For the past month the residents of Great Vow Zen Monastery and the wider sangha have taken on the practice of looking at anxiety in our lives. We’ve started to look at when it arises, what shape it takes, and how we manage when it is present. We’ve also been looking at how long that thread (although actually it’s more like a dense chord or rope—I’m imagining jute rope or telephone wire) has been sewn into the fabric of our lives. I’m learning that anxiety and fear are almost always present throughout my days and nights. They are a subtle spice that flavors my dreams and breathes thick musk-filled air into the world while I snore at night.
Why? I remember being anxious as a child. I made a map of the world with crayon, streaking crimson wax from the U.S. to Russia—nuclear war, back and forth onto different countries; we would blow up the world. I showed this to my teacher. No reply, just recess, standing by a cool gray wall in Phoenix with a map of the war in one hand like a prophet. My mother called me a hypochondriac. I’d never heard the word before, but I understood what she meant. Are there razor blades in the candy? Lying awake at night wondering if the house would burn down because the wires in the closet were exposed. Who am I supposed to be? Why doesn’t anyone like me? What is wrong with me? On and on this anxiety grew up with me.
When I was eleven, I went through a phase: If plants or grass touched me, brushed up against me in any way, it would set off a panic that I couldn’t control. I asked my parents, “Will this kill me?” The answer would come back, “No, it won’t kill you, you won’t die.” I would be relieved to hear this, soothed for a while. Then, after just a short time, the fear would come back again.
One day I was out playing basketball in the backyard. I loved to make up dream games. Dr. J versus Magic, or my favorite: me against every kid in school I hated, a battle for final honor. I’d take turns being both sides, embodying their foibles, their strengths, playing the game’s crescendo in beautiful slow motion, savoring the moment when, inevitably but totally by surprise, I (or the character I felt closest to) would rise to the occasion and come back from near-death to win . . . and then the ball bounced off a rock and into thick spider web-covered bramble, which was also dark and had thorns! Now what? I had to get that ball. I couldn’t see it anymore. My happiness, joy, time spent with family and friends, my very life, which was so neatly packed with black seams, extra-tacky grip, and the word “Spalding” branded on it, took a funny, uncalculated hop off a bad rock and disappeared into the dark. Arrgghh! I thought about ways the ball could be rescued without having to enter the bushes. I’d take a long stick or broom and try to fish it out. No use. I still couldn’t see it or get a grip on it. I’d usher it halfway out only to have the ball roll further away. There was no better place to reach in from—just thicker thorns and vines, stubborn and angry-looking, seeming to say to me, “We’ve been here a lot longer than you—go away!”
Finally, after all other options were exhausted, I stood in front of where the ball had been lost, closed my eyes, held my breath, and, walking straight into a curtain of webs, dove down through the brush and felt the ball with my hands. I grabbed it firmly, turned, and headed back out into the summer sun. I brushed myself off and went back to play. After that, the fear faded away.
Fast-forward a life, my life, or any life that brings us to this path. The specifics are a little different, but the struggle is the same: to face fear and walk through it. Cool wind blowing leaves around in the dark. Sitting still. Feeling around in this tangle of self and just barely touching that place of quiet. Not able to grasp or see completely, but hints shimmering on walls and leaves. I know my true home here, somewhere. I vow to know it truly. May we all.
“Looking for My Life” first appeared in Dharma Dust, the newsletter of the Zen Community of Oregon. © 2002 by Scott Genmyo Miller.
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