I would never have typecasted myself as fearful – I am outgoing, adventurous and, by nature, down for whatever. Notwithstanding these qualities, I can also be extremely passive. I guess being acquiescent is like a gateway drug to being fearful. But what exactly am I afraid of? Having recently accepted that vulnerability nurtures growth and change, I am going to lay it all out on the table right here and now… I am fearful of feelings, especially dealing with them.
While the ATPB team was preparing their booklist for the summer, I was sink lined into Tamu’s pick “The Places that Scare You” by Pema Chödrön. Upon reading the back cover, I was completely intrigued: “Finding the courage to go to the places that scare us cannot happen without asking ourselves ‘What do I do when I feel I can’t handle what’s going on? Where do I look for strength and in what do I place my trust?’ When fear, anger or anxiety has a grip on you, don’t turn away, have a drink, a snack, a smoke, or switch on the TV. Instead look your fear straight in the eyes – and see it for what it really is…”
How could one little excerpt grab hold of me so profoundly and encourage me to reflect on my own life? A wave of emotions took over me, and I was compelled to read entire book in that moment.
As I started the book, and began to reflect on my personal sources of stress and anxiety, the following question resonated strongly with me: What do I do when I can’t handle what’s going on? As mentioned above, Chödrön suggests not having a drink when anxiety hits. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have told myself the exact same thing, but still end up finding comfort in a glass of something chilled when my day goes awry. As many of you know, Tamu and I completed a 30 day no alcohol challenge this past May. I embraced the test, because I had gotten to a point where I couldn’t remember the last time I didn’t turn to a glass of wine as a means of coping with a stressful day intensified by the demands of raising a toddler. Ding, ding, early contemplation of Chödrön’s words opened my eyes to the fact that I was running away from confronting my stress; and how my dire chances of finding balance were if I didn’t take time to fully understand what was specifically pushing my panic button.
Throughout the book, Chödrön tries to help us achieve bodhichitta (an enlightened mind), which I think is best explained as: “An analogy for bodihicitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic, sometimes to anger, resentment, and blame. But under the hardness of that armor there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.”
I have referred to my anxiety and my journey to dissolve it in my posts discussing chakra healing and the use of essential oils. Recently, while trying to identify the root of my angst, I opened a pandora’s box of emotions. And like the coward I am (or was feeling like at the time), I ran straight back to my comfort zone. This comfort zone in reality is not comfortable at all: I live with anger; drink to sooth my concerns; and as my husband calls it, I sometimes exhibit a “moony mood.” He thinks I am lunatic, but I really just have uncontrollable mood swings, which could also be linked to the moon (don’t worry I am reading up on that next). After letting Chödrön’s teachings sit with me awhile longer, I experienced another ding, ding moment: my deepest stress gremlins are brought on by my own mother.
Growing up, I can say I had a good childhood – I participated in the extracurricular activities I wanted, went to great schools and had a fun social life, but I also observed very strict rules enforced by my mother. It is when I became an adult that the tables turned in our relationship. As I grew older, our roles switched into a somewhat protracted “Freaky Friday” scenario, with me taking on her role and she falling into the space usually reserved for a child. I am aware that as parents age they need more help navigating everyday life, but in my case, it is as if I have a child who has been incapable of caring for herself for the last 15 years – without any plausible explanation. I could sit here for hours and tell you about all the things that I have endured over the years because of my mother’s irresponsible behavior, but what I have realized is that those are her problems. I’m not denying that she has made them my problems, but I will no longer hold myself accountable for the way she acts or the things she does.
My fear initially arose from not being able to handle what was going on in my life as a consequence of her actions. I cannot change her behavior, so why waste my time and energy complaining about what she does? Chödrön teaches that we must have complete acceptance of ourselves, also known as maitri – a simple, direct relationship with the way we are. “Trying to fix ourselves is not helpful. It implies struggle and self-denigration. Denigrating ourselves is probably the major way that we cover our bodhichita.” Which in turn means, that I must completely accept who my mother is. As unnerving as she may be, I must focus on being consistently compassionate with her. “The Places that Scare You” also highlights a practice called tonglen, which helps us to cope with overcoming these directed feelings. “Tonglen, or exchanging oneself for others, is another bodhichitta practice for activating loving-kindness and compassion. It refers to being willing to take in the pain and suffering of ourselves and others and to send out happiness to us all.”
While reading the chapter on tonglen, I felt like the words were screaming at me to wake up and make a change. The following excerpt was particularly touching:
“For example, perhaps we are practicing tonglen because we want to help our ailing mother. But somehow our own reactive emotions – guilt, fear, or pent-up anger – arise and seem to block a genuine exchange. At the point we can shift our focus and start breathing in our conflicted feelings, using our personal pain as a link with other people who feel shut down and afraid. Opening our hearts to stuck emotions has the power to clear the air and also benefit our mother.”
I mean damn…that struck my heart in a tender place. I would also like to note that my mother called me not too long after I read this chapter, lamenting of wanting to return to the US because she is feeling depressed. If it were the “pre ‘The Places that Scare You’ Roki,” I would have just shrugged it off as though she, assuming the victim role, was begging for money to travel to L.A.. Rather, in an attempt to channel Chödrön’s teachings, I told her to go. However, I still challenged her (it is still very natural for me to do so) by suggesting that she purchase her own ticket. This challenge was unsuccessful as she responded that she couldn’t afford the cost of the flight. Digging deep into my compassion compartment, I ultimately obliged.
It may be a small step towards achieving my bodhichitta, but facing my fears head on is my new mantra. Feeling all the feels, working through them and just being open. Communication will be my savior – it may drive my husband crazy, but he continuously asks me to tell him what I am thinking, so in a way he’s begging for it. So Pretty Birds, take that leap of faith and face the things that scare you by responding with compassion. Not only is this approach more rewarding than being angry, but you expend less energy by not harboring ire. I leave you with this final quote: “The synonym for total fearlessness is full enlightenment – wholehearted, open-minded interaction with our world.”
Image by Vanja Vukelić