The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
~ Jalal al-din Rumi
My grandfather used to cite a Yiddish proverb about guests. The English translation was something like, “Fish and guests begin to stink up the house after two weeks.” I’d like to be able to openly welcome the guest of fear whenever it appears on my doorstep, but sometimes it seems like it takes over the “house” of my mind and I feel paralyzed by its power.
I know that I have a choice in how I respond to my fear. I could spin out on mental strategies that usually revolve around how I can stay safe. Or I could stay for a while with the fear itself and apply some mindfulness to investigate it. Charlotte Joko Beck advises:
Look at fear as a scientist might, with the curiosity of just wanting to discover what it is. The practice, whenever fear arose, is to ask simply, ‘What is this?’ The answer always lies in the physical experience of the moment.
When fear the guest takes over the house of my mind, it also invades my body. I can feel the fear with every trembling, shallow breath. I can feel the fear kicking my heart into a fast and furious beat. My muscles take on an armored stance, contracted in a futile effort to defend me from “something bad.”
Pema Chödrön says, “Emotion can’t proliferate without our internal conversations.” She wrote in “The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times:”
The practice is to let the thoughts go and connect directly with the energy, asking yourself, “Who am I without these thoughts?” What we do with meditation practice is simpler than that, but I consider it equally daring. When emotional distress arises uninvited, we let the story line go and abide with the energy. This is a felt experience, not a verbal commentary on what is happening. We can feel the energy in our bodies. If we can stay with it, neither acting it out nor repressing it, it wakes us up.
I’m in my 38th week of pregnancy right now. Friends have recommended certain books, like Ina Mays Guide to Childbirth. Reading the book would lessen my fears about giving birth, they promised. There were interesting stories and useful tips in the book. But it didn’t help me to feel any less afraid of things “going wrong” (I’m not afraid of pain, but rather complications arising during childbirth or afterward). If anything, the chapter in Ina Mays book on maternal mortality and morbidity triggered a number of new fears in me.
I think it is hard for people who have not experienced serious trauma to understand what it is like for others who have. For example, how hard could it be to sit in a hospital room for fifteen minutes? It was nearly overwhelming for me a month ago when we toured our local delivery ward with our birthing class. I’ve experienced so much medical trauma in hospital rooms, and years of therapy and mindfulness practice have helped, but I still have some symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Thankfully, I had a chance to go back there a week or so later and sit in the room on my terms. I listened to music and meditations that helped me to stay present, so that my mind stopped chasing after strategies to stay safe.
So I go back to the simple teachings on how to “be” with fear, or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, how to take care of it. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in “Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life:”
In the case of fear, for example, you bring out your mindfulness, look at your fear, and recognize it as fear. You know that fear springs from yourself and that mindfulness also springs from yourself. They are both in you, not fighting, but one taking care of the other.
The second step is to become one with the feeling. It is best not to say, “Go away, Fear. I don’t like you. You are not me.” It is much more effective to say, “Hello, Fear, How are you today?” Then you can invite the two aspects of yourself, mindfulness and fear, to shake hands as friends and become one. Doing this may seem frightening, but because you know that you are more than just your fear, you need not be afraid. As long as mindfulness is there, it can chaperone your fear. The fundamental practice is to nourish your mindfulness with conscious breathing, to keep it there, alive and strong. Although your mindfulness may not be very powerful in the beginning, if you nourish it, it will become stronger. As long as mindfulness is present, you will not drown in your fear. In fact, you begin transforming it the very moment you give birth to awareness in yourself…
You calm your feeling just be being with it, like a mother tenderly holding her crying baby. Feeling his mother’s tenderness, the baby will calm down and stop crying.
When I first heard Thich Nhat Hanh talk about embracing difficult feelings, some 12 years ago, I instantly resonated with how gentle his instructions were. We don’t “shoo away” fear or use mind tricks to convince ourselves it doesn’t matter. We hold it tenderly, with much kindness and love.
Tara Brach also recommends that we contact the source of our love when we feel overwhelmed by fear. In a brilliant talk about fear, Brach gives examples of how we can hold our fear with love and awareness. Like Joko Beck and Chödrön, Brach advises us to go back to our bodies and experience our fears there. By touching into the moment-to-moment experiences of fear in the body, we stop the strategizing, the planning, the catastrophizing, and the sense of overwhelm that often takes over when we get lost in our thoughts and worst-case scenarios.
Brach talked about how we fear things going wrong in a way that we can’t handle, and we have a lot of beliefs that activate our fears. I reflected on these statements for a while. I’m afraid of things going wrong — of severe complications that are life-threatening to me or the baby. But if something like that did happen, would I be able to handle it? I lived through life-threatening situations when I had severe Crohn’s colitis, and even if those situations were traumatizing, I was able to “handle them” and grow from them.
These last few lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “In Blackwater Woods,” speak to me:
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Fear reminds us just how much we love ourselves and others. If we could really touch deeply into fear, we might find that at its heart, there is an ocean of love.
Resources for working with fear:
- Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life – book by Ezra Bayda
- Finding the Juice Inside of Fear – a talk by Tara Brach
- No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life – book by Thich Nhat Hanh
- No Death, No Fear, Part I – talk by Thich Nhat Hanh
- No Death, No Fear, Part II – talk by Thich Nhat Hanh
- No Death, No Fear, Part III – talk by Thich Nhat Hanh
- No Death, No Fear, Part IV – talk by Thich Nhat Hanh
- No Death, No Fear, Part V – talk by Thich Nhat Hanh
- No Death, No Fear, Part VI – talk by Thich Nhat Hanh
- Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life – book by Thich Nhat Hanh
- Smile at Fear: Awakening the True Heart of Bravery – book by Chogyam Trungpa
- Smiling at Fear: Pema Chödrön – article by Alison Rose Levy
- Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears – book by Pema Chödrön
- The Fear Book – book by Cheri Huber
- The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times – book by Pema Chödrön
- Tonglen Meditation – talk by Pema Chödrön