As a girl of 10 years, satin ribbons in my hair, and wearing a freshly starched dress, I had a special seat in church each Sunday next to my father, Lawrence Manuel, Jr. With my younger sister and mother on the other side, I sat close to him, appreciating our special relationship around the word of God. On Saturday evenings, in the rush of Los Angeles where I was born and raised, I would read my father his weekly Sunday school lesson. As I read, he would make symbols of his own in the margins that represented the sounds of the words. He did this because he was illiterate. A sharecropper‘s son born in 1898 in Opelousas, Louisiana, he spoke mostly Creole, making his English difficult to understand. Even though he couldn’t read, he didn’t let that get in the way of his participation in Sunday school. With the symbols he had developed, he would “read” a portion of each lesson out loud to a class of older black men. I would never have been brave enough to pull off such a thing. But my father was a talented and courageous man; raised in the backwoods, he learned to do whatever was necessary to survive. He was what I called “fearless,” and, as I sat next to him at church, I prayed to be fearless just like him.
On the other hand, it was also in church where my deepest fears emerged as a child. How was I going to negotiate my young life with God so that I would not go to hell? I was terrified.
The stories my parents told of the South and race relations brought even more terror. And on an unforgettable night in 1966, right in Inglewood, California, a cross was burned on our front lawn. Why do I mention these things? I share them to demonstrate how fear and anxiety can accumulate over a lifespan. Most of us are unaware of the extent of the fear that we carry. Fear builds upon itself, or more precisely, fear creates more fear. As a result, our accumulated fear becomes a deep-seated terror that is challenging to uproot. If we view fear as terror—as a pervasive human condition rather than one bound to singular events, and incidents—we are more likely to feel the urgency of attending to it. We constantly speak of terrorism in the world, but we don’t necessarily acknowledge the terror that has invaded our inner worlds. Instead, we present ourselves as brave or courageous.
Related: The Gift of Fear
Many of us are afraid of fear, and afraid of admitting, even to ourselves, that we feel it. We push back the visceral body experience of fear so effectively we think we have eliminated the fear itself. However, if we look around or within, we find that fear is often hidden and masked: the person who appears to be the center of the party might well be a person who fears her own invisibility or rejection. Perhaps the person who conducts eloquent presentations at the workplace is in fact afraid of losing his job. The person that espouses to be an ally may be conquering some kind of fear within. The longer we mask our fear the more we experience the terror of our inauthenticity—perhaps creating chronic anxiety and despair. An ongoing red alert sounds off in response to threats that the terror we mask might be exposed. We might even say that the terror, as in the outer world, can become systemic within us. We become our own terrorist.
We try many strategies to eliminate this feeling of terror by rearranging our external lives like furniture in our house. If I changed the way I look, I’d be less afraid; if I had more money to maintain a particular appearance, I’d be less afraid. If I live in a particular city or neighborhood, I’d be less afraid. But all of these strategies are bound to fail. At some point we need to confront the terror from within.
In my experience of following Buddha’s path, first we need to unmask the fear; we need to let go of pretending we have no fear. If we pretend to be unafraid, we look as if we are disinterested or disconnected from everyone and everything. A spiritual teacher demonstrated for me what it looked like to pretend not to feel anything. The deadpan expression on her face was strange and uninviting. She went on to remind me that fear was a part of being human. I had a profound experience of her teaching.
Once I was getting ready for a television interview, the very first of many about a book I had just published in 1998. On my way to the studio, fear rode my back like a monkey. Thoughts ran rapid, and each one amounted to “I am not enough.” In the guest room, I met a famous civil rights attorney waiting for his time to be interviewed. He smiled and assured me all would go well. Clearly, he had seen my lack of breath and stiff movements. My terror was visible, and I was embarrassed. I realized in that moment that for most my life I had made great efforts at appearing calm while being completely terrified. Luckily, it turned out that once the cameras began to roll and my interview started, I found myself speaking from the heart about what was important to me; the adrenaline subsided and I was no longer afraid. Of course, when the cameras were turned off, the fear resumed. This time, it was a different fear—the fear of what I had said instead of what I was going to say.
What had allowed me to release the terror, even for those few moments? I suspect that when my mind was focused on what was in my heart instead of all the fears from my past, I was able to experience myself as an unencumbered non-suffering being.
How can we continue to release terror? Surely, it doesn’t work to try to unload the entire mass of fear inside at once. We can release terror moment by moment, bit by bit. In meditation we learn to cultivate and stretch the moments of being unencumbered, those places of non-suffering. We can experience the state of non-suffering with each breath, moment by moment, breathing in and breathing out. In meditation we feel the fear without having to do anything about it in the moment. We simply breathe. There is no past or future. We are not harming or being harmed. The terror within is being attended to in a gentle way. There may be tears or trembling. We are alive.
When I first chanted the Heart Sutra, I was stunned by the profound phrase within it that states: “without hindrances there is no fear.” These words said to me that there was something in my mind that gave fear its power. Certainly, I knew the external experiences but I was curious as to what internal mental conditions had fueled the terror within my life, and I sensed that fear also fueled particular mental conditions. In his teachings on the Five Hindrances, the Buddha taught that there are five primary mental conditions that can impede our practice of meditation or mindfulness. My study of these conditions shed light on unacknowledged fear in my life. I could see that fear is embedded within each hindrance:
- Sensual desire: Living with parents who were considered poor, I promised myself never to be poor. Therefore, my intense desire for material gain was expressed at the expense of my true happiness. The fear of “not having,” and striving to “have,” fueled an illusionary fear of never having a satisfied life. The very quest for riches contributed to the inner poverty and loneliness that terrified me. In meditation, both the hindrance of desire and the attendant dissatisfaction are easily accessible. With a single breath, we can notice the fear that arises with sensual desire. On the out breath, such a fear can be released with care and gentleness. Each breath decreases the intensity of the fear.
- Ill will: Most of my life, the exclusion based on race, gender, and sexual orientation has brought forth rage. To say the least, I have had an enormous share of not being the chosen one. For many years I found it much easier to be enraged than to go beneath the rage to the fear that I would not ever belong or fit in with others in this society. A rage fueled by my very embodiment separated me from others, causing a cycle of more fear, alienation, and rage. Through paying attention to the breath in meditation, I was able to pause the cycle. What I saw of myself in the pause was that I had embraced emotional wounding as my identity—as my true nature. In other words, I was a “hurt” person. A fear of being trapped by my embodiment turn to rage. As I continued to breathe in and out, I knew that the body was not a trap but rather a container in which I could heal and transform. In seeing the body as the fiery path of enlightenment, my identification with wounding lessened, along with the fear and the rage.
- Sloth and torpor (lifelessness): In a dull-minded state it is almost impossible to detect fear enmeshed with the dullness. Within the cloud of what Buddhists call sloth and torpor there is often the fear of taking action or the fear of not succeeding if one did take action. For years, I regretfully worked for others for fear of not being capable of manifesting my own dreams and visions. I remained on jobs while experiencing boredom and feeling constantly “tired.” In the slowing down and stillness of meditation, I saw my unacknowledged fear. I could see that I was afraid that others would not be interested in what I had to offer. In breathing in and out, I could begin to release the illusion that I was an inferior being (or superior one for that matter). In such a letting go of illusion, the entangled fear inside my lifelessness was released giving way to enthusiasm and clear visioning for my life.
- Restlessness and remorse: When I am restless, I meet life fearing that there is constant danger ahead, as if everything is a crisis or something is happening out of my control. Fear is enmeshed with restlessness and remorse. If I act on the restlessness, then remorse—compounded by regret and self-loathing—is guaranteed. When I’ve spoken from such restlessness, anxious to prevent some imagined harm, I’ve said words that have sometimes harmed others—I’ve found that I cannot be both restless and skillful. In meditation, we are invited to still the waters of our lives. We quiet the mind, releasing conjured stories and fantasies. When the waters are still long enough, we see our reflection. Once I’ve seen my restless and remorseful self in meditation, I can begin to release the restlessness and entangled fear, lessening the likelihood of later remorse.
- Doubt: Doubt is a distrust of what we sense in life. Distrust creates fear. When I attended my first meeting in the Nichiren tradition, I doubted that Buddhism could satisfy my spiritual hunger. But when I began to chant, I was moved in the same way as I had been when I used to sing in church. Despite a sense in my body that said, “You are home,” I still doubted the Nichiren path. Over the years, I continued to chant and to practice Buddhism, holding the tension between the feelings of doubt and being perfectly at home. Eventually, I noticed the liberation occurring in my life and the fear of my new path washed away. Once I understood and trusted the teachings, I had something on which to build conviction—something to stand on during life’s inevitable waves of fear.
While working with the hindrances, we may not eliminate fear. But it is possible to reduce fear by first recognizing it as part of the make-up of living beings. In my own life, once I understood that it was okay to be afraid, the healing began. The wisdom in my bones came alive and I became aware in the midst of fear and anxiety that the mind and body were begging to purge the terror within. With this awareness, the waters of my mind stopped whirling and I could at last begin to see my reflection. I began to express the fear through my own creative process of writing as my father had when he made symbols for the words in his Sunday school lesson. I am sure that after 20 years in the same Sunday school class, the men must have known that my father could not read. Yet, they understood that Lawrence Manuel, Jr., was standing upright in the face of his own terror of having never learned—or more accurately having never been allowed—to read as a sharecropper’s son. He was a true Christian and he would have made a wonderful Zen Buddhist student.
Six years after my father’s death, I entered Buddha’s path. I walk on the path fully equipped with all of the emotions of a human being. Meditation assists me in seeing the roots of the emotions, and that all emotions are old. When I notice terror rising to the surface, I note, “I am in the past.” Then, I ask, “What is going on here, right now?” When I am angry or enraged, I know to say, “I am terrified of something.” I refrain from being ashamed of experiencing these emotions. Only through acknowledging and releasing blind emotions can I experience the inner unencumbered and harmonious being that is always present despite the suffering.
We cannot fully practice any call for liberation without our lives being fully exposed. There is no hiding.
Learn more from Zenju in her Dharma Talk: It’s Beyond Me: Freedom from Managing Your Life
Reprinted by permission from Inquiring Mind, Fall 2012 (Vol. 29 #1). © 2012 by Inquiring Mind. www.inquiringmind.com.
[This story was first published in 2015]
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters