I’m reading the books of Pema Chödrön, the former student of Chögyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher who fled Tibet for the West where he eventually gave up living as a monk, studied at Oxford, founded Naropa University in the US and died in 1987. I love his books for their sardonic wit and the great intelligence with which he approaches the topic of fear.
Like her teacher, Pema Chödrön is also good on fear, and in particular, its source: the experience of fundamental groundlessness. Nothing is solid, nothing lasts, all is air, and yet we live our lives trying to avoid facing the fact. It’s this avoidance that makes our lives miserable and generates the strife and suffering of the world.
In a passage in her book, Unconditional Confidence, she says that for the last 10 years of his life Chögyam Trungpa became even more focussed on fear and fearlessness, and the importance of people being instructed in dealing with the experience of groundlessness. He predicted that human beings were about to face a time in which it was crucial. In Chödrön’s view, that time has come; the time he was speaking of has arrived.
We are, she says, “slightly panicked all the time”, experiencing what Trungpa called “ubiquitous anxiety” or “ubiquitous nervousness”. It’s the hum “in the background making you nervous, making you dissatisfied”. At the same time, however, it’s easily ignored because we have a culture built on ignoring it:
“So much entertainment, so much speed, the minute you feel it you can open your cell phone, the minute you feel it you can check your email, the minute you feel it you can listen to tune 900-millionth on your ipod … “
All of these are ways of trying to “get ground under your feet”, trying to get away from the feeling of fundamental groundlessness. And it’s not limited to our phones and email …
“We need some instruction about what to do when we are squeezed, what to do when we meet our edge, what to do when there’s an habitual reaction to hide in some way or escape in some way or strike out against ourselves or others. There’s a habitual reaction to try to get comfortable, and in the process of following the habitual reaction we become more neurotic. It’s one of the big teachings of the Buddha, that everyone wants to be happy and feel security and comfort, and everybody goes about it in a way that just makes a big mess. You want to be comfortable so you scramble for ground and often what that is is blaming somebody else, striking out at somebody else, gossiping, slandering, and it gets to the point where people, in the attempt really to get some ground under their feet, to feel that they have something to hold on to, looking for security, people steal, people lie, people kill, people even torture. Generally speaking, no-one does any of these things because they want to feel worse. They do it because what they’re feeling in the pit of their stomach is such a groundless, insecure, uncomfortable, wide open, nothing-to-hold-on-to, open-ended experience that they just want to find something to hold on to, something that represents security. And one of the biggest ways to do it, along with entertainment, along with drugs and alcohol and all the other ways we try to find some pleasure, along with that what we also do is to divide the world up with our views and opinions about how things should be and how things are supposed to be and we hold tightly to those views and opinions. It’s a big way that we try to get secure, by how we interpret the world in a way that makes us feel comfortable and then it’s great actually if you can get a whole group of people to agree with you. And all together you start to attack, either in more or less polite ways, people who don’t agree with you. And it’s a big way that people start to get comfortable …”
So what is the basic instruction when you experience fundamental groundlessness? It’s to learn to stay with the uncomfortable feeling, the queasiness, the uneasiness, until it passes of its own accord. This is the first and last necessity: to not run away. Do that and the world changes.
Quotes from the audiobook, Unconditional Confidence by Pema Chödrön