The neat and ordered black lines on the page of the novel I am reading bleed into one another. Fatigue draws my eyelids to shudder and then close, like a banged up 90’s Ford Escort attempting a hill start before silently rolling downhill. I am warm, comfortable and relaxed. The day has been full and my muscles feel that satisfying light ache of excursion. The room is quiet and uncluttered. It is a reasonable hour in the evening - perhaps 10pm. All the ingredients for a good night sleep are here with me. I switch off a bedside lamp and snuggle into my duvet. I pop in the earplugs I have come to trust for their utility and comfort.
Darkness envelopes me. With eyelids closed and the feeling of fatigue tantalisingly on my tastebuds, a fire within me gains currency. The flames cause alarm bells to ring in my gut first. Muscles constrict and draw my intestines into a myriad of tight knots. My heart beats harder. My temperature rises. The fatigue drains from my body, like a receding tide. I’m reflexively switching into survival mode, and my limbs - so calm and relaxed mere minutes ago - are rigid and tense. Soon I’ll be so agitated I’ll have to get up and do something; clean, work, write, anything to escape this discomfort, this gnawing, raging fear. I’ll have to tire myself out - really work at it for some hours - and then try to fall asleep again. When I’m going through an insomnia ‘spell’, these kind of lonely long nights can bleed into one another, repeating agonisingly in a zombie-like war against myself.
I don’t understand why this happens to me, but its an experience I am intimately familiar with. Don’t tell me its caffeine, or lifestyle choices, or that I need to meditate before bed - I’m health-conscious, fit, and a regular meditator. I don’t think its important that my fear is attached to sleep inadequacies - it could be attached to any number of things. We all experience fear. The object of fear is not the important part, its the universality of its occurrence, and the choices I make in relation to it that are worth grappling with.
Buddhist scholar and luminary, Pema Chödrön discusses fear in her book, When Things Fall Apart. She talks about fear as a natural and fundamental human experience - part of being alive. When faced with fear, we’re vulnerable. And yet, fear has a “throbbing quality to it”, charged with potential. Chödrön explains that from a Buddhist perspective, when we experience fear its because we’ve moved into the spotlights. We’re faced with the unexpected, the challenging, or the unknown, and we experience “groundlessness”. Drawing from her own experience of mid-life crisis, betrayal and divorce, she argues that in these moments of groundlessness, all our faults and insecurities are exposed. Under the glare of fear-filled headlights, its like staring into a magnifying mirror - worts, pimples, lines and scars are achingly obvious.
Our reflex reaction is to run. Anything is manageable but seeing ourselves under this spotlight. We flee and race to consume intoxicants, to indulge in the numbing quality of overworking, for hedonistic hazes, distractions and crutches. I’d like to think that my nighttime ‘vices’ are pretty healthy - reading, writing, podcast listening, cleaning, tea-making, and the odd single-malt whiskey when things get really hairy. I try to be ‘productive’. Chödrön’s clearly articulated and measured words remind me that my compulsion to move, get up and distract myself are in fact a sign that I’m running from my fear. No one ever tells us to lean into fear. Our consumerist culture broadcasts all the ways in which we don’t have to: Delusion, deception and diversion are the impulse options.
What would happen if we didn’t flee and we looked fear in the eye? When you look fear in the face there is nowhere to escape and its terrifying. Its the hardest thing to do. For me, that means just lying there and listening to all the crap playing through my mind like a score from a horror film. It means lying still and feeling the feels - the gut churning, the temples raging, the bone-crushing clench of my jaw, the muscles aching and snapping along my back, the flames licking at my throat. I could think of a million more productive and edifying things to do than that! And yet, impressed by Chödrön’s measured advice, I’ve begun trying to stick with it. I’ve begun practicing settling into the fear, really feeling it, and staying present, observing my breath, not judging, not trying to cover it up.
I can tell you that its not fun. But things become crystal clear. When I lean into my moments of fear, I see with startling, painful clarity, exactly what it is I’m trying to avoid, what it is I don’t want to accept, see, or hear. In this ugly light, fear changes. As I reveal my inadequacies, so fear is unrobed as a natural reaction or gift of experience in the process of moving closer to the truth. Through these wretched ‘show and tell’ sessions, I’m coming to know myself better, more honestly.
Chödrön points out that in these skin-crawlingly uncomfortable moments there is a latent tenderness and potential. These moments of fear are shaky and horrifying, but they’re also a sign that we’re on the verge of something. As if standing on a cliff-edge, we have a choice: Lean in and embrace the fullness of the moment, or shut down, delude and feel resentful. Leaning in, she argues, is where potential for transformation and healing is found.
At the epicentre of this “throbbing potential” is the realisation that encountering fear and subsequent transformation is not about resolution. The point of leaning into fear and the present moment is not to overcome or ‘solve the problem’ of your misery. This is hard to accept. Everything in our modern, logic-driven human minds seeks out neat and tidy resolution, order, reason and conclusions. Buddhist perspectives tend to differ however. Chödrön reminds us that “things don’t really get solved”. The truth of the human experience is more about chaos, irresolution, arbitrariness, and mystery than about neat stories and conclusions: “[Things] come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all this to happen”.
Indeed, wisdom comes from acceptance. Healing and wisdom can be discovered in letting this pattern of dissolution and complexity, clarity and completeness unfold, and sticking with it, not shying from the blinding clarity of imperfection and flux. This is because when we’re on the verge and faced with fear, there is so much tenderness in us, and we have the potential to turn this tenderness towards ourselves. Fear is overcome not with hard-edged discipline and warrior-like muscle, but with tenderness. Fear melts with our courage to feel compassion for ourselves. Fear melts when we accept imperfection and don’t react, when we lean into it, wide-eyed, and bleed from the heart, when we encounter it with unconditional compassion for ourselves and the resolve to not let our tenderness harden and concretise into bitterness, judgement, loathing or disappointment. Courageous people are not fearless - this is not the point at all - but they are consistently compassionate to themselves as ‘tryers’ and ‘works in progress’.
Accepting reality compassionately, ‘as it is’ - worts and all - is contrary to the new-agey, fashionable discourse around ‘manifesting your dreams’, and ‘creating your reality’ through positive words and envisioning exercises. I hear this vapid discourse all the time around yoga studios, I see it in endless titles for self-help books, and in media. Every second freaking ‘new-age sage’ is now a certified master in dream manifestation, vision-boarding and goal realisation.
Now, I am not denying that there are meaningful lessons to draw from positive-thinking, planing strategically, and imagining your future. Of course there are. I do this myself, and I’d like to think it works. But I am pointing out that there are some questionable assumptions and effects of this fad.
The underlying assumption of all this manifestation stuff is that perfection is realisable. Written into this discourse is the assumption that the vast, majestic laws of the universe are up for manipulation if you ‘just imagine it’. Its a dizzying degree of arrogance and egotism. It comes packaged in a crushing weight of self-imposed expectation. If you’re not living your dream job, life, health and beauty, whilst making the big-bucks you deserve everyday, manifested your way, you’re obviously not getting the technique right! You can just see the framework of logic playing out like an gaudy advertising reel behind the eyes of new-ager as she espouses dream manifestation techniques and advice: The Universe, Slayed and Perfected in Pink, by Willow Reynolds. Charges per hour - payment here. Namaste.
Buddhist perspectives insist that all this expectation and self-pressure is ultimately vanity and wasted energy. The bottom line is that ‘we don’t know it all’ and we cannot create perfect futures. Stuff happens. Its glorious and mystifying and its so much bigger than us. Wisdom is found in acceptance that the off-centre, in-between state of existence is the ideal situation. This doesn’t imply apathy, or mediocrity. It implies observation, non-judgement, and a compassionate, open-eyed disposition towards ourselves. It implies leaning into our fears and trusting that the bumpy ride will bring us to a place of self-acceptance and deeper knowledge about what really makes us tick.