[As 2009 comes to a close, I wanted to re-post a blog I wrote earlier in the year. Actually, it's been updated a bit. Enjoy!]
Recently I had a dream that I was swimming across a lake that was filled with tall grass, so that I couldn't see in to the lake. I only saw blade after blade of thick, green reeds as I swam. I got halfway across the lake when I had the thought:
"Oh no! This is the lake that's filled with the poisonous snakes!"
I was filled with fear. And in the very next moment I thought:
"Well, you're already halfway across the lake. If you get bitten by a snake, so be it. If you die, so be it. You will meet whatever comes your way. Now keep swimming to the other side."
And I was suffused with calm. The fear completely left me. I swam the rest of the way feeling still, blissful and at peace. The swim was actually enjoyable. I made it to the other side, got out of the lake unharmed... and woke up.
For most of my life, fear ruled me. Every choice of action or inaction was driven by fear. You could say I was fear's bitch. Several years ago, I began to slowly open my eyes to this way of living and to choose differently. In 2006, I told myself to do things that scared me, rather than to do what I always did: avoid things that scare me. It was a practice. I started with seemingly benign things, like making a call to an old friend to ask for a favor or saying no to someone. Then things like speaking up or walking in to a party alone or trying a new food or doing stand-up comedy for the first time. I said yes more than I said no and I began to see that after each experience, I was still breathing, still intact...and a little more alive.
I continued the practice in to 2007, a year that seemed to summon fear over and over again. It was a year that was chock full of challenge: I left a decade-long relationship, which was perhaps the most excruciating choice I've ever had to make. I was homeless for five months, I started a new career path, I asked for help, I turned to myself for help and I kept getting up on stage as a comic. And through it all, I surprised myself. I began to see other things besides the fear. I saw I was resourceful, determined and resilient. And full of fear. But all those other things too!
And fear persisted. My old friend, fear, was always lurking and ever present. I wished it would go away. I tried not to look at it and I tried to will it away, hoping I'd never have to deal with it ever again. And then in 2008, my Buddhist teacher suggested I sit with my fear. Get to know it. Invite it in for tea. What?! That sounded like going on a long car ride with your worst enemy. Who would want to do that? But without even so much as a pause, I dived in.
I began to do some Tibetan Buddhist practices with my fear. All through the spring of that year, I called in and faced my demons; I experienced what shape they took, what they said to me and how it felt when they had hold of my heart and mind. I gave myself to them. And then my practices were interrupted by appendicitis, along with acute infections, two surgeries and a four month long recovery after which my doctor said I nearly died. Perhaps my demons had been brought to life and they were actually devouring me, like in my practices? My doctor had a different prognosis, but I felt as if something was being purged. And wouldn't you know: during that whole scary time dealing with intense pain, hospitals, nurses poking at me and my body rebelling and failing in many ways, I...felt...no...fear. It was as if I was swimming across a still, blue lake, present for every stroke, every breath and feeling peace. How was this possible? When I asked myself this, I saw that I had surrendered to whatever happened the entire time. So maybe surrender was an ingredient in this whole fear thing? Maybe I had kicked the fear addiction for good? After all, it was nowhere to be found.
No sooner had I realized the fear had gone, it came back. I was crushed! Wouldn't I reach a point where I'd no longer have to deal with fear? Aren't I trying to defeat fear? It certainly felt like it was trying to defeat me. And it came back even stronger, larger, more vivid than ever before. It haunted me day and night. This time, it had teeth. So I took my teacher's instructions - once again - to sit with the fear. And I did just that. I went on a meditation retreat where I sat on the cushion, called in my fear and then just sat in it, day after day, doing nothing to stop it or change it or fix it. I allowed it to simply be. I realized my fear of fear was what really tortured me. And also the fear. And the fear that the fear would return after the fear had left. How exhausting - one big fear sandwich! And so I simply surrendered to the fear. I let it do it's thing.
Fear is not a problem. There is nothing to be fixed or solved or changed. And, as the fabulous Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron says, "The same is true for any other experience we might have."
This past year - 2009 - I have taken more risks than I have in years. Risks like pushing myself in my writing and performing over and over again, and in speaking my truth to people who may not want to hear it. I've put myself in uncomfortable situations time and again. I've taken risks of the heart by letting go of people I love, welcoming in new people to love and learning to love in new ways. Every experience is just that: an experience. Not something from which to shield myself nor cling to.
So I have a different relationship with fear now. We have a dance, fear and I. When I feel it rising up, I welcome it. I let it run through my body in a hot wave, making my heart race and my palms sweat. My mind speeds up and I notice: "I am afraid." I am often in awe at it's strength and vividness. I respect it. I hear it. I taste it. I feel very, very alive. I don't try to control it, handle it, direct it or hang on to it. And somehow, as quickly as it rolls in...it rolls on out just like the tide leaving me softer, smoother. I experience the fear but I am not fused with it; it's not "my" fear. It's simply fear. And each time it comes, I say hello to it and keep on living my life anyway. And wouldn't you know? It tends to stick around for shorter amounts of time. I wouldn't call this fearlessness. I call it fearwithness. Fear mixed with awareness. I am living a life of fearwithness. Fear is no longer going to stop me. I'm in the lake and I'm going to keep on swimming.