating the whole universe.” You can then enter any world as if it was your own playground and you will be free of life and death.
The ultimate freedom spoken of by Mumon does not come easily. Yet there are rewards along the way. Fear becomes more manageable and as we stay with our own vulnerability our hearts open to the suffering of others. Fear of illness may turn to compassion for the sick. Fear of loss may turn to a desire to help the poor. The willingness to open your heart to your own suffering, opens your heart to others. And all this starts with a simple willingness to sit with your own fear and vulnerable self as did the Great Masters of Old.