When I was a kid, my parents took me on Space Mountain in Disneyland, and the ride got stuck right before the first major drop. I remember the fear rising up like a wave, the terror building for what felt like an hour. I squeezed my eyes shut once we got moving, and afterward I was so distraught my parents never took me on a roller-coaster again.
That childhood fear manifested as constant worry, perfectionism, and shyness. As I reached adulthood, it morphed into acrophobia (fear of heights), claustrophobia (fear of tight spaces), and that towering fear of failure that paints the sky with a nameless anxiety. And while many of my friends get excited by a brush with danger, I’m the one you leave behind when going to theme parks and scary movies.
Over the years, my meditation practice has become a balm to my depression, so I decided to try to tackle my fears as well. I started with flying.
I travel a lot, and particularly annoying is my fear is of turbulence. When planes hit a rough patch, the shaking immediately sends me into a panic. A few years ago on a work trip to Canada, I boarded a tiny ten-seater, piloted by two shockingly young pilots. They giggled, took selfies, and alarmingly turned their map this way and that as though lost in the midst of our two-hour flight.
The turbulence was the worst I’ve experienced. And while larger planes will jerk up and down, this one pivoted on all axes. An animalistic hysteria overwhelmed me immediately, and I returned to my long practice of single-pointed concentration. The fear retreated, giving way to a sense of bodily bliss, a jhanic calm that endured despite the jolting. For once, I was relaxed and smiling.
On a recent trip to California, I faced another fear, my lifelong adversary. My girlfriend’s family are theme park connoisseurs, the type of people who want to go on all the rides twice, and they asked me to join them on a trip to Disneyland. Remembering my brief moment of self-mastery on the plane, I vowed to attempt every ride they took. This time, I used Vipassana (insight) meditation. On Radiator Springs Racers, I focused on the effect of acceleration on my body. On the Matterhorn, it was the rush of the wind, the flickering of light and dark. And even on my old nemesis, Space Mountain, I tracked the way my stomach seemed to rise and drop precipitously.
Unlike in my childhood, my eyes were open, welcoming the minute details of experience in an exploration of consciousness. I felt happy. It wasn’t the same happiness apparent in the shrieks of delight around me.. Rather, it was the triumphant exhilaration of wholeheartedly welcoming discomfort and enjoying it.
Related: Fear, a Special Section
“Dead men tell no tales…” the spectral voice intoned on Pirates of the Caribbean.
As our boat sailed silently into the dark tunnel under a grinning skull, I thought there would be no better place to attempt chöd, an esoteric meditative practice that taps the power of fear.
The most succinct description I ever found was an article in Tricycle by Dr. Alejandro Chaoul. Practitioners summon images of demons and hungry ghosts, Chaoul explains, and visualize their own bodies being butchered, cooked, and eaten by them. By openly calling our fears to the table and generously serving them our most precious possession, our bodies, we dissolve both fear and our clinging to the self. Tales of practitioners had them chanting at midnight in cemeteries and charnel grounds, where the dead were exposed to the elements.
Disney has a surprising problem with
While Pirates isn’t exactly the spookiest ride, the skeletal iconography helped dredge up my own fears, honed to an edge since entering my middle years. I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right, but despite my gory imagination, I felt oddly serene as we got off the boat. And when we rode it the second time, I welcomed the opportunity to practice again.
I didn’t jump right into practicing on the rides, however. Before our trip, a friend convinced me to check out a new Netflix series, “The Haunting of Hill House.” I found it to be the perfect occasion to battle fear from the safety of my couch. Horror movies don’t have to be as restrained as Disney, and they hit my fear receptors from another angle. It’s not just the jump scares, or the gore, but the profound sense of forboding that gives me the willies, which follow me the rest of the night. I used Vipassana to skim across that sense of eeriness, noticing how it arose in my chest and tightened in my jaw and shoulders. For the first time, I began to enjoy horror, bingeing all ten episodes across a few sittings. And instead of disquiet, I found that thrill and freedom that I would later enjoy on roller- coasters.
When we finally got back from Disney, I was thrilled to learn that Dr. Chaoul was not only based near where I live in Texas but was also offering a retreat on the chöd through the local branch of Ligmincha International. I joined for the preliminary lecture and the second full day of practice, attempting to pronounce the long Tibetan chant correctly, laughing while we all attempted to keep tempo on the chöd damaru—or traditional double-sided drum. The resident monk tested several dangling, a trumpet made of a human femur used to ritualistically inviting demons to feast. The levity came to a momentary halt as an older student asked with trepidation, “What if we summon real ghosts?”
The class grew silent. The instructor answered, “We are going slowly. There is no need to rush. We’re not just going to jump into visiting a cemetery!”
The class laughed.
Naturally, I ditched the last session to go to a cemetery.
I happen to live in what used to be Houston’s cemetery district. The Glenwood and Washington cemeteries are around the block, two of the oldest in the city. I walked past graceful angels, Confederate and Union soldiers, and beautiful trees swaying in the wind. I passed the tomb of Howard Hughes, and finally found a small bench with a view of a large swath of family plots. It was a beautiful day, far, far away from Tibetan mystics in charnel grounds at midnight. But that was OK. I carry my own demons.
In my version of the ritual, I had no drum or thigh-bone trumpet. I self-consciously chanted in English, shuffling the printed handout from class and quieting to a murmur when I spied a couple walking their dog.
In my mind I rang a chuck-wagon triangle—I am in Texas after all—to invoke fear and depression, anxiety and sadness, a host that hunkers down around me, hungry to dine.
A snippet of the previous day’s seminar came to mind.
“When the demons of the self are satiated, it’s like any group of guests that are full,” said Dr. Chaoul. “They’re ready to listen. And then you share the dharma with them.”
At Disneyland, I could only sustain Vipassana on back-to-back roller-coasters for a day. The next day, the family went to Universal Studios. I was supposed to face the Tower of Terror and its accelerated random drops (imagine having the lines randomly cut in an elevator again and again), but I balked.
It’s now October and scary movies and haunted houses abound. I’m not ready. I have little bits of progress, but I am still that scared boy stuck on a roller-coaster, eyes squeezed shut waiting for the panic to end.
But in the cemetery, I feed my demons everything I have—all my bones, all my flesh—and as the breeze moves serenely through stately rows of white headstones, an acorn falls on my shoulder and drops to the bench, as though in some inscrutable cosmic lesson.
For a moment, the clamor inside me stills. My ghosts are finally ready to listen.
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