Because we are afraid, we develop all kinds of habits which over time lead to addictions. Human beings are funny like that–We look for strength in the things that weaken us…
~~Pema Chodron, Dharma Teacher
I took this picture over Labor Day weekend while hiking the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in New Mexico. For those of you with eyes over 40, that is a cow patty with flowers growing out of it. You have to understand the enormity of the canyon and the area in which we were hiking to fully appreciate this image–ginormous doesn’t begin to capture it. The CDT runs from Mexico to Canada, it’s hundreds of miles long. We were in the Rio Chamas Wilderness section, just a few miles from the CDT trail head in New Mexico. There are countless acres and square miles in which this flower could have planted itself, but it chose to land in cow poo and stay there, to use the inherent qualities of the excrement for fertilizer and grow just a bit taller and stronger than the surrounding flowers. Let us take some instruction from this brave little wildflower– it was not afraid to get down in the muck and take root in order to grow and thrive in an otherwise harsh desert environment.
This is the area in which we were hiking…gorgeous, yes. But fully sunny, hot and dry during the day, chilly at night. Deep in canyons surrounded by mountains in the Chamas River Wilderness Area, about an hour outside of Santa Fe, 13 miles back on a red dirt road then walking toward Ojitos Canyon on the CDT…Desolate but full of Life, a blank slate on which nature and Life can assert itself to grow and thrive.
So that little flower could have inserted herself anywhere. But Life doesn’t necessarily choose what is easy, it chooses what is Life-Giving. And sometimes Life acknowledges that shit makes great fertilizer. But the truth is that as humans, we fear the pain, the stink, the stickiness, appearances of “how this will look,” and so we go for what seems easy in the moment, rather than what might actually feed us and give us more life. But choosing the easier, softer way may not always be life-affirming; if we are not discerning, it can also lead to addictions and much more pain. Fear can make us choose things which in the moment seem easier–it seems easier in the moment to avoid tears and pain. But in doing so, we often strengthen habits which just lead to more pain and fear and so on and on the cycle goes. The biggest obstacle to true healing is our fear, because what usually happens in the middle of big healing experiences is that our fear arises and we shut down or check out. Yet we can also use that same fear to move us forward or feed us, to strengthen us and lead us to seeking out a new way of being. Discernment is the key here. (I recently wrote a more in-depth post on this concept in the Spirituality Blog called Spiritual Fruits or Just Nuts? You can read that here if you are interested. )
I think there is something really powerful and encouraging about knowing that since the beginning of time, humans have felt fear and elation, grief and joy, happiness and sadness, compassion and rage, resentment and forgiveness, hope and despair. The list of feelings and their opposites could go on and on, but the truth is we are not so different than our ancestors. All of the Religions of the Book and all of the sacred scriptures of each religion address this…each time the Angel of God comes to a prophet or recipient of Divine Love or Intervention, the first thing the Angel says is, “Be not afraid.” Not, “Hey Joe, it’s your lucky day!” But, “Fear not!” Fear is natural and human, but so is love. So is compassion. So is forgiveness and grace. It’s all true at once, and so we have to choose. We have to choose to heal. We have to choose to love. We have to choose to move forward in our fear, and of course that is the hardest time to choose something. But it can be done, and you don’t have to do it alone.
Humans have always divided off into groups or tribes and have always liked to talk about how civilized we are and how that group over there is so wrong or bad..you can see it now between Christians and Muslims, Muslims and Jews, Republicans and Democrats and on and on. But the real enemy, if there is an enemy at all, is our fear. Our fear of change, our fear of loss, our fear of success, our fear of failure, our fear of abandonment, our fear of getting what we want or not getting what we want, fear of really living, fear of what “they” will think, fear of how it will look if we ask for help or tell the truth of our lives, and on and on it goes. But if we get down to the basics of life, a Muslim parent in Afghanistan wants the same health and safety for his children as an American Baptist parent wants for his kids. We all want to be loved, to be nourished and to have happiness and freedom from want or suffering. We all want to be free of the things that bind us, we all want to feel safe and happy and know those whom we love are safe and happy as well.
There has been a lot of recent press about 9/11 and our fear based reactions to that date, to that event. What people fail to remember is that Iran was the first country to send condolences to the United States after the Twin Towers fell. Yes, Iran. Not Great Britain or Israel, but Iran. They were the first country to hold a prayer gathering and other Muslim countries quickly followed suit, because in that moment we were not enemies without official relations, we were all just human beings, all feeling the horror of the enormity of that loss. Human compassion was able to override fear and mistrust and bring forth compassion and prayer. Nine years later mistrust reigns again, but in the deepest moments of need, compassion can always take root. Like that flower, Life can always find a way to grow through the pain, through the fear, through what looks like shit, and come out smelling like a rose on the other side. Life just does that, because Life is rooted in Love, in our Oneness, in our connection.
The danger comes when we decide to root into our fears and just create more fertilizer in our life without ever really planting good seeds of compassion, growth, love or humility. The seeds we plant will always grow–of this there is no doubt. And poo makes great fertilizer regardless of the seeds, but as any gardener knows, too much fertilizer can also kill the plant. So when in fear, I have some choices…Will I ask for help? Will I be discerning about which seeds I am sowing? Resentment seeds seem to germinate faster than seeds of compassion, but both need fertilizer to grow. So which seeds am I planting today, which seeds am I feeding? What do I want this garden of my life to look like in a few months? Because have no doubt–the seeds you plant today will be harvested tomorrow. You can call it karma or what comes around goes around, you can call it fair or unfair, you can call it what you want and what you call it won’t change what it is: your responsibility. It us up to each of us to choose which seeds we will nurture and feed, because we all carry the seeds of hate and love, fear and faith, hope and despair within us. We can choose. I can choose. You can choose. It is not always easy, but it is always possible. This does not mean shutting off feelings, but really honoring them, inviting them in like a wise guest and accepting the gifts they offer us. It means we can choose which seeds we will cultivate over time, what we will feed, what we will harvest in the future. If you plant apple seeds you are not going to get pear trees, that’s just a fact.
The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron speaks of smiling at our fear and of embracing it, and speaks of the Buddhist saying,
Place your fearful mind in the cradle of loving-kindness…
It is a beautiful image of holding our own pain and fear with the same gentle loving-kindness we would extend to a beloved child. Fear is not the enemy. The “other” is not the enemy. What we truly wrestle with is our own inner demons, our own fears, our own sense of inadequacy. Our fear of not having enough makes us cheat or lie, steal or withhold, go too far or not far enough, hold back or shut down, hurt ourselves and others. Interestingly, the definition of a fully enlightened being is one who is fearless because they are intimate with their fear. Not that they don’t have fear, but that they have smiled at it, befriended it, invited it in like a wise teacher and discussed its gifts over a cup of tea. The enlightened ones are fearless because they know the nature of fear and no longer fear their fear, not because they have managed to shut it down or off permanently. This I like very much, this I find tremendously encouraging.
So today, like that little flower, we can choose to plant seeds of growth and abundance, of rooting down into the people, places and things which help us grow, regardless of how it might look from the outside. Today we can choose to plant seeds of compassion and love, of forgiveness and loving-kindness and just stay with it, even if it feels or smells like shit in the moment. Today we can smile at fear…
If you would like to watch Ani Pema Chodron talk about Smiling at Fear, you can see a snippet of that video below.
Wishing everyone peace and blessings and the peace and joy that comes from knowing we are all One, even in our fears. Have a great day.