Jack Kornfield’s book, No Time Like the Present, contains insights related to our Dharma practice. Tonight is the fifth in a series of Dharma talks that present highlights from each chapter. Chapter five is titled “Fear of Freedom” and begins with a quotation by Jean-Paul Sartre: “People often prefer a very limited, punishing regime—rather than face the anxiety of freedom.”
Aside from having practiced as a monk with renowned Buddhist Masters in Thailand and India, Jack is trained as a clinical psychologist. He is one of the pioneers who are integrating Western psychological theories and methods with Buddhist philosophy.
He notes that freedom entails both exhilarating joy and unnerving fear of the unknown. A rabbit escaping from the protection of its cage must watch out for predatory hawks. Many veterans of war admit that they redeploy to fight in war zones because it is harder to stay home and take responsibility for the choices of civilian life.
Jack points out that often fear of freedom is linked to unresolved trauma from childhood. In times of danger, accident or conflict, our reptilian brain’s “flight, flight or freeze” mechanism is activated. The human survival instinct is so strong that we shift into an automatic protective response. At the time of trauma, our conscious mind doesn’t fully register the overwhelming experience. Instead, traumatic memories can be held in the body, where they can block our ability to love or to take action.
Traumatized people may become like the bear pacing back and forth in her enclosure for 15 years at a zoo in California. Even after the zoo expanded the habitat and created a spacious area for roaming around trees and a pond, the bear continued to pace back and forth on the same familiar, limited path.
To free ourselves from trauma, we need to find a source of inner stability so that we can face our pain and fear. When I am anxious, I find it soothing to connect with a place in my body that feels calm and strong. I usually sense my feet touching the ground or place a hand on my heart. For moments of fear, Jack suggests invoking a memory of feeling safe and free in a special spot in nature or with a beloved grandparent. To avoid being overwhelmed it helps to have the support of a trusted ally. With some inner stability and support to approach trauma, we can gradually feel its pain, listen to its story, and release where it is held in the body.
Resolving trauma requires patience and willingness to repeatedly experience and process what is unfinished. In my book A Silent Cure, I describe my reconnection with pre-verbal trauma during a month-long retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. For a while, I was inundated with early sensorial memories, reliving sensations and emotions from a period when my parents left me as a toddler for six weeks in the care of my maternal grandmother and a brusquely efficient nanny.
In the safe container of the retreat, Jack and a female colleague served as compassionate parental figures as I experienced regression, disintegration, healing, and re-integration. Years of practicing Insight or Vipassana meditation helped me consciously track surfacing body sensations, emotions, and thoughts in the midst of working through feelings of fear and abandonment. At the retreat’s end, I emerged strengthened, with a sense of renewal, forgiveness and gratitude for the blessings in my life.
The fear of freedom runs very deep and may stem from a sense of unworthiness. Jack suggests practicing self-compassion to heal from shame and self-judgment. Self-compassion is grounded in mindfulness, a clear, nonjudgmental awareness of whatever arises, including self-hatred.
Awareness can begin by simply noticing how mental states like unworthiness feel in the body, noting the pain that unwholesome states carry, related emotions like anxiety, grief or fear, and any associated stories and dramas. Most of us have many ideas and idealized expectations about how we should be, and we judge ourselves severely instead of taking care of ourselves and loving the essence of who we truly are.
The next step is to infuse the respectful presence of mindfulness with tender compassion for all the pain and suffering that we bear. Sometimes it is helpful to recall the first times that we learned these painful thoughts and patterns, and to imagine tenderly holding ourselves as a small child.
After establishing some self-compassion, we can reflect upon our common humanity. Like all human beings, we will encounter what the Buddha called the “Eight Worldly Winds” of pleasure and pain, praise and blame, success and failure, and joy and sorrow. We can remember that many other people around the globe are experiencing similar struggles. We are part of a web of life, so we don’t need to hold on so tightly to old, outdated habits. With compassion, we can build an empowered, healthy, loving life.
Gandhi declared, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” Zen Master Dogen used to joke that life is “one continuous mistake.” Sometimes we limit our own freedom because we think it will overwhelm us or because we don’t think that we deserve it. We may fear that our ego will lead us astray or that we may suffer an embarrassing defeat.
But we all stumble. In the regular rhythm of life, we falter and then learn from our mistakes. Sometimes we have inflated visions for our future, and other times we feel inadequate, afraid of making a wrong choice.
I try to follow Jack’s recommendation to listen to my heart and my body as well as my head. Then I can experiment, take a step into the unknown, learn, discover and grow. I am learning to accept my mistakes as part of the process. All I can do is to act with my best intentions, recognizing that I can’t control the outcome.
Nobody has lived your life before. It is an adventure worth taking. Our lives are unpredictable, but we do have choices. We are free to respond, moment by moment. As Jack says, “fear is often excitement holding its breath.”
Can we allow ourselves to sense life’s vitality and to respond with our whole spirit? Freedom offers us an opportunity to live fully each day, true to our own innate gifts. We can choose to be joyful amidst inner and outer freedom.
Now we’ll try an adaptation of Jack’s guided meditation called “Entering Difficulty with an Open Mind and an Open Heart” (pp. 92-96).
Sit comfortably with closed eyes.
Allow your breath to settle and return to the present moment.
Now picture an ongoing difficulty in your life that involves one or more people.
Remember what it is like when you are in the midst of this difficulty. With your mind’s eye, notice as many details as possible. Where are you? Who is with you? Are you sitting, standing, speaking or acting?
Now, from a place of safety, become aware of how you feel in this situation.
Notice the emotions and states of mind that you are experiencing.
Notice your level of bodily tension or discomfort.
Observe how you usually react in that situation.
Imagine what everyone else is doing or saying in the difficult situation.
Be mindful of any strong feelings that are present, and name them gently to yourself: “Fear, fear… hurt, hurt… frustration, frustration….”
With great kindness, notice the vulnerability beneath all these strong feelings.
Name whatever feeling is arising, and hold it in loving awareness.
In the midst of this difficulty, if you are indoors, imagine hearing a knock on the door. If you are outside, visualize or sense a figure walking towards you.
Excuse yourself for a moment, and greet the approaching figure.
Discover that you are facing a luminous being, embodying great compassion, understanding, and courage.
Let yourself be surprised by who shows up for you.
It might be Buddha or Kwan Yin, Mother Mary or Jesus, Gandhi or a wise grandparent, or some other being representing wisdom and compassion.
Imagine that this luminous being speaks to you, with a warm and caring smile, “Are you having a hard time? Let me help you. I’ll show you how I would handle this situation. Lend me your body. I will enter it and look like you, while you become invisible and follow me. Nobody will notice that I’m taking your place.”
Follow the luminous being back to the difficult situation. Notice what states of heart and mind they bring to this difficulty. Be aware of how the luminous being listens and responds wisely and compassionately. Let yourself learn valuable lessons.
When the luminous being has completed what is possible to accomplish, exit the situation together. Sense the being returning your body to you and resuming a luminous form.
Before departing, the luminous being offers you a gift, a clear symbol of exactly what you need to help with the difficult situation. Receive the gift and reflect on its meaning. Then the luminous being whispers into your ear a few words of advice. Imagine hearing those words. After receiving the gift and the words of advice, thank the helpful figure.
Bow and bid each other farewell. Open your eyes and return to the present.
Share with a partner your gift and your words of advice from wisdom within you.