Transforming our fear:
the power of simple awareness.
“In childhood,” writes the contemporary poet Jane Hirshfield, “great happiness and profound grief run close to the surface.”
Adult life tamps these flarings of feeling down, so that practical tasks might be
done. My poems in recent years have sought increasingly to notice joy, not least because, as the world has darkened, I’ve needed joy’s restorative counterweight. But the poems have also increasingly opened to grief, bewilderment, even to fear. The poems want – I want – to become the trembling compass of a full human life.”
If we know how to greet what we find difficult, we reduce our suffering and need not be afraid of being overwhelmed. Greeting each moment with simple awareness, we clear a space for peace and joy to arise within “the trembling compass of a full human life.”
When a difficult thought or feeling arises, we can quickly try to push it away or cover it up. But in meditation, we allow what is difficult to be there if it happens to be there. The awareness we cultivate helps us acknowledge our fear, our pain, and greet it in a way which can immediately bring some relief and peace. We notice its presence and don’t struggle with it.
Quietly acknowledging what we find difficult, without struggle, allows our relationship with fear to be transformed.
Katy (we’ll call her) is a very talented senior leader in a local council. Having built a strong reputation in her field of expertise, Katy is a regular contributor to specialist publications and a popular key-note speaker at conferences.
The arrival of COVID-19 and series of national lockdowns didn’t just mean cancelled conferences and a switch to largely working from home, but triggered the onset of frequent fearful thoughts which occasionally coalesced into bouts of debilitating anxiety.
As soon as an initial fearful thought arose, her thinking mind would grasp hold of it and produce a stream of fearful reactive thoughts: “Why has this happened to me?” “Why am I so stupidly weak!?”
As so often happens, Katy’s reactive thoughts seemed to intensify and grow louder in the dark, quiet hours of the night: “This is getting worse and worse!” “I might lose my job, my house and everything I love!”
Up to this point, Katy’s familiarity with meditation extended to a breathing exercise after yoga classes and a light body-scan during the occasional wellbeing session at a holiday resort. Now Katy’s spiritual well-being became a central concern to her. She attended an introductory meditation retreat, started coming to weekly group practice and established a daily routine of morning and evening meditation.
Katy quickly came to see how fast she could react to an initial thought or feeling and create mental suffering.
“It’s like when you wake up in the night and want to go back to sleep. You start thinking about going to sleep, then about how you’re not going to sleep, then about how not sleeping is going to ruin your day – all of which is pretty much guaranteed to keep you awake!”
She recognised the difference between an initial thought or feeling and the tortuous reactive commentaries she had been wrapping around them and trapping herself within.
“I realised there was little I could do to stop the first scary thought coming into my mind, but there was a great deal I could do to change my relationship with it. I suddenly saw how I’d been torturing myself. Filling my mind with fearful thoughts about fear was far worse than the initial thought or feeling.”
In a remarkably short time, Katy learned a great deal about how to greet initial fearful thoughts and feelings with compassionate stillness. Simply noticing their presence and quietly turning her attention to reciting her prayer word with the flow of her breath, she discovered she could come home to a place that is always peaceful, always available, and rest there.
Quietly acknowledging what we find difficult, without struggle, allows our relationship with fear to be transformed. In the words of Martin Laird, “whatever it is in us that grasps and craves is soothed and calmed and begins to loosen its grip.”
In practical terms, this may mean falling asleep with more ease, surprising ourselves at how well we led that terrifying meeting or enjoying that coffee with someone who we put off seeing for weeks. We discover ourselves becoming more present, more available for the gift of our life in ways we might never have expected.
Quietly, almost imperceptibly, we are restored to ourselves. And as this happens, we are restored to each other.
Greeting each moment with simple awareness, we clear a space for peace and joy to arise within “the trembling compass of a full human life.”
 Beshara Magazine, Poetry in the Contemporary World: Conversations with Jane Hirshfield’ https://besharamagazine.org/arts-literature/jane-hirshfield-poetry-conversation/
 Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness and Contemplation (Oxford University Press, 2011, p.72).