This is a Senior Talk I gave at the Zen Center of Denver of 7/17/16, audio is embedded at the bottom of this page.
Written: I have been practicing Zen for approximately 16 years. With this experience, I wanted to share with you some of the things that have worked for me – if we can call it that – and some pitfalls I have fallen in to. In the hopes that you can identify with – or maybe if something resonates with you – you can provide me with some advice or support.
On my Zen journey, I have found that fear has been the most prevailing emotion for me – out of the ones I don’t necessarily like experiencing. This doesn’t make me unique of course – I wonder if this is the most common roadblock for people; and at the same time, the most fertile ground for practice.
In the summer between my 6th and 7th grade, I remember having a vivid thought-emotion. Looking back on it now, it was the first time I was aware of my fear and core-beliefs meeting at the same time together. I was in the kitchen looking up at the stairs thinking, “If I’m going to fit in, and have friends this upcoming year in middle school, I need to be a lot cooler and different than I am.” Now, this may seem trivial, but the reason this memory is so vivid is because it was accompanied with emotions of fear and even dread [anxiety]. I was nervous about being a 7th grader and my core-belief was telling me that I was lacking, that there was something wrong with me just how I was. Needless to say, I didn’t want the summer to end that year…
Looking through a Buddhist lens, we could say this was my first experience of separateness. I was painfully aware of myself as a separate entity that is now compared to others. For example, “other people are cooler than I am,” which can also mean: I am lacking, and there is something wrong with me etc. From the inevitable paradigm of a separate self, we all develop core-beliefs just like these.
Joko Beck is the only Zen teacher I have heard talk about core-beliefs. I am pretty sure she wasn’t trained as a psychologist or therapist, but her explanation of how they develop is consistent with current thought in the professional psychology/development field.
She basically says (I have added to it here): that as we develop as children, our parents will not always get it right with us. They can never be 100% attuned to our emotional and physical needs. As they miss the mark, we can’t blame them. We can’t and don’t blame them because they are omnipotent and thus, can’t be wrong. So we interpret miss-attunements (and internalize something like: there must be something wrong with me, I am unlovable – that is why I am not getting my needs met).
We also adapt to neglect with core-beliefs. Some people may internalize as a result of neglect that people are unreliable and no one can be trusted. Nevertheless, Joko Beck says that people usually have 3-4 variations of: I can’t do it, I am unlovable, there is something wrong with me etc. This is consistent with psychologist and researcher, Stan Tatkin, who also asserts that people usually have 3-4 core vulnerabilities. Our upbringing i.e. how attuned and caring our parents were, determines their pervasiveness. Thus, a difficult upbringing may lead to more prevalent negative core-beliefs.
I don’t know for sure if first, our core-beliefs trigger our fear, or if fear triggers core-beliefs. Either way, I don’t think it matters very much. We can also debate if thoughts cause emotions or if emotions cause thoughts. The point is, they both exist and there is a relation. The nice thing about Zen is, Zen isn’t as concerned with the etiology of these. Zen is concerned with practice and moving beyond core-beliefs and fear. As well as, moving beyond thoughts and emotions.
Just don’t get stuck in fear and core-beliefs too long or else as Wu-Men says, you are a ghost clinging to grasses and trees. However, don’t deny them either, they are part of self and you can’t just jump over or bypass your-self. They don’t define you, but they are your responsibility.
The separate self brings baggage (that is an understatement). Since the separate self is a fixed entity, it is compared to others i.e. so and so makes more money, or so and so has more clients, so and so charges more $ an hour, so and so has a really nice house etc… The separate self also needs protection, urns for acceptance, desires recognition, avoids discomfort, hopes things to be better etc. So, no wonder prevailing emotions of self are fear and self-doubt. The separate self has a lot of demands – and with life’s ups and downs, that view leads to inevitable disappointment after disappointment.
Meditation teacher and psychotherapist, Tara Brach says, “The primal mood of the separate self is fear.” The Buddha said, “Life is suffering.” Those are actually relieving to hear because if we experience fear and suffering, we are not fundamentally flawed. Other “important people” feel and experienced them.
Disappointment, fear, and suffering are inevitable when holding to self as a fixed entity. We often interpret our fear and suffering through the lens of our core-belief (I am unlovable, or flawed for example) and that perpetuates our fear and suffering. Our core beliefs love to provide a storyline of self-criticism to why we are experiencing those unpleasant emotions. If we drop the storyline and just experience whatever is occurring, that is how we lessen the grip of our core-beliefs and the idea of a separate-fixed-entity-self. That is how we lessen our suffering. The thing is… that is usually the last thing we want to do.
So, it is fun being human huh? If life were easy, we wouldn’t sit here cross-legged for an hour on Sunday mornings. We wouldn’t go on all-day sittings, or meditation retreats for six days – sitting for almost ten hours a day while missing time at work and time away from our families.
The thing is, those hours of sitting are worth it. If the separate self didn’t lead to problems or miss-attunements with reality, as well as chronic unsatisfactoryness we wouldn’t be here. We come here because we intuit that there is a way beyond the grievances of the small-self, the separate-self. We have all had experiences before or during Zen practice that have made us believe that. There have been cracks in the armor. For example, meeting old friends, being in your partner’s loving gaze, watching a beautiful sunset, hiking to the top of a mountain, rock-climbing, being completely emerged in a competition or sport, or a transformative Acid trip.
Back to Tara Brach, she says that the separate-self is like a space-suit self, that is, the space-suit is something we put on for protection but actually ends up blocking us from reality. Sitting meditation helps to drop the storyline that we run with – that perpetuates the armor and space-suit-self “protecting” us from reality.
Before I discuss the benefits of sitting and mindfulness, I would like to illustrate an ineffective way of managing fear and core-beliefs.
An ineffective way of managing those is to look for the antidote outwardly – a way of bolstering or adjusting the armor and the space-suit self. If I were to diagnosis myself traditionally, it would be with OCD or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. More simply, I could say, I have obsessively looked for armor to protect against anxiety and fear. I have gone through extravagant means to assuage my fears and anxieties – instead of simply being with them. Instead of simply being vulnerable. These fears and anxieties are always fueled by the core belief that there is something wrong with me, or I am lacking.
For example, I have spent many hours on the internet looking for assurance that I don’t have _____ disease or that condition (core belief: something is wrong with me). Or I haven’t had too much exposure to ______ cancer-causing chemical (something is wrong with me). The list could go on and on… One fear would subside for a while then another would take center stage. Living in my spacesuit, I was always trying to fix it outwardly. That is, find something or someone that would tell me I was OK and I didn’t have to worry.
It took me a while to realize that, “Hey I have done this before…” Or, “What fear is it this going to be this week, month or year?” I was not going to find lasting relief from fear looking outwardly. Even if I found a sufficient answer on the internet, it would only last for a short period of time. My active and fearful mind, what Tara Brach calls the “caffeinated squirrel mind” would find holes in the answers, or credibility issues with the source.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting carelessness. But, the excessive worry is not needed and is not productive. Stuck in a fear, worry, dread cycle fueled by core beliefs makes your world small. Our threat response becomes more sensitive, and we begin to see dangers everywhere. A great analogy of this phenomenon is: it is like your metal detector (threat detector/or nervous system) is not only picking up metals, but also picking up plastics and other materials. Or, we can say, the caffeinated squirrel is running the show and he wants immediate relief!
So, a better way… and why we are here, is to turn inwardly instead of outwardly. We must go to the source and address our fears and core beliefs directly. The armor and space-suit don’t work – they perpetuate the storyline with the belief that we just need to find the right storyline. So, we must drop them and experience the fear and core-beliefs directly. Initially, this is not pleasant – especially if you are facing hot fear and anxiety. It is a raw and humbling place to be. You have to abandon hope that there is relief around the corner. This is acceptance. And this approach is much saner and compassionate than frantically searching the internet for peace of mind.
One of my favorite quotes from Pema Chodron is, instead of conventional aspirations like, “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better” you should put “abandon hope” on your refrigerator door. (I wonder what Jessica would say if I put that on the refrigerator).
This is a great approach to understanding fear. Pema says that fear and hope are two sides of the same coin. The degree you hope that things are going to be better, different, or easier than they are, and the degree you search for hope outwardly or believe the space-suit will provide protection, is the degree that you experience fear.
A salient function of our nervous system is to stay alive. Our brains are constantly scanning for threat to our survival – even if we are not necessarily aware of it. Our nervous system produces a very quick and effective response to threat i.e. flight or fight. The problem is as psychologist and meditator, Rick Hanson states, “We are products of brains that have been painstakingly honed by evolution for peak performance in stone-aged conditions.” So, since we don’t necessarily face real daily threats to our survival as our ancestors did hundreds of millions of years ago – such as predators trying to eat us – we run with threats and fears that usually end up being neurotic and self-critical – fueled by our core-beliefs. What else are our brains and nervous systems going to do all day in this relatively safe environment? Ergo, the caffeinated squirrel.
Over time, thanks to our ancestors, we developed a negativity bias because potential threats to survival needed to be remembered and encoded. This is in order to stay alive for another day, and thus, as Rick Hanson says, “pass on genes that passed on genes.” Fast forward hundreds of millions of years to today. At the end of the day are we more likely to remember the pleasant interactions we had with our co-workers or our boss’ criticism? This also goes for couples, if one partner doesn’t know what is going on or where the other partner is, will the partner always assume they are volunteering at the food bank?
Since our brains and nervous systems are wired for peak performance in stone-aged time, and we live in a relatively safe environment, we have fear that is looking to latch on to something. We promulgate fear with our hope and core-belief fueled storyline.
The first step to getting better is acknowledging the truth. “True self is no self.” The separate self is not real, so we can drop the storyline and accompanying thoughts and fear and just be with the rawness of our experience. Our armor, which we instinctively think we need, is a wedge between us and reality. It ties us down, with the hope and mirage of security.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this talk. Fear is a fertile ground for practice. Practicing into it is humbling and scary. However, if you are able to sit with it without the storyline, our fear gets bored. Our caffeinated squirrel puts down the coffee and takes a nap. Our fear wasn’t bored hundreds of millions of years ago and perhaps was more useful. So our practice is to make our fear bored.
Perhaps if a critical mass of humans practice this way for another million of years – if we make it that long – our predecessors will have less fear and negativity bias wired into their brains and nervous systems. So we are not only doing this for us and our peace now but maybe for the survival and well-being of our future relatives. The latter was a leap, I know.
So hopefully it was helpful to hear what hasn’t worked for me, and what has made my world small, and unenjoyable. Fear is always going to be wired into us. It does a good job at keeping us alive. However, it doesn’t necessarily help us live well, or help us with those we love. Our practice is to keep returning to the present moment without the storyline, even if that means being with the rawness of our experience. Eventually, our fear gets bored and is not running with irrational neurosis cloaked in protection.