Tag Archives: Buddhism

Fear: A Meditation

In my continuing word meditation series, the word today is: fear.

Such a small word. Even its etymology is short and simple.

No complex conceptual evolution. No transitions or transformations across time and cultures.

It’s just fear.

Perhaps this word is simple because the thing itself is so simple. Perhaps it is unchanged because it doesn’t need to change: fear is now as it was and shall always be.

I don’t have to describe it to you, you know it well. And you recognize it in others easily, even beyond humans. Fear is the most recognizable emotion most broadly among living creatures.

Fear is one of the most important things in keeping us alive. Fear is one of the things that most hampers our ability to thrive.

We would die without fear, but we cannot live with too much fear. They say a real hero isn’t one who feels no fear; a hero is one who feels fear and still acts. And so we spend all our lives learning how to manage it, how to face it, how to accept its lifetime companionship.

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to rally a terrified nation against fear and accurately described its effects: So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Nikos Kazantzakis (author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ) asserted his overcoming of fear and the fear of death especially by having written as his epigraph: Δεν ελπίζω τίποτε. Δεν φοβούμαι τίποτε. Είμαι λεύτερος (I don’t fear anything, I do not hope for anything, I am free).

The Buddha also spoke about the role of fear in one’s life: The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed.

Frank Herbert in his novel Dune coined his famous Litany Against Fear. Even if it was for a work of fiction, it has true power and usefulness:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Roshi Joan Halifax in Being with Dying quotes Rainer Maria Rilke saying “Love and Death are the great gifts that are given to us; mostly they are passed on unopened.” Why are they mostly passed on unopened? I think it’s because of fear: we’re afraid to open them. And that is a shame.

If I’ve learned one thing as I’ve gotten older and learned how to make my relationship with fear more a true partnership, it’s that the more I feel brave enough to open those presents, the more rich, fulfilled and previously unimaginably wonderful my life has become.

It’s not a perfect relationship: fear and I still have rough patches like any lifetime partnership does. But we’re not fighting like we used to. Fear keeps me alive so that I can then do what I need to thrive.

So, to my fear, I say: thank you. I look forward to many more years of working with you.

Presence

My natural inclination for balance leaves me feeling that a positive focused posting is in order to balance out the hard emotions found in Repudiate.

I think the logical candidate to balance this is the word that gave me the idea for these word meditation postings: presence.

As a preface to this posting, then, let me give a little background to how this all came about.

I really noticed the word presence after I watched the Martin Scorsese film Kundun. If you’re not familiar with Kundun, it follows the life of the 14th Dalai Lama from when he was found by party searching for his reincarnation through his escape to India in 1959.

That film has been very important for me of late in my ruminations on things. I find it very moving in many ways. And I especially find the closing scene to be a very powerful mixture of spirituality and art. It also highlights and affirms a human nobility that speaks to me. It shows how one can be strong and gentle. That speaks to me because that is how I am, how I strive to be.

The title “Kundun” is a Tibetan word (སྐུ་མདུན) that is translated in English as “presence”. “Kundun” is the title by which the Dalai Lama is addressed by Tibetans. I found that a fascinating word to use as a title for the political and religious leader of a people who is reckoned a reincarnation of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion (known as Chenrezig (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་) in Tibetan and Kuan Yin (觀音) in Chinese).

That fact started me ruminating on the English word “presence”. And that ruminating led in turn to the idea of “word meditation postings”.

Presence has a very interesting etymology. It is formed from the root word “present” and the suffix “-ence“.

“Present” ultimately comes from a Latin verb, “Praesum“. Praesum combines the preposition “prae” with the Latin verb “sum“. “Prae” means “before” and is the root of the commonly used prefix “pre” (ironic that “prefix” has “pre” in it). “Sum” is the Latin verb “to be”. Combined, they have meaning of “being before” that has a very strong, almost tangible sense of being here now in both time and space.

(If you’re wondering how we get to “present” from “praesum” it’s because the Latin verb “to be” changes in its present (again, irony) infinitive form. “To be before” in Latin is “praeesse”. And in Latin, the present participle comes from the infinitive, so “being before” is “praesens”.)

“-ence” as a suffix comes from “-ent” which is related to the Latin suffix “-entia”.  As a suffix “-entia” typically denotes a sense of the quality of the root word. For instance in “sapientia“, the “-entia” “quality-izes” “sapiens“,  “thinking”.

So, present-ence becomes presence and as a word encapsulates this idea of the quality of being here now. It’s a very powerful word that connotes a very powerful concept. It is one of those words whose rich depth of meaning and its power is lost in the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Think on it though: the quality of being here now. That’s a central Buddhist concept. So much of Buddhist mindfulness practice is centered on simply cultivating the quality of being here now, cultivating presence.

It makes sense and is fitting that this is the Dalai Lama’s title. Through his practice he comes closest of any human being to most fully embodying the quality of being here now, of presence. But too, he is a presence because as the reincarnation of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva is there within him, as a part of him, in front of us, present.

Being mindful, being present: these are important things that I am working on. And I find that a good place to start in this practice is to be mindful and present in the face of language. We forget that words have power. Speaking aloud of our experiences is hard but liberating sometimes. Those of us who have stood in silence out of fear for so long can speak to how scary and liberating it is to finally speak. And speaking and communicating is how we really make our presence known to others.

8400 Days

On this day and date, Thursday April 21, in 1988, I lost a friend to suicide.

I think it’s important to remember those who have gone: we who carry their memory ensure a part of them is still alive.

So, I always try to mark the date of her passing (as I do all those I have lost). Being a bit superstitious about days and dates, I consider anniversaries that fall on the same day to be particularly special. This year, the day and date coincide with that day twenty three years ago.

In reflecting on this, I realize that she’s been gone now longer than she lived. And I find, interestingly, that it has been exactly 8400 days that have passed since she passed.

I note this here not out of sadness, really. As I get older I am more and more reconciled with death as a reality. My readings in Buddhism over the past year, my experiences of multiple hard losses in the space of a year: all of these have made me find a new accommodation with death. I take very seriously the idea in Tibetan Buddhism that at the end of each day we die when we go to sleep, and at the beginning of each day we are born anew when we wake.

And so today I reflect not just on Kathy’s passing twenty three years ago: I reflect on the 8400 times I have died and been reborn since that day. I reflect on the unknown numbers of deaths and rebirths that await me yet in this form. I work to look forward rather than backward, for I have lived my life in a melancholy past for much of my life and want instead to live in a joyful present and a hopeful future.

I am listening to Arvo Pärt’s work for organ, Trivium I – III. Its sparseness has the proper reverent tone for a reflection like this. But, too, it has a delicate beauty that mirrors life. Beautiful, fleeting, passing in the blink of an eye.

In addition to keeping alive the memory of those who have gone, perhaps the greatest honor we can do them is to simply live and feel all that beauty that life has.

Perhaps the most poignant statement to that effect is made by Kevin Spacey at the end of American Beauty.

So today, I honor the memory of Kathy: I think back to her dark and blasphemous sense of humor, her beautiful dark eyes, the skirts and the hat she always wore, and I celebrate it all. And I celebrate the joy of my life, all the good in it, all the joy and pain and aliveness I have been gifted with these 8400 days.