Issue 168 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


I just read D. Patrick Miller’s essay on fear [“Climbing the Stone Face of Fear,” Issue 164]. I’d like to tell you about an exploration of fear that’s been very useful to me.

I was afraid of the dark — or rather, of not being able to see. I’m extremely attached to seeing, and in darkness I felt hemmed in, bound, and the taunting of imagined bogeymen could make me frantic with terror. Tired of the limitation and suffering it caused me, I decided to work on my fear.

At the time, I was at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. The front door there faces sunny fields and mostly deciduous woods, but the back door opens on a dense pine forest — towering, dark trees, set to murmuring and groaning by any breeze, and roaring, on windy nights, in a way that seems to deepen the darkness as it obscures other sounds.

I decided to go out in search of my fear, to hunt it. After the evening meditation, I would go out into the night and follow the dark path into the forest. There I’d stand still and, with an attitude of intense curiosity, just be afraid, feeling the fear arise, noting the sensations it caused, watching the child inside me cringe and shriek, and seeing that I didn’t die of the feeling.

At first, entering the very edge of the forest yielded an excellent sample of fear to work with. On subsequent nights I had to go deeper and deeper into the pines to find my fear. Night after night I went out.

Over time, my attitude changed, so that on especially spooky nights, when the moon was covered by flying clouds and the pines howled in the wind, I’d step outside thinking gleefully, “Ah, a great night for a fear hunt!” and, chuckling at myself, I’d set out to see what I could find.

One night I found myself standing deep in the night in perfect ease, realizing the joyous freedom of being able to experience the magical beauty of the forest on a stormy night. How wonderful!

A few years later, I took a voice class chiefly because the idea of singing in front of others terrified me. This was a group class, and we each had to solo in front of all the others. The teacher explained, “The feelings you label ‘stage fright’ are the same as those you call ‘excitement.’ It’s all in your interpretation.” This reminded me to search for the fear in me and really feel it; I found that the sensations caused by nervousness and dread were very close indeed to excitement and thrill. Once I understood this, I could enjoy the adrenalin rush, the high of performing. Now my voice, freed from fear, is a real source of pleasure.

As Carlos Castaneda quotes don Juan as saying, “When you feel you’re being hunted, become the hunter.” In an inner sense, this involves being willing to feel an unwanted emotion. Actively hunt it, take it by the ears, look in its face. When terrified, people cover their faces not to protect themselves, but to avoid seeing the object of fear.

To make a conscious decision to experience and to confront what one habitually flinches from is tremendously empowering. One may not have control over a situation; one may not have control over one’s feeling (it’s impossible to will fearlessness). But when one chooses to open to and accept fear, that choice is very close to courage.

I’m brave because I’m not afraid to be afraid.

Heidi Renteria Santa Cruz, California

In regard to Susan Thesenga’s letter on the paths of transcendence and transformation [Issue 166]: when life is seen as a path, we never arrive. We study the past, calculate the future, and value the present moment only as incoming data for our continuous analysis. Work within is simply the ego working on the ego; the center remains fixed on ourselves. While circumstances change, the essence remains the same, untouched. Self-analysis is self-involvement, born out of fear. It is calculations to guard against the future, designed to get us through life as if life were a chore; therefore it becomes a chore. How can we meet life spontaneously if we set up all our reactions according to calculations based on our fears and desires, and our experiences, good and bad?

“Be happy now — without reason,” say the Zen Buddhists. Abandon all strategies. Life is lived by letting go, not by grabbing the reins all the tighter and steering to the positive side, into the right direction; not by obsessively examining ourselves, judging to see if we are measuring up, progressing, growing in the right way, keeping to the path. All that hard work leaves so little time to live. “The world is won by those who let it go,” according to the Tao te Ching, “but when we try and try, the world is then beyond the winning.”

Susan’s arguments are all well thought-out and persuasive; her ideas all add up, make sense, fit precisely. But they are getting in the way. Give them up! Let them go!

Brian Darnell Crawford, Georgia

As soon as my five-year-old grandson can read, I am buying him a subscription to The Sun. I have a feeling he is in touch with you.

He told his mother, upon viewing a weeping willow tree, that it made him sad. She asked him why. He explained it made him think of Gram (his great-grandmother), who had a weeping willow tree. She pointed out that he was two and a half the last time he was there and he certainly remembered very well.

“I remember a lot,” he said. “I have a lot of memories. I sew them up with thread. Sometimes they fall out, but most of the time I keep them. When I run out of thread, that’s when Gram dies. And when I run out of thread for Savta [that’s me], then Savta dies, and when I run out of thread for Poppy [his other grandfather], that’s when Poppy dies.”

This same child told his mother, “I have great remembering. I remember being in your tummy when you were pregnant. I didn’t know any words — well, I knew one, but I couldn’t speak it yet. Want to know what that word was?” She said yes. “It was hungry. But I didn’t speak it until much later — after I came out and learned to talk. . . .”

P. Abrams St. Thomas
Virgin Islands

I wrote the following in response to the piece by Brian Knave in the US section on Beauty [Issue 163].

Brian, I think you misunderstand the nature of creating your own reality; it is not that beauty inside creates beauty outside — that’s too simple. It has a good deal more to do with spiritual intention — what any given soul came here for and how the body serves to accomplish that goal.

There is no need to feel sorry for souls trapped in misshapen bodies — those souls are beings who set for themselves a challenge of their own choosing. I have often suspected that some very advanced beings live in those bodies. Have you never experienced the unwavering devotion of a child with Down’s Syndrome? I know I am not so far along spiritually that I can radiate love as steadily as they do.

I also used to think that my body did not reflect the beauty inside me, until I realized that the people I want in my life are those focused enough on the inner self that my real beauty is apparent to them. If I am letting who I am show, then my ordinariness, my extra weight, my scruffy country clothes, all ask, “Can you see past this to the me, the being who lives in here?” It works quite effectively to weed out those who are caught by external appearance.

If I observe those whom I have chosen for lovers and friends in my forty-four years, I find few have been traditionally beautiful; all have been far more beautiful within than they have ever given themselves credit for. It is just a matter of readjusting your gaze. Look within until you can see who is really there. The beauty will take your breath away.

Janie Pulsifer Clinton, Washington

Isabella Russell-Ides sure has got Michael Meade’s number [Correspondence, Issue 166]. I ought to have guessed this gender stuff is really “MOTHER DREAD.” “I could almost smell his fear of women,” Isabella writes. Get out of your head, Isabella. If you think drumming produces repression, you’ve never spent time with a man just back from a week with Meade or Robert Bly. Men are wounded. Your ridicule doesn’t help. They are starving for openness with other men. That openness doesn’t precipitate “too much fear and anger”; it precipitates an awareness of the fear and anger men already have, which has been eating them from inside, poisoning their relationships. If you think you can find a man who has no problem with his mother, I wish you luck. But don’t be surprised when he leaves you after you’ve supported him for five years. As for all those men going limp before those lush velvet folds, that’s your fantasy. You might want to take a look at it while you’re waiting around for the poets and painters to draw you a picture of the fertile goddess and her consort.

Wayne Liebman Los Angeles, California
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