Zen versus Fear

by Monica Ross

I’ve observed this about some people, including myself. We might be going through several life stressors and then maybe just a couple rise to the surface as say the top two.  Maybe we lost a job and so being able to pay the mortgage is of primary concern. Maybe a loved one, like a caregiver came down with a terminal illness and so the primary concern is spending as much time as we can with that person in their last days.  Maybe the concern is meeting a new friend who lives long distance and whether or not there is anyway to make the friendship work.  Maybe there was a breakup and then the concern becomes how to move on and find a new best friend.

What I see is that there is a lot of work and effort and mental energy at times spent on making the thing that we don’t want to have happen from happening. We don’t want to lose our homes as a result of job loss, or lose that caregiver or friend, or former lover.

It’s like a dichotomy becomes set in our brains—that which we hope will happen and that which we fear and dread. Sometimes it helps to back off from all that thinking and look at it like this...even if the dreaded thing happened--that thing that signals some kind of downfall or demise, even if that thing happened--you, me, we’re all going to be okay.

It’s hard in the moment or thick of it to shift perspective, but it’s so true. There really is absolutely nothing to fear because whatever that thing is—we can handle it. So that even something that looks on the surface like failure is really just something that moves us further along and makes us stronger.

This shift in perspective relieves pressure and makes all that time spent in between events much more pleasant.  It's amazing the amount of time people will spend clenching fists or teeth or digging heels and living in anxiety, as if all the worrying itself is a way of working on or through things.

I agree that the worrying and mental space that thoughts sometimes take up make as feel as though we're working on or through something.  And I'm a firm believer in problem solving, but there is a difference between problem solving and rumination which is getting stuck thinking about the causes and consequences of events and the what if's instead of the what to do about it.

If we didn’t make mistakes, we’d have no experiences to learn from. I see most people as really just trying to do their best in life. And at each moment we’re acting within our level of awareness and consciousness at the time that we’re making a decision--whatever that decision may be.  And so we can also forgive ourselves for making bad decisions.

Sometimes we think we won’t be able to sit with whatever uncomfortable feelings we’re going through—the anxiety, but we actually can. I had a close friend once, a professor who I rented a room from in San Diego for several years in my 20s.  He taught Sociology at San Diego State University and was a family friend.

Every morning he sat for at least 30 minutes and meditated.  Which I know is every stereotypical thing you might think of a Southern Californian.  But there was a koan that he liked. And it's stuck with me over all these years.

A koan is basically a Zen riddle or puzzle to reflect on. It goes like this...

“The story I’m about to tell you, originally told by the Buddha in a sutra, concerns a Zen Master who, while out walking one day, is confronted by a ferocious, man-eating tiger. He slowly backs away from the animal, only to find that he is trapped at the edge of a high cliff; the tiger snarls with hunger, and pursues the Master. His only hope of escape is to suspend himself over the abyss by holding onto a vine that grows at its edge. As the Master dangles from the cliff, two mice – one white and one black – begin to gnaw on the vine he is clutching on. If he climbs back up, the tiger will surely devour him, if he stays then there is the certain death of a long fall onto the jagged rocks. The slender vine begins to give way, and death is imminent. Just then the precariously suspended Zen Master notices a lovely ripe wild strawberry growing along the cliff’s edge. He plucks the succulent berry and pops it into his mouth. He is heard to say: “This lovely strawberry, how sweet it tastes.”

It’s a great metaphor for life. In those moments where we may feel like we’re caught between disaster and death, look around and reach out for the strawberries.  Life is too short really for anything else.